What Covid Messaging Tells Us About Compliance Training

Compliance Training And COVID Messaging
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Summary: How do you get 7 billion people to stop shaking hands? The COVID-19 pandemic is the single biggest attempt at behavioral change in world history. Let's take a look at what is working, what isn't, and what lessons we might be able to apply to compliance training.

Applying The Lessons Learned From COVID-19 To Compliance Training

"Fun fact: in the age of COVID-19, we're all now living in the biggest compliance experiment of all time." – Ricardo Pellafone

The compliance communication company the Broadcat posted a very interesting vlog that explores what lessons compliance communication can learn from COVID messaging.

Their major point was that unlike traditional compliance training, which can be drawn-out, complex, and abstract, the COVID message from the CDC (for example) is direct, simple, short, and focuses on the exact behaviors it wants to affect.

Excerpt from CDC Guidance But the messaging isn't the whole story. As good as the CDC messaging is when we look at the attitudes and behavioral changes of Americans in dealing with COVID-19, they lag behind other countries. This is born out both from surveys and from infection rates.

Source: YouGov.com

The chart shows the difference in some behaviors and attitudes between several countries and the United States. Take India for example, while the U.S. has an incidence rate of 416 per 100,000 people, India's is only 5.13 per 100,000, yet they are strictly following government mandates.

There are many complex factors involved in determining why some people change their behavior while others do not.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned recently:

  • How to throw a hatchet
  • How Mezirow’s Transformational Learning steps can be mapped to Bloom’s Taxonomy
  • How to make a cloth face-covering out of an old tee shirt and vacuum cleaner bags

The motivation for these activities was very different, but each had a triggering event and a goal. I learned to throw a hatchet because I did not want to chop off my hand while I had fun with friends and family. In preparation for writing this article, I wanted to see how the approaches I developed over the years map to the prevailing adult learning theories. Lastly, I thought a DIY mask was important for my safety and those around me.

Learning occurs as a reaction to a trigger or catalyst that requires behavioral changes to reach a desired condition or goal.

Let’s look at 3 other factors required for learning, the WIIFM, the Message, and our Peer group.

1. The WIIFM

A learner, especially an adult learner, must believe that the desired condition is worth the effort. This is called the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). It’s basically a cost/benefit analysis, determining whether the goal is worth the effort.

The WIIFM for COVID protective measures seems obvious. Hand washing, social distancing, and quarantine are the most tried and true methods for limiting the spread of disease. The latter two have been used for thousands of years. Yet still, there are those that do not think behavioral change is worth it for COVID prevention (more on this later).

For compliance training, the gain is less obvious to a learner. Most people think of themselves as being honest, therefore many do not believe they need compliance training. And they have a point. If we want people to slow down on a highway, an instructional video on deceleration is not going to help.

So what does work then? Let’s look at a recent attempt I made to engage learners at the start of a privacy and information security course.

3 Ways You Can Protect Your Identify (And Your Clients’)

What do you think the biggest cause of a data breach is?

☐ Hackers breaking through the Company’s firewall
☑ Human error
☐ Malware
☐Insider misuse

Feedback: Human error accounts for over 50% of the root causes of security breaches.

Quick Tip: By not repeating passwords and using 10 digits instead of 8, you exponentially decrease the likelihood of identity theft.

In this example, we tell the learner something they may not know and promise them useful information. The WIIFM is: I’ll learn something new that is helpful to me.

2. The Message

The message can be in any instructional medium, such as print, video, web, an instructor, a friend, or any combination of these. The medium must be easily accessible, accurate, and timely. We have already established that the messaging from the CDC is well designed, clear, and presents the right level of detail.

I agree with the Broadcat video on this point, to a degree. The instructional strategy must be right-sized for the need. Short, direct messages are perfect for awareness level training given to all employees. Additional training should be targeted based on risk profile. For example, someone that deals with a lot of oversea transactions, needs in-depth FCPA and money laundering training, while someone in marketing may just need to know what it is, what it looks like, and how to avoid it.

Although COVID messaging in the United States is top-notch, that has not translated to the same level of behavioral change compared to some other countries.

Anyone who is a parent knows the fundamental rule of not contradicting your partner in front of the kids. Raising children requires a united front. This is also true of messaging from any authority. The U.S. government is multi-level, with local, state and federal governments all having their own leaders and health agencies, this is good for maintaining a balance of power, but not so great for providing a consistent message.

What can the failure of COVID messaging in the United States tell us? For one, the tone at the top matters—a lot.

3. Our Social Group

The attitudes of your peer/social group toward behavioral change have a tremendous effect on the outcome. Aristotle called us social animals, and although he was wrong about a whole lot, this he got right.

It is easy to see how and why we are social creatures. For most of our existence, our survival depended on those directly around us. We evolved to build relationships with our peer group because they were the ones that hunted with us or gave us food if we’re sick. These are the ones we fought alongside if another tribe attacked. In fact, we share mirror neurons that allow us to match each other’s emotions unconsciously and immediately.

We still do depend on many people and we are all interconnected (as this pandemic has painfully reminded us), but many of those we depend on are anonymous to us and not in close contact. Yet, we still long to find our tribes, our ingroups, and we still look for threats that we think jeopardize that ingroup.

Therefore, if our immediate peer group (even via social media) rejects a set of behaviors, it is very difficult for us to overcome that. There is a reason there are red states and blue states. There is a reason why some countries are primarily one religion as opposed to another, it’s indoctrination and peer conformity.

The result of this is not all bad. The social cohesion of a group or a company can create a culture of compliance. If those around you are following the rules, the odds are much higher that you will.


  • Tell the learner what they will gain, not just what they are expected to learn. Answer the question, “What problem will this solve?”
  • Keep the message clear, as simple as possible, and consistent.
  • Ensure all those in authority speak with one voice when it comes to compliance issues.
  • Focus on building a culture of compliance, not just individual training interventions. Learning and behavioral change require a whole ecosystem to support it.