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.



Why Mad Men Should Bring Back Sal Romano

Bryan Batt as Sal Romano

Wait . . . what?

You’re probably thinking that whatever link or feed you used to get here is totally screwed up, because I write about HR and workplace issues, not television shows. I don’t even watch television. Except Mad Men. And that just started, because I watched the first 4 seasons on DVD, not on television.

So what’s this all about, Joanie?

Hopefully you know a little bit about Mad Men, that highly stylistic and realistically detailed look at the business and personal life of an ensemble of characters who work together at a New York ad agency in the 1960’s. There was no separation of work and personal back then, either. But because the show takes place in the 60’s, we tend to be forgiving of all of the negative workplace behavior that does take place at the ad agency of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  After all, it’s the 60’s, and everything has changed for the better, right?

Well, maybe not everything.

One of the earlier characters on the show was Salvatore Romano, a deeply closeted homosexual man. When Mad Men started he was the agency art director, who later showed talent directing television commercials. He married, as closeted gays of the 60’s did, and laughed with his co-workers as they disparaged another openly gay male who briefly worked at the agency. He joined in demeaning sexual conversations about women with his co-workers. He did what the culture of the times demanded he do to keep his true self a secret.

But in the 3rd season, Sal is forced to rebuff the drunken sexual advances of the firm’s largest client. Sal is then fired by Don, the main character in the show, who has recently witnessed an encounter between Sal and a male bell boy during a business trip. At the end of the episode where Sal is fired, we see him calling his wife from a Central Park pay phone, gay men cruising in the background. He tells her he will be home late.

Sal hasn’t appeared on Mad Men since.

So why do I want Sal Romano to come back?

Because sexual orientation remains a common source of workplace discrimination, and it still is not a federally protected class that enjoys the same anti-discrimination rights as gender, national origin, race or color, and religion. I would like to see Matthew Weiner, series creator, use his considerable influence to take a stand against sexual discrimination in the workplace.

That same influence would also send a message of hope to the current working  population that bad things happen at work, but sometimes those bad things can be overcome through perseverance, hard work, a positive attitude, and not being afraid to fail. Career and workplace writers trumpet those messages all of the time, particularly in the last few years when so many workers lost their jobs. It would be nice to see some examples in popular culture of how things can get better. In fact, Sal could return as a successful television director, while we view his setbacks and struggles through flashbacks or dreams. Matthew Weiner likes to use dreams and flashbacks, and this could be done without any compromise to the authenticity and artistic quality of the show.

After all, sometimes there really is a happy ending.