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ATD Blog

Rethinking Compliance Training

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

“Compliance training is awful.”
“It is a necessary evil.”
“It’s the same boring courses year after year. Nobody likes it.”

If these statements ring true about your compliance training, there may be a team of instructional designers who could have done a better job of designing the courses.

I understand—compliance training isn’t easy to make exciting. However, presenting material in a way that resonates with the learner is one of the ways instructional designers add value to our organizations, right?

In my opinion, compliance training is one of the greatest opportunities that we have to build unity and improve upon the employee’s experience. Why? For the exact reasons listed above. The majority of compliance training has been less than pleasant for many. Few people, if any, are excited when they are assigned a compliance e-learning course.

Too many organizations look at compliance training as “required” and a “check-the-box” activity. This leads to a design approach of telling the employees what they should and should not do. I believe these negative reactions and our approach to this type of training can change.


Too often, the mindset around compliance training stems from its purpose—to tell employees what the legal department, policy team, or C-suite executives require. These groups dictate the content and presentation. A designer’s job is to provide information that supports employee growth and performance. Through analysis we determine what information the learner needs. We then design engaging and interactive content that our learners can relate to. Do we go through that same process for our compliance training? We don’t, but we should.

First, let’s avoid calling it compliance training. Compliance is about conforming, acquiescing, and yielding. What makes each of our companies successful and effective is our diversity of thought and the uniqueness of the individuals on our teams. Having a diverse group of employees comply with a company standard seems restrictive and contradictory. However, we do need a set of agreed upon standards that our teams can expect and count on. Then, our differences become inclusionary, a way to build unity.


Compliance training is about defining the behaviors we want our employees to demonstrate. It shouldn’t be about adherence to policies and dos and don’ts. It’s not engaging or fun to tell an employee everything they shouldn’t do (for example, harass co-workers or share confidential information); it’s much more beneficial to say, “We stand for these principles, and we expect you to do this, and in return, you can expect the organization to put in place processes to support and protect these principles.”

It’s about communicating what is important to our organizations and what that looks like on a daily basis as well as communicating the DNA of our organizations and how each employee—with all their unique attributes—is a strand in that DNA. We help to define our organization for our employees, giving a behind-the-scenes look at who and what our organization is and aspires to be.

If we’re successful, in the end, our company’s compliance training shouldn’t be applicable to any other organization. It should be the most customized training we create.

To learn more, join me at ATD TechKnowledge 2021 for the session Compliance Training Is Boring . . . Because We’ve Designed It That Way.

About the Author

Marc Donelson is a senior manager of curriculum design at Charter Communications. He started his career as an e-learning developer, and during the past 20 years, has moved into roles as an instructional designer and performance consultant. During this time, his success has come from balancing new approaches of supporting learners with a company’s culture to adopt new ideas. This is a mindset that Donelson’s design team now uses throughout its projects. (Note: Charter Communications is a Fortune 100 telecom company better known by its consumer-facing Spectrum brand.)

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