Troy Dillinger was having a good month. A working actor in Los Angeles, he played in June a lawyer in a Lifetime movie, a coach in a public service announcement about opioids, and a judge in Cardi B’s video “Press.”
He also slid into his best creepy smirk and sexually harassed an underling in a corporate training video.
“Not only are you a solid candidate,” his character said to a woman up for a promotion, “but I’ve been watching you move around out here, and you’re solid everywhere.”
“What?” he responded. “Being hot’s a good thing!”
This project may not win Dillinger any trophies, but office workers around the country are seeing a lot of him — or other actors playing odious characters just like his. New or expanded laws mandating sexual harassment training in states like New York and California, as well as a nationwide awakening to a very real problem, have fostered a market for workplace training videos and for actors who can bring #MeToo to life, usually in roles lasting just a minute or two.
They play harassers and their victims, supervisors who comfort, colleagues who intervene, and co-workers who look into the camera and say it’s not their problem. On Backstage.com, the job listings site for actors, casting calls are going out for parts such as, “A client of a big manufacturing company; a little sleazy; makes an unwanted advance on a salesperson,” and “an account manager at a large manufacturing company; strong and articulate; she stands up for herself” when a client makes an unwanted advance.
These videos do not, naturally, have a reputation as great cinema, which is not surprising considering that, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, they can have a lot of legal ground to cover. In New York, for example, training programs have to define sexual harassment, give information on state and federal sexual harassment laws and lay out avenues for handling complaints. There must also be interaction, so there are often little quizzes along the way to keep viewers paying attention, or least keep them from wandering off completely.
They are made by law firms, human resource outfits and companies that specialize in compliance training, which may also be making videos on topics such as respectful communication and bribery. Some keep the whole operation in-house, with a small team of people wearing multiple filmmaking hats (director today, producer tomorrow), while others contract with outside film companies to hire actors and put the videos together.
The productions are nothing if not efficient.
“When I get a new crew they look at the call sheets and go, ‘Are you out of your mind? You’re giving us 45 minutes to shoot two pages!’” said Lori Richardson, the producer and director of video content at Emtrain, a compliance training company. In a typical film, it might take at least half a day to shoot that amount, she said. “But I’m pretty quick on set and I keep it moving along.”
Laura Faye Smith, the actress who was harassed by Dillinger’s character, said it took about half a day to shoot her scenes.
She didn’t have to use too much imagination to get into character.
She said she once had a real-life job as a human resources manager, which including giving sexual harassment training. Then, one day, it happened to her: one of her superiors, who was also the boss’s father, put his arm around her, got right in her face, and said her high heels made her the perfect height for him to kiss her.
“No matter how much you know about this,” she said, “when it happens to you, it’s hard not to go into this thing of ‘did I bring this on somehow?’”
In an effort to make the scripts more relatable to these real-life experiences, film companies say they are trying to make videos more engaging, with better acting and higher production values. They also change up where scenes are set to make them more relevant to the companies who may be buying the films. Dillinger’s character harassed Smith’s twice — once in a printing plant and once in a retail setting.
Emtrain said it has created scenes that riff off current events, like the memo written by a Google engineer that said “personality differences” between men and women helped explain why there were fewer women engineers and high ranking executives at the company.
Some companies have started to use virtual reality. Mursion, a San Francisco startup, allows managers — as well as prospective teachers, Air Force captains, executives from finance and tech — to practice difficult conversations with an avatar. In one training, you are a commanding officer in the armed forces and a woman comes to you because she hooked up with a subordinate who is now defying her authority.
There is a range in quality and approach in these programs, though they tend to charge in roughly the same way. Traliant, which produced the videos with Dillinger and Smith, said it starts at about $25 per user, but that price can drop to less than $5 for companies with more than 10,000 people. Emtrain generally charges $47 per person for the year, dropping to about $20 for an organization of 3,000, and it includes additional services like a way for people to ask anonymous questions on tricky issues like bias, ethics and harassment, and feedback for companies on potential problem areas based on what employees say.
The actors themselves generally make a few hundred dollars per video, not a large sum, but also not bad for what often amounts to a few hours of work.
While many executives and lawmakers have embraced these training videos, there are questions about how effective they can be. For years, companies have used such videos to try to defend themselves from any lawsuits saying they didn’t do enough to ensure safe working environments. Whether workers took the training to heart was not necessarily the top concern.
“My worry is that there will be some category or organization who believes they have checked the box by conducting training, whether or not there is any commitment from leadership to actually change the culture,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center. “I don’t want to suggest that training itself is harmful, but I also think that training alone is not likely enough to actually change organizations.”
Frank Dobbin, a social science professor at Harvard, said that while research in this area is thin, there is some evidence that training for managers can be helpful, as can bystander intervention training. But he said there are also studies that suggest typical harassment training might make some men more hostile than they were to begin with, perhaps because they feel a threat to their way of thinking.
“It’s possible that training for whole populations of employees, which is what the states are now moving toward, is going to backfire,” Dobbin said. “I don’t think there’s any evidence that it reduces harassment and there’s some evidence that it’s likely to increase harassment.”
Michael Del Polito, a media producer and director at LRN, an ethics and compliance company, said that the company realized that in most cases, employees are mandated to watch the videos. “It’s not necessarily something they’re electing to do,” he said.
Still, he said, the company tries to make them watchable. Last year, one of LRN’s sexual harassment videos won a Telly award, which honors video and television production. In it, a woman tells a colleague she was groped by a superior in Las Vegas after a conference; the flashbacks to what happened in Vegas were illustrated by animated people made of neon lights.
Del Polito said: “We try to approach it as, we respect our audience and try to put something out that — within reason, of course, given time and budgetary constraints — try to put out the best product possible because we think our audience is sophisticated.”