What Mad Men Can Teach Us About Handling Death and Illness at Work

Business.com / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

One day, you’re on the top of the world. The next minute, some secretary’s running you over with a lawnmower.

The popular AMC show Mad Men followed the many iterations of ad agency Sterling Cooper from the early 1960s to the 1970s.

The show’s creators understood that an office wasn’t just a place to work.

It was a window into all the stuff of life, including illness and death.

When you’re managing misfortune in your office, you can model a lot of what you do—but not everything, of course—after Bert Cooper, Roger Sterling, and Don Draper’s tragedy strategies. Plenty of people lived, died, and sustained injuries at Sterling Cooper, but the business always soldiered on.

Related Article: Investing in Happiness: Solutions for a Better Work Culture

Attend the Memorial Service

In season four, Lucky Strike ditched Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and Roger tried to pretend he hadn’t hidden it from his partners. At the same time, someone identified only as “David Montgomery,” died, and the partners decided to attend his funeral. In their time of sorrow, they weren’t really grieving for David Montgomery; they were looking to scoop up some grieving clients.

The average person spends 90,000 at work over the course of a lifetime. It’s important to honor the loyalty they demonstrated in life by attending their memorial services after they’re gone. Whenever possible, someone from your management team should represent your company at employee funeral services. As for yourself, it’s never too early to start thinking about funeral planning and creating a succession plan for your business.

Reassure Your Clients

In season one of Mad Men, no-nonsense office manager/bombshell Joan Holloway found herself summoned to Sterling Cooper in the middle of the night. Roger had suffered a heart attack — while cavorting with twins in his office — and Bert immediately wanted Joan to reassure their clients.

Cooper did the right thing; a sick CEO or managing partner can have a major impact on business. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs went on medical leave in 2011 after announcing he had pancreatic cancer, Apple’s share price dropped 6 percent.

At the same time, forcing a sick executive to come back to work too quickly can have disastrous PR consequences. When the Sterling Cooper team pulled Roger out of the hospital too soon because they feared losing their biggest client, he collapsed right in front of Lucky Strike executives and had to be carried out by paramedics.

The lesson: Always tell clients quickly when an executive is ill and unable to work, and let them know a steady group of leaders is in control. Then, let your executive take time to truly recover before dragging him or her back to work.

Roger Sterling meme about the finite nature of life

Give Employees Room to Grieve

Mad Men took viewers through the deaths of not only two of its own leaders but also some of America’s most beloved historical figures. At Sterling Cooper, no one turned off the television, stopped the ladies from crying, or took away the Canadian Club whiskey when tragedy struck. It was Madison Avenue, however, and profit maximization waited for no one. For instance, as soon as Bert died, Jim Hobart from McCann Erickson cornered Roger in the steam room to make a play for Sterling Cooper.

In a real-life parallel, not long after the 2015 death of Survey Monkey CEO Dave Goldberg, recruiters around Silicon Valley started calling workers in an attempt to lure away employees. Survey Monkey’s interim CEO worked overtime to keep the lines of communication open with employees and to make them feel confident about their company’s future. Give your employees time to grieve, but don’t be surprised as people move to protect their own interests. Expect to deflect opportunistic people who want to capitalize on your company’s misfortune.

Buy Key Person Insurance

When Sterling Cooper employees discovered Lane Pryce had hung himself in his office, Don Draper was sitting on a painful secret. Only he knew Lane had committed suicide because he’d been caught embezzling from Sterling Cooper.

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had key person life insurance for all of its executives. When Lane passed away, the company received a death benefit to make up for his lost expertise and to help them transition his duties elsewhere. It’s tough to get businesses to reveal whether they’ve insured their executives, but a U.K. survey found that in 135,000 companies, 44 percent had insured key executives whose losses would affect profitability and trading.

Although key person insurance pays out to the company, don’t forget about the deceased person’s family. When Lane’s life insurance policy paid out to the company, Don insisted on taking a $50,000 check to his grieving widow. He returned what Lane invested in Sterling Cooper after Lucky Strike’s departure. He also kept Lane’s secret, even when Lane’s widow brutally blamed Don and the other partners for Lane’s death.

Related Article: Creating An Employee-Centric Company Culture Will Not Be The Death Of Your Business

Lead Like a Pro

Life is unpredictable, but your company’s future doesn’t have to be. Like the men and women of Sterling Cooper, you can navigate tragedy with a mix of preparation and calm, confident leadership.

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