How to Improv Employment Law
How are human resources and employment law like improv comedy?
It may not seem like an obvious comparison, but that’s exactly what Suzanne Lucas, also known as the “Evil HR Lady” showcased at CBIA’s Nov. 2 Employment Law Conference.
The renowned writer, trainer, and speaker shared her unique perspectives, humor, and a little Swiss chocolate with the hundreds of people in attendance.
“When we are talking about real life, we improvise all the time,” she said. “We have our calendar all scheduled out. And then things go to hell in a handbasket.
“We’re going to talk about improv comedy as a skill.”
She explained that there are six key principles in improv:
- Yes, And
- Everything You Say Is Right
- You Don’t Have To Be Yourself
- Fail with Joy
“We’re going to apply these to employment law and HR,” she said.
Lucas said there are times when employees have questions or issues that have real, concrete answers, like “When do I get my paycheck?”
However she said sometimes, questions often require a more creative answer.
“In human resources and employment law, it’s always something different,” she said. “And it’s often something unexpected.”
That’s where the principle of Yes, And comes into play.
Lucas said in improv and comedy, Yes, And means “whatever happens, you have to agree and go forward.”
Lucas used the scenario of someone telling her she was holding a cat.
“Of course I’m holding a cat,” she said. “I am a middle-aged divorced HR woman. Of course, I have cats. Right? That’s just like a given.”
“What I can’t say is, ‘That’s not a cat. That’s a dog.’ I have to say, ‘Yes, this is a cat.’ And then I have to deal with it.”
She said for HR and employment law professionals, that concept is a key to success in dealing with people.
“You have to accept what they give you,” she said, even if you think it’s bad. “By saying the yes, you’re acknowledging their ideas.”
“When you Yes, And, you’re going to be able to help them move forward.”
The second principle Lucas highlighted was Service.
“What is it that we do in HR and employment law? We help other people,” she said. “That’s what we do.”
Lucas said it’s important to know when to ask questions, and when to make statements.
She used the example of an employee going to HR to discuss an issue with another employee, but says “I don’t want him to get in trouble.”
“If you ask a question, ‘then what would you like me to do?’ What happens? We’ve just placed that burden on the employee.”
She said that by using a statement, it takes the burden off the other person.
“When we are hit with a problem, we can do this act of service, and give solutions rather than asking questions,” she said.
“Our solutions can be things to help other people. Does it have to be the perfect solution at the perfect moment? Of course not.”
Everything You Say Is Right
Lucas said that is where the idea of Everything You Say Is Right applies.
“We don’t always have the right thing to say off the top of our heads at any moment,” she said. “But we can use our service to help.”
Lucas led several volunteers, encouraged to participate with offers of Swiss chocolate, in a game where each had to come up with five ideas on how to respond to different scenarios.
“There are ideas and you’re gonna say everything you say is right,” she said.
It didn’t matter if the ideas were good or bad, and Lucas led the audience in supporting the volunteers after each round.
“Why are we making all of us do that? Why am I making all of them come up here? Because I’m evil, right?” Lucas joked before adding: “The idea is to stretch your brain.”
“Sometimes the best idea that you have is going to be idea number one, and sometimes it’s going to be idea number five, and you don’t know until you’re pushing those boundaries.”
You Don’t Have To Be Yourself
When handling situations, Lucas stressed that you can be anyone you want.
“There’s this big movement going on this whole ‘bring your authentic self to work,’” she said.
“I would like to be watching television sitting on my couch, right? That’s my authentic self. I don’t want to bring my authentic self to work, I want to bring my best self to work.“
Lucas said it’s important for HR and employment law professionals to present themselves differently depending on the situation.
Whether it’s meeting with a CEO or firing an employee, she said what you project shouldn’t be dictated by how you feel.
“We have all had to terminate people that we were happy to see go, and we have all had to terminate people who we wish we didn’t,” she said.
“And we all need to treat them the same way. And so it’s up to us to forget our authentic emotions and to help.”
No matter what, Lucas said, things are certain to go wrong.
“We’re all going to fail,” she said. “Our options are to cry about it and to be miserable, or to laugh and move forward. Everything that goes bad makes a better story.”
The key, she said, is to fail with joy.
“When you fail, but you fail with joy, it makes the failure shorter,” she said.
“Instead of spending hours crying over what your mistake is, accept it. Yes, And your mistake. That happened, and now what?”
Lucas said it’s important to reach out to colleagues, because they will help.
She said it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a large department, or work alone, teamwork is key.
“Teamwork makes it better,” she said. “It will help us find solutions.”
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