5 shocking things that used to be acceptable in workplace culture

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see “how it started, how it’s going” memes about workplace culture? Some of the things that used to be considered acceptable would be humorous now, while others would be more depressing — especially considering the fact that issues like sexism are still prevalent.

First, there is the evolution of offices in terms of space and design throughout the years, from the rise and fall of cubicles to the wide adoption of open spaces and the emergence of hot desks and coworking spaces. Not to mention our current work-from-home life and its effects.

But beyond the physical differences between workplaces now and then, diving into the progression of social norms in the workplace over time also provides an opportunity to glean insights from the past and look at the present with a broader perspective.

Many factors over the years, including wars, have ended up affecting workplace culture in different ways. Here are five shocking things that used to be acceptable at the office that will probably make any modern-day professional cringe.

1. Smoking and drinking at work

Yes, the Mad Men stereotypes are true. In the 1960s, drinking at the office was common. Veteran ad exec Della Femina, who was a rising force in the advertising industry during those years, told USA TODAY that “there was a tremendous amount of drinking.”

“Three-martini lunches were the norm,” he shared. “Bottles in desk drawers were not the exception but the rule. I had an open bar at the agency in which I kept 10 to 15 bottles of booze. Anyone at the agency could walk in and get it. Invariably, one or two guys would come in at 9 a.m., pour a shot and slug it down.”

And, as far as smoking goes, people filled ashtrays during meetings. Can you imagine your boss casually lighting up a cigarette in a conference room?

2. Working women were judged

World War II skyrocketed the percentage of women in the workforce. Before the war, women occupied roles in more traditionally female fields like nursing or teaching. But, with many of the men gone, the war transformed the types of positions available to women.

After the war, veterans returned and many women were forced out of the jobs they held. By then, a lot of them also had children, and they had a new sense of possibility around the types of opportunities available to them. More and more mothers started entering the workplace.

Yes, it was a good thing for the feminist movements that followed. But these women were judged harshly, and the popular preconception about working mothers was that they were “shortchanging” their families, according to historian Catherine Reef.

3. Perception of secretaries

In the early 1960s, secretarial schools were all the rage, with many women learning skills such as shorthand and typewriting to enter the workforce in clerical roles. But the term secretary now has a negative connotation and is considered offensive to use, as a lot of the feminized stereotypes associated with it grew during that era.

“It was hoped that they would one day rise to the top and actually become a secretary, graduating with honors from the typing pool and, who knows, one day marry their boss,” according to an article on retro work culture published in The Star.

“By the beginning of the 20th-century secretaries had become a bit of an icon. Girls wanted to be one and boys wanted to marry one. They were seen as ideal wife material.”

Secretaries were often perceived to be husband hunters or homewreckers. Kind of shocking to reflect on, especially since they were likely on the receiving end of gestures that would now be deemed sexual harassment.

4. Blatant sexism and sexual harassment

Speaking of which, the term sexual harassment didn’t become a thing until the 1970s-1980s. Discrimination based on gender was only made illegal in 1964 as part of the Civil Rights Act.

Sexist attitudes were rampant — popular opinions about women in positions of power tended to be negative, with workers feeling reticent about reporting to a female boss. And nobody would bat an eyelash at the sight of a cartoon of a woman sitting on her boss’ lap.

Quite shocking, but those things existed in the workplace before they became illegal, and they still exist now. They were just less disguised back then.

5. Corporate culture wasn’t really a thing

While companies now invest tons of resources in culture-building efforts, there was a time when corporate culture didn’t matter that much. Awareness of the concept of organizational culture only gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s, according to Investopedia.

Of course, the concept of a collective set of values and beliefs and how it informs the dynamics and character of a group was always there. It’s just that it wasn’t seen as an integral part of conducting business. Oh, how management has changed.