Sec­ond City mixes laughs, train­ing for em­ploy­ees

Sec­ond City, the famed com­edy troupe, has its own work­place anti-ha­rass­ment train­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JENA MCGRE­GOR

Be “oth­ers-fo­cused”: See what mat­ters to the other per­son and make your­self avail­able in the mo­ment

Try lis­ten­ing to un­der­stand, rather than lis­ten­ing to re­spond

Start con­ver­sa­tions with “what I’m hear­ing is . . .” to make sure you’re un­der­stand­ing oth­ers

“No” ex­ists for a rea­son, but im­pro­vis­ers try “yes, and” when re­spond­ing to oth­ers’ ideas

Have a height­ened sense of your sta­tus, pos­ture and phys­i­cal­ity — your au­di­ence will read your body lan­guage

Try to see other peo­ple as they see them­selves, not as you think they want to be seen

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 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.

“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 un­con-

scious­ness 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 on­site reper­toire and cre­at­ing an­ti­ha­rass­ment 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.”

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 knowhow 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 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.

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 work­places, and said 9,000 em­ploy­ees par­tic­i­pated dur­ing the first year.

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 “Gib­ber32 ish Cock­tail Party,” where cer­tain peo­ple are sup­posed to pre­tend to not like be­ing touched dur­ing a greet­ing.

“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-and­com­ing 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 ha­rass­re­spect­ful ment 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.”

“What we do know is com­edy is an ex­tremely ef­fec­tive tool if you want to talk about taboo sub­ject mat­ter.” Kelly Leonard, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for in­sights and ap­plied im­pro­vi­sa­tion at Sec­ond City Works


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.

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