Does your compliance training make an ethical difference?

Training takes a large slice of of most companies’ compliance budgets, anything from a quarter to a half. So is it effective? [1]

Measuring training effectiveness remains a weakness of many conventional L&D programmes and Black hole for moneycompliance and ethical training seems no different.  However, the escalating cost of compliance work is worrying senior managers. Many see the present situation as a black hole into which resources keep being relentless absorbed.

There are growing pressures on organisations to take a critical look at their compliance training. For example the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organisations requires them to “evaluate the effectiveness” of their compliance and ethics programs.

Similarly, the OECD Good Practice Guideline for Internal Controls suggests periodic reviews “to evaluate and improve” program effectiveness”, while the UK Bribery Act demands that an organisation “monitors and reviews procedures designed to prevent bribery” and make “improvements where necessary.”

To make more sense of training for compliance it is therefore only a matter of time before those charged with promoting an ethical culture will expect as matter of routine to see:

  • An explicit budget for any compliance training investment
  • Clear criteria for assessing its effectiveness
  • Evidence the resulting training actually delivers

Currently, the main way of judging the effectiveness of compliance learning programmes is by completion rates. In one US study for example nearly one in four responders said this was how they measured effectiveness in training.”

measuring compliance effectiveness6

Completion though is a poor way on which to judge training, let alone compliance and ethical awareness. It’s not much better, in fact, than the largely discredited happy sheets that still prevail in so many places for delivery of conventional learning and development. [2].

When it comes to compliance and ethics training, this needs solid evidence of actual changes in behaviour. Handing out a code of conduct and obtaining a signature confirming an employee has read it for example, is not training.

For the average employee, the actual amount of compliance training tends to be minimal, lasting just a few hours and usually with a strong focus on the minutiae of codes and rules.

amount of compliance training

This sort of “training” is almost bound to fail. No amount of training will ensure someone knows all the rules, or can even follow them religiously. Real effectiveness means people absorb the essential underlying ethical message:

“in this organisation these are our values, we make them stick and we want you to live by them.”

So what is proper evaluation?

As a minimum therefore evaluation of compliance learning means conducting an audit to ensure employees grasp the organization’s ethical climate, not merely understand the prevailing rules.This involves more than box checking. Pure quantification here is less significant than you might suppose. To put the issues at its simplest:

Culture trumps compliance every time”   trumps

It’s far more about discovering whether people feel comfortable reporting potential violations of the organization’s policies or the law, discovering how they view the organization’s commitment to compliance, and extracting from them whether there are risks the program is failing to address.

As a result of the learning for example, evaluators may need to ask: “is there more use of help lines; are supervisors facing more questions about compliance and ethical issues,  do people feel more confident speaking out about possible ethical abuses; are they comfortable talking to a compliance officer about ethical concerns that may arise?”

More specifically, the learning must translate into improved ethical conduct and a commitment to compliance within the law. Longer-term there must be credible evidence that actual ethical abuses and wrong doing are being actively tackled, and in some cases reducing–even when these cannot be directly attribute to a specific set of learning events.

As indicated earlier an important aspect of evaluating any compliance or ethical training is recognising it’s essentially about achieving a cultural shift. Naturally there must still be the basics—such as regular training on dealing with sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying, safety and so on.

No one is immune

Everybody in the organisation must experience the ethics and compliance learning programme, regardless of their position in the hierarchy. Rigorous checks must ensure no one escapes.

In one US University for example, year-after-year a lecturer kept avoiding the ethics training until it became a standing joke. His avoidance was well known and tended to undermine any evaluation of the program. Eventually the reluctant academic was confronted and told—“attend or resign.”

Dov Charney firedDov Charney, the notorious CEO fired recently from American Apparel was similarly allowed to  bi-pass the company’s sexual harassment training, mandated by law.

Over a sustained period he reportedly violated the company’s Code of Ethics by continually disrespecting employees with derogatory remarks. Had he taken the anti-harassment training he might have learned something and still kept his job.

At a recent conference on Ethics and Compliance an expert on privacy told how his boss was reminded to attend the mandatory session on data protection. “I’m far too busy” complained the chief. When reminded the training was required for everyone he spluttered “Look, can’t I just pay you to take the training for me?”

Prioritise values, culture and the “other stuff”.

It’s vital compliance and ethical training deals not just with the basics of codes and rules, but with mission, vision and values. In particular, evaluation means supervisors and middle managers must be seen to be comfortable talking regularly with their people about values and “the way we do things round here”.

In some organisation this process is built into regular team meetings, and scheduled interactive sessions deal with ethical dilemmas people may encounter in their work. Again systematic evaluation can check to ensure these happen regularly.

tone at the topCheck on awareness and communication campaigns

Senior management often have an exaggerated view of their own effectiveness at communicating and influencing employees, especially around values and compliance.

The unspoken message back from employees is commonly: “

Just because you’ve said it, doesn’t mean we’ll do it!”

comply!Build ethical behaviour into normal performance appraisals.

Samuel Johnson of English dictionary fame, famously remarked “when a man knows he’s about to be hanged…it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Something similar applies to achieving an impact with ethical and compliance training. When employees know they’ll be judged regularly on how far they’ve absorbed the ethics messages and whether they’ve put them into practice, the result is likely to promote improved behavioural change.

Since most practising managers hate doing performance reviews the best approach is to expect managers to assess performance both informally and regularly, rather than a once or twice yearly appraisal process.

Looking for tangible evidence to show the ethical and compliance training is working can test the ingenuity of even those most keen on the program. It may take a whole bunch of evaluation tools to produce a reliable picture confirming key messages are getting through. These might include: audits reports, risk assessments, survey results, help line data, training investigations, HR data such as exist interviews and so on.

Another basis for evaluation is making direct comparisons against a peer group, looking at the best practices across industries, and drawing on those who have been in the trenches, including outside experts.


For compliance training to be effective it must become more than creating rule awareness. Instead, it should be an invaluable way to promote the organisation’s ethical culture. That is, an ongoing process of continuous improvement, protecting its reputation and re-enforcing its values.

Such a programme is a crucial investment in the organisation’s long term survival. Treating it purely a cost is extremely short sighted.  Still, few people would deny that measuring its effectiveness is tricky. Which probably explains why a report published by Compliance Week and PwC a few years back found more than a third (38%) of respondents said they didn’t measure the effectiveness of their programs at all.

Finally,  here are seven essentials for ensuring ethics training delivers the goods


Evaluation is not an optional extra, nor is it simply a cost overhead.  It can help an organization better manage its risks and prioritize its goals and can be judged like any other investment.


1 See for example:
E. Olaoye and S. Gittleman, Effective training a weak link in many compliance programs – survey, August 13, 2014
The 4 Lever Formula: Elevating Your Compliance Training Effectiveness, CEB (60 mins)
K. Kroll, Measuring the Effectiveness of Compliance, Compliance Week April 2012


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