Five Career Lessons From 'Friends'

Lizard Friends

There was a time in my life when I used to schedule my dates on a Friday night at 6.30pm in order to be home for the latest episode of Friends at 8pm.

The staff at my neighborhood haunt, Notting Grill, would smile knowingly at my routine, presenting the check the moment my dining partner placed down his fork. The befuddled lad would inevitably wonder out aloud, as I skillfully ushered him out onto the street, why he wasn’t so much as offered the pudding menu.

Yes, such was my addiction to the show and the restaurant staff were only too happy to oblige as my enablers.

Friends has been off the air for some time – which makes me about ten years late in writing this – but sometimes a seriously random occurrence can get you full-swing reminiscing again. In my case, it was a monosyllabic, peroxide blonde Swiss DJ over New Year’s Eve in Davos, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the show’s Gunther, that did it.

Much like Mash and Seinfeld before it, Friends became firmly embedded in both the American and British psyche influencing popular culture and interpersonal dynamics. Interestingly, the show also presented plotlines with career lessons we could all take away.

Here’s my top five, leading up to number one:

5. The One Where Chandler Follows His Career Bliss (making a career switch when you’re more ‘mature’)

Chandler: I’ll just get my old job back.

Monica: No, I want you to have a job that you love. Not statistical analysis and data reconfiguration.

Chandler: I quit, and you learn what I do ?

After years of plodding through a fairly mundane job, Chandler decides to make a risky mid-career industry move into something he may be more passionate about, but that means he’d need to start at the bottom again. He battles it out with a group of young interns all vying for the one prized paid position at an advertising agency. Initially struggling with the task of coming up with a slogan for a new pair of sneakers aimed at a youth market, he uses his age and experience to come up with an ingenious slogan that leaves the competition in dust.

Intern: … and then, at the end of the commercial, the girls get out of the hot tub and start making out with each other!

Boss: (ironic) That’s interesting! Just one thought: You didn’t mention the shoes. Who’s next? (Chandler raises his hand) Chandler…

Chandler: Okay… (He stands up) You start on the image of a guy putting on the shoes. He’s about my age…

Intern: (snorting) Your age ?

Chandler: A-huh. So he’s rolling down the street and he starts to lose control, you know… maybe he falls… maybe hurts himself. Just then, a kid comes flying by wearing the shoes. He jumps over the old guy and laughs, and the line reads: “Not suitable for adults!”

Boss: Chandler, that’s great!

Chandler: Oh, thank you, sir… or man-who’s-two-years-younger-than-me (He sits down again)

Granted he came up with the slogan after injuring himself while wearing the sneakers during the assignment, the result? He lands the job of junior copywriter when he only expected to receive an assistant position.

Sometimes maturity (life experience) can still trump youth.

4. The One Where Ross Dates His Student (inappropriate workplace relationships)

Monica: Well, Ross, you be careful now. You don’t want to get a reputation as, you know, ‘Professor McNails-his-students.’

According to research, more than seven out of 10 professionals say they’re open to dating at work under the right circumstances.

Dating someone you work with certainly has its advantages and I know several happy couples who’ve met while working together, but chances are it may pose a greater risk to your professional reputation – especially if there is a hierarchical relationship in place (whether it’s professor-student in Ross’s case or between a supervisor-supervisee).

You may need to report the romance to the human resources department, according to Helaine Olen, co-author Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding and Managing Romance on the Job, quoted in this Forbes article.In so doing, the supervisor should volunteer to take the hit if the company decides the pair should no longer work together.”

Uh oh – that budding, illicit office romance doesn’t sound quite as thrilling anymore, does it ? Also consider the fact that it would be almost impossible to plan vacations at the same time, especially if you’re working in the same department or for a small company.

There’s a rather crude British expression advising against amorous workplace relations – but I’m much too coy to type it.

3. The One Where Rachel Returns After Maternity Leave (returning to work after an extended absence)

Rachel: What do you mean, you’re taking over my job.

Gavin: Well, while you were on your baby vacation, I was 'doing' your job.

Mr. Zelner: When you left us, we weren’t sure what we were going to do. But then, Gavin to the rescue! Super Gavin!

Rachel: Well, that’s great, that’s great. So, now, uh, Super Gavin, when I come back, where do you plan on flying off to ?

Gavin: Well, that’s up to Mr. Zelner. I’m sure he’ll make the right decision.

Rachel [under her breath]: Oh, wow, Super Ass Kissing Power.

Legally, under the Family Medical Leave Act ('FMLA'), a woman who returns from maternity leave must be placed in the same job or an “equivalent” position. An equivalent position is a job having the same or similar pay, hours, work performed, work conditions, job responsibilities and job security.

But what if you’re competing against an aspiring co-worker who has used your absence (whether it’s maternity leave, a sabbatical etc.) to muscle his way into your role and the boss’s good books? This can be avoided – and I know that I stand the risk of drawing the wrath of new moms with this one – by simply staying in the game. Here’s two ways in which you can do this: Meet a colleague for coffee or lunch at the tail end of your leave to catch up on latest developments. This gives you the kind of workplace intel that wouldn’t show up in group e-mails and may give you the edge when you’re back at your desk. Contact your line manager several weeks before your scheduled return date to discuss your transition back into the role. You may even consider dialing in for important project meeting-calls around a week or two prior to your return date, even if you don’t actively participate in the discussion itself.

2. The One Where Monica Fires Joey (how to gain the respect of colleagues)

Monica: Okay, could the waiters gather around to hear tonight’s specials ? Okay, first, there’s, uh, Chilean Sea Bass, prepared with a mango relish, on a bed … why is nobody writing these down ?

Waiter: Because we can remember them.

Monica: And because you’re all going to make up fake specials, and make me cook them like you did the other night ?

Waiter: Well, sure, that too.

Monica is being treated shoddily by her new co-workers so she hires Joey just so she can fire him and show them that she could be a tough boss.

While co-opting a colleague to be part of your ruse to gain one-upmanship does offer comedic value (and a story to share with mates), it may be a bit drastic. Besides, the effect of one dramatic action to instantly gain respect would be ephemeral. It is far better to work over a period of time on gaining credibility through your actions and attitude, being an active listener, being someone who is true to their word (“Nothing worse than a hypocrite,” a friend recently reminded me) to truly earn the respect of colleagues.

And how to deal with undermining comments from colleagues in a day and age when the majority of our workplace communication (read: drama) takes place via e-mail or IMs ?

According to Frances Cole Jones, author of The Wow Factor: The 33 Things You Must (and Must Not) Do to Guarantee Your Edge in Today’s Business World, “If you feel the offending colleague is using e-mail or other technology to wage his war, send a note saying, ‘I’d prefer to discuss this in person. What time works for you ?’” she suggests. “You will be surprised how few people respond.”

And in number one place, the ‘top’ Friends lesson as it relates to career (sort of):

1. The One Where Rachel Chooses Ross (it’s just a job, not your life)

Ross: Oh my God! Did she get off the plane ? Did she get off the plane ?

Rachel: I got off the plane.

In this final Friends moment, between choosing a prestigious job of a lifetime in Paris which will take her away from the love of her life, Rachel ultimately chooses Ross.

I’m going to get a bit schmaltzy on you now, but as much as your career gives you satisfaction and validation, at the end of the day, it is only one component of your life. In the New York Times article, The Island Where People Forget To Die, the writer concludes that social connectivity is one of the pivotal links to contentment and life longevity. “For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose or religion out of the picture, the foundation for long healthy lives collapses. The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices.”

Cultivate meaningful relationships with family and friends because – and you know what’s coming next… they’ll be there for you, even when the rain starts to pour.

This article first appeared in Forbes magazine: Five Career Lessons From 'Friends'

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