Category Archives: Business English

Off with their heads!

Downsizing: a Business English lesson using film extracts

Off with their heads!

How many times did it happen to you that you were dealing with a lesson on a specific topic and suddenly you had to change plans and digress for a class or two because the students’ needs required you to do so?

Well, the situation that I’m going to share with you right now is one of those cases. The important thing here is that far from being inconvenient or annoying, changing the course of the class every now and then to meet our students’ immediate needs is all that matters.

Context:  one-to-one, upper intermediate Business English lessons. My student had been absent for two classes but that class he could make it. He looked worried. I asked about the reason for his absences and we engaged in deep conversation: his multinational company needed to downsize. His position wasn’t at risk but he was involved in something he wasn’t feeling so comfortable with – he was part of the firing committee, and needed to choose who from his department had to be laid off and later have private meetings to tell them the bad news.

Food for thought: since our lesson for that day was not directly related to “firing and hiring” we went on with what was planned for that day. However, for the next class I did some research online to see what was available in terms of firing material that could be exploited in class. I wanted to take advantage of my student’s opinions and feelings since the content was already there for us to make use of it. That is how all of sudden I remembered this film I had seen called “Up in the Air” starring George Clooney. Does it ring a bell? It’s a comedy-drama film whose main character travels for his company in order to fire employees that working for other companies; that is to say, his company is hired by other companies to do the tough work – firing people. The thing is that now his own company needs to cut costs and they decide to implement a “virtual firing” approach instead of wasting money on “face-to-face firing meetings”. That’s why I thought it would be useful to deal with some extracts of this film at that exact time.

Next steps – speaking and listening tasks: when my student came the next class, as a lead-in task we started talking about his feelings about the situation his company was going through, the reasons that led his company to downsize, and how employees might react at the moment of receiving the news based on their personalities. Then I asked him if he thought that there was any way of firing people other than in face-to-face meetings. He said he didn’t. Later, I told him we were going to watch a scene of a film in which a new way of firing employees was introduced. I just told him to watch it and that later we would discuss it. We watched this extract: Up in the Air 1. As a post-video task we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of this new approach to firing employees and if this was feasible to be done in his working context. After he said that the whole idea seemed kind of crazy to him, he said he wouldn’t find it true to life for an employee to react in such an indifferent way the moment he is being fired. And so this led me to introduce the next video extract which was this one: Up in the Air 2. The aim of the second extract was intended to prove he was right, that it wouldn’t be so easy for an employee to accept the news that they are being fired and that they can, in fact, ask for reasons or explanations about their dismissal. And we finally ended the series of activities by watching a third extract to see what a “virtual firing” situation would be like by watching an employee reacting in the most expected way: Up in the Air 3.

Why using these extracts from “Up in the Air” for a Business English class? Well, simply because,

  • the topic of firing and hiring is a recurrent one in business English course books
  • it provides a great context to practice speaking and listening skills – students talk about their reactions, other employees’ attitudes, the reasons why a company may need to downsize, among others
  • these listening and speaking tasks that I’ve just described are also a perfect opportunity to introduce vocabulary and expressions in relation to hiring and firing: hire, employ, take on staff, recruit people, contract, dismiss, make sb redundant, fire, give sb the sack, among others.

Tip:

  • whenever you are planning to work with videos that are online, make sure that you download them onto your computer just in case the internet connection fails when you need to use it. And trust me, it happens, and quite often! So my suggestion is that you use video downloader software to be on the safe side. I use aTube Catcher, which you can download for free but there many more out there.
  • Make sure the extracts aren’t too long. The “less is more” proverb works perfectly for video activities. The emphasis here is on the discussion that arises from the topic dealt with in the video and the opportunity it gives us to present new vocabulary and expressions as well.

I hope this lesson proves useful 😉

(Image credits: “Off with their heads” by Heather Wizell, Flickr.com, Creative Commons)

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Filed under Business English, Using videos in ELT