Mad Men: End of An Era?

Well, “Mad Men” is no more.

As AMC marketed it, we have come to an “end of an era.” Or have we?

While it was only a television show, or so people try to tell me, the workplace implications resonated with so many of us in the HR/business community. Perhaps that is because, while much has changed, some things are still painfully similar.

Here are six themes from Mad Men which are as relevant today as they were in the “Mad Men days.” Knowing that not everyone watched the show (don’t understand that!), I will do my best to speak in broad strokes and not get into the Mad Men minutia of which life is made.

Of course, we are talking about friends. So, I will refer to all characters by their first names only! 

1.  Sexual Harassment.   Joan and Peggy were the two primary female characters. Joan experienced quid pro quo harassment not once, but twice. And both Peggy and Joan experienced gender-based hostility.  While the show began in the early 60’s, it ends in the early ‘70s.  When confronted with quid pro quo harassment the second time, Joan mentions the EEOC. Although she effectively settled her claims for 50% on the dollar, she probably would have ended up with nothing but for the legal protections she had by the end of the series. Sadly, sexual and other forms of unlawful harassment remain a problem today.  Employers must prevent and correct not only to avoid liability, but also to maximize the value of the talent we hire. Indeed the EEOC in its most recent strategic enforcement plan listed harassment prevention as a priority.

2. Boys’ Club.   The initial employer, Sterling Cooper, was a boys’ club. But it was nothing compared to the depiction of McCann Erickson. A small group of powerful men called the shots and women were marginalized, at best. Peggy, who was promoted from secretary to Copy Chief at Sterling Cooper, will give it her best at McCann Erickson. It is hard to be better than Peggy’s best. She should be their Sheryl Sandberg. I fear she may end up hitting her head on a glass ceiling lined with cement. The statistics with regard to women in senior leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies today are depressing, at best.

3. Women-owned Business.   After being forced out of McCann for not agreeing to submit to the sexual advances of a knuckle-dragger, Joan ultimately decides to start her own business. Today, we see many women leaving “big business” and starting companies of their own. Sadly, this, too, came at a cost for Joan. We thought Joan had found her true love, only to be left by him when she decided she wanted to be a player, too. As Sandberg has said, ambition is not always described in positive terms when applied to a woman.

4. Male Allies.   Women don’t need men to protect them, but women alone cannot fight the battle for true equality. Nor should they fight this battle alone. Men benefit equally when workplaces have the business benefit of gender equality. While Don was a lothario in his personal life, and that included at work, he had redeeming qualities. He saw the brilliance in Peggy and both mentored and sponsored her. And, he learned as much as he imparted, as is true in any good mentoring relationship. And, he told Joan not to submit to quid pro quo harassment, while the less licentious men told her to do whatever it takes to land the client  More men need to be gender allies. Hopefully, modern day allies will do so without sleeping with colleagues and clients.

5. Race.   There were two women of color in the show, Dawn and Shirley. Both started as secretaries. While Dawn becomes an office manager, it is ironically only because of racial discrimination, that is, one of the partners did not want Dawn as the receptionist—the face of Sterling Cooper.  At the end, Shirley tells Roger that she is not joining him with the acquisition by McCann. She said she would not feel “comfortable.” So the last episode is entirely white in terms of cast members. And that is still true today of many leadership teams and boards. Here too the Fortune 500 numbers are downright devastating. This must change if a company is to survive, let alone thrive. The business imperative of diversity cannot be underestimated.

6. Comeback Kid.    Of course, I end this blog with my friend Don. In the last season, he lost almost everything until he finally found himself.  At the end, I believe his star rises again as I explain in my blog in the Philadelphia Business Journal.

We often hear it said, but work is a marathon and not a sprint.  Not every day can be a win. Some of the most successful people have endured setbacks.  Don is hardly alone. Read Steve Job’s bio. His success was not a straight line. The same is true for Oprah Winfrey.

Like a phoenix, Don rose from the ashes. But that was only after group therapy at an Ashram. While I am not suggesting that every employer should mandate therapy, sometimes what an employee needs most is time and space and the courage of introspection.

To read Jonathan Segal’s Mad Men post in the Philadelphia Business Journal, please click here



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