What can ‘Mad Men’ teach us about the 2014 workplace?

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career lessons learned from Mad Men by CareerBuilderAMC’s critically adored series “Mad Men” is back for its seventh and final(ish)* season, and life in the late 60s is moving along at fictional advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. (With or without Don Draper we’re going to find out, I guess.)  The show, which follows the professional and personal lives of the agency’s staff, is a snapshot of a very different professional world than the one we live in today. From the fashion that is so old it’s now hip again to the pop culture references (such as Kennedy’s assassination or the rise of the Rolling Stones), the show can often feel like it’s a world apart from ours. That’s not even mentioning the way women (both in the workplace and at home) and minorities are treated on the show. At the surface level, let’s hope there’s not much in common with today’s workplace.

But the show isn’t just about working at a 1960s marketing agency; it’s about characters who do smart and stupid things, just like real people do. We’ve been watching the characters for 50-plus episodes now and are invested in their fictitious lives. When Pete acts like a brat or Don cheats on his wife, we can’t help but scream at the TV and shake our heads. So aside from not smoking indoors or drinking too heavily, here are six lessons we can learn from “Mad Men.”

SPOILER WARNING: The following tips refer to events in the show all the way through the end of season six. So if you are behind on your DVR, you might want to bookmark this for later.

Lesson No. 1: Stand up for yourself
On the show: Peggy has to prove repeatedly that she’s as good as, if not better than, the men at the company, from asking to get promoted to copywriter to making sure she’s not left out of meetings.
At work: You don’t get what you don’t ask for in the working world. Be polite and respectful, and never act entitled, but don’t be afraid to negotiate a higher salary, request a promotion or highlight your achievements. Bosses and higher-ups may not be purposefully ignoring you, they may just be busy. They might need an occasional reminder that you’re doing a good job and deserve some recognition. Don’t get passed over for promotions or better opportunities just because you’re afraid to speak up.

Lesson No. 2: Pick your battles
On the show: Pete Campbell thinks he deserves to be the boss of everyone and everything, and he whines when he doesn’t get his way, no matter how important the issue really is.
At work: Yes, you should stand up for yourself, but not every conflict is equal. Pointing out that you increased revenue by 20 percent last year is very different from complaining to your boss that your office doesn’t have a good view (which is something Pete has done). The first few times you speak up, colleagues will pay attention. If they realize you can’t distinguish between a true injustice and a petty complaint, they’ll tune you out completely.

Lesson No. 3: Pick your office romances carefully
On the show: Don Draper married his secretary, Peggy secretly gave birth to Pete’s baby, and Roger Sterling had an affair (and secret child) with Joan Harris, the office manager.
At work: No one is saying you shouldn’t or can’t have an office romance. After all, they’re not that uncommon. But love (or at least lust) has led to many awkward situations in the hallways of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and in real life, you don’t have the luxury of a commercial break to sort things out. Just think carefully before you go on a date with your cubicle neighbor. You might find love, or you might find yourself singing a sultry French tune in front of the entire office and senior leadership, leading to uncomfortable jokes the morning after. Just be careful.

Lesson No. 4: Don’t get too comfortable
On the show: Roger Sterling was once the golden boy who could bring in the big clients, but as the years pass he sees his own protégé, Pete Campbell, surpassing him.
At work: Co-workers aren’t the problem, thinking you’re indispensible is. Everyone from the interns to the vice presidents of an organization needs to stay motivated and creative. There is always new talent coming in and leaders looking to reward the best ideas. Coasting through your job might be fine now, but it’s not the path to security in this competitive job market.

Lesson No. 5: Socialize (within reason)
On the show: Deals are made over cocktails and cigarettes, but if you don’t know your limits, you’ll end up putting your foot in your whiskey-filled mouth. See Peggy telling her boss she has to leave his party because, unlike some people, she has work to do.
At work: The point of happy hour isn’t to get drunk (for most people), it’s to get to know your colleagues outside of work. People tend to be a little more relaxed when they’re sitting around and chatting at a bar and their real personalities come out. You don’t have to become best friends with a co-worker, but building camaraderie can boost your chances of being noticed by people who can help you. Or it could just make you like coming to work a little bit more each day.

Lesson No. 6: Look good
On the show: Because the show is set in the 1960s, before jeans and T-shirts became commonplace, and because it’s a TV show where money is no object, all of the characters are dressed like they’re going to a photo shoot.
At work: Not everyone can or should wear impeccably tailored suits like Don Draper, but everyone should dress like they care about their appearance. You should never be at work and think, “I hope the boss doesn’t notice I’m wearing this.” Your clothes should be appropriate for your workplace and should never get you noticed for the wrong reasons.

Lesson No. 7: Don’t let your personal life interfere with work
On the show: In the season six finale, Don basically has a meltdown in the middle of a client presentation. It made for riveting television, but it also made for an extremely uncomfortable meeting as his colleagues listened to him recount his childhood in a brothel.
At work: Well, for one, keep the brothel memories to yourself unless it’s really relevant–and I mean really relevant. Aside from that, you should excuse yourself from work situations that are going to bring up a lot of personal issues for you. If you’re going through a hard time, you shouldn’t be embarrassed about taking a personal day or talking to your supervisor about needing some time to deal with things. If those aren’t options, just do your best not to have an emotional breakdown in front of customers and clients.

Lesson No. 8: Treat yourself 
Sometimes life is hard and you just need to do what feels good. Betty knows…


*Finalish because AMC is splitting the final season into two parts: seven episodes this year, seven in 2015.

  1. Pingback: Win an Office Even Don Draper Would Love - The Society – Entrepreneurs Epicentre

  2. geraldvmckenna@msn.com At 72 I have discovered a new form of age related prejudice. I call this new crap “We don’t need to train him on this process/software/procedure/protocol ’cause he’s older than dirt so he can “pick it up” as in “sink or swim”. Later, when you screw up royally (in their words) when you point out the salient point that YOU WERE NOT TRAINED ON x,y OR z, the next statement from the boss is what I call the “You always have an excuse to avoid your responsibility for this error YOU MADE!”. I heard years ago (back in the 50′s) that a boss was just like a dirty diaper:”Always on your ass and full of s^^t!” Could that be true? @

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