What’s the best way to document that training has taken place?

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by John Kleeman

Should you test your compliance training attendees?
Should you test your compliance training attendees?

It’s a common compliance requirement to train your employees – on safety procedures, regulations, products they are selling, and so forth.  And very often the regulator requires you not just to train but to document your training or confirm understanding.  What is the best way to document that training has taken place?

There are 3 obvious routes:

  • Have the instructor take attendance
  • Get employees ‘ signatures confirming they have understood training
  • Administer a test after the training, so that employees can demonstrate their understanding

Attendance records

Taking attendance is the simplest and oldest way to document training. It’s straightforward, reasonably reliable and does show that people were present for at least the beginning of training.

The obvious problem with attendance records is that they only document attendance and not understanding. Did the attendee listen and understand, or did he/she stare out of the window and ignore the training? And did the attendee stay for the whole session or just turn up at the beginning and then wander off? One way to deal with this is to take a photo of the training course at the beginning and another one part-way through, but annotating and checking such photos is time-consuming.

Suppose an instructor is training a senior manager, and the manager leaves the training halfway through to take a business call. How many instructors are going to mark the manager as not attending the training? And with the increasing prevalence of remote delivery of training (by conference call or e-learning), how do you know the attendee was paying attention and not working on other things whilst taking the training?

If you’re not too concerned about the impact of the training, and just want some basic evidence that training took place, attendance records can work.

Getting people’s signatures confirming that they have understood training

This takes things one stage further. You aren’t just asking the instructor to say, “This person turned up.”  You are also getting the person to say, “I attended this training and I understand it and will put it in practice”. The employee commits to say that they are taking the responsibility themselves.

This is a useful step, but how useful depends on the culture of the company. It’s very easy to focus on the signing of the document, not the training. “We’re supposed to give you the training, but we can’t be bothered – so please can you just sign off that you understand this?”

For example, a few years ago Titan Corporation made a large settlement under the FCPA regarding alleged improper payments.  The SEC complaint (see http://www.sec.gov/litigation/complaints/comp19107.pdf) quoted below suggested that all employees signed a document but did not in fact get that training:

Titan’s only related “policy” is a statement in Titan’s Code of Ethics, which all Titan employees were required to sign annually, stating “employees must be familiar with and strictly adhere to such provisions as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that prohibit payments or gifts to foreign government officials for the purpose of influencing official government acts or assistance in obtaining business.” Titan did not enforce that policy nor did it provide its employees with any information concerning the FCPA or its purposes.

And I’m indebted to the SafetyXchange website (see http://www.safetyxchange.org/compliance-risk-management/how-to-document-safety-training-part-3-of-4)  for an even clearer example, where a US Appeals Court ruled in favour of OSHA to say that signing that you’ve understood a manual is not good enough to prove you have.  In this case, a worker was hit on the head by falling equipment whilst working in a drainage ditch. The employer claimed that if any violation happened, it was because the foreman didn’t follow safety rules. But the court ruled (Complete General Const. Co. v. OSHRC, 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 5197 (6th Cir.), March 29, 2005) that more than just signing a document was required (my underlining):

“… merely having an individual sign a form acknowledging his responsibility to read the safety manual is insufficient to insure that the detailed instructions contained therein have actually been communicated.”

So there is strong precedent to suggest that if you rely only on people signing that they’ve understood training or rules or a policy, this may not hold up if something goes wrong. If it matters to your business or to life and limb that training be genuinely understood, then simply getting the employee to sign that they’ve read something may not help enough.

Giving a test to confirm understanding

The third common way to document training is to give people a quiz or test after training to confirm their understanding.   Typically the test will ask questions about the material in the training and how it could be applied by the attendee. Usually such a test will be delivered online, and the attendee can easily take it on a PC or other workstation (or even nowadays on a smartphone or tablet).

The critical thing that such a test gives you is confirmation not only that the training was attended, not only that the employee claims to have understood, but actual evidence that the training was understood.  Additionally, taking a test like this reinforces the training and makes it more likely that the learning will “stick”; and it also gives the attendee immediate feedback:  they either know that they have understood the material, or if they get anything wrong, they can get some helpful feedback.

It is important that if you use testing, you ensure that the tests you deliver are valid (i.e. they test what they are supposed to) and reliable (they measure understanding consistently). And if you do test people, you can’t turn a blind eye to people who fail. A test failure is an indication that someone doesn’t understand something and you need to take remedial action – e.g. follow-up training. That is valuable because you want to improve someone’s learning in such a case – but it is something that you have to make plans to deal with.

If you don’t check understanding, it’s all too easy for someone to zone out of training, but if they know there will be a test, they are more likely to pay attention. Getting compliance training attendees to take a test is the only way to ensure that people have understood.

There are lots of ways compliance failings can happen. Training can’t deal with all of these. For instance, if your processes can’t deal with a fraudulent employee or if your culture involves taking high risks, training may not help.  But very often a compliance issue can happen due to lack of understanding or knowledge.  If an employee says, “I didn’t understand that we weren’t supposed to do that” when a company is guilty of a health and safety error, making a bribe overseas or short-changing customers – then training can make a big difference. And giving people a test after training is the best way to document that training.

John Kleeman is Chairman of Questionmark Corporation in Norwalk, CT.  He may be reached at john@questionmark.com.