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Mary Tyler Moore Taught Us One of the Best Employment Discrimination Lessons

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations

MTMMary Richards’ job interview with Lou Grant is, perhaps one of the most famous job interviews ever. So says Time magazine.

Before I go on, though, there are probably more than a few of you who don’t know what I’m talking about.

But with the passing of Mary Tyler Moore earlier today here in Connecticut, I was reminded of an early exchange from her television show that was included in an employee training seminar I did for employers many years ago.  It was used as an example (with humor) of what NOT to do in a job interview as a supervisor and there were many in the audience who remembered that television show.

I haven’t been able to find the actual video online – but YouTube does have a remake of the job interview featuring cartoons.  And you can get a sense of the dialogue elsewhere.

First, you have the supervisor (Lou) asking Mary what her age was. (Sigh.) To compound matters, he then asks what her religion is. (Double sigh.)

But this is where the show was groundbreaking — Mary doesn’t just respond.  She’s a “modern woman” (as The New York Times called her) and tells him: “I don’t know quite how to tell you this, but you’re not allowed to ask that question when someone is applying for a job. It’s against the law.”  He pushes back — “You gonna call the cops?” To which, Mary demurs.

And the interview continues with personal questions including whether she was married (she was not).  Then Mary stands up and calls him out for asking so many questions that have nothing to do with the job.

Lou responds in a classic line: “You’ve Got Spunk.”  Of course, he then says he hates “spunk” but this was the early 1970s and she was still hired.

It was groundbreaking television.  As NPR reported from an interview Ed Asner (who played Lou), that moment was critical: “It was the most powerful moment in theater I’ve had, because she played it so beautifully,” Asner told NPR in 2001. “The audience was going ‘oh-goo-goo’ at that moment.”

A few years ago, Time Magazine — in calling this show’s pilot one of the 10 best of all time — noted that it really formed the foundation of the workplace-as-family sitcom that so many other shows tried to copy.

As a child of the 70s and 80s, Mary Tyler Moore stood out to me because, well, she kinda seemed like my mom who was already in the workplace. Growing up, I didn’t see it as that unusual.

But now with the hindsight of history, all employment lawyers can point to Mary Tyler Moore as giving workplace issues their rightful place. And for a generation of women, Mary Tyler Moore represented more than just a television show.  She represented them.

Proper hiring procedures are still a topic we’re talking about today and I’ll be presenting on the topic next month.  Maybe it’s time I bring back the Mary Tyler Moore reference.  Watch for details soon.

Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore.

(Due to an editing error (and spell check) an early version of this post referred to her character as Mary Roberts; it is obviously Mary Richards.)