As the global pandemic shuffles into endemic status and organizations begin bringing their employees back into the workplace, many L&D managers are turning their attention to all those “compliance” courses and policies that must be updated to reflect new ways of working.

Employees were generally unmotivated to take their “compliance training” before enduring a two-year pandemic, despite the best efforts of L&D teams to make them interesting. After watching firsthand how being told to comply does not always lead to people complying—even when their life is at stake—perhaps it’s time to reframe the notion of “compliance” training for better results.

Let’s be honest: who among us is motivated to take training that teaches us how to “conform, submit, or adapt as required” (to quote Merriam Webster)? Not me, and I’m betting not you either, dear reader. Most of us want training that inspires, surprises, and leaves us eager to put into practice what we’ve just learned (or unlearned)—not training with a label that leads with a threat.

Let’s remember the “why” of compliance training: our societal and workplace values

Compliance training, the bread and butter of L&D’s offerings, covers topics that are usually derived from national laws, which is why the organization is obliged to “comply” with requirements related to occupational health and safety, workplace violence prevention, anti-money laundering, and here in Canada, official languages and accessibility.

Of course, it is a very good thing to live in a society that has agreed upon occupational health and safety laws that oblige workplaces to protect their employees from hazards and harassment, for example. It’s easy to forget just how many countries do not value safety in the workplace. Indeed, the International Labour Organization estimates that 2.3 million people die of work-related accidents or diseases every year: that’s 6,000 deaths every day.

Unfortunately, with its “compliance” label, most occupational health and safety training waves a threatening stick at employees, rather than offering a carrot of safer workplaces that prioritize employees’ health and wellbeing.

Let’s rename compliance courses as organizational values and culture

I contend that compliance training could actually contribute to employees’ satisfaction and motivation in the workplace—if it were renamed.

Specifically, if we were to reframe “compliance” training as reminders of organizational values and culture, the uptake—and results—would likely improve.

Is replacing “compliance” with “culture” too big a leap? I don’t think so, and neither does crowd-sourced Wikipedia. Consider its definition of compliance training as “the process of educating employees on laws, regulations, and company policies that apply to their day-to-day job responsibilities.”

The article goes on to note that organizations that engage in compliance training typically aim to accomplish four goals:

  1. Avoiding and detecting violations by employees that could lead to legal liability for the organization;
  2. Creating a more hospitable and respectful workplace;
  3. Laying the groundwork for a partial or complete defense in the event that employee wrongdoing occurs despite the organization's training efforts; and
  4. Adding business value and a competitive advantage.

The current emphasis on the first and third goals is part of the problem, as they frame compliance courses in a negative light that presupposes wrongdoing on the part of employees. This helps explain why compliance training courses are usually perceived as unpleasant: threats are, after all, unpleasant. And if we’ve learned nothing else from the pandemic, we know that threatening people to do the right thing isn’t always effective.

But if L&D teams were to reframe compliance courses with the second goal top of mind, namely “Creating a (more) hospitable and respectful workplace”, employees would likely be much more receptive to taking training that demonstrates and reinforces their workplace values.

For instance, a standard occupational health and safety course could be retitled “Staying Safe at Work”; Canadian “Official Languages Courses” could be offered as “Speaking to Others in a Language They Understand”, with both courses tagged as being part of workplace values and culture.

After all, most employees want work that reflects their core values and gives them a sense of belonging with other like-minded people.

If we were to connect organizational compliance courses to our shared workplace values, employees might, just might, be more willing to complete them on time…and perhaps even “comply” with the values, culture, and expectations those courses espouse.