The Mad Men Workplace

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A woman in her sixties once told me she had no desire to ever watch an episode of Mad Men. “I lived it,” she said, “Why would I want to watch it?”

Me, I’ve never missed an episode. I’ve become absorbed in the flawed nature of its characters, the subtleties of the storytelling. Most of all, I’m fascinated by a workplace from before the alphabet soup of HR legislation ( FMLA, ADA, etc.) existed. When an employer could refuse to hire a married woman, or regulate blacks to positions as bus boys and janitors, or not have a Jew on your staff simply because you didn’t like Jews. When gays remained closeted for fear of being fired or even arrested. When you could tell a secretary how great her legs looked in heels, or that she was putting on weight. When you could even use the term secretary instead of Administrative Assistant.

I know it’s fiction, and the situations are sometimes exaggerated for effect. But I also know that in some cases, discrimination was even worse than what’s depicted. I’ve talked to women who had to come into their offices on Saturday mornings to clean while the men stayed home. I’ve known women who were asked, “Are you done having children?” at their job interview. I’ve seen classifieds advertising for a white married men or a Girl Friday.

Being reminded of this makes me thankful for all those HR laws that usually cause me to swear under my breath. It helps me to understand why we have all these laws in the first place, and all the good they have done.

But I’m not writing to denounce Mad Men’s workplace of sexism and bigotry. That’s too easy, and has been done too many times before. No, with the new season of the show underway, I’m writing about what we can actually learn from it.

Political Incorrectness
I recall a documentary I saw several years ago in which several black men who lived in the South pre-Civil Rights were being interviewed. One of the men said, “In some ways, those times were better. At least back then you knew who hated you.”

We have become so concerned with saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, of offending someone or having them bring a discrimination case against us, we often don’t say anything at all. The problem with this is that while we don’t express our biases, we all still have them. I know. I’ve heard the comments over the years. Usually, they are made behind closed doors and prefaced with phrases like, “just between us” or “I don’t want to generalize, but …” Most people are not dumb enough to make their biases public, so they seep into the workplace in more subtle and insidious ways. They don’t hire the man in the wheel chair because they don’t want to make accommodations. They don’t layoff the older worker because they don’t believe she can adapt quickly enough to change.

In Mad Men, all these prejudices are right out in the open. If we acted like this today, employers would know if they had bigots working for them and act accordingly. At the same time, employees would truly know how their employers thought of them, and make an informed decision of whether or not they wanted to give that employer their time and energy.

I once had an issue with two groups of people in an organization. The older, white workers and the newer, minority ones. They talked around each other for months, creating tension and animosity. Part of me wanted to put them all in a room together and say, okay, tell the other side what you really think. Let’s get it out in the open and then deal with it honestly. I didn’t, though, mainly because, if given the chance to speak honestly, I don’t think most of them would have said a word.

Brutal Honesty
In one scene between Don Draper and his proteg√©, Peggy Olson, Peggy complains that she isn’t given credit for her work. Don replies, “I give you money. You give me ideas. That’s how it works.”

Don can be direct, even hurtful, but at least his subordinates know where he stands. I once asked a boss for a raise. Instead of telling me no and giving me the reasons why, she put it off, ignoring the question for over a month, forcing me to ask again. Only after I pushed her did she finally decline my request, without saying more than senior management said we couldn’t at this time.

What bothered me more than not getting a raise was the fact that she wouldn’t come right and say no, when I suspect that was going to be her answer all along.

Most people dislike conflict. Managers included. They pussy foot around saying anything negative. They couch the bad in terms like Opportunity for Growth, or Areas for Improvement, instead of saying, “You are doing a bad job, and if you don’t quit, we’ll fire you.” Then, when the employee doesn’t get that promotion, or gets fired, they don’t even know why, or what they could have done to improve their chances of success. Managers think they are being kind by not being brutally honest, but in reality, they are avoiding uncomfortable situations, and in doing so, they are doing employees a disservice.

Performance Matters

While Don Draper may be brutally honest at work, his private life is one big lie. Don Draper isn’t even his real name. When the ambitious Pete Campbel learns his secret, he tries to blackmail Don into giving him a promotion. When this fails, he tells one of the partners, Bert Cooper. Bert’s response: “Who cares?”

Don is great at his job. He’s a rainmaker. He attracts and keeps clients. We all have secrets, Bert figures. What are secrets compared to the success of the business?

I deal with managers all the time who are more concerned with style than substance. They are concerned because an employee is always ten minutes late, instead of asking whether or not this hurts the employee’s effectiveness (it may, but they still don’t ask the question). They are concerned because an employee spends too much time surfing the net during unofficial break times, not considering whether the employee is just an efficient time manager or works extra in a crisis, and so deserves an extra break now and then. When hiring, they are more concerned with a candidates alma mater than with their qualifications.

One could argue that Bert shouldn’t trust Don. He has lied about his personal life, so why wouldn’t he be dishonest about his professional life.

If Don was new to the organization, perhaps that could be the case. But Bert has worked with Don for years. He knows that on a professional level, he can be trusted.

He knew results matter.

One last aspect of Mad Men I have to mention. The Advertising firm of Sterling Cooper has no Human resources manager (or Personnel manager, as they would have called it). Then again, they probably didn’t neeed one. If I had been born fifty years earlier, I would have been looking for another job.


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