25 Years Later: It’s time to reimagine compliance training

The compliance training industry has been around for 25 years – ever since the U.S. Supreme Court issued two sexual harassment rulings giving employers a defense to sexual harassment claims by sponsoring sexual harassment training. These court cases paved the way for California’s legal mandate for employer-sponsored sexual harassment training in 2005. Around the same time, Enron, a Texas energy and commodities trading company, unexpectedly declared bankruptcy when it was discovered that it had been engaged in systematic accounting fraud and corruption for years. About 20,000 employees lost their jobs and lost their employer-sponsored retirement accounts. Enron led to the passage of the Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002, which mandated compliance controls to stop corporate corruption and in time, those controls also included compliance training. By 2010, most companies had compliance departments and compliance training was a multi-billion dollar industry.

Twenty-five years later, it’s time to reimagine compliance training. We’ve been focused on memorizing “the rules” and acknowledging policies – but our policies and socializing the rules through training has not stopped bad behavior in 25 years. We have as much harassment and corruption now as we did then. Telling people “the rules” is simply not that helpful.

For compliance training to actually change behavior, we need to do four things. We need to use a skills-based framework and map skills to the desired behavior. The training must be timely and relevant to the learner. We need to use emotional storytelling to motivate people to learn and we need to use data to measure skill development and behavior change over time.

Skills-Based Approach

A skills-based approach develops the employee muscle needed to prevent co-worker conflicts and/or make sound, ethical decisions. Most people involved in harassment or discrimination cases are not necessarily violating the law but they are unskilled at navigating co-worker conflict and emotional reactions. Similarly, most ethics violations stem from people who lack the framework and skill for making solid, ethical decisions.

It’s important to develop employees’ skills to navigate today’s fast-changing social and business norms. Solid skills are more valuable to employees and organizations than raising awareness to a policy.

Timely and Relevant

Instructional designers are typically focused on content length and shrinking content – courses have become lessons and lessons have become micro-lessons. And shrinking content is certainly helpful as our attention span shrinks in proportion to the amount of digital information bombarding us every day. But even more important than content length is whether it’s timely and relevant.

For legal and risk management purposes, companies will always need to sponsor enterprise training and generate reports that illustrate compliance to government regulators and/or lawyers. But that’s pushing out training for the business; not for the learner. When you’re pushing out training for the learner, you’re making training available when they want to learn, e.g., when they have to resolve a co-worker conflict or need behavior guidelines for an off-duty event, etc. People need compliance training in the moment and in the flow of work when the topic is relevant. People “Google” information to help them navigate daily life questions. Employees should also be able to “google” compliance training, when and how they need it, to help them navigate work.

Emotional Storytelling to Engage

Good teachers know how to invoke an emotional response from their storytelling to capture attention and support better learning retention. People learn when they emotionally connect to the topic. In compliance and culture topics, you need to change hearts to change minds. For example, people need to emotionally connect with the unfair social challenges faced by some people (and not others) to be receptive to learning about diversity, equity, and inclusion, or connect emotionally with the social ravages of a corrupt government to be interested in anti-corruption training. In many ways, compliance and culture topics require even more emotional storytelling to move beyond inanimate policies and frame the learning about social issues that affect every learner.

Data and Measuring Skills and Behavior

What is learning without measurement? How do you know your strengths and weaknesses if you’re not measuring your skills? The biggest difference between compliance training as risk management and compliance training as skill development is that the former simply records activity while the latter measures skills. If we want compliance training to trigger behavior change and improve outcomes, we need to start measuring skills and generating a “heatmap” of strengths and weaknesses throughout the organization so that compliance professionals can use the data to prioritize their time and attention on where they can make the most difference and have the biggest impact.

Twenty-five years later and it’s time to reimagine what we want out of compliance training. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours on this type of training. It’s time to start developing employee skills rather than just socializing a corporate policy.

Janine Yancey
Business Compliance & Workplace Culture Expert
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