Suits is a popular TV series about a New York Law firm. You may know it as a series with a lot of legal ingenuity and political intrigue, but if you look closely, it’s also a great source of career insights. What assumptions does Suits make about careers? And what are their implications on career development for individuals and organizations?
What do we observe in Suits?
- Everybody is projecting an image of success at all times. In the series, success is defined by :
- The speed at which you reach partner status in the pyramidal structure of Pearson and Hardman. Being a partner is of course not possible for everyone, and the competition between Harvey Spector and Louis Litt is excruciatingly fierce.
- The degree to which you fill the expectations of others: paralegal Rachel Zane is constantly living under the burden of trying to please her father and pursues a Harvard Law degree so she can step into his footsteps.
- The location and fitting of your office. Harvey is extremely proud of his corner office – it has many windows – on the top floor, with a thick carpet and all sorts of trophies, like the record collection and the signed basketballs, all designed to impress visitors.
- Wearing the right suit. On Mike’s first day, Harvey sends Mike to his personal tailor because: “People respond to the image I project and you are a reflection of me”.
- Focus is on performance all the time. Both newcomers and more senior staff always have to be on top of their game, no room for slip ups. Loyalty is not rewarded, as Donna finds out when this senior employee, who has covered Harvey’s back for years, makes a mistake and is fired by Harvey as a result. Both regret the situation, but both also accept the separation as the only possible outcome.
- Employees are available for the firm 24/7. Not an episode goes by without Mike and/or Rachel pulling an all-nighter and sleeping in the office.
- Pearson and Hardman operates in a VUCA world, constantly adapting to the expectations of customers and the competition, resulting in a merge with a UK law firm, Darby international, and a restructuring.
Wat is the image of work and a career that is projected in Suits?
Mirvis & Hall (1994) can be of help in trying to understand what is going on in Suits. The authors describe how our thinking about careers has shifted over the years. In order to be able to discuss career choices, we rely on a number of assumptions about career success and what a career looks like in general. The authors describe two different career models:
- a traditional one, with a psychological contract based on loyalty in return for stability and
- a more contemporary one where the deal between employer and employee is one of performance in exchange for constant development and employability.
The traditional career
In the traditional model, for most people, the career is about persevering in a stable role, in the same company. Loyalty in employees is valued and job security is the reward. In terms of career success, objective career success is the norm: pursuing what others consider as being successful: the top job, the big car, the large office. Climbing the ladder is what everybody considers as being successful, but only a few can actually achieve this. Climbing that ladder is partly about waiting for the senior employee to take pension leave and thus opening up a position for the next person in line, usually the employee with the most seniority. Individual careers are managed by the organization.
The contemporary career
More recent career models show a different approach to the notion of career success. Success is considered to be more subjective and has to do with experiencing a general feeling of well-being in the job and career. Career conversations are about talent, motivation, and energy. The psychological contract has changed and exchanges performance for employability. Loyalty is out of the picture: employees are not loyal to one organization anymore and organizations hold the prerogative to let go of employees who do not perform. In this model, careers have become a negotiation between employer and employee. Careers are not managed by the organization anymore but rather facilitated. This means that employees take responsibility for their own career success and actively self-manage their careers. Employees find themselves in a position where a choice can turn out to be the wrong one, negatively impacting feelings of success and well-being. The new career model thus, involves some risk.
What does this tell us about career assumptions in Suits?
We could see Suits as a mixture of both career models, combining the most negative aspects of both and thus creating a rather exhausting and daunting image of what a career is like:
- Objective career success from the traditional model
- High paced focus on performance of the contemporary model
So what we see in Suits is people in a fast-moving environment, always connected and available, trying to outperform everybody else, with little to no attention for intrinsic motivation. Job insecurity is the norm and individual employees are fully accountable for how their career evolves. What an image to feed young professionals…
What can we take away?
- Both organizations and individuals benefit from a clear and common view on what a career is. What model do we adopt when we talk about the topic of careers in our organization?
- Current VUCA realities make a traditional career outlook impossible to maintain, even if we do value security and loyalty. The contemporary outlook seems more applicable when dealing with the organizational and individual challenges of today.
- A career is a marathon and not a sprint, contrary to the image that is projected in Suits. A sustainable career approach – one you can maintain for a long time, the marathon so to speak -uses subjective career success as a guideline for self-exploration and as a topic for career conversations with management. By drawing on intrinsic motivation, positive individual energy levels are secured.
- If success is subjective, shared accountability for the career follows naturally. This means: organizations actively facilitating careers built on subjective career success, a solid learning development offering, coaching, the possibility to explore other roles within or even outside of the organization,… and employees developing self-management in the career.
And what about your company?
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Mirvis, P. H., & Hall, D. T. (1994). Psychological Success and the Boundaryless Career. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15, 365-380.