Analysis Of Unprofessional Practices In Pg&e In The Movie Erin Brockovich

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Brief Summary

The film, Erin Brockovich, of which was set in Hinkley, California in America during 1993. It is based on a true story and displays the life of a two- time divorcee and battling mother of three.

Following an unfortunate road accident with a wealthy doctor, below average lawyer, Ed Masry, is introduced requested by Erin to represent her in court in order to recover money to cover costs, repairs and any expenses due. The court case was unsuccessful due to unprofessional and explosive behaviour on Erin’s behalf whilst being cross-examined. In a state of frustration due to her view of this injustice, Erin demands a job at Masry’s law firm.

Despite Erin lacking any qualifications in law, her interest is focussed on some medical cases which she thought to be rather unusual. With new boss, Ed Masry, finally agreeing to allow Erin to further investigate these cases, all her time is now devoted to this case. Although having to use her personal vehicle for work related errands, interviews with Hinkley residents regarding their medical conditions begin to form a pattern in Erin’s mind. With the knowledge of these unusual cases as well as the fact that Pacific Gas and Electric’s, often abbreviated to PG&E, offered the services of doctors to medicate locals.

After meeting the peculiar character of Charles Embry, a former employee of PG&E instructed to abolish the evidence proving the awareness of water and soil contamination in the small town of Hinkley where PG&E’s manufacturing plant is based. All above investigations were personally conducted by Erin whilst forming bonds and gaining the community’s trust.

Once PG&E become aware of this investigation following the contamination along with the ‘coincidental’ life- threatening illnesses of these middle-class families in Hinkley, Erin receives calls including death threats which target her and her 3 children of whom are being cared for by her neighbour, George, whilst being away from home and preoccupied by the PG&E case. She is also made aware that PG&E have offered to buy the Jenson family home of which belongs to the first family Erin interviewed and was willing to fight for justice for as mother, Donna, has terminal cancer.

Once informed of the unprofessional practices performed by PG&E including bribery, withholding of vital information with life threatening implication and trickery, the final amount decided by the judge of which PG&E was ordered to pay and would be distributed amongst local affected by the contamination, was $ 333 million and $ 5 million would go to the Jenson family.

Management & leadership

A management team is what leads a business, they are the foundation to a successful and sustainable business. A good manager motivates employees to act towards achieving a common goal and challenges the status quo, uses problem solving techniques to develop new strategies and works through trust, honesty and constantly aspiring to improve.

A leader inspires action and embraces chance, they posses a combination of personality skills and management tasks specialising in planning, leading, organising, control, co-ordinating, communication, delegation, discipline, decision making and motivation (PLOC3+D3+M of management tasks). Both transformational and transactional leadership styles are emphasised in this film. Transactional leadership is a give-and-take approach whereas transformational leadership motivates people work together in order to achieve more.

Scene analysis 1: Ed Masry’s first encounter with Erin Brockovich

Being late for meetings show disrespect and often portrays one to be uninterested. In this scene, Ed Masry arrives late for his meeting with Erin Brockovich, clearly unaware as he asked his assistant, Brenda, who the lady in his office was. This shows his lack of organisation which is a crucial skill for a manager to posses in order to achieve goals.

Time management is vital for maintaining satisfied clients. Masry should conduct a SWOT analysis critically evaluating himself to find his strengths and weaknesses to understand what he must improve and what skills need further development. Keeping a diary up-to-date helps remember all relevant appointments and deadlines. Leading by example is vital as Ed’s employees can see the level of work and professionalism expected in the law firm, although this can only happen once all management skills are fully grasped.

Scene analysis 2: unfair dismissal of Erin for being away from work

Following protocol is crucial and assists with improving transparency within a business environment. Communication with employees and setting boundaries is vital for a business to run smoothly. On return, from being out of office for less than a week to find all belongings in a box alongside a cleared-out desk, Erin questions colleagues as to why she is in this position and to be answered with little to say as they are poorly informed of the situation.

Following protocol is crucial and assists with improving transparency within a business environment. Communication with employees and setting boundaries is vital for a business to run smoothly. On return, from being out of office for less than a week to find all belongings in a box alongside a cleared-out desk, Erin questions colleagues as to why she is in this position and to be answered with little to say as they are poorly informed of the situation.

This creates unease in the office as few know how to handle this situation, due to lack of communication and protocol, therefore find it awkward to pack away a colleague’s belongings without explanation. Masry’s employees should have phones to call or message or a computer/ laptop to e-mail or somehow be able to log their progress of current cases and projects. Ed did not clarify as to what was expected of Erin on the PG&E case and added to her lack of training, was unaware of having to inform the office on her whereabouts.

Scene analysis 3: Ed and Erin’s meeting with PG&E representative

The first encounter with Mr Foil, a representative from PG&E began with him slouching in the chair in the reception area of Masry’s law firm. His lack of knowledge on the case set an underlying tone of uninterest on behalf of PG&E’s management team. It is evident that Mr Foil has been told that PG&E are offering $250 000 for the Jensen’s family home and has no say in negotiating anything with Erin and Ed. This case is clearly not a priority for PG&E’s management therefor lacks the element of customer service orientation. In reality, someone in top level management or well-informed on the relevant case and is permitted to negotiate, should attend meetings such as this.

On behalf of Ed Masry’s meeting etiquette, controlling his temper and sarcasm and being able to effectively and meaningfully communicate with colleagues result in achieving better business deals as people feel their contribution contains more purpose therefore, it is vital for managers to have emotional intelligence of which is well developed Ideally all employees should attend a workshop on effective communication, body language and EQ.

Scene analysis 4: Ed rewarding Erin with bonus check

Before Erin receives a bonus check of $2 million from the pay-out from PG&E, he remarks on how his previous offer was not appropriate triggering Erin to get irritable as she felt her work surpassed the amount previously discussed, showing how she is motivated through monetary rewards. One main concern regarding monetary rewards and performance linked acknowledgements, is that employees could be discouraged from being creative and no longer take risks in order to achieve best possible results.

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Through motivating employees with non-monetary rewards such as flexible working hours and employee of the month awards, helps boost employee morale. For a manager to be organisationally aware and build a business on teamwork results in successfully growing a sustainable company. To motivate employees, Ed could designate a board in the reception for ‘employee of the month’ as well as having motivational quotes to keep staff morale up. A staff development course could be conducted by an external party such as POP Training and Consulting, who offer courses on employee wellness, problem solving, self-awareness and more skills which improve business morale and staff motivation.

Professionalism and Ethics

Unethical behaviour leads to unrest and loss of trust in the workplace. Workers look at management and fellow colleagues and in what manner they act. If others are making wrong decisions, they might think that they can get away with wrongdoings. If customers get to know about this unethical behaviour, the business could most definitely lose its good reputation. This can result in customers refusing to buy their products and cause the business low profits and possibly bankruptcy. Low profits lead to investors losing faith in the business and a drop in the share price.

Examples from the film when PG&E was trying to buy people’s properties at below market related prices to force the people off the land because the company knew that the toxins where harming the residents. Also, after Erin does some more research by going to the Hinkley Water board and discovers hidden documents relating high toxicity in the town’s water. This is against the Code of Ethics as it is wrong to purposely hide lethal information from your local citizens. In South Africa, companies such as PG&E aer expected to follow the guidelines in the King code reports. Requests the integrity, honesty and accountability of companies as part of their corporate governance.

Scene analysis 1: Inappropriate behaviour and sexual content

When information on the PG&E case came about, accessible at the Hinkley Water Board, Erin uses her beauty to her advantage whilst asking Scott, Water Board employee, for permission to look through files. She deliberately has her cleavage on display, leans over the counter and asks him nicely. This is unethical and if publicised, could become controversial. This could negatively connotate the business’ name and question their Code of Ethics. Although this incident was not taken further, business owners such as Ed Masry must be aware of unethical behaviour of staff. They must ideally sign a contract agreeing with the business’ Code of Ethics and a disciplinary meeting should be held with consequences given, if there is a contract breech, as employees must be accountable to their actions.

Scene analysis 2: PG&E denying responsibility for medical conditions and side effects alongside indirectly bribing locals by paying health bills.

Transparency is crucial for maintaining an ethical business name but with PG&E being a large company, everything is out t here for people to see. Mr Foil’s first meeting offering a pay-out for a Hinkley residential home whilst denying responsibility for any medical costs of local families in Hinkley contradicts the fact that they indirectly bribed Hinkley residents by paying for doctors’ visits and medication. These bribes are known as smoothing payments done in the hopes of a threatening case being dropped. This is unethical and therefor breeches their Code of Ethics, which is an official document stating what behaviour is permitted and prohibited from that business. Managers must be liable and held responsible for employees’ actions. This forces managers to ensure staff behave in an ethical manner.

Scene analysis 3: PG&E’s purposely ignoring water and soil contamination

By law it is illegal to withhold information which in this case is life threatening. PG&E understood their la ck of attention to detail resulted in them not putting a protection layer in the storage spaces situated in the ground. This contaminated soil and water with hexavalent chromium, lethal for human consumption. Offering to pay for doctor’s visits to cover-up of this negative situation shows lengths that businesses are willing to go to, to cover up their wrong doings and to be seen as ‘the good corporate citizen who is willing to help the community’ although the CSR programmes enforced are for publicity and not to benefit the community. The code of conduct and ethics must be clear including guidelines and language understood by all. Companies must conduct regular training sessions to keep their staff up to date with the rules. They must provide examples of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Management must ensure the employees are aware of consequences. They must be consistent in managing employees who fail to act in accordance of expectations.

Scene analysis 4: Charles Embry’s story: PG&E ordered him to destroy documents

Linked closely with scene analyses 2 & 3, Charles Embry’s story of having to destroy documents of whic h contained information relating to the soil and water contamination on behalf of PG&E, withholding information of this measure is illegal as the ramifications are sky high. Somewhere down the line, Charles Embry could be held for destruction of imperative information regarding a large legal settlement against PG&E. Ideally, employees must follow the Code of Ethics but it is understandable that for one to question the manager, could lead to being picked on in the workplace. By having Trade Unions to defend the employee helps boost confidence and challenges the employer to do right by his/ her company and grow the business through ethical practices.

Conflict management

Conflict within a business can either have a negative or positive effect. Advantages of conflict could be making the business aware of the problem and using problem solving techniques to develop strategies to manage conflict. Conflict is a result of potential for disagreement or clash in personalities or interests. Learning to work together is important to grow a smooth-running business. Teambuilding and getting to know colleagues helps others have a good understanding regarding peoples’ emotions and being able to communicate without offending others, businesses practice ethically and efficiently.

Functional conflict helps one resolve a problem as it is purpose driven whereas dysfunctional conflict is often petty and driven by emotions and personal issues. Change is a prominent factor which causes conflict as people dislike change of which causes unease. Real versus perceived ideas formed by people as a result of personal beliefs and values can cause unnecessary conflict.

Scene analysis 1: Ed walking into his office tripping over a box

During the film, Ed walked into his office and stumbled over a box of documents placed there by Brenda. She asks her why it is there, but she didn’t have a concrete response. Small incidents including this may cause tension within the office. Although Brenda may have though she was helping Ed by putting the documents in his office, Ed may have though she was being lazy and put them in the first possible place available in his office.

This is a result of misperceived ideas and miscommunication as Ed became irritable and had no patience for Brenda’s excuses. Something as simple as writing a note stuck on the door of Ed’s office can help warn him that there is a box right by the door. This is a more friendly and subtle approach. Using common sense is important and alleviates differences or altercations between staff. Brenda could have put the box on his desk instead of in the doorway.

Scene analysis 2: Prejudice towards Erin as a new employee and questions regarding her personal ethics and values.

Erin wears provocative clothing in the workplace despite Ed telling her that some of the other women may feel uncomfortable as a result of her personal style choices. This causes unease amongst female staff and results in Erin being excluded from the “girl’s lunch”. In a small business like Masry’s law firm, unrest between colleagues is more obvious as there are fewer people. Some existing employees may want to get to know Erin but feel pressured as they don’t want to betray relationships between other long-time employees because they dislike the new person, Erin. Therefore team building is vital to grow relationships and improve communication. When a new employee arrives, introducing them to the people who they are going to work with decreases false perceptions therefor not leading to gossip.

Scene analysis 3: Erin internalising her stress but takes it out on others

Despite Erin having a difficult home life by being divorced twice and solely raising three children whilst battling financially, doesn’t give her the right to take her stress out on others. When Ed Masry’s assistant, Brenda, tries to interrupt Erin and Ed’s conversation, Erin turns around to reprimand her, making a nasty comment calling Brenda “Krispy Kreme”. This not only embarrasses Brenda in front of colleagues, but this insensitive comment associates a large woman with over eating, therefore indirectly calling Brenda Fat.

Although Erin reacted in fury and irritation, she doesn’t know what Brenda may be going through in her personal life which could include low self-esteem and anxiety. This relates back to being emotionally intelligent and constantly being aware of other peoples’ feelings. By attending courses on improving one’s EQ is crucial as well as temper control. Meditation or soft calming music could set a relaxing ambiance in the office and therefore ease employees’ minds and help cultivate a sense of calm whilst decreasing irritation levels.

Scene analysis 4: Inappropriate comments during meeting with Kurt and Theresa

During the two meetings involving Kurt, Theresa, Erin and Ed, Erin sarcastically remarks on questions ask ed by Theresa. She jokes that she got all her research by performing sexual favours causing Theresa and Kurt to feel uncomfortable. When question about holes in her research, Erin makes known that she has memorised all plaintiffs’ contact numbers, diseases, names, life history and relatives. These comments could be perceived negatively and therefor bring along conflict. With Theresa being highly professional and conservative, she may take offense to comments such as those of Erin. Although Sarcasm may be a personality trait of Erin but she has to know when to hold back on these comments. Courses on temper control and anger management are crucial in developing professional business behaviour.


The film Erin Brockovich is relevant to the grade 12 Business studies syllabus as it covers more than just Management and Leadership, Professionalism and Ethics and Conflict Management as discussed above. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is shown when PG&E need to cover up their wrongdoings and therefor make offers to pay off the residents’ medical expenses. This is used as a decoy in the hopes of keeping the Hinkley residents happy and not complaining which could lead to suing the company.

When PG&E sent out flyers stating the chromium in the water was safe for human consumption contradicting the truth is classified as false advertising, which falls under the topic of Marketing. Elements of teamwork are shown throughout the film but as discussed in this report, both Ed and Erin could implement teamwork in order to run their business more efficiently. Legislation in the business environment is evident alongside professionalism and ethics as PG&E deliberately withheld life-threatening information from locals affected. Situations throughout this film are relevant to society today and can teach many people how to and definitely how not to run a business.

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