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Tower Records Uses Games To Boost Training Results

October 1, 1998
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Human game pieces? Dice that are three feet tall? A life-sized game board? Is this a scene from Alice in Wonderland? No, it’s Tower Records’ unique way of training its managerial staff on the legal issues of hiring, firing and disciplining.

Played like an enormous board game, and using questions from such categories as "Preventing Sexual Harassment" and "Reducing Workplace Violence," the game is an adapted version of the Littler Employment Law Challenge’s "Winning Through Prevention," a program by Littler, Mendelson, Fastiff, Tichy & Mathiason of San Francisco. This game allows Tower to educate its managers on complex workplace issues in a fun, yet effective, manner.

Although the game has been very successful by itself, it’s just one of many different methods Tower uses to train its employees. For example, during an intensive one-week training program on legal issues at the company’s headquarters in Sacramento, California, Tower managers participate in everything from role playing to traditional classroom lectures. The mixed training strategy has proven to be extremely successful for Tower. Over the past two years, the number of employment litigation and worker grievances have declined dramatically from 129 in 1996, to only 47.

The task of creating and implementing this program has fallen on the shoulders of Tower’s 12-person HR staff. Taking the responsibility of creating training programs for 5,000 employees in more than 100 stores throughout the United States, and also their expatriates overseas, Tower’s HR department has been forced to come up with new and effective ways to tackle traditional HR problems.

To understand HR’s role in the development of managerial training programs and, more importantly, HR’s impact on the bottom line, Workforce recently spoke to Renée Gromacki, HR manager for employee relations and the person behind Tower’s unique training games.

What prompted Tower to start using an adapted version of the Littler Employment Law Challenge game as part of the training process?
Because almost everyone that works here at Tower is an artist, in a band or does something creative, I have always looked for new and interesting ways to get my message across, especially when it comes to complex and intimidating topics like sexual harassment and discrimination.

When the original game came along, it was a great way to deal with these issues, but it was just a plain board game with somewhat didactic questions. I thought it needed to be a little more lively and exciting to really make the information stick in our people’s minds.

So we decided to dress people up, make these huge dice, change the questions a little and just have fun with it. Really, the game was just a wonderful way to do things differently and help people understand the issues that are important to their jobs.

Who’s trained using your version of the game?
Every two weeks or so, we’ll bring about 20 members of our management staff out to our corporate headquarters in Sacramento for a thorough, one-week training program.

During the program, the general managers, assistant managers, record sales managers, video sales managers and regional managers all play the game. Of course, everyone at Tower—right down to the clerks in the stores—receives at least some type of training on these kinds of issues, but the game is really designed to help the managers get the information down.

What is HR’s role in the game and in the overall training process?
All of our HR staff plays an active role in the training, and we even have them dress up as the game pieces in the game. We believe that having them dress up as the pieces is a good way to break down some of the barriers that exist between HR and management.

Many times, management can be afraid of HR and may view the HR function as more of a necessary evil than as the helping hand that it really is. Allowing management to see HR as these big, crazy-looking game pieces in a fun, non-threatening situation humanizes the HR department and makes management realize that it is really a friend, and not a foe.

What are the most important parts of the game and the training program?
The most important part is getting the managers to learn to communicate with both their employees and with HR. The game really helps us communicate because it’s fun—we set it up in teams so everyone can cooperate, and no one gets embarrassed.

How else do you support communication between HR and managers in the program?
We also help communication by giving each team a "cheat card." If a team doesn’t know the answer to a question, it can use its cheat card to call someone in HR and get helpful clues. This really gets everyone active, and it reinforces the idea that they’re not alone and HR is there to help them. The game helps them communicate with everyone.

What’s the main goal of Tower’s training game?
I think that managers really want to do the right thing, but without training, they don’t have the tools to do it. So, in general, the goal of the game is to give them those tools.

More specifically, the goal of the game is to teach the managers about laws surrounding employment issues—such as sexual harassment, discrimination and proper hiring—and to impart that information, so that people who are not lawyers (like our managers) can still walk away with an understanding about what these things really mean.

Besides the game, do you use any other methods to train your managers about these issues?
We do a number of other things, both unique and traditional. For example, we play this game called "Curveball" with our managers and HR people. In Curveball, an HR person gives a manager a basic problem, like tardiness, and the manager acts out the course of action he or she would normally take.

Then, the HR person throws the manager a curveball by giving him or her the motivation behind the bad behavior, such as an employee who feels sexually harassed. The manager must then come up with a different course of action given the big picture. This game is designed to get our managers to open their minds about some of these issues and try to get them to do the right thing.

These types of role-playing games and skits help, but we also use the more traditional methods of sitting down with the managers and just telling them what they need to know. We think the mix really makes them understand everything they need to know.

What have been the results that you’ve seen from using the game and training program?
The program has really been a success. We have much better communication between the managers and the employees, and also between the managers and HR. Through surveys and discussions with people, it’s clear our employees are happier and healthier, while our managers are beginning to see that their main job is to help individuals grow.

In addition to all of these improvements, since we started using the game and the training program, our already low amount of litigation has decreased substantially and our grievance calls have declined from well over 100 two years ago to only 47 now.

What are the costs associated with the type of training programs that you conduct?
Well, there are certainly a lot of financial costs. For example, we fly people in from all over the country, put them up in hotels, and also ask them to put their work aside for an entire week. But we feel the program really pays off for us in the long run.

We notice that after the training program, all of our people are much happier, and that’s good for us because we believe that if you have happy, well-trained employees, you’re not going to have serious problems like grievances or lawsuits. For us, it’s an investment, and we really see it paying off in tangible results.

What advice would you give other companies that are thinking about starting training programs like this?
At first, it can seem really daunting and overwhelming to try starting a training program, but you have to force yourself to jump in and do it. Once you do that and you’re starting to plan the program, the most important thing is to get out there and get to know who your people are, and what their needs will be. To get the most out of any program, you have to craft the training around the type of employees that will be using it.

It’s also important to remember that the program will never be perfect, and you always need to reassess what you’re doing. You need to constantly look for feedback from people and ask yourself how you can do the job better. If you do just a little bit of homework and maintenance, it will make much more difference in the long run.

What lessons can be learned from Tower’s experience with the game and with the training program?
The big lesson is to always reassess your programs, and to look for ways to make the program better. [To do this,] you should approach every training session with a beginner’s mind and try to see the program as if you were participating in it yourself. If you try to learn something from every session, you’ll see things more clearly and you can make your program better. It’s very important to not be afraid to make the changes that will improve the program.

Workforce, October 1998, Vol. 77, No. 10, pp. 115-118.

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