Effective Compliance Trainers Treat People Like Adults

In his May 2nd “Compliance Perspectives” podcast, the SCCE’s Adam Turteltaub had an interesting chat with Steve Priest of Integrity Insight International. Amongst other topics, they discussed that a main failure of Compliance trainings has been treating employees “like children”, teaching them rules over rules, to best remember them by heart and telling them not to do this and this and that… Priest argued instead for a more “prosocial” approach, rooted in insights from behavioral science and psychology, which would also help employees engage better with their companies overall.

As an aside: I learned from a colleague that some years ago my Company took a rough inventory of it’s internal rules and ended up at a figure of more than 35.000 rules. How should anyone ever be sure to fully comply with them all… or better, not to violate any of them unintentionally.

In Germany, the federal tax administration has some years ago given up on the complexity of the enourmous system of rules and exceptions. Their employee association issued a statement that they could only (and barely) ensure that those rules applied to each taxable case would be applied correctly; but they would not give assurance that all pertinent rules were applied to each case or that the rules were applied consistently (meaning fairly) between two different cases.

Which serves to underscore that rules can get in the way of good judgment and can even obstruct good decision-making.

But I digress… Back to treating grown-up people like adults.

I had to think of this SCCE podcast when I came across two LinkedIn posts today that also touched on effective training. The first being one of the many articles written these days about the updated DOJ Guidance regarding the effectiveness of corporate compliance programs – in this particular instance it was this post on Michael Volkov’s blog – and the second being an at first sight unrelated post of a TEDx talk on children’s education: “Critical thinking is a 21st-century essential — here’s how to help kids learn it.”

Updated Guidance from the DOJ

First, let’s take a look at Michael Volkov’s summary of the updated DOJ guidance for effective compliance programs. Effective, appropriately tailored training and communications is one of the hallmarks of a well-designed compliance program. In making an evaluation of a company’s compliance program, (emphasis added by me)

Prosecutors, in short, should examine whether the compliance program is being disseminated to, and understood by, employees in practice in order to decide whether the compliance program is “truly effective.” – DOJ

 In delivering training programs and communications, companies are advised to “tailor” such information to the “audience’s size, sophistication, or subject matter expertise.”  As an example, DOJ cites companies providing real-life examples and scenarios to underscore and highlight prior compliance incidents.  … DOJ asks whether training has been provided to “relevant control functions,” “high risk and control employees,” and “supervisory employees.”  The implication of these listed subjects is that the company has to properly tailor its training program to employees based on risk and control functions, including supervisors.  On more specific issues, DOJ cites the need to provide training in language appropriate for the audience, in what form (online or in-person) and the reason for that decision, including testing of employees.

Michael Volkov’s Blog

In order to tailor our trainings to our audience, we first need to understand

  1. WHO our audience is;
  2. WHAT we expect them to DO (or how we want them to behave);and
  3. WHAT they need to understand and KNOW (at a minimum) in order to do do so.

(I have borrowed here from the blog of Broadcat with the emphasized additions from myself.)

As also emphasized by the DOJ above, we need to focus on understanding, not only on knowledge. At the same time, we also don’t want to overdo it and make ethics & compliance professionals out of all employees by giving them a compliance “education” (see this blog post from Broadcat on the important difference between training and education).

And here it is that I connected this topic when I came upon the TEDx talk on children’s education.

Aside on German education

As a background information: I am German but live in Turkey with my wife and our three kids. Talking to other parents I am often surprised at how highly regarded the German education system is. As a critically thinking German, I could immediately list a number of deficiencies in the system, but that’s not the point here… or is it. But it’s not about the school system but about the German cultural tradition underlying my education that dates back to German philosophers like Kant and Hegel: the principles of critical thinking. I cannot recall having had a single multiple-choice test in my entire school career. The objective of any school exam was never to test rote knowledge, to get a correct solution, but to understand the way of thinking and the method of getting to the solution. From about 7th grade, we were taught to write essays discussion topics critically, listing and weighing pros and cons and finally arriving at our own answer to a complex question. One of the highest achievements in the middle school years we were encouraged to do was to “transfer” where we would apply methods and principles from a different subject matter to an entirely new problem. Equally, we were encouraged and later required to take and defend our own position to complex and controversial topics. (I still recall that my English teacher’s comment to an essay I wrote in my last year of high school on the history of Scottish independence efforts from England. In closing I had written – in 1994 – that maybe the newly formed European Union would offer Scotland a chance for a new kind of independence and more autonomy from England. My teacher somewhat condescendingly praised my effort to take a critical position on the future prospects of the subject matter as an author. I had to smile and remember this when Scotland voted on independence from the UK during the ongoing Brexit process.)

Critical thinking enables better understanding

So if you now ask yourself how I will tie all this back to effective compliance training, here’s how. For our training to be effective, we need to focus on more than just knowledge and recalling rules and facts. We need to focus un understanding. With understanding, we can train not only rules but also underlying principles, thus reducing the need for some rules and enabling our employees to arrive at their own, compliant answers to complex ethical dilemmas. We need to treat the people we train as adults and not as children; whereas even children should not be treated as fact-absorbing knowledge-reproduction machines.

Here’s how the TEDx talk expressed it:

If we want our children to have flexible minds that can readily absorb new information and respond to complex problems, he says, we need to develop their critical thinking skills.

In adult life, we all have to deal with questions that are a lot more complicated than those found on a multiple-choice test … with questions that don’t necessarily have one correct answer. This is more realistic of the types of situations that they’re likely to face [in real life] when they… go beyond the bare facts.

The last sentence sounds so similar to what we are constantly discussing in Compliance, when we deliberate how to enable people to make better informed decisions.

Incorporating critical thinking into training

In order to get people – be it kids or adults – on the right track for this kind of thinking, the recommended four questions from the TEDx talk are:

  1. Go beyond “what?” (Reproduction of knowledge factoids) and ask “how?” and “why?” (focussing on process and causal thinking). As an example, instead of asking kids “What is climate change?” one could ask “How will climate change affect how we live?” or “Why should our region in particular worry about climate change?”
  2. Follow up with “How do you know this?” to require them to reflect on their previous statement and asses their information sources.
  3. “How would another person see this?” Encourange them to consider how other people may have a different perspective from their specific circumstances. Teach them to reframe their thinking.
  4. Ask them how they would solve the problem. Don’t frame it too broadly, though, but focus in on the root causes they have identified before. “How could you think we can address cause X of climate change?”

This kind of critical thinking approach can be incorporated into adult learning, in particular compliance training, as well.

Instead of focussing on teaching people a system of rules and limits for what kind of hospitality to a business partner or client is allowed, we could first ask them “What is a bribe?” and “Why is it problematic in your position?” and “In which situations could you run into a dilemma where you might enter a gray area?”. Then follow up by asking “How do you know if you are in a bribery risky situation or not?” and encourage to change the frame by asking “How might a third person bystander perceive this exchange?” Lastly ask them how they would solve this problem themselves and introduce a set of guiding principles and a few rules and limits as the solution of the company.

This way of thinking, starting with “Why” going on to “How” and finally “What” will result in better understanding of the idea of the rules and increase the chances of correct situational application of the rules, especially of training participants have been personally involved in discussing and reflecting the topic in their own words and with exampled from their own work reality.

Coming back to the SCCE podcast; maybe one solution for addressing the challenges of effective Ethics & Compliance lies in more professional diversity in compliance, says Priest, namely people with backgrounds and skills outside of legal and audit (I couldn’t agree more); maybe good coaches and teachers – or the occasional physicist like me.

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