“Your compliance training sucks, and here’s how to fix it,” read a Fast Company headline in April. Art Markman, a professor and the founding director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote that while “the policies covered in most compliance-training programs are extremely important … the way employees tend to be taught about those policies is frequently … tedious and rarely leads [to] the desired outcomes.”

Training on topics such as racial bias and sexual harassment are known for being ineffective or even backfiring. However, as media reports have recently indicated, they are increasingly important for companies to acquire and retain talent and customers. One problem, says Ronnie Feldman, president of L&E Creative, is that compliance training managers are so afraid of offending learners that the training gets “watered down.” “The result,” he says, “is that most of the corporate training content that’s out there is boring, preachy and turns people off.” Learners leave training with a negative impression of the organization’s culture and the people who manage training and compliance – defeating the purpose of the training in the first place.

Engaging Employees During Onboarding

A significant component of onboarding is typically compliance training, and Markman notes that it usually consists of information overload. He recommends spreading it out over one or two months. Feldman also expects that onboarding will be a key use case for his company’s new training program, “Workplace Tonight,” a “comedic micro-learning series” of satirical news desk-style training videos exploring compliance topics such as harassment and discrimination, bribery and corruption, conflicts of interest, privacy, the importance of speaking up, and ethical leadership, as well as industry-specific videos for pharmaceutical and medical device companies.

Onboarding is a new employee’s first impression of his or her new employer, and it’s usually “dry and boring and awful,” Feldman says. Organizations should start using onboarding and compliance training as a way to “empower employees,” to demonstrate that they can help shape organizational culture and that they have access to an abundance of resources to support them, including their HR and compliance teams.

Context and Variety Are Key

Markman says it’s important to always provide a reason why employees are participating in the training. “Understanding why something works a certain way is crucial to taking it seriously,” he writes. Feldman agrees, saying that it’s important to include the rationale behind training in the program.

“Don’t hang your hat on one thing,” says Feldman. No single approach to compliance training will succeed with a diverse workforce. “The best way to engage that workforce is through variety and surprise.” By using a variety of content and methods, “you lessen the burden of being exactly right for everybody, which is impossible.”

Feldman adds that it’s important to be self-aware. You know your employees don’t want to participate in compliance training, so acknowledge the way they feel. You’ll build trust and credibility that way. He also quotes actor, writer and comedy teacher Del Close: “Treat your audience like artists, poets and geniuses, and they have a better chance of becoming that.” Similarly, he says, treat your audience with respect, assuming that they are intelligent, and they “will rise to that” level. “Explain things with human language and not lawyer language,” and don’t preach. You’ll engage your learners more effectively that way.

Entertaining While Training

“The simple premise” of engaging compliance training “is that the best and most efficient way to change behavior is the power of fun,” says Ronnie Feldman. He believes that making training fun and interesting makes it more memorable. “The most effective way to engage a workforce is to borrow the entertainment conventions that people use to consume information in their everyday lives.” That includes videos, movie trailers, TV-style shows, music videos, Onion-style satirical articles, and GIFs and memes. To increase buy-in for such a new type of training, Feldman says to make sure you understand the learning science behind it. That way, “when the naysayers pop up, you have a better argument around why this [approach] is more effective.”

Just like people watch shows like “The Daily Show” or “Last Week Tonight” to be entertained but also to learn, Feldman says that “Workplace Tonight” will be used by employees to learn traditionally boring topics in a more engaging way. Other types of media, like internal advertising and GIFs or memes, can also be effective. Feldman points out that simple communications like sharing a confidential helpline are easy to create a GIF around, for example.

Taking the Next Step

Feldman points out that knowledge and understanding don’t always lead to behavior change, because culture and environment have a significant influence. “That’s why it’s important for your training and communications to be interesting and engaging – to positively influence the environment,” he says. “Plus, every employee has a workaround for answering traditional quizzes.”

On the other hand, regulatory audits may require demonstration of understanding from employees, and even if you aren’t audited, you’ll still need to know that they’re understanding and applying what they learn. Questionmark recommends such practices as secure browsers, using job task analyses to develop effective assessments, piloting questions before delivering, providing corrective feedback at the question level, and reviewing assessments at least annually and when regulations change.

Other means of evaluation include tracking engagement with content, such as click-through rates or “likes,” and culture surveys that ask employees, for example, if they’re likely to speak up when they witness unethical behavior. You can also track whether people are using ethics programs or contacting compliance or HR managers more frequently as a way to measure their awareness of offerings.

Creating engaging, effective compliance training will not only ensure employees comply with regulations and ethics standards but will also establish trust between employees and training and compliance managers. Once you’ve developed those relationships, Feldman says, “deeper education can occur.”