Viewing (& Improving) Compliance Programs through a Behavioral Science Lens


by Scott Young and Sasha Tregebov, The Behavioral Insights Teams

Organizations routinely invest millions in programs to promote compliance with their internal policies and external regulatory requirements, yet these efforts often fall short of their objectives. Why aren’t traditional compliance programs as effective as they could be? We believe that the answer lies in a misunderstanding of why people behave in unethical or noncompliant ways. Typically, the underlying assumption is that:

  • Employees don’t know the rules and expectations
  • Employees willfully ignore the rules because they disagree and/or will benefit from breaking them

This train of thought leads directly to compliance programs that emphasize education and persuasion via training sessions aimed at conveying procedures and the rationale behind the company’s policies. Of course, training plays an important role, as employees do need to be properly informed and motivated. But we’ve repeatedly seen that overloading people with information does not consistently lead to behavior change.

More importantly, focusing solely on ignorance and/or willful non-compliance misses a significant swath of behavior, which we will refer to as “inadvertent” non-compliance. This occurs when employees do not actively disagree with policies, yet they fail to follow them.

Inadvertent noncompliance might happen because the compliant path or set of actions is burdensome, does not seem immediately relevant or important, or is simply hard to remember! It is the kind of non-compliance that is frequently rationalized away (“No one else is bothering…so why should I?”) because it does not make us feel like we are acting outside our values or commitments to our employer. For these reasons, inadvertent noncompliance is hard to address through training, policy dissemination, penalties, or other traditional approaches.

To mitigate this form of non-compliance, organizations need to view the challenge through a new lens – and apply a new suite of tools to help people make choices that align with their values and commitments. Behavioral science provides this lens.

Behavioral science is the study of human behavior and the ways our actions are shaped by contextual factors. Looking through a behavioral science lens can offer a clearer diagnosis of the drivers of behavioral issues and reveal potential solutions to address them. For example, behavioral science teaches us that our need to conserve mental energy (i.e. reduce our cognitive load) guides much of our behavior. Thus, forming a new habit is inordinately difficult, even if we are motivated to do it. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that even the slightest amount of “friction” (complexity, confusion, etc.) can derail even well-intentioned compliance efforts.

For this very reason, a core “mantra” of the field is to Make It Easy – and the first step to applying behavioral science is often to review and refine compliance processes and communications with simplicity and clarity in mind. From there, it’s a short step to the EAST (Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely) framework for encouraging behavior, This simple, yet powerful framework speaks to several foundational truths about human behavior:

  • First, humans are greatly influenced by the actions of others. Therefore, it’s important (and effective) to celebrate the positive – and point out that most people or teams are complying. Too often, publicity goes to the negative, which has the unintentional effect of normalizing unethical behavior. A famous behavioral science project demonstrated the power of emphasizing the positive. In a letter sent to late taxpayers, a single sentence was added letting them know that they were in the small minority of people who didn’t file on time. That one sentence helped bring forward millions in tax revenue.
  • Second, our attention spans are limited – and we often simply forget to take action, particularly when a behavior is unfamiliar. Therefore, it’s important to keep compliance actions top-of-mind, ideally by integrating reminders and examples within established work processes.
  • Third, we all need some encouragement and reassurance, particularly when we are trying something new. Therefore, well-timed positive reinforcement can go a long way.

These factors add up to the reality that when it comes to combating “inadvertent” non-compliance, solutions like simplifying processes, sending timely reminders and provisioning positive reinforcement are more likely to be effective than detailed manuals and extended training sessions.

In fact, this truth highlights an underlying promise and benefit of behavioral science: Small inexpensive changes (in work processes and/or the wording of communications) can have a major impact on people’s behavior. We saw this firsthand through our work with Arup, in which simple changes in communication resulted in a significant increase in the percentage of employees who shared self-identification data.

However, to be clear, behavioral science is not a panacea. Its tools will not stop employees with active negative intent, nor will small, timely interventions overcome an organizational culture that sends the wrong messages and incentives. But it can be an important and complementary piece of the puzzle, which reinforces a positive, ethical culture, helps move employees from intent to action – and ultimately makes compliance programs more efficient and effective.

What’s more, behavioral science can provide a path towards larger transformations in organizational culture. We’ve repeatedly seen that once employees start acting differently, their attitudes often begin to change to align with their behaviors. So by “starting small” and focusing on facilitating small, discrete behavior changes, compliance officers can actually accelerate organizational transformations they seek and ultimately help create a culture of compliance and ethical behavior.

To learn more about applying behavioral science to enhance compliance programs and promote ethical behavior, you can access this article summarizing key points from a recent webinar on Creating a Culture of Compliance.