How to make compliance training engaging and fun—and never boring—in three easy steps.
“Compliance training is boring,” said everyone ever.
This complaint is one of the most prevalent ailments plaguing modern compliance officers, lawyers, and HR professionals: the most common way you interact with your employees to promote corporate compliance—compliance training—is one of the things they hate the most.
They hate that it is boring. They hate that it is mandatory. They hate that it is preachy, cheesy, lame, slow, and insults their intelligence.
And yet: you have to do it.
So if you’re an earnest lawyer, Human Resources professional, or compliance officer who is sincerely trying to do the right thing, it’s natural to try to figure out how to avoid this brand-damaging, complaint-generating, reputation-ruining problem.
You’ve probably already searched online for it and found articles recommending the latest trend in learning. And you’ve probably found tons of vendors who promise that their microlearning, videos, e-learning, games, and interactive mobile apps will solve this problem (while their competitors’ microlearning, videos, e-learning, games, and interactive mobile apps are, of course, hot garbage).
You may have even tried a bunch of this stuff yourself, either doing it in-house or using some of the vendors—and you’ve come up frustrated. It worked for a little bit, but then things went right back to normal after your employees got used to seeing it. And who has the time to do brand-new media every few months?
Well, don’t worry: you’re not alone. And the solution to this constant frustration is easier than you think. In the rest of this post, we’ll walk through three easy steps you can use to permanently solve this problem.
Step One: Stop trying to make it fun and engaging.
I know, I know, you’re all like NICE BAIT AND SWITCH DUDE.
Not quite; stay with me.
Because no, I am not saying it needs to be serious, or that your impulse to make it better is wrong.
I am saying you have to solve the right problem, and the problem is the “compliance” part, not the delivery method, presenter, format, or any of those other things.
That is, you cannot make compliance training fun and engaging by turning it into a game, adding fun graphics, having an insanely high-energy interactive live training, or by adding any other “fun” or flashy stuff to it, BECAUSE IT IS STILL COMPLIANCE TRAINING.
How do I know? Because I have already tried all that stuff. Like, everything. Here’s a partial list of things I tried when I was an in-house compliance lawyer:
I made memes and wrote fun newsletter articles and made up competitions to get people to engage.
I made up elaborate games to use for live training and then delivered them with the energy of a jackrabbit on cocaine. If you’re new here, here’s one of our product videos to show you what I mean:
Aaaaaand none of that works.
If you do that stuff, the people who were already going to engage with you—the rule-followers you don’t need to worry about anyway—will like it a little better. Everyone else will still ignore it and be embarrassed for you. (I assume, at least; I’m embarrassed for my past self!)
Here’s the deal: trying to make compliance training “fun and engaging” is impossible. If you make that your goal, you will change tactics and vendors every few years and never be sure why nothing ever really “sticks.” It’s a recipe for perpetual frustration.
And that’s because it’s the wrong goal.
So our first step is to simply let that go, because releasing the wrong goal lets us open ourselves up to the right one.
Step Two: Identify the real problem
OK, so the problem isn’t that it’s boring or lame, even though a lot of compliance training is obviously both of those things. What is the problem, then?
It’s the fact that it’s about compliance.
I know: duh. But here’s what I mean.
When I say “compliance training,” I mean courses and videos and live training and so on where the goal is to tell employees about some type of rule or principle. It might be a legally-required thing, or it might just be some standard the company wants to live by and they need everyone to know about it.
The key is that “compliance training” tells employees about the rule or principle, and then the employees are expected to figure out how to apply it to their job.
So, for example, “anti-corruption training” tells everyone that the company does not pay bribes, and then the salespeople have to figure out what it means for them, and the finance people need to figure out what it means for them, and so on.
This is how most folks do compliance training. And it is just giving more work to employees.
Because they are not only having to take time away from their normal job to take the training, but they have to then take even more time to figure out how to apply it to their job (and hope they get it right) or risk getting in trouble.
That is the problem: it’s more work! And making it “fun and engaging” doesn’t alleviate that—in fact, it can massively backfire by being tone-deaf and insulting.
Here’s an analogy:
Imagine that it’s 4 PM on a Friday and you are overwhelmed with work. You see your boss headed your way carrying a big stack of papers, and your stomach drops as you realize you are going to be asked to work all weekend.
Your boss stops at your desk and says, “I know you don’t like it when I make you work all weekend, so I thought I’d try something different today to make things a little more fun and engaging.” He then does a short dance number, sings you a little song, and hands you an iPad and tells you to watch a quick little microlearning video.
You watch the video, which is like, OK, you guess. And then when you put the iPad down you realize he’s gone and the huge stack of paperwork is now sitting on your desk and you’re still stuck in the office all weekend.
Did watching the video make you have to do any less work?
No. And while some of you might have appreciated that your boss tried to make it fun, others of you would just find that whole process demeaning and insulting—because basically, instead of figuring out how to make the work easier for you, your boss just tried to figure out how to distract you so you’d complain about it less.
And that’s the problem with compliance training, too: it makes the employees do all the work. You can’t fix that by making it fun or engaging; at best, you can distract employees enough to make them complain less. And at worst, you can make them even angrier than before.
So, how do you fix it? Well, that’s Step Three.
Step Three: Make compliant job training instead.
OK, so we know that the problem is that compliance training makes employees do all the work. And we know we can’t fix that by turning it into a game of Jeopardy! or using fun videos or making it into an interactive game.
Instead, here’s what we do: we reframe it as compliant job training, not “compliance training.”
For example, instead of giving an anti-corruption course to our sales team that teaches them about bribery—and then expect them to figure it out—we use materials that tell them how to be compliant salespeople.
So instead of being about “anti-corruption,” our training is now about “sales.” Or even better, it’s about the specific things a salesperson does.
Here’s a practical example of what that looks like.
One of the high-risk things a salesperson does is manage local “fixers”—the people you use to get key introductions because they just kinda know everyone and can get stuff done in their part of the world. These folks are super useful, but they’re also high risk since one of the ways you can get stuff done is by bribing people.
One of the things salespeople do in particular to manage those fixers is approve the invoices they submit. Because while it’s bad if the fixer is paying people off on behalf of the company, it’s really bad if the company is reimbursing the fixer for those bribes.
So: imagine that the way you tried to address this was by giving your salespeople a super fun, multimedia, interactive online course on anti-corruption that was supplemented by some high-energy live training and a quiz. This would be a HUGE amount of work from your end to pull off, and you’d hope that it would be well-received by the salespeople.
But from the salesperson’s perspective, it just looks like time that they’re not working on a deal. And moreover, it looks like they’re being asked to not only take time to sit through it, but to then take it upon themselves to figure out how to apply it, memorize it, and integrate it into all the mundane, boring stuff that is part of their day-to-day work—none of which they will actually do, because they are human beings and no one will do that.
What if, however, you didn’t try to make “fun and engaging” anti-corruption training, but you just tried to tell the salespeople how to review third-party invoices the right way?
And that’s it. This is actually what the expensive, overwrought, fun-and-engaging stuff is trying to do; this just cuts straight to the chase by making it about the job, not about the compliance topic.
Of course, there’s a lot more to managing anti-corruption risk than a single checklist; sorting all of that out is literally how we make money, which is why we’re only showing you one! Click here for more.
This is what people actually want: no one likes compliance training, but everybody likes job training. By correctly identifying the problem and reframing the content around someone’s job, instead of a compliance subject, we make it easy for them to apply it and inherently engaging to them—because it’s about what they do!
And that’s how we solve this problem: instead of beating our heads against the wall, trying every gimmick and fad that learning vendors can invent, we recognize that the root cause of all this angst is that “compliance” content just makes people do all the work, and they hate that. When we reframe it around their job, we make it easy for them to comply and sidestep the “engaging and fun” question entirely.
OK, but can you make it fun?
Let me close with this: yes, you can make compliant job training that is fun, but you don’t need to.
That is, if you want to make your compliant job training fun, that’s fine. I’m just not sure it really adds anything at that point—you’ve solved the real problem already.
Here’s another analogy:
Imagine you are going to a really cool science museum in your city. All the exhibits are interactive and you can even ride a dinosaur skeleton. (If this is true for the science museum in your city, please let me know immediately.)
After you get home, you get all fired up about making your compliance training better, because the exhibits were so fun and engaging and you want compliance training to be like that.
STOP. You’re missing the point.
The exhibits at the science museum are not compliance training. The exhibits at the science museum are whatever your business or organization actually does to make money or help people. People come to the science museum for the exhibits; they come to your business or nonprofit for whatever it substantively does.
The signs the science museum put up to help you know how to buy tickets, and park, and go to the bathroom—those are more like compliance training.
If they are fun, great! Disney’s theme parks, for example, do an amazing job of making these things branded and fun.
But they do not need to be fun; they just need to be clear and simple and to tell you what to do. If they are all those things and also fun, cool, but if they just get the job done by being clear and simple, that’s fine because that’s all anyone wants from them.
And people definitely do not want them to be fun at the expense of clarity and simplicity.
It’s like when you go to a restaurant and they have some really cutesy way of telling you which bathroom is which, like “speedboats” and “tugboats” and you don’t know which one you are or if they’re both supposed to be unisex or if you’re about to pee in a supply closet. You don’t think, “what a fun theme!” You think, “I hate this restaurant for making me look stupid.”
And so here’s the big idea: the way you solve the problem of making compliance training “fun and engaging” is to realize that it’s not the real problem.
This frees you up from the crushing burden of trying to solve an unsolvable problem, of trying to stay up on the latest corporate learning fad that doesn’t do anything anyway, of cringing every time you assign a training and your email goes off because you know someone’s going to be complaining about it.
Make compliant job training, and the complaints go away. Need help? We're here for you.