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'Mad Men': An HR horror

The world has gone Mad. Last week AMC's Mad Men, about Madison Avenue advertising execs in 1960, received 16 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series. Viewers and critics praise Mad Men for its superb script and its warts-and-all portrayal of a workplace in which chauvinism, racism, office liaisons and chain-smoking abound. After all, this was four years before the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. By today's standards, the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency is a human resources abomination. We asked Lynn Heckler, president of Suncoast Human Resource Management Association and director of human resources for PSCU Financial Services in St. Petersburg, to give us her professional take on a few episodes from Season 1.

HR nightmare: Roger, a partner at Sterling Cooper, asks if the company has hired any Jews. Creative director Don replies, "Not on my watch!" In another scene, soon-to-be-married Pete hits a gentlemen's club with some colleagues and then shows up at new secretary Peggy's door looking for some lovin'.

Heckler's take: "To me, those two were probably the worst because there's a lot that goes on in the workplace that is innuendo, but those were not innuendo. Those were blatant violations that today would send somebody running for the (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). … By today's standards, the atmosphere resembles a fraternity house more than a workplace. Excessive male egotism, smoking, drinking, casual adultery, overt sexism and racism are both the backdrop and the story."

HR nightmare: After a rough first day, Peggy's boss tells her, "I'm not your boyfriend, I'm your boss." He instructs her to go home and put some curlers in her hair.

Heckler's take: "The double standard is very obvious and very accepted by the women, and I guess that's what was the most disturbing — this dismissive attitude. … If a double standard exists today — and some would argue it does and some would argue it doesn't — the fact is people make an attempt to hide it."

HR nightmare: Office manager Joan schools Peggy on how much perfume to wear, how much leg to show and which doctor prescribes birth control for unmarried women.

Heckler's take: “What was so shocking to me — and let's face it, this was only 40 years ago — was the overall acceptance that the female characters had of the environment that they were operating in. … The double standard is very obvious and very accepted by the women, and I guess that's what was the most disturbing."

HR nightmare: If Peggy plays her cards right, Joan says, she'll end up with a nice house the country and she won't have to work at all.

Heckler's take: “While humorous by today's standards, the reality is that these types of biases can take decades to truly change. With women currently representing over 50 percent of today's workforce, it is unsettling to recall that less than two generations back, it was culturally unacceptable for an American woman to pursue a career with any other intent than to fund her existence while she searched for a suitable husband."

HR nightmare: Female employees can feel the men of the office undressing them with their eyes.

Heckler's take: "Without a doubt, by today's standards, that whole workplace would be considered a hostile work environment toward women because of the fact that they're subject to not just once but daily and repeated sexual innuendo and sexual advances. … The good news is how far we've come in the last 40 years. … Mad Men makes me wonder how we will view today's workplace practices in 2048."

Mad Men

Season 2 premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.

'Mad Men': An HR horror 07/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 9:44am]

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