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Juggling Compliance And Learning Engagement: Using Humor To Humanize Your Training

What’s Necessary and What’s Engaging

Although compliance training may be a necessity for organizations–to ensure legal and regulatory adherence, mitigate risks, and maintain a company culture of integrity—it isn’t known for being engaging. The typical training video or eLearning course often fails to capture learners’ attention or foster any measurable behavior change. Almost universally, learners find the training to be dry and boring. It’s no surprise that the goal is stereotypically to “check the box” and receive your completion.  

“Whoever thought a safety compliance course could be funny?” –Client Design Lead

There is another way. At AllenComm, our compliance training experts often use real-world scenarios to increase relevance. They also leverage executive endorsements to establish priority, and even contextualize compliance training as part of a broader learner journey. But, after decades of experience working directly with various compliance executives or general counsels, our go-to strategy is usually not to resort to humor. After all, risk is often not a laughing matter.  

Knowing When To Crack a Joke 

But every accepted practice has an exception, right? There are times when you can inject humor into compliance training. For example, AllenComm recently worked with a major insurance company to create a compliance training program that would be both impactful and humorous. Knowing how far to push somewhat humorous scenarios can be as much art as science. What did we learn in the process? Here are few things we’ll take with us to our next compliance project:  

  1. Know Your Audience: The humor should be specific to the culture and context. You must know who you’re talking to. And you need much more than demographic information. This includes How participants feel about particular compliance topics and the organization’s policies. Where they are skeptical and resistant. What they think about team members who cross the line. And whether the organization has experienced any recent compliance issues for which it may be too soon to consider humor.  
  2. Laughing at Oneself Is Better Than Laughing at Others: Learners need to be able to recognize themselves in the scenarios and situations presented. People don’t mind laughing at themselves and their own attitudes. They’ll be very uncomfortable laughing about others. You want to play off common misconceptions and the most obvious trespasses so that learners see themselves in the scenario and can smile at their past behaviors. With our recent client, this meant taking legacy training content on safety and poking fun at the outdated thinking. We had characters saying things that would not typically be vocalized, such as rationalizing clearly unsafe practices to a colleague. In our example, when learners meet Janice, a character who downplays potentially dangerous situations, it’s clearly ironic when she points out that it’s just broken glass or just a hole in the ceiling.  By exaggerating common attitudes or non-compliant practices and by making it clear that the humor is intentional, learners have permission to smile.  Of course, we can all relate to the unintentional humor of compliance programs of the past (anti-harassment training has been plagued with this for years and is likely not good subject matter to introduce humor). 
  3. Use Visuals to Set the Tone. One thing we did to establish a context for intentional humor was to use illustrated, cartoon-looking characters. Placing these characters in a recognizable work setting specific to the learner environment will provide relevance while the juxtaposition will again signal that it’s okay to smile. We’ve heard multiple compliance officers request visuals that show characters going to jail for violating anti-money laundering or anti-bribery policies. One of these stakeholders got behind the idea of a comic or graphic novel approach to portraying the scenarios. 
  4. Engage Without Detracting. Of course, without the right touch, humor might engage learners at the expense of the training. It’s important to ask what the humor is accomplishing from the standpoint of objectives. Is it helping them to understand real-world consequences—or encouraging them to regard the policy as silly or foolish? Making light of the requirements or of the policy itself will definitely backfire and undermine the value of the program. Instead of making light of the topic, use humor to demonstrate that it’s a mistake, a risk, or a danger to treat the topic lightly. 
  5. Collaborate Closely with the Experts. You’ll need to make good friends with your compliance subject-matter experts (SMEs). They’ll be skeptical of the approach and will need to understand the value of striking a different tone with the training that they do according to the organization’s standard operating procedure (SOP) or handbook. You may need to help your stakeholders understand that the job of the training isn’t to establish or define the policy, it’s to change behavior. 
  6. Test, Refine, and Repeat. One of the best ways to test out your sense of humor before blasting it out to the entire enterprise is to try it out beforehand. User testing shouldn’t just be about navigation—it should also encompass reactions to the content, activities, and visuals. Rather than a simple questionnaire, you might need a focus group to quiz your group of sample learners about their opinions and reactions. They’ll tell you if it goes too far.  

Because learners understand compliance training as “rules you have to follow,” they’ll already be predisposed to dislike it. This was certainly true for the insurance company we’ve been using as an example. We knew their audience vehemently resented the legacy programs. In instances like that, you can be doomed before you start, or you can flip the narrative by giving them something they do not expect.  

Employees often believe the training to be a waste of time because the class or tutorial focuses on the policy instead of focusing on real-world decision-making. At its root, most compliance training is about critical thinking and decision-making. If you’re interested in learning more about how you might leverage humor to raise the engagement for your next compliance initiative, schedule a call and we’ll connect you to one of our experts.