The one with the snazzy compliance training videos

May 25, 2023
4 minutes

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Microsoft employees are hooked on a series of compliance training videos. Blockbuster news indeed! Produced to Netflix-like standards, the characters in the serialized drama, “Trust Code”, face tricky ethical situations where the right answer isn’t always clear. Other companies like Meta have their own tv-show style approach. If compliance training is spawning fan art, binge-watching, and drawing acclaim across the firm, it certainly seems as though this modern take on the age-old compliance click-through training or cringeworthily acted, contrived scenario shorts, is a shoo-in for awards season.

We love the creativity! But, how is this different from simply showing episodes of “Friends” or allowing employees some time to watch their favorite shows at work (many of which inevitably feature ethical quandaries of one sort or another)? That is: how do we know that these compliance dramas are actually teaching employees how to make better ethical decisions?  

Compliance Entertainment isn’t just entertainment – it is supposed to be entertainment with a purpose: to deliver its learning objectives such as supporting ethical decision-making. In evaluating this new entertainment, however, the reported measurements seem to focus only on the entertainment value. That might be how you judge a Netflix show, but it certainly isn’t how you judge compliance training. While getting people to tune in, and stay tuned in, is no small feat, this is just the first part of the puzzle.

From a behavioral perspective, we pay attention to what is novel but all good series’ have their time – what happens when the novelty and hype fades? Will the ethics lessons stick or be lost in the rush to try the newest form of engaging “training”? So, while we applaud the investment companies are making to engage employees in compliance training, we are mindful that engagement is not the end goal. 

Of course, we realize that one worthwhile goal of a training may be to shift perceptions of compliance—to challenge the notion that the compliance team is an unapproachable group of internal enforcers. Trainings like these may help reshape perceptions of the function itself in ways that ultimately help compliance achieve its ultimate mission. Ultimately, however, compliance trainings are like vitamins: the purpose is to get the nutrition into your body. If the vitamins shaped like little animals or Fred Flintstone can get kids to take them, that’s wonderful. But if they don’t deliver the nutrition, they are just like any other candy.

The first element of creating impactful training is defining those end goals - the training objectives - and pinpointing specific outcomes the training is to accomplish, whether it be increased knowledge about how to obtain help when facing an ethical dilemma, or a change in attitude about what is an acceptable practice at the organization, or facilitating a behavior such as speaking up. Then you work those outcomes into the training design – and it’s clear that “Trust Code” throws up some interesting scenarios which could well illustrate those learning goals. So far, so good - we’re sticking to the script and people are entertained.

Here’s the plot twist. In DOJ’s “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Program”, the questions are not about how much employees loved the training, but about what they learned: “How has the company measured the effectiveness of the training? Have employees been tested on what they have learned? Has the company evaluated the extent to which the training has an impact on employee behavior or operations?”. 

The typical series of multiple-choice knowledge questions at the end of standard compliance training are not likely to pass muster as anything beyond a short-term memory assessment. What training programs need to demonstrate effectiveness in learning are metrics tied to the defined learning objectives, and baseline and post-training measurements using those metrics.

Baseline measurements – taken before the training – is critical: you can only show progress if you know where your starting line is. If you have a learning objective linked to integrity, then use an integrity scale to measure perceptions of integrity before and after the training. Maybe release the episodes to different teams at different points, giving you more of a chance to measure the impact of the training. Consider also mapping how the environment viewers are going back into affects the training – if what they see in their day-to-day doesn’t reflect the standards defined in the show, they’re likely to stick to the norms they experience. But by adopting an intentional approach to measurement, you will know whether your exciting solution is working.

If this entertainment-with-a-purpose is not delivering on its purpose, it would be simpler and cheaper just to allow employees to watch whatever show they like to stand in for training. Now THAT would be very popular, and it would cost the company nothing!

The real triumph is when companies can show that their training methods are having a positive impact on employee knowledge, behaviors, attitudes, and decision making. The trick isn’t in the art of creating an exciting training experience, it’s in the science of measuring whether that training has an impact