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Risky Business: Why Compliance Training Fails

This last May, Dan Farr Productions, the events and marketing group behind the most attended comic and pop-culture convention in the state of Utah, found itself in trouble. After one of the co-founders of FanX Salt Lake Comic Con made a comment that the Utah author community saw as defending a guest facing sexual harassment allegations, tensions escalated until they reached a breaking point, which got media attention after celebrities and guests began pulling their support for the convention.

This debacle was of particular interest to us at AllenComm, not just because we’re Utah-based and largely self-identified geeks, but also because of its relevance to developing compliance training. As we discussed last week, compliance training is a protective measure meant to build trust—both between management and employees, and between the company and its customer base. If it succeeds, it can keep your company’s Google search results free of condemning headlines and, more importantly, build an ethical culture that drives engagement.

When we see stories about companies like FanX, or Wells Fargo, or Chipotle, (and really, the list goes on and on,)  we ask ourselves why ethics and compliance issues are so rampant. To call it a sign of the times is misleading—shifting cultural values and the spread of information through the internet simply mean that the scandals that were already there are being brought to light. What’s more likely is that the standards the business world has held for compliance training aren’t enough. The good news is that by identifying the factors causing compliance to fail, you can take action to keep your company from becoming the next PR disaster.

Avoiding Compliance Training Pitfalls

Here are a few factors that can contribute to the risks your company may face.

  • Skimping on training—or opting out entirely

Compliance training is hardly the most exciting way to be spending L&D budget, but the temptation to meet the minimum legal requirements can have devastating consequences when the company is later faced with fines, lawsuits, or bad press.

According to Harvard Business Review, poorly-designed or implemented compliance training programs don’t often improve employee behavior, and may even negatively impact the workplace. Low-quality compliance training comes across as insincere and inapplicable to an employee’s workday, and may very well fall flat. Investing in training that is thoughtful, impactful, and authentic drives high quality, which leads to much better results.

  • Losing the chance to connect with real company culture

It’s easy for a disconnect to develop between upper management—especially those in executive roles—and those they manage.  This can lead to a one-size-fits-all type of compliance training with a general script that doesn’t meet the company’s specific needs. Without a two-way communication channel established, important information may not be passed on until it’s too late.

Your employees need to see that their management is every bit on board with compliance policies as they are expected to be. Leading by example sets the tone for your workplace’s attitude toward the material and ensures that the message is taken seriously. It also builds trust in the work environment though consistency and transparency.

  • Missing out on the follow through

Your compliance training program establishes your company’s ideals and commitments, but simply stating them isn’t enough. It doesn’t matter how engaging and relevant your compliance training is if your employees don’t believe they will actually be held accountable, or if they feel that speaking out about unethical behavior will put them at risk. And, as with any training, without a method to help it stick in your team’s minds, policy may be forgotten in favor of old habits.

Actually addressing issues embedded deep in company culture is difficult and can result in pushback, especially from those who may have been benefitting from questionable behavior. It can be tempting to allow for exceptions, whether to bump up the bottom line or to retain an employee whose work is great but behavior isn’t, but the message that sends is counterintuitive and actively harmful.


As for the fate of FanX Salt Lake Comic Con, it remains to be seen. In response to media backlash, the company announced an updated policy on harassment and a leave of absence for the responsible party. Public reactions currently range from relief to skepticism, but that may change over time depending on whether the new policy stands the test of time. The rest of us can take the initiative to learn from scandals past and apply those lessons to the training we develop going forward.

Now that we’ve issued some pretty dire warnings about what not to do, what can you do to develop a successful compliance training program? Our next entry in this series will discuss how to leverage technology and the modern workforce to make compliance something to actually get excited about. Be sure to check it out!