The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to not offend your co-workers and lose your job

Known for shows by comedy’s best, such as a 1974 performance by Joe Flaherty and Gilda Radner, Second City also runs an organization that offers professional services. (Second City)
Placeholder while article actions load

In a large conference room in a suburban Dallas office park, three dozen employees of an American manufacturing company are standing in a circle, tossing around a bunch of imaginary balls.

Some are red, they are told — others are aqua, yellow or green. But before long the balls turn into “dirty tissues,” “dead roaches” and even a “sleeping baby.” Each time a staffer “catches” an imaginary item, he or she is supposed to say what it is and then say “thank you,” but the niceties are drowned out by laughter over the seemingly nonsensical exercise.

The game, which comes from improvisational theater, is part of an anti-harassment corporate training workshop. It’s an opening exercise in a program to create respectful workplaces that is run by Second City Works, the professional services arm of the famous improv comedy empire.

The red ball exercise was developed in Chicago in the early 1900s by a social worker named Viola Spolin. Her son would go on to co-found Second City, the acting and comedy training ground and home to live shows where John Belushi, Steve Carell and Tina Fey cut their teeth. It is meant to teach a focus on body language (it takes concentration to keep up with all those fanciful flying objects), an acknowledgment of other people and a heightened awareness of behavior, such as automatically retracting from the delivery of an imaginary used Kleenex.

Why sexual harassment training doesn’t stop harassment

“How often did you react and think, ‘Oh, I wish I could have held onto my emotions just a little bit more,’ ” asks one of the facilitators, Rachel Miller, who occasionally performs with Second City. “That’ll be part of our discussions today: Having that awareness of how unconsciousness can come forward in times that maybe don’t best serve us.”

Second City Works, which was established in 2002, today counts companies such as Uber, Hyatt and Dow Chemical as clients. Over the past five years, the group says, its client base has grown by 40 percent. It says more than 600 clients over the past year have used its services, such as short training films or customized workshops on topics like communication, teamwork and collaboration. Second City’s overall annual revenue tops $50 million. The organization says the corporate training arm “represents a significant and growing revenue stream” within its portfolio.

Since earlier this year, it has also been adding “respectful workplace” programs to its on-site repertoire and creating anti-harassment videos for clients. Both are aimed at curbing misconduct and fostering the kind of cultures where harassment or bullying may be, at the least, less likely to happen.

In one video short that calls to mind “The Office,” a boss uses a biased term that a team keeps inadvertently repeating, with sound effects bleeping it out. In another, a group of co-workers stand by gossiping while an employee hits on a new staffer, but don’t take any action. While they may not be “Saturday Night Live”-level hilarious, the production quality and lack of awkward, groan-inducing story lines stand out compared with other stiff or poorly acted corporate training videos.

As the #MeToo movement shows no signs of abating, the Chicago-based comedy empire believes a little humor, combined with teaching corporate employees how to think with an improviser’s empathy, could help fix one of the most serious problems in today’s workplace culture.

But that’s only if corporate America doesn’t get too nervous about bringing in a group that is well-known for improv comedy to address such a delicate topic. Few of the clients Second City queried to speak with a reporter about the anti-harassment workshops were willing to be interviewed or identified.

One company that was just days from hosting a respectful workplace training session canceled after executives decided they needed to know more about whether it might appear insensitive. Steve Johnston, president of Second City, said, “Obviously, there’s nothing funny about this subject matter whatsoever, and we’re not trying to approach it from that standpoint.” He added that, “In our experience, very few companies are comfortable going on the record to discuss harassment training, no matter the vendor’s approach.”

Google and Facebook ended forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims. Why more companies could follow.

But by combining lessons on what improvisers call being ­“others-focused,” the powerful role of “bystanders” who witness harassment and a little bit of humor, it may help the message sink in, said Kelly Leonard, the executive director for insights and applied improvisation at Second City Works.

“What we do know is comedy is an extremely effective tool if you want to talk about taboo subject matter, if you want to break down social barriers and if you want to connect people,” he said.

Research supports that idea, said Caty Borum Chattoo, a professor at American University who is working on a book about the role of comedy in dealing with social justice issues.

“Comedy, because we experience positive emotions with it, can allow us to contemplate issues differently,” she said. “It acts as an acceptable form of social critique without being defensive.”

For most comedians, of course, sexual harassment training has been a punchline — not a profit line. Ellen DeGeneres once asked her audience to guess whether a creepy script was pulled from a sexual harassment training video or a late-night adult cable movie. Carell interrupted a presentation on harassment in an episode of “The Office” with a topless inflatable doll. Cecily Strong’s “Saturday Night Live” sketch featuring “Claire from H.R.” spoofed the absurdity of harassment know-how that workplaces still have to teach.

Yet some are trying to change that image. Earlier this year, a campaign by the Ad Council and RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) proved that videos about sexual harassment don’t have to be cringeworthy. The short video PSAs, written and directed by Sigal Avin and executive produced by Avin, David Schwimmer and Mazdack Rassi, depict cases based on real events that show credible nuances of what constitutes harassment. Several groups, from tech companies to academic institutions, have licensed the films for training, according to the Ad Council.

Meanwhile, amid fears about reputational and legal damage, companies have been expanding their efforts at sexual harassment training. A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management released in January found 32 percent of organizations made changes to their sexual harassment prevention training in the past year, and an additional 22 percent planned to make changes this year.

The TED talks empire has been grappling with sexual harassment

One result is that more companies are going beyond the standard legal training and choosing to address the underlying office dynamics that can give rise to unreported harassment or toxic environments.

Over the past year, said Brian Kropp, vice president of the human resources group at research firm Gartner, he’s seen a big shift. “Before, when it came to harassment training, companies would bring in employment lawyers or their outside counsel, and the purpose was to prevent the company from being sued and minimizing the legal exposure,” Kropp said. “Now what companies are saying is that the purpose of the training is to create a better environment.”

With low unemployment and increased transparency through websites like Glassdoor, he said, it’s easier for human resource departments to build a case that cultural training is worth the investment.

Some of the interest may stem from a widely cited report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016, which recommended companies explore bystander training and broader workplace “civility” training rather than just running compliance sessions. Last October, the EEOC launched a training program on respectful workplaces, and said 9,000 employees participated during the first year.

How #MeToo is reshaping employment contracts

Second City’s on-site workshops fall squarely into this camp. Johnston is careful to say they’re not designed to replace legal compliance training — defining what constitutes sexual harassment or explaining corporate policies about reporting — but to serve as a complement. It focuses on the “importance of being a bystander and advocating for colleagues when you see that there are things that are going wrong,” he said.

In fact, only a small portion of the program directly discusses sexual harassment, and very little involves the kind of acting and performing that many people think of when they hear the phrase “improv comedy.”

“We often have to get over the hurdle of people thinking, ‘Uh-oh, I’m at an improv workshop and I’m going to have to perform and have to be funny,’ ” Miller said.

Rather, Second City’s facilitators help attendees think more like improvisers, getting them into the minds of their teammates and more aware of the unintended impact that their body language or words may have.

An exercise called “What I’m Hearing is . . .” helps people rethink the way they listen to colleagues describe a problem; another called “Sit, Stand, Lean” examines how body language and positioning affects our sense of power and status.

Another one is called “Gibberish Cocktail Party,” where certain people are supposed to pretend to not like being touched during a greeting.

Sex Harrassment Inc.: The #MeToo movement is sparking a wave of start-ups

“It is a very light lift on improvisation,” said Butch Jerinic, another Second City facilitator who co-ran the Dallas meeting, to the group. “You’re going to work in small groups, in pairs, and as an entire group just to try on the skills that make us successful onstage.”

One company that hasn’t yet hired Second City Works for the training is Dow Chemical, but it has had them help up-and-coming leaders think about communication differences across cultures and develop inspirational speaking skills.

John Kolmer, who heads Dow’s leadership development, liked that the group has “a cache about them; people are familiar with Second City.” But “more important than that, what we find is real growth — real development — takes place when you’re out of your comfort zone.” Their sessions’ training involved putting together an improvised infomercial for a product, as well as other improv exercises. Employees “discover there’s no judgment — we’re all feeling just as wacky throwing out imaginary red balls.”

Taking a broad approach to ­anti-harassment training could be helpful, said Eden King, a professor at Rice University who has studied diversity programs, at a time when we still know very little about what makes sexual harassment training effective. “We know [from research] that taking the perspective of someone else is a way to increase empathy, so that may be effective,” she said. She also pointed to research that has shown “bystander” training to work with college students, which could apply here.

Shannon Rawski, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh’s business school, said it’s a good idea for employees not to be asked to play negative roles.

If training “puts people into the role of harasser or victim when they play out that scene, the training itself might be a harassing experience,” she said. Her research has shown that people feel threatened even in lecture-style training about sexual harassment if they’re only offered those negative roles, prompting a backlash that can include being less able to recognize policy violations or an increase in behaviors like telling sexual jokes.

Second City’s Leonard said the goal of its program isn’t to put people into performance scenes but to “give you the tools to be more improvisational in the moment,” he says.

“What we know about behavior change is it doesn’t work like that,” he says. “It’s a much smaller nudge. And if we can be the nudgers to get people — half that room to behave better, and the other half to be able to call out [bad] behavior — I think we’ll have done God’s work.”