Image: RealBiz Shorts
The quick videos can be described as “The Office” meets YouTube meets your annual Business Ethics 101 seminar.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/11/2010 8:35:02 AM ET 2010-06-11T12:35:02

The video opens with a grinning, gray-suited boss announcing that a business bonanza is within reach. But closing the deal, he tells staffers, may require — wink, wink — cutting some ethical corners. His tone turns grim.

“If you see any suspicious or non-compliant activity, you’ve got to tell somebody,” he lectures. His smile slowly returns. “And I’m just telling you guys this because legal’s saying I’ve got to!” The workers giggle. The boss grows serious again. Employees who spot any improprieties, he explains, must call the whistleblower hotline. He lifts his notepad to reveal that number: “1-800-RAT-FINK.”

Funny? Familiar? If you answer “yes” to one or both, the folks at Second City Communications are smiling, too. SCC, the business arm of the Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe, is set to launch about 40 humorous videos that stomp into a delicate, even dour business area: ethics and compliance training.

Indeed, “RealBiz Shorts” seem to be hitting a ready, perhaps even hungry, corporate market still roiling from financial industry scandals exposed by Wall Street's 2008 near-meltdown and now abuzz with allegations of questionable actions by BP before and during the Gulf oil spill.

At a cost of $25,000 for a one-year license, the clips will be shown in July to workers at 12 U.S. companies including Best Buy, Dow Chemical and MasterCard. More than 80 other companies have inquired about licensing the library, said SCC’s CEO Tom Yorton.

“That tells me it’s an underserved category,” Yorton said. “It tells me it’s a high-stakes topic (and) that people in charge of these companies want other ways of doing it. ... It seemed, to us, like there was an opportunity to address some of these issues in a more engaging way than the (training programs) out there now.”

The quick videos — which can be embedded in presentations, placed on an intranet, e-mailed to workers or pushed to mobile devices — can be described as “The Office” meets YouTube meets your annual Business Ethics 101 seminar. The sketches star Second City comics.

The first 12 companies to use the shorts also served as the product’s “founding partners,” helping to devise and script the content, including satirical looks at workplace favoritism, sales rep scare tactics and the fudging of quarterly numbers. But Yorton admits mixing comedy and ethics training is a precarious proposition.

“Where is the line drawn?” Yorton asked. “For us, it’s about making issues accessible vs. making light of the issue.”

The delicacy of SCC’s balancing act became clear when msnbc.com requested interviews with several of the product’s “founding partners.” Garrett W. Reich, head of ethics and business conduct at MillerCoors, initially agreed to talk about “RealBiz Shorts.” Five hours after Reich consented, however, the MillerCoors “communications team” decided Reich should not do the interview because they didn’t “want him getting out in front on this,” said Michael Tirrell, a spokesman for SCC. Later, during an msnbc.com phone interview with Best Buy’s chief ethics officer Kathleen Edmond, Best Buy’s head of corporate publications, Susan Busch, sat in on the call.

“I’m not surprised,” said Lauren Bloom, a business-ethics speaker, consultant and blogger based in Springfield, Va. “From a PR standpoint, companies don't want the public to see them taking ethics lightly. From a liability standpoint, companies are worried that their participation in something fun can be interpreted by juries as evidence that they laugh at ethics.”

Such hesitancy — even among two of the product’s founding partners — highlights the tall task SCC faces in selling a comedy-based tool to folks who work in a legally sensitive area.

“I think they may have some trouble,” Bloom said of SCC’s sales prospects. “But if people have the good sense to look at it and (if they) see there are good ethical principles underlying the good fun, it will be wildly successful."

Bloom said she had not yet viewed the videos but said humor is "a great way to increase retention."

“I love the concept,” she added. “It’s a serious subject. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take a light approach to it.”

A lawyer and litigator herself, Bloom was asked whether companies could potentially increase their legal liability by using humor to instruct employees on business ethics.

“Companies ultimately get more points for having chosen to train than not,” Bloom said. “What I would say to a client if they were looking at this: ‘Get it, use it, train your people, and if it turns out that this becomes an issue in court, then we’ll have to have an answer ready.’ ”

And what would be the best answer for a potential jury?

“You tell them, ‘I took ethics and compliance so seriously that I spent $25,000 on it,’ ” Bloom said.

Companies are actually more at risk, contends SCC’s Yorton, if they “play it safe” and use training programs that are deemed “appropriate but which are unwatchable.”

“Some of the (training) that’s out there is stiff and wooden and it feels artificial,” Yorton said. “Ironically, that is the least safe thing you can do.”

At Best Buy, Edmond said her first job as ethics chief is to engage with the company’s 180,000 employees around the world, to get them listening and talking about ethical nuances “in ways that aren’t meant to be irreverent but (that are) relevant.”

Edmond said SCC’s humor-laced videos meld perfectly with her own edgy communications style. She has long written a public blog about business ethics and compliance. In it, she shares real-world missteps with her Best Buy co-workers, teaching them how to navigate gray areas, and prompting internal dialogue. The blog even caused some of her colleagues to launch “a betting pool on how long I’d stay employed,” she acknowledged.

Often ethics and compliance lectures “can be dry, can be repetitive,” Edmond said. “I mean there are only so many different ways you can say something. ... My role is to really push the edge and help us keep fresh.”

Yet Edmond sees the video series as merely an additive to a company’s existing training.

“It will be a tool that companies can use very effectively if they build other messaging around it,” Edmond said. “If you expect these little vignettes to be your ethics program, I think you’ll be sorely disappointed.”

To that point, SCC’s sales materials dub “RealBiz Shorts” as merely “an ingredient — the special sauce that can help make your existing programming more effective.”

But the business wing of the comedy institution has not abandoned its core values, Yorton said. In each clip, Second City writers and actors still aim, he said, to bring “the funny.”

“It’s almost like TV ratings,” Yorton said. “You’ve got to find a way to win an audience. And just pushing content at them is no guarantee that it’s going to do any good.”

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