It is hard to believe another season of Downton Abbey is over. Of course, Downton Abbey refers to a property, at least technically. But it is obviously much more than just that. It is about the family who lives there and the changing times.

Perhaps less obvious, it is also about an employer. As Dowager Countess of Grantham so emphatically pointed out, among the responsibilities of the aristocrats is to provide jobs. And jobs they do provide.

In a very real sense, the family are like the owners of any business. Or, at least, the members of the C-suite. Lord Grantham clearly is the CEO, at least for now.

Unlike many in our business world, however, the aristocrats acknowledge their mortality, so succession planning is front and center. Lady Mary Crawley and Mathew Crawley would have been the Chiefs. But it appears, all but definitely, that we have tragically lost Matthew Crawley.

Unlike her mother, Lady (Cora) Grantham, Lady Mary Crawley will not exercise power indirectly, but openly. As a result of her force of personality, changing times and tragic circumstances, she will break the Abbey’s glass ceiling, and with an heir to boot. And Branson will become a more pivotal character in the official hierarchy as multiple personal tragedies trump even British hierarchy.

Then, we have the servants. We call them employees.

Like most employees, they are decent people and good workers. And they are fiercely loyal to the Granthams and the Crawleys.

It is not surprising that they are loyal since their superiors, we call them supervisors, are fiercely loyal to them. Just ask Mr. Bates. The EEOC would applaud, quite correctly, how he has been treated by his employer.

But all is not paradise in terms of the inner workings of Downton Abbey.  Problems do arise. Two words: Miss O’Brien.

Yet these problems never seem to interfere unreasonably with the lives of the Granthams or the Crawleys.  Stated otherwise, they do not interfere with the mission of the business.

The answer. Five words: Mr. Carson and Miss Hughes.

Mr. Carson and Miss Hughes deal with the employee-relations problems so that the Granthams and the Crawleys don’t have to. They do what every CEO wants HR or middle management to do: make the problems go away.

Why are they so successful? I would suggest four reasons.

First, they know that is their role. They protect the time, the most valuable resource, even of aristocrats.  Don’t our leaders need the same?  

Second, they are respected equally by the footmen and maids, on the one hand, and the Crawleys and the Granthams, on the other hand. They can travel in both worlds.

Third, they are people of integrity. They use their integrity to balance competing internal impulses and external forces.

Finally, they are a great, diverse team. They have different strengths and weaknesses. Neither one alone could create an environment perfect enough for the perfect Maggie Smith. And if anyone deserves perfection, it is she.

So Mr. Carson and Miss Hughes are worth studying for those of us who must mediate in 21st century American workplaces. Yes, they are head servants, but to varying degrees, we all serve someone. So if you are a middle manager or a human resource professional, when you re-watch seasons 1 through 3 (is there any other option?), focus on how much you can learn from them. 

While I will miss Downton Abbey, I hope I won’t miss you at  SHRM’s Employment Law and Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. from March 10 to 13. I have the privilege of speaking on March 11 (Tough Love II) and 12 (All Politics is Local). Hope to see you there!


The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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