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Compliance Training: Does It Have to Waste Our Time?

Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

And, isn’t it a necessary evil? Compliance means we have to put people through this whether they need it or not, right? Why talk about it? Just offer it and be done.

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Allison Rossett wrote a lovely post about looking into what can be done to improve this whole class of training.

When asked to work on training that everyone has to take because of legal, regulatory, or executive mandate, an essential question is: “What problem are we trying to solve?” 

And soon after, we should ask this: “How would we know we’ve solved it?”

If There’s a Problem

Here are two of the kinds of problems that trigger requests (demands) for compliance training:

  1. There are new (or old) regulations (laws, guidelines, rules) and our people have no idea how to follow them.
  2. Our folks have been doing a bunch of noncompliant things. This has resulted in (or will likely result in) rule-breaking, warnings, fines, lawsuits, employee turnover, or customer dissatisfaction.

Why don’t they just comply? Potential reasons why people aren’t being (or aren’t able to be) compliant along with actions that might solve the problem (more than one cause may apply):

  • Never heard of the new rules
    • Information will help.
  • Didn’t know they were important
    • Provide communication and/or management support.
  • Everyone else is doing it this (wrong) way
    • Managers must model and support the right way.
  • My manager told us to do it this (wrong) way
    • Senior managers must model the right way and hold their managers accountable for doing and expecting the same.
  • Can’t be compliant & still get our work done (at all, on time, in sufficient quantity or quality)
    • Address priorities, work design, and/or staffing issues.
  • Don’t have the data, tools, equipment, processes, or other necessary factors to do this like we’re supposed to
    • Obtain management support to provide required elements or to redesign workflows.
  • Regulations are contradictory, so we don’t know what to do
    • This case may require training. Get a ruling about what to do in common contradictory circumstances and provide examples (possibly in the form of a job aid) of what to do and what not to do. Provide training if practice & feedback are required. Give contact information for expert advice when you’re not sure about the right path to follow. 
  • Don’t know how to be compliant
    • If information or a job aid won’t suffice, then provide training. Teach people how to follow regulations in situations they will usually encounter, where to look up unusual cases, and where to go for help. 

Here’s the thing: most reasons for noncompliance do not require training, but you may be required to provide it anyway. Regardless, you should:

  1. Make sure you address the actual causes for noncompliance, and if training is not required, but mandatory, try to make the training as painless as possible (see below for some ideas).
  2. If training is required before people can achieve the right performance, then be sure to address any other issues as well. It may not be your job to fix some of these causes, but if you want the training to be successful, be sure someone is addressing them. Training alone is often not enough.

If There Isn’t a Problem

Let’s say that nobody is breaking the rules. Everyone knows what to do. We haven’t had a complaint or run up against problems in this area, nor do we think they are likely. However, we have to offer this training because it’s required, and we can’t get out of it.

So, how to make the best of this mandated situation? Here are some ideas:

  • Make the training as short as possible.
  • Let people test out of the training (if allowed).
  • Highlight relevant cases where people did the right or wrong thing.
  • Cover nuances that don’t usually come up—but they could—especially where learning about outliers will help people to follow the more basic rules.
  • Hold at least part of the training as a forum (live or online) where people can discuss real situations and how best to handle them.
  • If the training must be offered repeatedly (every year, for example), offer the basics for first timers. Give experienced folks a quick review and more advanced examples after that.
  • Use the training to teach existing employees how to help new people master the rules.

Most of us hope to provide training only when people need it. Whether needed or not, we should strive to make the training as useful and relevant as we can.

And of course we must always keep our aim on the desired performance, which includes helping people to do the right thing and to stay out of trouble. Training alone will not solve motivational, organizational, process, or logistical issues. When we find issues that cannot be solved by training, then we must (at least) let the right people know.


Post: Compliance Training: Doing Something about the Least Popular Training on Earth

Post: From Memory—Or Not


What’s one thing you’d recommend to improve compliance training?

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  • clare

    Well done, Jeanne. I just wish our ‘instructional designers’ for the mandatory training at work would employ some of your suggestions. We’re now up to 16 courses/yr – that are mandated. None allow you to ‘test out.’ Often, it requires more than an hour to get through the course. We do what we have to do; we accept this is about compliance not about learning.

    • ajeanne

      Thanks, Clare. I’ve taken my fair share of compliance training—some of those courses would be excellent candidates to win a “what not to do when designing training” award. I wish we could influence people to make those courses better, too. I’m thinking 16 hours x however many people = too much time a year if the training doesn’t add value.