An office manager stands near the water cooler, a smirk on his face.
"How about that Marilyn, the wicked witch of the West? She's been a thorn in my side for years," he hisses.
A co-worker cringes.
"Marilyn happens to be extremely competent; happens to be the only female V.P. in the office. Just because she's a little strong, you want to label her as a . . ."
The exchange is theater. The lines are delivered by actors and actresses as they crisscross the business landscape, using a unique tool to try to engineer social change.
The 13 members of the Buffalo-based Theatre for Change work with professional facilitators to promote diversity in the work place, focusing on age and sex discrimination, racial bias and other barriers that experts say can undermine efficiency and alienate customers.
A growing number of companies are starting to realize that diversity is more than just politically correct. Conflicts among workers and with customers can whittle away at the bottom line.
Richard E. Brown saw the warning signs shortly after being named chief operating officer of the Williamsville-based Buffalo Cardiology and Pulmonary Associates last summer. With 150 employees and 26 doctors working in eight separate offices, it was hardly an icon for effective communication.
"There were a lot of walls built between various groups. There was tension between some workers. In the early months, I was inundated with complaints from patients who felt they were being treated in an impersonal way," said Brown.
Coincidentally, Brown had received literature from the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations based in Buffalo. It highlighted the program that blends outside consulting with theater to enhance workplace harmony.
He was understandably skeptical. The roar of grease paint wasn't his prescription for easing tensions and fostering communication. It sounded too warm and fuzzy. Too much like a quick fix.
Still, he met with the group to talk about his concerns. The performers used the brainstorming session to loosely script scenes tailored to the company's situation.
When the curtain fell on the January production, Brown was a convert. He plans to invite the group to conduct two more programs this year. One will focus even more on diversity.
"It was a real eye-opener. The theatrical setting became a mirror of ourselves. Sure, we were having fun. We were laughing in spots and crying in others," Brown said. "When it was over, most of us had a better understanding of the barriers that we put up."
Pamela R. Henderson, a diversity facilitator with the Cornell School of Industrial Labor Relations, travels across the country to help companies respond to the needs of a work force that includes a growing number of women, minorities and people with different lifestyles. In two weeks, Ms. Henderson and the theater troupe will travel to Dearborn, Mich., to stage seminars for workers at the Ford Motor Co.
Ms. Henderson said the issue is as relevant to a 10-person insurance office as the auto-making Goliath.
"Many times, companies are having problems making teams work or charting long-term plans and they don't even realize that they're dealing with diversity problems," she said.
Darleen Pickering Hummert, founder and artistic director of Theatre for Change, said the barriers go beyond race and gender. She said sexual orientation, religious differences, even such lifestyle choices as smoking, body weight and vegetarianism can create barriers that can hinder a company's efficiency and profitability.
"Theater gives us a non-threatening way to showcase some people's tendency to pigeonhole everyone they come in contact with. Through the power of theater, people not only think about the problem, they also feel something," she said.
The performers remain in their roles even after the skits have ended, answering questions and interacting with employees.
Tim Mulvaney, a diversity consultant based in New York City, said many business owners confuse affirmative action with diversity. He said hiring a diverse work force accomplishes nothing if the corporate environment discourages some groups from having input. He cites as one example problems that plagued a Sears store in urban Los Angeles. As sales plummeted, the outlet was on the verge of closing.
Then corporate leaders allowed an ethnically diverse group of managers to tinker with the store's marketing mix.
"Sales shot through the roof. It's now a profitable store. All it took was a different perspective. You can't try to sell lawn tractors to people who live in L.A's inner city."
Some experts say tearing down barriers requires a long-term commitment. Debra L. Connelley, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University at Buffalo School of Management, has consulted Fortune 500 companies, including Corning Inc. and OxyChem.
Ms. Connelley said management education can be the wisest first step.
"There are no quick fixes. The problem is like an iceberg. So many of the issues for managing diversity are unseen."