Mad Men and the Trivialization of Workplace Violence

Suppose for a moment that someone in your small business workplace – a manager, perhaps – entered the empty building on the weekend, locked their office door and committed suicide by hanging. S/he was discovered by another manager on Monday morning. Can you imagine what would happen to your business and its employees?

I can tell you what would not happen: the partners or people in charge would not send everyone home, and then sit around for several hours with the body waiting for “the coroner” to come and “cut the body down”, while the office and corpse remained undisturbed. Then two more partners or managers would show up and decide to force their way into the office to cut the body down themselves.

But this is precisely what happened on the last episode of Mad Men, that popular television series about the personal and professional lives of a small group of people at a fictional New York advertising agency in the 1960’s. Junior partner Lane Pryce hung himself in his office after having embezzled company money and gotten fired for it. His body was discovered by others looking over the top of the wall partition into his office; it was blocking the door so no one could enter.

There was no chaos, no police presence, no investigation. When other partners broke into his office, they cut down the body and also found the resignation letter he was asked to write. It was all very controlled and neat and quiet.

And it was all bullshit.

Anyone who has ever experienced a violent death in the workplace knows that it’s messy. It means calling the police. It means further disruption of your business while the police conducts an investigation, often making other workers sit around waiting for the police to interview and release them. Then the police call the coroner (or medical examiner, depending on jurisdiction) and there is more waiting. After the body is finally removed, the police decide whether to preserve the scene as a crime scene or release it.

Workplace violence actually started to rise to prominence in the 1960’s, although the focus back then was on outsiders or non-employees who were assaulting workers. Today, workplace violence is so prevalent that around 2 million people every year are victims. It is one of the leading causes of work related death in the country. And sometime it is just not preventable, despite OSHA education and suggestions to the contrary.

I recall an incident in my former Detroit suburban neighborhood where a man walked into the dental office where his estranged wife worked and shot and killed her. Ugly and messy? Of course it was. Preventable? Not really. Ultimately, that business was forced to close because it could never recover.

There have been other incidents of workplace violence on this show, notably a fistfight that took place between the now deceased Lane Pryce and Peter Campbell. But that incident, and others, were intended to be comical so the trivial attitude was softened.  And I know that Mad Men is a fictional world, and the creative genius behind the show, Matthew Weiner, has no duty to tell his stories realistically.

But for a TV series that prides itself on realism, this trivialization of the devastation of  a workplace suicide, and the total refusal to deal with what really occurs after it happens, missed the mark. Big time.




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