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 protegĂ©, 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.

High School with Money

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For me, high school was a prison, except that at least in prison you don’t have homework.

My high school even looked like a prison. It was a solid, brick of a building, with small windows and cement block walls painted in muted hues. Some of its doors were even locked throughout the day for the sake of “student safety”. All that were missing were the barbed wire fences and watchtowers. You weren’t even trusted to use the bathroom without permission.

I hoped that when I graduated, started to work for a living, I would at least be like an inmate on parole. Free as long as I kept my nose clean.

My first job out of college I realized how wrong I was. While I enjoyed the work, the place was a case study in dysfunction. It was rife with infighting and lack of trust. Interdepartmental communication was non-existent. New ideas were squashed. Management refused to recognize and adjust to the changing business landscape. Employees were not recognized for results. They were not trusted. A lot of time was wasted through inefficiencies and spending time on tasks that did not meet organizational goals.

The place went out of business shortly after I left.

One of the most important lessons I learned from that experience was that the old adage is true: Work is just high school with money.

I’ve done extensive research on the origins of that adage (meaning I did both a Google and Bing search) and haven’t been able to attribute it to any one person. It’s been attributed to everything from show business to politics, but examples can be found in almost every industry.

I realize that everyone did not loathe high school as much as I did. I have a friend who told me it was the best time of his life. He was a basketball star in a small town school. For him, it was four years of fun.

I’m happy for him. Today, he has a good job, a great family. He’s funny, smart, and by all appearances, seems well adjusted.

Then again, so do I.

Now, let’s get two important aspects of the Work is Just High School with Money premise straight. First, I in no way blame my teachers for my experience. Like any profession, some were better than others, but most of them were dedicated to pounding some knowledge into my tiny teenage mind, saturated as it was with thoughts of girls and the desperate need to fit in. They did a great job, considering what they had to work with. And unlike what some people think, they did not live in the lap of luxury with their summers off and healthy pension plans. They worked long hours for less pay than they deserved out of a dedication to their craft.

And unlike the students, they don’t just have a four year sentence. They’re in for life.

Second, while I didn’t see it this way at the time, I know that as bad as the institution of high school was, I did not do anything to make it better. I was self absorbed, rebellious, a smart Alec who thought he knew everything. Looking back, I missed a lot of opportunities to make a bad situation, if not great, at least good.

So I’ve started this blog to examine how work is just high school with money, what lessons can be taken away from this idea, and what we as individuals can do about it. Not all posts are going to directly relate to this premise, of course. That would get tedious. To quote David Bowie, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but i promise it won’t be boring.”