Make Learners Care about Compliance Training

What if you could create compliance training that learners actually wanted to complete, that they cared about? Imagine creating courses that did more than check a box, that actually increased the odds that employees would follow the policy. To create compliance training that learners care about, they need to know both why and when the policies matter.

Compliance training is often boring

Compliance training is a common use for elearning. All those policies and regulations that affect our businesses need to be trained. Unfortunately, compliance training is often just a content dump with a narrator reading the policy, followed by some multiple choice questions to see if learners remember what they heard 5 minutes earlier.

This training can be so boring that organizations have to offer bribes (“You’ll be entered in a drawing!”) or threats (“Failure to complete this training may result in termination”) to cajole employees into completing the courses.  In many cases, companies don’t even really seem to care if employees’ behavior changes due to the training. They just want to check a box that says, “we provided training” to cover themselves legally.

If you’re training food production workers on personal hygiene policies, you could simply list the rules. However, just telling people the rules isn’t always enough to convince people to follow them. Have you ever driven faster than the speed limit—even when you knew what the limit was? Knowing the rule isn’t always enough.

Use a worst case scenario

Instead of focusing on just the policies and regulation in abstract, engaging compliance training focuses on when employees need to follow those policies and why they matter.

To show the “why,” start with an example of what can happen if they don’t follow the policies. In the case of food safety, it’s easy to imagine a worst case scenario with a nationwide food recall.

Fictional headline for compliance training: Nationwide Food Recall Affects Thousands
A mocked up headline from a food safety elearning course

What could other worst case scenarios be?

  • Ethics: A scandal that causes a company’s stock to drop
  • Safety: An injury
  • Security: A breach that results in data loss and all the ramifications from that

For any compliance training topic, there’s a consequence if the policy isn’t followed. That consequence can be your opening scenario that draws your learners into the story and gets them emotionally involved.

An example with interactive video

A great example of this technique is The Lab: Avoiding Research Misconduct. This is an interactive video you can play from the perspective of different characters. The story starts with “a very bad day,” where news reporters are interviewing a supervisor about misconduct. Right from the start, you see the consequences of poor decisions. As a learner, you get the opportunity to go back in time to see how those decisions were made and try to avert disaster.

You might not have the resources to hire actors and film scenarios in multiple locations like this, but you could still provide this kind of setup. It’s easy to mock up a newspaper headline like the one above or a fake website screenshot with trending news.

What if your worst case scenario would be internal, like an employee losing sales or being placed on a performance improvement plan? In that case, even a photo of an unhappy manager with voice over or text explaining the consequences can be effective.

Why it works

The worst case scenario gets learners attention because it shows them why the policy or regulation matters. Instead of the compliance training being just a box to check off, it’s teaching them how to be a hero and prevent a disaster.

It’s important to show these consequences and not just tell them. Simply telling people, “Failure to comply with personal hygiene policies could result in a food recall,” doesn’t have the same emotional impact as showing them a fake headline about a recall for contamination.

Show the “Why” and the “When”

Starting with a worst case scenario is the “why” for a policy. In another post, I explain how to focus on the “when” in your compliance training so employees recognize situations in which the policies apply.

Originally published 3/10/2016. Updated 7/6/2020.

18 thoughts on “Make Learners Care about Compliance Training”

  1. Hi Christy,
    I am an inspiring Instructional Designer and I recently came across your blog. I love your focus on building stories and branching scenarios and can definitely see the value in that from a learner perspective. This blog post caught my eye because we can all relate to horrible, lack-luster compliance training videos! Starting with a worst-case scenario is a great way to grab the learner’s attention – the Lab example is amazing. And then the idea of pull vs. push is another way to keep the learner’s attention. I wonder if there are ways to apply a gamification approach to compliance training too? I imagine the next generations might really be motivated through competition. In another blog post you talked about avoiding distractors, do you feel like a gamification approach would be an unnecessary distractor? Do you ever use this approach in your trainings?

    1. Elements of a scenario like a narrative story, choices, consequences, and emotional impact all overlap with game design. I think often those elements of games are more effective than the “points, badges, and leaderboards” version of gamification.

      It’s less of a generational issue (that’s mostly a myth–older people don’t benefit from boring training any more than younger people, even if they tolerate it more because they’re used to it). Competition and gamification elements like maintaining streaks can be motivating for training, but they’re most effective for maintaining motivation over a long period of time. Compliance training is typically completed once a year or every few years. You’re not trying to maintain motivation over months or years; you just need the learners’ attention for maybe an hour or two.

      In some cases, competition can actually depress learning results. If you’re interested in games for learning, check out Karl Kapp’s work. He has summarized a bunch of the research on using games and gamification for learning. He’s a great resource for learning how to use these approaches effectively.

  2. Love these ideas, Christy! Looks like the link to the video is no longer active. Any chance we could get an updated link?

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  6. Hi Christy – Some fantastic creative startegies around embedding a narrative into the training to create not only engagement but also help with learning and memory. Thank you for sharing so generously! Hyacinth Steele, thinkdesign

    1. Thanks, Hyacinth! We are lucky to work in a field where so many people share generously. I have been helped by many others, and I think it’s important for me to pay that forward.

  7. Michael Litant

    Full agreement Christy! When I tell someone that I’ve written compliance courses and they make the “Ewww!” face at the thought, I explain that my compliance training involves people making choices in a realistic situation–sometimes under customer or peer pressure–and what results from those choices. Like you, I’ve used the newspaper headline. In one case, it appears inside an employee’s thought bubble after hearing his manager explain possible consequences to the company and to the employee’s professional reputation.

    1. The thought bubble technique is another good one for showing consequences to reputation. I like that idea as well. One of the reasons I like The Lab example I shared above is that you can see the thought processes of different characters. Seeing what’s going on from different perspectives is also beneficial in shifting attitudes.

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