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4 Strategies for Designing Effective Compliance Training

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

If you do business in a regulated industry, then you know that compliance training is essential to avoiding hefty fines and securing your company’s long-term viability. But training is a significant investment, and you also want to spend your money wisely.

Poorly designed compliance courses create what we call the $6,000 checkbox problem: Paying full price for a training solution that only checks the box verifying that you’ve provided compliance training to your employees. It doesn’t guarantee that your employees can do their jobs compliantly.

Fortunately, compliance courses can do so much more than check the box. They can also help employees do their jobs better and with a greater sense of purpose.

I’ve been developing compliance training in the licensed cannabis industry since 2016. Today, I’ll share four strategies for making your training more effective:

  • Make it meaningful by connecting compliance to employees’ intrinsic motivators,

  • Make it relevant by showing how compliance integrates into their daily workflow,

  • Make it memorable by using real-life scenarios to show the cost of non-compliance, and

  • Make it applicable by testing for how well they can use the information on the job.

Let’s dive in.

Making it meaningful

Before designing any compliance training program, it’s essential to consider your employees’ motivation for taking it. Compliance training is frequently a prerequisite for continued employment in regulated industries. Too often, companies rely on this fact as the sole motivational driver behind their employees’ engagement in compliance training.

That approach relies on extrinsic motivation — using on an external carrot or stick to incentive desired behavior and disincentive undesired behavior, respectively. And although avoiding job loss is a powerful motivator, you’re likely to get less buy-in from employees with this approach alone. You should also tap into employees’ intrinsic motivation, or what drives them from within. (1)

For some people, their intrinsic motivation might be pride in their role. For others, it might be the possibility of advancement into a leadership position. For still others, it might be to earn a promotion that allows them to earn more money. All these motivations are valid. The key is to connect compliance to one or more of these intrinsic motivators.

A budtender helping a customer choose which product to purchase in a licensed cannabis dispensary.

Going back to the example of the state-licensed cannabis dispensaries: It’s been my experience that many budtenders are long-time cannabis enthusiasts who love the plant and are enthusiastic about its acceptance in broader society. When I’m writing compliance training for this audience, I emphasize that compliance is a key aspect of their role in this exciting, emergent industry. Doing so connects compliance with their professional pride and makes it more likely that they will internalize compliant operations as part of their professional identity.

Make it relevant

Relevancy is another way to build motivation. When a topic is directly applicable to your daily life, you’re more likely to retain what you learn about it.

Unfortunately, a lack of relevancy is why compliance training often gets a bad rap. Compliance training done poorly is painfully boring because it’s divorced from the real-life context in which the work is done.

The antidote is to contextualize compliance into employees’ daily workflow. Show them exactly when, where, and how the regulations affect real-life tasks like customer check-out and inventory management. (2) Use vivid examples to breathe life into what otherwise would be a mind-numbing recitation of regulatory commands.

Also consider the tone and vocabulary you use in the training. Avoid using legal jargon and passive voice, both of which suck the life out of a sentence. Instead, try to match the tone and vocabulary your employees use on the job. Don’t use terms like “demarcated” when a simpler term like “marked” will do.

Make it memorable

Think back to the last time you made a painful mistake. Chances are, the experience – and the lesson you learned from it – are written indelibly in your memory.

The ancient Greeks called this pathemata mathemata, which roughly translates to learning through pain. Scenario-based learning provides the advantages of pathemata mathemata without any of the long-term consequences of making a mistake in real life. They create vicarious pain that, although non-consequential, still carry the emotional heft that makes information stick in the mind.

To make a strong scenario for compliance training, start by looking for the most common and/or serious regulatory infractions and their causes. In my experience, many non-compliance problems occur when one or more of the following conditions exist:

  • The regulations are confusing and difficult to remember. In these circumstances, employees are tempted to guess rather than to consult the regulations. This is especially true when the task or the environment doesn’t allow employees to stop and check the regulations in the middle of the workflow. (3)

  • Compliance makes the task more difficult. This can tempt employees to take shortcuts that eventually lead to a costly regulatory infraction.

  • Steps in a compliant process are counterintuitive. In these instances, the “common-sense” approach is actually the wrong one. This can cause cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable mental state in which two ideas or beliefs contradict each other. For example, a budtender from a traditional retail background might have difficulty internalizing daily sales limits. The idea of intentionally limiting sales may feel unnatural even when they know that doing so is compliant.

  • Similarly, regulatory infractions can occur when compliant processes conflict with business goals, including sales quotas and customer satisfaction.

Digging into common problems in these areas yields a rich vein of material from which to build a compelling scenario.

A hiker debating which of two paths to take through a dense forest.

The next step is to construct the scenario so that it feels realistic. Avoid wrong choices, or distractors, that are so outlandish that they’re obviously wrong. Make each choice as appealing as possible so that employees have to think carefully about which one is best. Each option should challenge them to weigh a short-term payoff, like convenience or likeability, against the long-term consequences.

Branching scenarios present your learners with additional options based on the previous choices they made. It’s like those choose-your-own-adventure books that kids loved to read back in the ‘90s. With just a few branches, you can effectively guide learners through a realistic situation that mirrors the challenges they face on the job.

Finally, show the real-life consequences of your learners’ choices. Be as detailed and realistic as possible. If they made the right decision, show how this choice helped them reach a desirable goal like furthering their career or protecting their job. If they chose a non-compliant behavior that could get them fired, fined, or even arrested, show this outcome, too.

Make it applicable

Scenarios can be an effective informal assessment that helps employees assess their own knowledge and skill gaps. You can apply the same principles to formal assessments like multiple-choice quizzes.

The trick is to assess how well employees can apply the information. (4) To do this, create multiple-choice questions that present employees with a realistic situation then ask them to choose from a list of possible choices they could use to respond to it. Think of it as scenario-lite.

As with a full-length scenario, show the consequences of all choices, both good and bad. Model the distractors on common mistakes and misunderstandings that occur when people don’t have a firm grasp of the regulations. Most of all, never write questions that try to “trick” the learner. These questions are not only ineffective; they also erode your employees’ trust in your training program.

Well-written multiple-choice questions, by contrast, challenge learners to apply what they’ve learned in meaningful ways and help them assess their own understanding. If you want to learn more, check out this recording of Patti Shank’s webinar titled ’All of the Above’ and Other Multiple-Choice Question Flaws.


By contextualizing compliance, aligning it with learner’s internal motivations, and creating realistic scenarios for them to practice and apply what they’ve learned, you can make your compliance training more effective.

Instead of paying a significant amount of money for compliance training that merely checks the box, you’ll get training that improves employee performance.


(1) For all you learning geeks out there, this correlates to Malcolm Knowles’ fifth assumption about adult learners. To learn more, check out this article about Malcolm Knowles, the popularizer of andragogy, from Infed.

(2) This principle aligns to Knowles’ fourth assumption about adult learners. Their orientation to learning becomes more focused on solving immediate real-life problems rather than preparing for challenges in some undefined time in the future. (Whether this trait is intrinsic to adult learners or is the by-product of the traditional K-12 education system is, in my mind, up for debate. I’ve seen plenty of examples of children who are more motivated to learn information that they can apply right away.)

(3) This is an instance in which job aids, or “cheat sheets,” would be a useful supplement to formal training. For example, new budtenders may have a tough time remembering all the elements to check when verifying a customer’s ID. You can create a job aid that slips into the back of their transparent employee badge holder. When they need to remember the steps, they can look at the job aid on the back of their badge. Ideally, you want budtenders to have the ID verification process memorized, but a job aid can be a supplement while they’re still learning.

(4) Most formal assessments for adult learners only test for recognition or recall. The former tests whether the learner can recognize the right answer from a group of wrong answers – or, if the question is written poorly, if they apply basic logic to deduce which answer is correct. Tests that rely on recall, by contrast, require learners to provide the correct answer themselves. Julie Dirksen describes the pros and pitfalls of each in her influential book Design for How People Learn.

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