Wake Me Up When The Training is Over

by Andrew Leigh, Featured Contributor

AT A RECENT London conference on compliance and ethics, the data protection and privacy officer from a leading media company gave a presentation.

Reading out his entire one hour talk, eyes down and never engaging with his audience, it was probably one of the most boring performances ever to have been inflicted on a long-suffering audience.

Boring-trainingNo wonder so many people resorted to laptops, smart phones, newspapers, checking their nails, and in multiple cases falling asleep to survive the ordeal.

Yet this practitioner clearly knew a great deal about his topic. Never short of facts, he failed utterly to hold his listeners. Well, that’s what happens sometimes at a conference so get over it!

But this person is entrusted by his company to engage its many hundreds of employees on the issues of privacy and compliance. Almost certainly his duties include running regular training sessions to ensure they understand and know their obligations in this area.

If so he is clearly a training disaster. One must feel only sympathy for those on the receiving end of his lack of presence, self awareness and inability to engage his victims.

Incidentally, this particular practitioner is employed by a company previously experiencing a catastrophic high profile failure of compliance and respect for privacy. This has cost it many millions and incurred a huge and continuing loss of public trust. So the importance of the training around compliance can hardly be exaggerated.

Having an understanding of compliance, codes and regulations does not make you a great trainer. Much as using lawyers to deliver this stuff also seldom means training for the average employee achieves any impact.

In fact, relying on lawyers assumes compliance content is so complicated that only a trained legal eagle can handle it. Not merely is this wrong, it also confuses the real task of changing people’s actual work behaviour. Knowing the legal niceties, case law, or legal definitions is not what the training task is about,

The Technology Illusion

Such is the cost of compliance training nowadays that understandably many companies prefer not to call in a trainer skilled at engaging people.

Those who know how to run interactive sessions that stimulate discussion and thinking, and achieve shifts in behaviour are neither cheap nor commonplace. No wonder in so many situations technology is called to the rescue. Nearly all companies (89%) reportedly deploy online learning modules for at least some of their employees. [1]

Communicating the compliance message is therefore often consigned to e-learning modules operated by individual employees on a computer. Sometimes there are also clever simulations and gaming added to the mix, along with short videos, long on humour and rather short on facts.

Many of the computer-based modules have simply been adapted from ones previously designed for lawyers. Sprinkled with case law, jargon and even legal precedents, these click through modules can seem a cheap way out for cash-strapped compliance or L&D departments. But they’re mainly a waste of time because they seldom affect people’s daily behaviour.

Yet mechanistic solutions work in one sense. They ensure the company ticks the right boxes for having exposed its employees to compliance. Should something go wrong, the company can point to the efforts it has made to provide “training” in some form. This though is seldom more than four or five hours in an entire year. In their defence organisations can duly produce their evidence of training.

Yet severe doubts remain about such methods. An employee of a global company reportedly told a risk assessment expert:

“In Europe, people pay their children to click through it” and at another company the phrase “mind numbing” was used to describe such training.

Not surprisingly, so dull is such “training” you will seldom find the CEO heading the queue to experience what they expect others to undergo. Only about a third of CEOs for example, are the first to complete ethics and compliance training, which tells you all you need to know about the impact of such methods.

Four Fundamentals

Four essentials for effective compliance training that are notably absent in many work situations are:

Gear to needs

Gear to needs: First, training should be closely tailored to the specific needs of the particular audience. Unless the training has direct relevance to those on the receiving end it is unlikely to have any lasting effect on their behaviour.

Sometimes, effectiveness here means offering not group situations but one-to-one sessions, even if at first this seems rather costly.

Holistic: Secondly, it should encompass ethics, values and how decisions should be made. This is not so much going beyond compliance, as adopting a comprehensive approach that places the behavioural requirements in a proper cultural context. Rules and codes merely form the background not the foreground.
Engaging: Thirdly, training needs to be thoroughly engaging. This calls for a compelling presenter or presentation method— that keeps people thoroughly involved, on the edge of their seats and regularly gets them off them too.

This ability to create a safe environment in which participants have fun while learning about compliance takes a special skill—one which the media man who comatosed his conference audience clearly did not possess.

Audited: Whether you call it auditing, evaluation, or just monitoring, there needs to be a regular check the training is actually happening. For example, nearly three out four companies report education completion and certification rates to their boards and use these to actual measure the effectiveness of their training investment. [2]

It needs to also assess the activity is doing far more than just imparting information. What counts is not filling people up with facts, but affecting their attitudes and ultimately their behaviour.

There are also encouraging signs compliance officers for example are paying more attention to outcomes and less to “check-the-box” metrics. Programs showing changes in employee misconduct for instance, and speaking up tend to be among the most effective being used.

What works

Research into the effectiveness of ethics and compliance programs shows the importance of the holistic principle mentioned earlier.

“By a ratio of three-to-two, more programs pursue as a primary mandate “ensuring ethical behaviours and alignment of decision making and conduct with core values” than pursue “ensuring compliance with rules and regulations.”
LRN Report 2014

What seems to work best in compliance training is not just having a competent and engaging communicator, but having a focus on the company’s culture. Compliance arises as an outcome.

Report on Ethics and Compliance Program Effectiveness, LRN 2014
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Andrew Leigh
Andrew Leigh
ANDREW is author of Ethical Leadership, (Kogan Page 2013) and writes regularly at He believes business needs to re-discover the importance of ethics and integrity. As an expert on leadership Andrew writes regularly on ways to help managers be more effective as ethical leaders. His blog stays close to the zeitgeist with a unique perspective on many aspects of leading organisations ethically, including compliance, and engagement. Andrew is a joint founder in 1989 of Maynard Leigh Associates ( pioneers of using ideas from theatre in business. He was a hands-on practising manager for many years in the public sector, ending his time on the front line running a division with over 1000 staff. Andrew also spent several years as a business and financial journalist, including time at The Observer newspaper. He has written over 20 books on management, leadership teams and so on. Originally trained as an economist, he is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He is available for speaking engagements, interviews, feature articles and consultancy.

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