From the growing number and complexity of regulatory mandates to more dispersed operations and worksites to workforces that bring increasingly diverse experiences, values and conduct expectations to work — preventing workplace misconduct and meeting legal compliance requirements are increasingly difficult for most companies today.

At the same time, the pressure to navigate compliance issues well is greater than ever due to pressures from internal and external stakeholders, an increased focus on good governance from ESG (environmental, social and governance) initiatives and the heightened expectations of enforcement agencies, as demonstrated by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in its evaluation of corporate compliance programs standards for employers.

Given these challenging conditions, some organizations are considering a new approach to compliance and ethics programs: creating a culture of compliance.

What Is a Culture of Compliance?

Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, says “Culture is what people do when no one is looking.” In today’s fast-paced business world, organizations with dispersed teams are looking to embed compliance into their workplace cultures. This is especially important because it can be more challenging to keep track of compliance from a hybrid/remote work model. And the only way to ensure that everyone is behaving compliantly is to make it a part of the culture. So, what is the difference between simply having a compliance and ethics program and having a culture of compliance?

Both initiatives need compliance policies, reporting channels and training. But an organization achieves a culture of compliance when compliance is truly woven into the day-to-day fabric and ethos of the organization. This involves the winning combination of having:

  1. A compliance-first mindset,
  2. demonstrated through everyday actions, business decisions and conversations, and
  3. positively reinforced and rewarded to firmly root compliance as the norm.

The result is having all employees and leaders working together to create an environment that prevents noncompliant behaviors from happening in the first place. In other words, a culture of compliance is how all things are done all the time — not a checkmark we occasionally have to fill.

Supporting a Culture of Compliance Through Training

So how do you work toward a culture of compliance? It’s a journey that involves the implementation of mutually reinforcing elements. These elements may vary depending on the company’s needs, but often include:

  • Impactful training programs.
  • Robust policies.
  • Ongoing communication.
  • Leader role modeling and buy-in.
  • Positive reinforcement and rewards.
  • Goals and measurement of impact/progress.
  • Accountability and consistent enforcement.
  • Effective reporting channels, and
  • Commitment to non-retaliation.

Now that we know what a culture of compliance is and how to support one in your organization, let’s focus on how to create culture-focused training programs.

Culture-focused Compliance Training

Compliance training plays a critical role in driving a culture of compliance. As noted by the DOJ, training allows organizations to integrate policies and procedures more fully into their organizations. But if training content is simply a “guided reading” or overview of your policies — legal definitions, policy requirements, penalties for violations and reporting channels or if it is not reinforced through meaningful leadership support, it will not drive positive change and support a culture of compliance.

Not all compliance training is created equal. To support a culture of compliance, organizations should consider training programs and plans that contain these culture-building (but often overlooked) elements:

1.     Positive tone and approach.

Training should reflect the positive culture that the organization is trying to achieve: an environment where doing right is the norm. This may sound obvious, but many compliance trainings do the opposite: They speak to learners as potential wrongdoers in content and tone, and they predominantly focus on what employees should not do, highlighting examples of inappropriate behavior and penalties for violations.

What’s worse, research shows that training with a punitive, negative focus is ineffective at preventing misconduct and can actually lead to increased misconduct. Thus, training should focus on what employees should do to support an ethical work environment and depict the positive culture that will be created as a result. In short, the message should not be, “here’s how to stay out of trouble,” but instead, “we value a culture of ethical behavior, and here’s what each of us can do together to achieve it.”

2.     Bystander intervention skill-building.

Consistent with positive tone and approach, compliance training should also teach bystander intervention skills: techniques that give employees and supervisors the tools to speak up, ask questions, seek help and even interrupt potential misconduct before it becomes a full-blown compliance failure. Training all employees to use bystander intervention techniques is critical for creating a culture of compliance.

By equipping and encouraging all employees to use common language and tactics to respectfully and effectively address compliance issues that arise, this can create a shared sense of responsibility for compliance. Just as importantly, as more and more employees speak up and get involved when warning signs appear, those everyday actions and conversations make a positive, employee-powered culture of compliance the norm.

3.    Focus on nuanced gray areas.

Speaking of warning signs, employees are more likely to observe subtle compliance issues or red flags at work, rather than clear-cut, obvious violations. Thus, training should focus on building awareness of the nuanced warning signs of misconduct, however small, with realistic, interactive scenarios that help learners navigate “gray area” situations. This way employees will be able to recognize and quickly address relatively minor situations before they can escalate into illegal behavior, thus preventing serious harm to the company’s legal position, reputation and culture.

4.      Leader reinforcement.

Finally, leaders play a critical role in creating and modeling a culture of compliance, and one critical element of that is prioritizing — and visibly supporting — compliance training efforts. Consider having leaders complete each training a couple of weeks before their employees so they can authentically convey its importance and answer team member questions.

Normalize discussions about compliance and integrity by encouraging leaders to discuss what they learned in the training and sharing examples of how they have navigated compliance challenges in the face of competing interests or business pressures. Leaders can open team meetings by celebrating a recent example of pro-compliance behavior by a team member or someone in the organization, reinforcing compliance as a value that is key to business success.

Today’s business challenges and regulatory environment are prompting more employers to approach compliance in new ways. To prevent misconduct, mitigate risk and support a thriving business, strive to create a culture that motivates all employees to do the right thing, every day — particularly when no one is looking.