Reading Time: 6 minutes
Reading Time: 6 minutes

When employees hear the words “ethics” or “compliance”, what do you think their reaction is?

When you ask an employee if they have integrity, nearly everyone will say yes. But will they “Speak Up” when they come across bad behavior? Do they know ethics and compliance is on their side? Do they trust leadership and organizational justice?

ECI’s Speak Up survey says that 69% of “Speak Up” training is annual, with most less frequent than that. This is a problem!

People do not “Speak Up” to ask questions and raise concerns if they are apathetic, annoyed or afraid.

If employees only know you for that boring, bloated training or they think the ethics & compliance team is a finger-waggy rule enforcer, they most likely won’t reach out for advice and support. “Speaking Up” has a similar problem. We’re socialized from a young age to not tattletale on your brother or sister and this is reinforced as we grow up, “snitches get stitches” and the like.

These are deep-seated cultural issues that need to be chipped away over time. Annual training won’t cut the mustard…which is an interesting phrase that apparently means “not good enough.” The every-so-often “Speak Up” campaign, consisting of inspirational posters and tent cards doesn’t help much either unless you like boring wallpaper and recyclables. We have to be better. Here’s why.

  1. Environment Affects Behavior: Training isn’t enough. Just because you know something, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll act on it “correctly.” For example, you know that eating bad foods has some consequences but we do it anyway. Just like we know that using your corporate credit card to take a friend to lunch to“talk business” is wrong, but people do it anyway because they work hard and they feel they are owed. The point is that, despite our knowledge and understanding, we are highly influenced by our environment and this is where we need increase our focus.
  2. Influencing Culture: The two primary influences of corporate culture are the following.
    1. Leadership Influence: People are highly influenced by authority. One of the most famous studies on this was the Stanley Milgram experiment, focusing on the conflict between personal conscious and authority. If your going to spend time on training, this is a good place to focus your efforts. Educate leaders on how to support the “Speak Up” message and give them tools that make it simple and easy for them to carry the integrity & speak up message forward. Rinse and repeat often.
    2. Social/Peer Influence: People are highly influenced by their social environment. The Solomon Asch experiment showcases how the social environment influences people to conform. A more fun but similar example is from this old Candid Camera episode. The point here is that we need to find ways to influence the culture so that group-think works for us and not against us. We want the group to conform to good behavior and judge bad behavior themselves. This requires a long-term approach consisting of a regular drumbeat of consistent, positive, engaging training and communications. It might be helpful to think of this as an ongoing advertising campaign: Short, interesting, frequent messaging.
  3. People Forget Stuff: The Forgetting Curve tells us that even if your training is interesting and relevant, and uses the latest and greatest learning theory, it still needs to be regularly reinforced. People have short attention spans and short “working memory.” Advertisers use the term “Effective Frequency” which says that you need to see a message several times before that message truly sinks in. It’s safe to say that regular E&C “vitamins” are more effective than annual training “inoculations.” People need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed.

So… If we know that ethics and compliance and “Speaking Up” have a bad brand, so to speak, and we know that the biggest influences on behavior are from our environment, and we know that people are forgetful and need to see a message multiple times, then we know that we need to find ways to increase the frequency of our messaging so that people are exposed more often, and we need to keep it up over time. Training tends to be infrequent and employees are already bombarded with corporate messaging. So this is a problem! And this brings me to an important point that often gets overlooked, and that’s the importance of being interesting, engaging and entertaining.

The Importance of Entertainment: If we want to get the ethics, compliance and “Speak Up” message into the atmosphere on a more regular basis, and we don’t want message fatigue, then we need to start using more entertaining delivery mechanisms, so that your messaging can rise above the noise and get noticed. If your training and communications are entertaining, employees are more likely to engage with and digest the information and they’re more likely to remember it. They say the difference between good and great is the slightest twist of the screw. Well, this last twist takes effort and is often overlooked. Put simply, if your training and communications are short and entertaining, then you can;

  1. Get access to more training and comms channels so that you can circulate those messages more frequently. If you’re boring and preachy, you won’t get additional access.
  2. Integrate and embed those messages within other department’s newsletters, intranet pages, trainings and resources…like commercials. You can put these interesting shorts in more places.
  3. Get others (leaders and ethics ambassadors) to play those messages on your behalf and carry those messages forward.

There’s a difference between having a difficult conversation and a conversation about a difficult thing. We can wrap these important messages in more entertaining ways. The more that we adopt the entertaining devices that we use to consume information in our everyday non-work lives and apply it to the workplace, the more effective we will be. Now, we all have a different sense of what is interesting, entertaining and funny, and that’s okay. It’s important to have consistent positive (not preachy) messaging, but be creative in the delivery mechanism, and try lots and lots and lots of little things. Not everything will work for everybody. Engage people through variety and surprise. Over time, this gives you the best chance to engage your global, multicultural, multigenerational workforce.

If you’re boring or preachy, you’ll engage no one.

Scare tactics tend to drive bad behavior underground.

To win this culture war we need to change the tone to make your program, policies and resources more interesting, visible and accessible. We need to make emotional connections to help with engagement and recall. We need to be empathetic and thoughtful of the audience and their time, which helps build trust. We need to keep the messaging consistent, but play with different creative formats over time to keep people on their toes. This will help us create a social environment where employees are more likely to “Speak Up” to ask questions and report concerns. As John Cleese of Monty Python fame famously said;

I would argue that the single most important thing we can do to mitigate risk for our organizations is to focus on “Speak Up” culture and rebranding ethics and compliance as the positive, helpful advisors and coaches that you are. We need to be influencers to train and communicate in shorter more creative ways, to increase exposure to the messaging and to get others to champion the cause. Then, over time, we can affect the social environment to create the integrity and “Speak Up” culture that we’re all striving for.


Ronnie Feldman is the President & Creative Director of Learnings & Entertainments, a creative services and learning content provider made up of comedians and entertainers that develop short, entertaining training and communications to make important corporate risk topics more engaging and accessible. Ronnie has spent 25 years playing in the entertainment and learning space, developing creative, new approaches to make learning more engaging and impactful. Ronnie likes to think that he is funny. It has become increasingly apparent that this is not universally agreed upon.


ECI regularly publishes blog content provided by sponsor and partner organizations. This does not constitute or imply a direct endorsement from ECI of these products or organizations. All content is their own. ECI bears no responsibility for the accuracy, legality or content of these external sites. Please contact partner or sponsor organizations for information regarding the above content.

By: Brad Fulton