Training Videos: Our Forgotten Cultural Treasures

I love me some employee training videos. Not many things can manage to be boring, funny, surreal, informative and inaccurate all at the same time, but training videos pull it off every time. And time only increases these qualities. Except for the “informative” part. That becomes less about instruction and more about historical context.

I started at Macy’s six years after I left Sears NC. The world had changed since then, but when it came to training videos, I knew what to expect. A careful mix of different ethnicities. Chaste examples of sexual harassment, like that of the male Sam’s Club employee who circulated a “Does this make my butt look big?” cartoon in the break room. Careless workers who slip on wet floors and fall off ladders but never get hurt. The same videos were probably used for 15 years, but Macy’s must have updated its collection just before I was hired.

I learned what to do if a customer of unclear gender asks where the bathroom was. (Tell them where both the men’s and women’s are.) I learned what to do if a male-to-female transgender person wants to try on a bra. (Suggest they buy it and try it on at home.) I learned not to discriminate against younger shoppers; the examples include a black teenager shopping with his white friend, who happens to be wearing a hoodie. And going by the videos, a lot more women wearing hijab shopped at Macy’s in 2016 than at Sears in 2010.

Then there was the attacker video, which demonstrates the proper protocol in the event a gunman is loose in the store. It was disturbing to know that the situation necessitated its own video. It was even worse to see a sanitized version of what was then month-old news footage squeezed into a training video’s inherently goofy mold. One scene is set in a conference room, where the employees decide to try their luck fending off the gunman with nearby objects. (This is only to be done as a last resort.) One has a desk lamp. One has a vase. The third has a coffee carafe. It’s an unholy combination of Flight 93 and the lead-up to the  Anchorman fight. We never see the combat, but I like to think the carafe saves the day.

The Macy’s videos’ ripped-from-the-headlines details do raise the question of their shelf life. In my opinion, a training video should be good for ten years. In that amount of time, I seriously doubt that most trainees would notice the significance of the white kid wearing a hoodie or the emphasis on Muslim women. I also doubt we’ll still be telling transgender or agender shoppers to go home to try on underwear. In ten years, will we still need to be concerned about gunmen? I’m not sure. There may not even be a Macy’s by then. There will be an Internet, though. That’s where these videos will wait for us to rediscover them and laugh all over again. Even if the humor is a little twisted.

Image adapted from “Kmart training video Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)”. Credit: Leetsticks/Internet Archive.

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