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WORKSPAN
NSFW: A HUMOROUS LOOK |

Open Enrollment: It's Funny Business If You Ask Me

Let’s face it: Open enrollment is not something that gets the pulse racing, unless you’re actively fleeing the fast- approaching HR person who would like to have a word about it. And there’s nothing inherently funny about it, just as there’s nothing inherently funny about complex periodontal work. Still, as open enrollment nears, HR tries yet again to conjure “fun” ideas to make communications more interesting and engaging. So while open enrollment is not exactly the stuff of (intentional) sketch comedy, why not try some humor?

Theoretically this is a pretty good idea. Adding humor to an otherwise pretty grim process is certainly different, and to the extent that you’re able to achieve your minimal objective — actually being funny — sure, why not … but realize that it’s tricky. The workforce is made up of people from various backgrounds with different ethnicities, religious sensitivities and, perhaps most importantly, widely divergent views on what is and isn’t funny.

As someone who specializes in communications and dabbles in humor, let me suggest: If you’re entertaining the idea of imbuing your open enrollment messaging with comedic touches, don’t worry about the content — well, worry about that later. First, focus on matching the comedic form to the segment of your workforce that’s most likely to respond to content in that genre.

Classical farce (from Aristophanes to the Farrelly brothers) or classic sitcom-style humor has the widest appeal and is a fine default option. But tread carefully, as it’s based on mistaken identifies, physical humor, dizzying velocity and general confusion. So while this approach is apt to get the biggest rise, you’ll have your work cut out for you once the laughs subside.

Observational humor appeals to those who fancy themselves as more knowing and perhaps a bit cynical: “Did you ever notice how friends and family invariably fail to ask follow-up questions when you tell them about your company’s new EAP program?” It’s ironic and deadpan and sends a strong implicit message: Details are important! The downside is that it’s a genre that’s synonymous with Jerry Seinfeld, whose eponymous show was, famously, about nothing. Again, not the message you want to send.

Black humor regards human suffering or our most closely held values/institutions as absurd. I may be speaking from my personal bias here, but black comedy at its best produces the heartiest response. For instance, I never tire of watching Dr. Strangelove, and still laugh deliriously every time Peter Sellers restrains his gloved hand or George C. Scott laments not having “one of them doomsday machines.” Here again the risks are obvious, as the last thing you want to do is promote the idea that you’re an unfeeling employer insufficiently sensitive to the horrors of thermonuclear war, particularly during open enrollment.

Tragicomedy could be an effective comic strategy if you’re looking to target Millennials. Think of a cross between Waiting for Godot and Waiting for Guffman — an extended existential nightmare combined with a deadpan comedy from some of the people who brought you Spinal Tap. Tragicomedy appeals to the earnest, but self-aware, aka Millennials. They will really appreciate the attempt, though as with any attempt at corporate communications, they will dismiss it as “cute” and a little ridiculous.

All of this becomes exponentially trickier when you consider that open enrollment communications also must extend to spouses, dependents or domestic partners. Over the years I’ve seen relationships torn apart by diverging opinions on Curb Your Enthusiasm, or whether Judd Apatow’s movies have believable female characters. Which goes to show that the old maxim still applies: Dying is easy, comedy is hard, but open enrollment is harder.

Charles Epstein Bio Image

Charles Epstein is president and founder of BackBone Inc. Follow him on Twitter.