Ethics and Compliance Awareness: Confessions Of A Very Part-Time Storyteller

I’m known, at least in part, as ‘the guy who makes ethics and compliance programs fun and funny’. It’s true – I bring a little humor to most of my programs and a lot of audience engagement to every one of them.

So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

But I am.

Here’s what happens several times a year.

“We’re putting together an ethics and compliance awareness program for our employees and we don’t want to bore them. What we’d like is for you to come in and tell some interesting, entertaining stories about big ethics and compliance failures. Our folks love those kinds of stories.”

Really, it’s pretty much every speaker’s dream. Those kinds of stories are fun to tell and audiences really do love them. Plus, of course, stories ‘stick’ with audiences far better than most other presentation styles.

But then it gets even better; it takes little or no prep work, it’s a great time and, for nothing more than that, I get my not-insignificant corporate fee. What’s not to love???

So I hate always having to say no.

That whole approach, as it turns out, is a really bad idea.

Here’s what I’ve learned over many years and many, many audiences:

1. The first problem with telling those wonderfully entertaining, over-the-top ethics/compliance failure stories is that a significant part of what makes them entertaining and fun is that audiences can so easily point and say, “That’s so completely stupid/immoral/illegal. I’m nothing like that.” We all revel in that.

The reality, though, is that we all carry the risk of ethics and compliance problems, even if unconsciously or unintentionally, and one of the central points of ethics and compliance awareness is to help folks see that. If all they come away with is, “Thank goodness I’m not that dumb”, the program – however well-intentioned – has completely missed the mark.

2. Unless those stories are clearly related to that specific audience in some easily and fully articulated way, they (the stories) can quickly become academic or, at best, far less meaningful. Stories have their place in ethics, compliance, and accountability programs – it’s not that I don’t use them – but I take the time to do my homework so I can be sure there’s a specific, easily-applied lesson pertinent to that specific audience in any story I tell. Or, if it really is for a brief entertaining-for-the-sake-of-being-entertaining moment, I don’t try to make it more meaningful than it actually is.

3. Another pitfall of using those over-the-top stories people love so much is that “over-the-top”, almost by definition, means that we already know good and well why the behavior in them was so inappropriate. So, as entertaining as those stories are, if there aren’t actually any teachable moments, what’s the point?

If you really just want to entertain folks, bring in a juggler or a clown. They will be just as memorable – maybe more – and no one will risk being stressed out realizing that, in the end, you and your speaker actually failed to raise much new awareness about ethics, compliance, and accountability. (Not trying to be harsh here – just trying to drive home my point…)

4. If I’m going to tell stories – and, again, I actually do tell stories in many of my programs – I want them to mostly be about successes and not failures. That’s because I want audience members to walk out of there saying, “What those other folks did was a great idea. We could do that!” I want to tell stories that inspire attendees to do more great things, not just avoid being an idiot.

There’s an old saying – and I have no idea of the original source – but it says that if all you want is for an audience to leave with a warm feeling, simply have them pee on their leg. Though I wish it was otherwise, programs made up primarily or exclusively of entertaining ‘tales from the front lines’ are, IMHO, the ‘warm leg’ approach to ethics and compliance programming.

Yes it’s true that they’re very enjoyable and entertaining but when all is said and done, they’re among the empty calories of the ethics and compliance training table.

So, in the end…

Do I think that ethics and compliance training should even be entertaining? Absolutely! In fact, if it isn’t entertaining and engaging, you’ve probably lost your audience before you’re even out of the proverbial gate.

Ethics and compliance programs have a storied history of being dull as dirt; that’s exactly why the swing to entertainment-as-a-goal-in-itself came to be. By all means, make programs fun, entertaining and engaging! Just be sure that the fun and entertainment are a vehicle for serious learning and not a substitute for it.

And…

Do I think stories ought to be told in ethics and compliance training? Once again, absolutely! Just be sure that they include truly teachable moments and don’t take the place of providing substantive, practical, easily-applied ideas, tools, and resources.

And…

Bottom line? You need your employees to be aware of ethics and compliance risks as well as how to avoid falling prey to them. If your programs aren’t substantive, they won’t know any of that; if your programs aren’t engaging, they still won’t know any of that because they won’t be able to stay awake long enough to hear what you need them to. Programs can’t be either watered-down on one end of the presentation spectrum or coma-inducing on the other.

Thankfully, though, those don’t have to be your choices.

Substantive ethics, compliance and accountability programs can be both engaging and entertaining. Really. In fact, it’s not only able to be done but I think it’s essential.

So…

My hope is that you’ll bring someone in – whether it’s someone with the same skill set or, I’d love to hope, me – to do exactly what I’ve suggested here. Provide ethics and compliance awareness programming that is substantive but also entertaining and engaging. Not one or two of these but all three and at the same time. The outcomes from this are what your company truly needs and the delivery style is what your employees surely deserve.

Don’t get me wrong, being entertained is great and being the entertainer is fun. Just, please, don’t ask me to entertain instead of educating and motivating.

I’d love to – I really would. But I won’t.

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