When it comes to content, few words are buzzing more these days. But what does it mean to “be authentic?” And what does authenticity look like in a compliance and ethics program?

Authenticity is all about connecting with your audience on a human level. It’s truthfulness in your actions, your words, and your intentions. Basically, be who you say you are, or your audience won’t trust you. (And if your audience doesn’t trust you, you can bet they won’t listen to you.)

Sure, you may be thinking. That all sounds great, but we’re talking about compliance and ethics here. Our programs are based on regulations and legal standards. We represent a company, not a celebrity on Twitter, so people expect a certain degree of formality. Is it really possible for compliance content to be authentic?

Absolutely. Not only is authenticity possible for compliance content, it’s imperative. A 2010 case study of a large financial services company found that when the compliance program had been “decoupled” from the company’s core business activities, the employees perceived a “legitimacy façade,” which led to institutionalized misconduct. The gaps between stated policies and what actually went on in the company made employees cynical about the program, and they “began to violate the formal compliance rules in a widespread fashion.” The compliance message backfired because it was insincere.

Employees can tell when your compliance program is just lip service. They know whether or not the standards you’re espousing are reflected in the company culture and the actions of senior leadership. If your learners don’t believe your message is authentic, they’ll dismiss it.

This is especially true as we evolve our content alongside the digital revolution. Back in August, we discussed how internet use has rewired our brains for quick processing. Content must be authentic to survive, and audiences are better than ever at filtering out any information they find insincere or irrelevant to their lives. Your learners expect authenticity. Anything less will annoy them.

So what does authenticity look like in a compliance program? Here are five ways to keep your content real:

  1. Tell the truth. This seems obvious, but it’s worth stating. If your company has struggled in an area in the past, acknowledge it. You’re not defending a legal case — you’re connecting with employees in order to persuade them. And think twice about setting aspirational guidelines that don’t yet reflect reality. In addition to creating potential liability (if, for instance, a court determines you didn’t meet your own stated standard), it causes employees to disconnect. To take a simple example, we recommend against using ambitious words like “highest,” as in “We meet the highest ethical standards.” Reflect the rules, but be realistic.
  2. Explain more. I (Kirsten) once listened to a client’s compliance team passionately discuss how best to reach their audience in their upcoming year’s program. They talked about how employees often didn’t realize the very real risks they faced, and discussed in detail some of the everyday conflicts and misconceptions that could tank even a well-meaning employee’s career. I left that conversation wishing there were some way to bottle it and share it with their employee population. I think most employees would be surprised to learn that, behind that “boring” annual training, there’s a team of smart, hardworking people actively looking out for their interests. It’s easy for those of us working in compliance to forget, but most employees don’t really know much about why compliance programs exist and what those programs have to do with their everyday work life. It could be worthwhile to explain some of those fundamentals — first articulate the “why,” and then keep repeating it — more often.
  3. Say it in real language. In my experience, this is where many compliance programs fall short. The same group of people who can sit around a conference table and have a passionate and detailed discussion about their employee’s jobs, risks, beliefs, dilemmas, workplace culture, and common misunderstandings will then go off and create training full of wooden sentences like: “As you know, our Company is committed to integrity.” Yawn. I have a theory that, for many lawyers, legal-style writing just feels safer. And writing directly and simply, just as you would talk, feels highly risky. You would never put it in a contract — there’s just too much room for inference and misunderstanding. And yet speaking simply and directly is one of the very best ways to get employees to listen.
  4. Connect on a human level. As much as possible, be a person talking to a person. Your ability to do this will vary based on your company culture. But the strongest Codes and courses we’ve seen use the words “you” and “we,” and are built in short, direct sentences. The internet has led to a writing style that’s far more informal and personalized — in part, because that’s what humans respond to. Which means the depersonalized, disembodied corporate voice is going the way of the ditto machine and mainframe computer. What does this mean in practice? More sentences like this: “You can help: Please report any violations of this Code and raise questions if something just feels wrong. We’re counting on you to help us get this right.” And fewer sentences like this: “Misconduct must be reported to the appropriate company resource. It is a violation of this Code not to do so.”
  5. Try for two-way conversation. If you’re a human talking to a human, then it stands to reason that those who are listening should be able to talk back. I know we keep talking about the digital revolution, but it has profoundly changed the way we communicate. One development is that, regardless of the media, the audience is no longer content to be passive observers—they expect to be able to talk back. Most compliance professionals I know worry about how to incorporate two-way communication into their compliance programs — after all, no one wants to start a potentially discoverable conversation about competition law on a company Yammer account. But there are safer ways to gather employee input and for them to share ideas and participate in shaping the compliance program. One company we know held a cover art contest for their new Code. Employees were encouraged to submit entries, and then the entire employee base voted on the winner. Or, in my favorite example, one company got tired of lecturing its employees about safety and held a video contest. This fun entrant was the winner. Talk about authentic! And my guess is that it generated far more buzz and interest than even the best, most innovative off-the-shelf safety training.

In short, authenticity benefits everyone. With authentic content, you create open communication and build trust with your audience — both necessary parts of an effective compliance program.

Ready to get more authentic in your compliance communications? We can help. Contact us to schedule a free 30-minute consultation with our communication experts.