6 Traditional Office Rules That Still Hold True in a Transforming Workplace

In the “Mad Men” era of the 1960s, the workforce was a drastically different place. Overt sexual harassment, bigotry, and chauvinism were a standard part of office culture. Employers could legally categorize their newspaper classified posts by gender, race, or religion, and women and minorities were placed in roles in which advancement was incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

And while men’s power was certainly advantageous to them in most ways, it came with certain expectations. They were often expected to devote their lives to their jobs, and many were up before dawn, went to work all day, and then had to host clients at night and on weekends. The misgiven societal expectations of the time meant that these men were expected to be working at every possible hour because they were not expected to be as involved in raising their children.

Colleagues conversing in office

Thankfully, progress has been and continues to be made. A number of laws have been put into place to prevent and punish discrimination in the workplace, and it has become less accepted culturally. Further, where women and men once played unequal roles in the office and got unequal benefits, some companies now offer paternity leave for men and military leave for women. Most importantly, while no system is perfect and there is certainly progress to be made, business leaders are increasingly held accountable for their behavior.

What Caused the Shift?

Legislation was at the root of the shift toward equality. In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Together, these laws began to bring an equilibrium to hiring practices and payment scales for everyone, regardless of their gender, race, color, religion, or age.

Today, the workforce is slowly but surely getting more diverse. As technology and social media connect people more than ever before and bring issues to light, both hold workplaces accountable. More diverse workforces benefit everyone — research shows that inclusive teams make better decisions and deliver better results.

Making eye contact in a business meeting

Traditional Rules That Still Hold True

While we are all better because of more equal and inclusive workplaces, some traditional office practices still hold value today:

1. Remember the power of eye contact

People often spend their days staring down at their computer screens or cell phones, intent on keeping on top of their to-do lists or checking in on social media. Instead, be someone who makes it a point to make eye contact and engage with the people you work with. Be present, and show your employees the importance of actively listening through your own example.

2. Leave your desk for lunch

You do not have to leave the office for a full three-martini lunch, but make it a point to get out and take your team or clients to lunch occasionally. This will help you make connections with co-workers and beyond.

3. Be conscious of noisy conversation

Keep any loud conversations you might be having to a minimum whenever possible, and set your computer and phone on mute or silent. While it is wonderful to talk to the people in your office and connect, keep in mind that you do not want to distract other employees if they are focused on their work or make them feel like they are intruding on something private.

4. Always shake hands

Somewhere along the way, a handshake gave way to a fist bump, which gave way to no contact at all — but there are few things more powerful than looking people in the eye and genuinely shaking their hand. Taking the more traditional approach and offering a firm handshake as a form of introduction conveys strength and honesty to the people you meet.

5. Do not ignore phone calls

Texting and email have become the normal forms of communication, which has led many people to shy away from actually talking on the phone. Unfortunately, sending someone who is calling you straight to voicemail can come across as impersonal or even make it seem as if you are ignoring him or her. Always pick up the phone to let the caller know you see and value him or her.

6. Write thank-you notes, not thank-you emails

Writing a thank-you note lets people know you took the time and care to tell them you appreciate something they did. Simply put, it shows that you put in a bit of extra effort, which can go a long way.

Thank you, customers!


The American workplace has improved in many ways and advanced far beyond what it was in the days of the “Mad Men” era. But certain practices never go out of style, especially those that make respect and thoughtfulness a part of the way workplaces operate.