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Two Guys Walk Into an Office

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To me, one of the most fundamental qualities of true work-life integration is the ability of employees to bring their authentic selves to work each day. Surely nothing can be more stultifying than the perceived requirement to park all personal feelings, passions and stories at the office door.

With this in mind, it seems only appropriate to honor National Work and Family Month with the account of a company that actively encourages its staff to share something absent from too many company cultures: a sense of humor. At Peppercomm, a strategic communications and public relations company, comedy is a job requirement.

Let me be clear. Hopeful candidates for jobs at Peppercomm don't have to be comedians. (In fact, notes Senior Director Sara Whitman, going out of your way to be funny during the application process is decidedly not the best way to get a foot in the door.) But they are screened for a sense of humor, simply because if they don't have one, they're not likely to fit in.

It all started when Managing Partner and Co-Founder Steve Cody was trying his hand at a little weekend stand-up. Professional comedian Clayton Fletcher emceed during Steve's debut at a New York club and afterward Steve approached him for some coaching. They started meeting weekly and gradually something strange happened. Steve realized that not only was he getting better at his comedy act, he was getting better at his day job. He was becoming a more productive, effective manager.

To Steve, the next step was obvious. He offered Clayton the job of Chief Comedy Officer at Peppercomm.

What's the connection between comedy and good business? Steve and Clayton can reel off a list. For starters, it's apparently a truism in the biz that there are four elements of good comedy: trust, authenticity, openness and teamwork. Sound familiar? Most of us in the "great company biz" would agree these are also key to a healthy workplace culture.

With that as a starting supposition, every Peppercomm employee "from the top brass all the way down to the summer interns" now goes through a 3-4 hour introductory training workshop in stand-up. As part of this, they nearly all take a turn standing in front of the group to share a personal anecdote. (Although the workshop is required, the mini-performance is not; nonetheless, participation is close to 100 percent -- even those who are reluctant at first "find their courage" when they see their co-workers take the stage, says Clayton.)

It turns out that sharing in front of the group like this doubles as a great teambuilding exercise. It also breaks down the inevitable silos of a busy organization, getting employees from different areas to connect and engage in meaningful communication. Plus, it builds presentation skills, not only because of the practice it gives in presenting, but because another vital element of stand-up is the ability to read and respond to your audience.

(Given the important role strong presentations play in bringing in new business, Clayton provides follow-up comedy training as needed, to both individuals and groups. Steve explains that sales presentations are customized to the perceived style and needs of the client, and not all are overtly funny. But if a team does decide to make a comic sales presentation, team members work with Clayton to prepare it.)

As every good business person knows, relationship-building is also key to winning and keeping clients. Here comedy plays a role, too. Says Steve, "Our people know how to build relationships based on making clients laugh. It's not just, 'how about those Giants?'"

Humor at Peppercomm goes beyond comedy training, however. The company works to infuse a sense of fun and irreverence into daily life at the office. Employees like to say they take their work seriously, but they don't take themselves seriously.

Thus the birth of Britain's Prince George was celebrated with a royal baby shower (celebrated across offices in London, San Francisco, and New York in real time via video, and featuring recitations of "royal baby" haikus). A training video on listening -- Peppercomm's tagline is "Listen. Engage. Repeat," and training is conducted on each of these elements -- features a vivid demonstration of how not to listen by New York office Partner and President, Ted Birkhahn. A traditional annual run features an ongoing and very public rivalry between supporters of Steve (Team Cody) and those of partner and senior director Jackie Kolek (Team Kolek). And so on.

Of course, humor, like a banana peel, can be slippery. In his training, Clayton makes clear that this is not about preparing for the midnight show at the local comedy club; in a business setting, certain common sense rules apply. It turns out that employees do an excellent job of policing themselves on this one, taking aside and talking down anyone who uses humor inappropriately. When a relatively new receptionist (who hadn't gone through the training) made an inappropriate joke in an email, two or three junior people approached him about it immediately. He sent an apology and that was that.

Fine, you say, but what does all this mean to Peppercomm? Besides crediting comedy for closing some big sales (at the end of one recent presentation, the prospective clients jumped to their feet in a standing ovation -- then sealed the deal), it's brought a great feeling to the office. Comparing Peppercomm to other businesses he visits, Clayton says, "There's laughter in the office every day, even during stressful times. There's a sense of teamwork, camaraderie, openness."

Sure enough, internal survey data show more than a twenty percent increase over three years in the number of employees saying they feel strongly committed to building their career at Peppercomm (comedy training was introduced about five years ago, but the company didn't start surveying employees until three years ago). Turnover is at 13 percent, in comparison to an industry average of 23 percent. And perhaps the most telling indicator is that other organizations are clamoring to get in on the fun -- the "Comedy Experience" is now among Peppercomm's client services.

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