Compliance Lessons from Mistletoe, the Elf on our Shelf


By Margaret Scavotto, JD, CHC
President, MPA

A few years ago, we begrudgingly began participating in the Elf on the Shelf tradition.

I say begrudgingly because, while the Elf brings a lot of merriment, it’s also a lot of work for parents. And, something about the tradition feels a little too much like playing a trick on the kids.

Nevertheless, the Elf joined our household in 2020. The pandemic and virtual school were upon us, and we needed some joy, ASAP. We also got a puppy during this time (if you are wondering how things were really going). The kids named the Elf Mistletoe. But the story we told our kids about Mistletoe strays from tradition.

The original Elf on the Shelf story tells children that Santa sent the Elf to sit on their shelf and keep an eye on the kids. If the kids are good – or bad – the Elf will report this news back to Santa at the North Pole, and that will, understandably, impact the children’s gifts under the tree. The original Elf tale also warns kids to never, ever touch the Elf – or the Elf will lose its magic.

Yikes! That’s a lot to worry about. Aren’t the holidays supposed to be fun? Especially for kids?

So we changed the story. In our house, Mistletoe comes to spread holiday cheer. She comes to celebrate that the kids were good this year, and to bring a little magic into the season. We also told the kids that the Elf does not lose her magic if they touch her. We compared that legend to “step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back.” It’s not going to happen. Because inevitably, a kid will touch the Elf out of burning curiosity and then spend the night in tears (rather than sleeping).

Is your Elf celebrating or scaring?

Much like my family decided to take control over the narrative surrounding Mistletoe the Elf, the compliance department has choices when it comes to its compliance messaging.

What kind of message does your compliance program convey?

Does your compliance department focus on the penalties and punishments looming if people slip up? Do you send a lot of emails or post a lot of reminders featuring the words “Don’t” and “No”?

Or does your compliance department focus on helping your team do their jobs in a way that honors the compliance program – and celebrating the successes along the way? Maybe you use more words like “Remember” and “Here’s a tip!”

I want my kids to smile when they see the Elf every year, rather than feel a sense of impending doom. Compliance officers also want to be well received. Is your compliance message as inviting as you’d like your compliance culture to be?