The Well-Intentioned Wrongheadedness of Compliance Training


Robert Todd



Collectively, there are ~60M people working in US companies with 500 or more people. Based on the 2018 ATD State of the Industry report, those companies spend $137 per employee or over $8B on compliance training. New legal mandates in a growing number of states are set to increase that spending dramatically. Unfortunately, the generally accepted best practices in compliance are flawed and can actually exacerbate the problems they seek to solve. Yes, I’m really saying that…compliance programs can do more harm than good.

You see, the goal of compliance programs is to protect companies from the negative consequences of the poor choices and bad behavior of individual employees. More specifically, companies spend what they spend on compliance to minimize damage from lawsuits and legal penalties that result from that bad behavior. Think harassment lawsuits and insider trading scandals. That focus on minimizing legal penalties combines in a very bad way with some fundamental flaws in the way companies approach training to make it even harder to solve the underlying problems that lead to bad behavior in the first place.

The first issue, the negative impacts on learning that result from a focus on protecting against legal liability, I will only touch on. Our VP of Workplace Strategy, Patti Perez, has labeled this issue the Litigation Avoidance Trap, and she goes into it in some detail in her book—The Drama Free Workplace. To summarize (and oversimplify—sorry, Patti), if you are corporate counsel, and you are good at what you do, you will avoid creating data and information that might be later used against you in the event of a lawsuit. This means that companies are disincentivized from studying and documenting the conditions that lead to things like harassment. As we all know, the first step in solving a problem is understanding the problem, and where legal liability is a concern, companies are actively working to avoid doing just that. We’ll come back to this.

Compliance Training Fails to Address The Root Cause of Workplace Behavior Issues

Even if we manage to avoid the Litigation Avoidance Trap, our generally accepted approach to training is flawed in ways that are particularly problematic when dealing with the core issues of human behavior that underlie bad decisions and bad behavior in the workplace. In one of our early conversations, our founder, Janine Yancey framed it for me this way. “There are three issues underlying almost all of the issues that compliance programs address: respect, bias, and ethical decision making.”

While these issues may seem a little far removed from “how fast I can get out those TPS reports”—they are fundamental to the performance of companies and the teams that work in them. In 2015, Google conducted a two-year study of 180+ teams, looking at 250 different attributes like mix of personality types, skill sets, work environment, ways of organizing work, etc. to identify the secret sauce of high-performing teams. What emerged was a single factor that all of the highest performing teams shared—psychological safety, ”a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

So, based on Google’s research and the work of Dr. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard researcher who coined the term “psychological safety,” respect, inclusion, and fairness are really at the heart of team and company performance.

Respect, bias, and ethics are also behaviors, and behaviors are all influenced by some very hard-wired brain functions that determine: how we balance the needs of others vs. our own needs, how we define our in-group and how we treat those who are not in it, and how we balance the rules of society against our own individual needs. Behavior science is a hot field, and there are lots of emerging theories and practices on how you influence behavior, but one thing is very clear—just telling people the rules, just giving them information is not one of them. That information delivery is the primary function of most compliance training is just the beginning of what’s broken.

It’s Time to Stop Taking the “Just Say No” Approach to Compliance Training

I like to think of the current model of compliance training as the “Just Say No” approach to behavior change. I have no animosity for Nancy Reagan, but her “Just Say No” campaign always seemed like a cruel joke to me. The professionals who help people deal with substance abuse don’t think that the problem is that some people just don’t know that they shouldn’t abuse drugs. Instead of counseling abstinence, addiction professionals help people develop new skills, behaviors, and self-awareness. They give them the tools to live a healthier life. There are indeed rules to coping with addiction, and “don’t do drugs ” is one of them, but just telling people the rules has little impact on their behavior.

And this is not just a problem with compliance training. Though most learning professionals understand that simply packaging and delivering information to people isn’t learning—we’re all so good at it! And over the past 20 years, while we’ve gained new understanding from neurobiology and behavioral economics about how people learn and what drives behavior change, we’ve also gotten a whole bunch of new tools and technologies that have made us even better at packaging and distributing content, and doing it at a massive scale.

Just Checking the Box Isn’t Enough

We know people learn from experience, but experience is hard. We know they learn better with others, but social is hard. We know that they learn through practice, but practice is hard. We know they learn better when they’re emotionally engaged, but emotional engagement is hard. We know that case-based learning and Socratic dialogue are effective learning methodologies. Hard. Content is much easier.

Which brings us to the other fundamental flaws in our typical approach to compliance. Because the goal of compliance training is really to limit legal liability, and because doing something different than we’ve done in the past is hard, there hasn’t been any motivation to innovate. If your goal is to check-the-box, how much checkbox innovation do you really need? And if you work in a company that recognizes that these behaviors really are core to your culture and to company performance, and you go to the top compliance vendors, you’re likely to see content and technology that looks very low-budget-early-2000’s in terms of the quality and efficacy of user experience and pedagogical approach.

And employees aren’t stupid. The quality of compliance training, the disdain with which it’s often discussed by company leaders and their peers, the paternalistic voice and lack of nuance, the way online compliance programs are constantly checking to see if you’re still awake, or alive—all this signals to the employee that these issues are taken seriously only with regard to the company having complied with the law. If you’re a person who’s lost a chance at promotion due to bias, been the victim of sexual harassment, or you just work in an environment with low psychological safety, the message you’re likely to take away is: what the company really cares about is lawsuits, not me and my experience here at work.

A Smarter Way to Change Workplace Behaviors

What should we be doing instead?

Well, since I work for a company that is trying to create a new solution to these problems, of course, I’m going to start there:

  • Create a safe space for employees to get advice from experts, share feedback on their experiences and perspectives with leaders without fear of retaliation, and engage in a meaningful dialogue with colleagues about culture.
  • Focus content on creating emotional engagement and self-awareness and encouraging constructive dialogue, rather than just delivering facts
  • Extract data and insights from the dialogue that will help companies better understand the sources of damaging behavior and start a global conversation about solutions

But that’s only one set of possible answers, and there are many things we’ve learned over the past two decades that can be applied to changing behavior and building healthier workplace cultures. The important thing is that we all recognize these issues are core to the lives of employees and the performance of companies and that we need to treat them with appropriate care and commitment. That and encouraging culture leaders to seek to balance their responsibilities to protect companies from the risk of legal consequence with the goals of impacting behavior and building stronger, psychologically-safe, and high-performance teams.

I don’t think the situation we are facing is due to bad actors. As in most things, people in this field are trying to do the right thing and have a positive impact, but the incentives are misaligned, and that means we have to create a demand for something better. Let’s use the crises that have raised public awareness of these issues as an opportunity to find a better path.


bad trainingbusiness compliance

Robert Todd

Robert leads the development of products at Emtrain. He believes that leading with integrity and treating every employee with respect is a winning business strategy. Robert joined Emtrain after building innovative learning technology solutions at LinkedIn, ?WhatIf!, McKinsey & Co, and Digitalthink.

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