This company makes a comedy class part of onboarding

Peppercomm CEO Steve Cody says comedy improves company culture and helps retention.
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4 min read

A spotlight turns on. The whole room is looking at you. Your new boss sits front and center, waiting to see what you do next. The assignment? Make them laugh.

This may sound like a nightmare, but at Peppercomm, a New York-based public relations firm, every one of its 32 employees is required to participate in a comedy class—even the HR team. (More like the HA team, amirite?) According to the company’s CEO, as well as some research, this unusual onboarding activity has benefits for company culture and employee performance.

Taking the stage. Steve Cody, Peppercomm’s founder and CEO, loves to perform; he’s spent 13 years doing standup around New York. When Cody founded his company in 1995, he knew humor had to be part of the company culture, which is why taking a comedy class at a comedy club is part of every employee’s onboarding experience. Employees get the full New York City club experience. “I call it my Mrs. Maisel moment,” Tara Lilien, chief talent officer at Peppercomm, said. For three hours, employees are taught comedy fundamentals by Cody and his “chief comedy officer,” Clayton Fletcher, a professional standup comic.

At the end of class, each person gives a solo performance, lasting between one and three minutes, with instructions to showcase something about themselves, whether it’s something that brings them joy—or in Cody’s case, breaks their hearts (the Mets).

“A lot of times, people will share a personal story or something you wouldn’t have known about them,” Lilien said. “It’s a really nice connector, and then when they come back to the office, they have those callbacks.”

Cody added that there are parameters to keep things suitable for work. He said they abide by the motto, “when in doubt, leave it out.”
Not a joke. While the feat may sound terrifying at first, Cody said that employees get much more than a few laughs from the experience. “When you laugh, it stimulates the same endorphins in your brain as falling in love or eating chocolate,” he explained, saying that people connect deeper when they can laugh together.
And Peppercomm isn’t alone in making comedy part of work. The Second City Works is a corporate education program that helps businesses deploy comedy methods in their offices. “Comics teach the audience how to enjoy them in the first five minutes of their act…That often involves self-deprecation. Connections happen when someone shares their authentic self,” Kelly Leonard, executive director at Second City told SHRM.

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Lilien shared Leonard’s sentiments, explaining that it has broken down hierarchies that typically exist at many companies. “It builds relationships between managers and managees who go through it together,” Lilien said. “They have a greater understanding of each other and it builds a wonderful rapport that you wouldn’t normally have.”

Research has found time and again that laughter is good for people, and it may be just as important in a workplace setting, according to research from the University of Missouri. The 2017 study found a positive correlation between higher incidents of humor and increased job satisfaction.

When the lights go down. Investing in comedy as an onboarding task has a lasting ROI for employees and the company culture, Lilien told us. Peppercomm infuses certain aspects of improv into everyday tasks. For example, she explained that the “yes, and” improv technique guides internal meetings and new business presentations.

Lilien also credits the company’s positive talent retention with their focus on comedy onboarding, which continued remotely during the pandemic. “We were able to find moments of levity throughout these last three years [in the pandemic], because of our humor training that I think really benefited us and bonded us even more strongly as a team,” she said.
Know your audience. Cody and Lilien both said that despite the success of using comedy classes at Peppercomm, it’s not for every business. And that’s OK. HR leaders need to understand their senior leadership teams and culture before trying to deploy this type of onboarding activity. “If the CEO is not self-deprecating and authentic and open to owning a failure that he or she has made, it’s not going to take,” Cody explained.

Aaaaand, scene. —KP

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.