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Fast Company

Your Compliance Training Sucks, And Here’s How To Fix It

By Art Markman | 4-min read

It’s kind of amazing that you clicked on an article with “compliance training” in the headline, such is the revulsion with which that experience is typically–and often deservedly–greeted. But it’s a good thing you did. The policies covered in most compliance-training programs are extremely important for keeping the organization from violating laws and regulations, not to mention preserving a safe, inclusive work culture.

So it’s all the bigger shame that the way employees tend to be taught about those policies is frequently so tedious and rarely leads the desired outcomes. Here’s why–and what it takes to rethink a more effective training experience.

“All At Once” Often Fails

A lot of compliance training typically happens during the onboarding process. Within a new hire’s first week or two, they’ll be bombarded with information about how the organization works, plus lots of policies covering harassment, workplace relationships, and conflicts of interest. Often they’re just thrown an employee handbook and told to ask if they have any questions. Other times employees are assigned a full day of lectures, where a different person talks about a different topic for an hour at a time. It’s hard to keep all this information straight, let alone pay attention to it.

The fix: Slow it all down. If you’re an employer or HR officer, stop front-loading. Slow the training process down, spreading it out over a month or two. If you’re a new hire, you can slacken the pace of intake yourself. Take the materials that get dumped on you and keep them handy. Once a week during a slow time (like Friday at 4 p.m.), pull out one resource and look over it more closely.

It’s hard to really envision how these processes and policies will fit into a work life that you haven’t properly experienced yet. So lengthening out the time it takes to familiarize yourself can make abstract policies feel more concrete–and actually leave you with important questions to ask.

People Don’t Learn Passively

To minimize the disruption from employees’ work duties, compliance training is often set up to be done passively. My own employer requires my colleagues and me to complete a number of compliance modules each year, typically in the form of online modules followed by a short quiz. The problem is that people don’t learn much this way.

The fix: Practice the action, don’t just review the theory. Decades of psychology research tells us that you have to process information deeply in order to remember it. Even if you remember what you’ve been told, you’re unlikely to perform particular actions in a particular situation unless you have a chance to practice those actions. After all, nobody learns to shoot a free-throw by listening to a lecture; you have to get out there and do it.

Compliance training is meant to encourage certain actions and discourage others, but there’s very little action-taking at all in the learning process. Unfortunately, your brain generally assumes that the information it encounters passively (i.e. without taking any action) isn’t that important, so it’s hard to recall when you actually need it. Role-playing exercises or in-person dialogues, on the other hand, give employees a chance to talk through hypothetical scenarios. The goal is to take people away from just reading text on a screen, often in isolation, and dramatize the actual steps they’re expected to take in a given situation.

“Just Do It” Is A Bad Reason

The people who create policies and procedures typically know why they created them and what they mean, and assume others will, too. As a result, employees seldom hear really solid explanations for why a certain policy is the way it is.

This is a problem, because understanding why something works a certain way is crucial to taking it seriously. Each year I fill out a financial conflict of interest disclosure, asking me to list any outside entity that I have a financial interest with (including publishers of books or companies I may consult for). There isn’t generally much of an explanation about why the form needs to be filled out at all; there are a lot of definitions meant to help me complete it accurately, but not much context.

The fix: Always give a “why.” Fortunately, I’ve been briefed on that context, and it makes all the difference: Since I’m an academic, this form helps external reviewers who may audit my research for evidence that it’s been affected by other work I’m doing. Simply knowing this purpose gives me a chance to reflect on my own biases. By being explicitly aware of sources of funds that I receive, I can pay closer attention to my own actions. And understanding the potential consequences of failing to do that gives me a reason to take the process seriously.

Less Is More

Finally, compliance training tends to overrun employees with minutiae, making it hard to know which bits of information are the most important. As a result, the most crucial lessons often get lost in a sea of details.

The fix: Emphasize what matters most. If you’re presenting information to others, whatever you focus on is what they’ll remember. HR officers who deliver training programs shouldn’t hesitate to underscore certain ideas relative to others (even though, technically, it all matters). And as an employee, if aced with a flood of information about compliance, you should simply try to answer three questions:

  1. What specific actions am I supposed to take?
  2. Why do these actions make the workplace a better place?
  3. What specific cues in my work environment should trigger me to do something?

Keep these three questions in mind throughout the training process, and you’ll find the material a lot less forgettable–no matter how aggravating the actual learning experience might be.


This article was written by Art Markman from Fast Company and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to