When Do Games in Employee Training Cross the Line?

From labor disputes cases to labor and employment publications, for your research, you’ll find solutions on Bloomberg Law®. Protect your clients by developing strategies based on Litigation...

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Spicing up employee training with games can make the education more effective and fun, but what if the games cross the line of appropriateness?

The question arises from promotional materials by San Diego, Calif.-based AdVenture Games, which offers a game called “Office Escape Room.” “Your team thinks they are signed up for a one-hour motivational seminar in a conference room. What they don’t realize is once they enter the room, they will be locked inside and given 60 minutes to develop a plan, uncover solutions and get out,” the company said Jan. 5.

Whether a situation like that is, as AdVenture Games says, “a thrilling mental game of discovery that will test and build participants’ skills” may be a matter of opinion, but could it pose a risk to morale or even a liability risk?

“Planning any team building activity alone can be risky,” Chad Michael, founder of AdVenture Games, told Bloomberg BNA in a Jan. 6 e-mail. “The financial investment of the activity combined with removing your team from the workforce for the afternoon needs to have a beneficial return.”

He said his company’s experiences with the programs lead to the conclusion that “the element of surprise mixed with theatrics, diced with humor is a highly-effective tool to capture the interest of our participants. Though the idea of locking your team in a room leaving them to their own devices to get out might sound risky; or kidnapping your CEO and asking your colleagues to find him might sound like a recipe for disaster; when done correctly, the activity comes as a welcomed surprise from a long day of meetings on the agenda.”

Need for Balance

Although not commenting on these specific ideas, HR consultants and others argue for a balanced approach. “Games are a great way to teach at any level, usually because they stimulate many senses, provide fun (and therefore attention) and generate personal interaction,” Bill Goodspeed, a former corporate executive who has penned a satire about the business world, told Bloomberg BNA in a Jan. 9 e-mail. “Some examples I’ve used include scavenger hunts in new cities (team competition), cooking contests, a logistics board game (The Beer Game), re-building Lego models and building kites or boats. These are all very appropriate.”

Keep it relevant, Mike Kerr of Humor at Work, a Calgary, Canada-based company, told Bloomberg BNA in a Jan. 9 e-mail. “In a corporate setting the best training games are ones where the participants have a clear understanding of why they are doing the game, and even more importantly, what the intended purpose or lessons from the games are. A thorough debriefing post-training can make all the difference between success and failure.”

You might even want to avoid calling it a game. “I would advise any corporate human resources manager not to use the word ‘games’ in describing a management training program aimed at improving productivity, communication, morale, etc.,” Steve Cody, co-Founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a New York City-based strategic communications firm, told Bloomberg BNA in a Jan. 10 e-mail. “The word immediately suggests light, frivolous and, ultimately, useless content.”

The employer’s goal should be to give employees “skills they can readily apply to their jobs immediately after the training,” he said.

Employers should avoid activities that:

  •  “Involve physical contact or are too social, such as excessive drinking,” Goodspeed said. “These could lead to inappropriate behavior and offended employees.”
  •  Don’t have a clear link to a business purpose. “Tenuous links that are too far fetched can be greeted with major eye rolling and cynicism!” Kerr said.
  •  Involve “humor that could be perceived as sexist, political or racist in nature,” Kerr said.
  •  Result “in someone feeling like they were publicly embarrassed or humiliated in front of their peers,” Kerr said. “This can happen through role-playing scenarios that end up veering off course or training games where people are called upon to perform or take part in some outrageous behavior in front of their peers.” Don’t force people to participate, he said.
If you’re not sure whether something is appropriate, err on the side of caution and assume it’s not, Peppercomm’s Chief Comedy Officer, Clayton Fletcher, told Bloomberg BNA in a Jan. 10 e-mail.

“We’ve had tremendous success building teamwork, morale, and storytelling skills using techniques like the ‘one-word story,’ in which a group works together to build a coherent and complete narrative with each participant contributing only one word at a time,” and teaching employees how to write and perform (appropriate) stand-up comedy, Fletcher said. “These exercises are much more effective in creating a healthy corporate culture than falling backwards into each other’s arms or carrying an egg across the room on a spoon could ever hope to be.”

Caution must be your byword in today’s sensitive environment. “Be careful of watching the line between fun competition and overly aggressive competition that might fuel unintended consequences or result in animosity between participants back in their workplace,” Kerr said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Labor & Employment on Bloomberg Law