A few weeks ago, I saw a news story about how the last of the baby boomers are turning 50 in 2014. “Wow, that’s old,” I thought, until I realized that I’m 53. Then, as if I needed any further reminders of my elder statesmanship, one of the legal assistants in our office, a 20-something, accused me of “making up” the fact that there used to be a popular singer named Bing. Sigh. (And for the record, he was popular way before my time.)
That’s it, I decided. Time for a blog post about popular culture from an era that none of those rascally whippersnappers will even remember: the 1980s. That’ll teach ’em not to be so darn … er, young. So charge up your brick-sized cellular phone, press “play” and “record” simultaneously on your 150-pound manually-operated VCR, and run your comb through that mullet: We’re going to take a spin through “Employment Law in1980s TV-Land.”
Of course, when you talk about HR nightmares from 1980s TV, the first thing that probably comes to your mind is the bar where everybody knows your name: Cheers. Who can forget owner Sam Malone’s puckish flirtations with Diane, Rebecca, and virtually every young woman who wandered into his bar wearing a short skirt and a jacket with three-inch shoulder pads? Those not-too-subtle propositions may have been cute in the ’80s, but they would translate into about 487 sexual harassment claims in this century, thank you very much. Not to mention the claims Cliff Clavin could bring against the bar for all the abuse waitress Carla Tortelli heaped on him. Once Sam was aware of Carla’s propensity to torment patrons, Cliff could have sued the bar for negligent retention. Sure, we all dabbed our eyes and stifled a whimper when Sam turned out the lights one last time in the show’s famous final scene, but if he operated his business like this nowadays, closing time would have come several years earlier, just as a result of all the legal fees.
Speaking of legal fees, what better place in TV Land to spend them than the firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak, the swanky setting of that 1980s fixture “LA Law.” Although (or maybe because) it was set in a law firm, the show featured bad employment practices galore. Bon vivant divorce lawyer Arnie Becker was the west coast version of Sam Malone, with better suits, romancing young law clerks and clients with alarming regularity. And that workplace affair between Stuart Markowitz and Anne Kelsey, although both were partners, was still fraught with potential HR landmines. But the HR nightmare that made “LA Law” famous had to do with workplace safety. Who could forget ill-fated attorney Rosalind Shays stepping through the elevator doors only to find, to her everlasting (but not for long) dismay, that there was no elevator there – just an empty shaft, and a long, long way down? Could Rosalind’s grieving heirs have sued the law firm for her untimely demise? Probably not. In most states, the sole remedy for a workplace accident is through workers’ compensation. But you can bet the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would have been out the next day to determine whether McKenzie Brackman should be fined for maintaining an unsafe workplace.
Finally, another popular, albeit much-maligned, hit show from the 1980s was “thirtysomething,” with an ensemble cast full of attractive but angst-ridden yuppies trying to figure out the meaning of life while coping with bratty kids, cancer, interfaith marriage, and of course (25-year-old spoiler alert), occasionally getting killed in car accidents. But let’s not forget that much of the (melo)drama in this show derived from the issues that business partners Michael Steadman and Elliot Weston faced when they worked at DAA, an ad agency run by the evil Miles Drentell, one of the greatest TV villains of all time. At one point, fed up with Miles’ unscrupulous and unethical tactics, our heroes clandestinely tried to help a competing agency, “Minnesota Brands,” conduct a hostile takeover of DAA. Apparently, Michael and Elliot were not aware that under common law principles, employees have a duty of loyalty to their employer. I think secretly orchestrating the downfall of your own company would probably qualify as disloyal, don’t you?
Interestingly enough, all of these issues – sexual harassment, workplace safety, and employee loyalty – have not gone anywhere since the days when we were listening to “Men at Work” sing about vegemite sandwiches on our Walkman. But we’re sure that your company’s employment practices have changed for the better over the intervening quarter-century. Now if only you could find a use for those leg warmers and parachute pants that are still tucked away in a corner of your closet.