What if you could make your company’s ethics and compliance training program so compelling that employees can’t stop raving about it, or it is so engaging that it goes viral? That’s not a pipe dream; it’s a completely obtainable goal that many ethics and compliance professionals are already realizing.

For companies whose ethics and compliance training programs have received rave employee reviews, the secret, in part, lies in the magic of cinema, creating Hollywood-inspired movie clips or a company-tailored television series that captures the heart, engages the mind, and keeps the attention of a globally diverse employee audience.

Using ethics movies to train employees on ethics and compliance issues is not an entirely new concept, “but it’s often from a legal or business perspective, not from a filmmaker’s eye,” says Marc Havener, a former Hollywood assistant director who went on to found Resonate Pictures, a film production company specializing in cinematic training films for companies.

“Movie clips are in my opinion one of the best ways to capture the hearts and attention of the viewer,” Havener says. Making stories personal and emotionally compelling in a way that employees can sympathize or empathize with the characters is going to be better remembered than simply stating a set of rules and policies, he says.

It appears the idea is catching on, as more ethics and compliance professionals are taking their cues from Hollywood-inspired entertainment. At collaborative healthcare alliance Premier, for example, “we were always trying to find new and creative ways to make group purchasing compliance at least somewhat entertaining,” says Stephanie Jenkins, former ethics program manager there and now chief compliance officer at Ethix360. After reading an article on how BearingPoint had worked with Resonate Pictures to make their ethics and training videos, “I gave Marc a call,” she says.

Jenkins admits, however, that she had “no knowledge of what it cost, or took, to make training videos like this.” Premier’s $30,000 training budget at the time was nowhere near the roughly $200,000 it costs to make an ethics movie, “but we continued our conversation and discussed ways to partner,” she says.

Ultimately, it was agreed upon that Jenkins and Premier’s chief compliance officer would help write the script and serve as the subject-matter experts. And they recruited some local actors to volunteer. To build interest among employees, movie posters were hung around the office, and movie trailers were played on the televisions in the elevators of the building.

The result was an ethics movie entitled “The Anniversary,” made up of six episodes, each between five and eight minutes long, that addressed 24 different ethics and compliance topics—such as conflicts of interest, gifts and entertainment, diversity, harassment, speaking up, and more.  Jenkins says the effort was worth it: “Our employees let us know that they appreciated the effort of us making compliance fun and educational at the same time.”

Asked what advice she would give to other ethics and compliance professionals who are interested in creating ethics films but don’t have an exorbitant compliance budget, Jenkins responds: “Go local.” Use local writers, producers, and volunteer actors.

That’s what she did after leaving Premier: “I took what I learned from Marc and ended up working the next time around with a local production company in Charlotte [North Carolina] to create our own video in-house,” says Jenkins. Employees volunteered as actors and it was filmed at the office.

To make the training material herself, Jenkins says she used Adobe Articulate, which she describes as simple and affordable to use, but time-consuming. “I invested a good three months in creating and rolling it out to employees,” she says.

Real BizShorts

Second City Works is another company in the business of creating training videos that many ethics and compliance professionals are using. With any type of training, the challenge is “getting people to watch or to read or to listen,” says Betty Ungerman, deputy general counsel and chief ethics and compliance officer at manufacturing company Lennox International. “It needs to be engaging, brief, and to the point.”

Compliance and ethics officers agree that what effective training boils down to is relating to employees on a personal level, engaging their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But as with many other ethics and compliance decisions, it’s important to weigh both the pros and cons.

“We first learned about Second City through Corpedia, which we were using at the time for online code of conduct training,” Ungerman says. That’s when they were first introduced us to Second City’s Real BizShorts—short, funny videos that incorporate humor into ethics and compliance training. “We saw the videos and thought they were really engaging,” she says.

“We want our employees to want to watch our training,” Ungerman adds. “Humor is a great way to engage an audience and break down their defenses so they’ll be open to receiving messages.”

So, in 2014, Lennox International partnered with Second City Works to create their own company-tailored Real BizShorts series. Jessica Johnston, ethics and compliance supervisor at Lennox International, explained that when choosing subject matter, “We talk to HR. We talk to our labor employment attorney to understand what issues are most relevant at the time, and we keep up with what’s relevant, in general, in ethics and compliance.”

“We adjust it, as needed,” Johnston says. “It always changes a little bit when one specific issue comes up and we think we need to address it with training and awareness.”

For its part, Second City Works also makes a concerted effort to keep up-to-date on ethics and compliance trends. In February, for example, Johnston and Lennox International’s labor and employment attorney were invited to Chicago to participate in a workshop with Second City Works to develop a new group of RealBiz Shorts that they’ll be putting out. “It really shows how Second City stays in contact with the people out in the field, in the real world, so that their videos and subject-matter is up-to-date and relevant to their customers,” Ungerman says.

At Lennox International, the Real BizShorts are sent out monthly through e-mail. “Two years ago, for the first time, we also included Real BizShorts in our code of conduct training for employees that don’t have computer access,” Johnston says. That’s about 6,000 employees. In total, the company’s roughly 10,000 employees have received at least one RealBiz Short.

Pharmaceutical company Otsuka is another Second City Works customer that has utilized RealBiz Shorts. When Brian Miller assumed the role of director of compliance training at Otsuka in 2012, he says he was challenged to “push the envelope and to develop engaging and effective ethics and compliance training.” That’s when Otsuka’s ethics and compliance team turned to Second City Works to help develop a television-like Web series to engage employees by combining education with entertainment.

Since 2012, Otsuka has worked on two major video projects with Second City Works. The first project, entitled “The Pharm,” was a series of nine videos that told the story of four employees in a pharmaceutical company sales district who were confronted with a variety of ethical dilemmas, such as T&E-related issues, conflicts of interest, and more. “The videos were developed to be used by managers to engage their teams in a conversation around these important principles and associated policies,” Miller says.

The second Web series, entitled “The Workshop,” was divided into four seasons, with the first season consisting of five episodes, and the remaining four seasons consisting of three episodes each. Topics covered by each season included the importance of speaking up when employees have concerns; proper and improper interactions between field sales representatives and field medical-science liaisons; sales leadership practices; and how to plan and execute compliant promotional speaker programs.

From a time and resource standpoint, Miller explains, it took about six months to develop the background material for “The Workshop.” The project, about 20 minutes of video per episode, took approximately 10 months to develop.

With both projects—“The Pharm” and “The Workshop”—Otsuka was responsible for defining the learning outcomes and the principles to be taught. “People from the sales team reviewed the scripts to ensure that the stories would be relevant to them,” Miller says. And legal and compliance reviewed and approved the scripts and character selection.

The process of making an ethics movie with Resonate Pictures works in a similar way. Havener explains that if a company is interested in creating an ethics movie, Resonate Pictures will sit down with senior management to understand their training goals and gather anecdotal stories to make the film true to life.

From there, he says, they might spend a day at the company talking to employees to get a true sense of their day-to-day work lives. “That’s how we tackle the subject in a way that’s going to relate,” Havener says.

Comedy or no comedy?

Compliance and ethics officers stress that using comedy in training may not be suitable for all companies, or even all employees, which is a conversation that each ethics and compliance team must decide for itself. “We tried to add humor, without pushing it too far,” Jenkins says. “The idea is that if they’re laughing, they’re listening.”

When Lennox International was first playing with the idea of using comedy in its training, Johnston says, “We had that conversation, ‘Will people like this? Will people be offended?’ ” But, as it turned out, “people love it,” she says.

In fact, the Web series was such a hit that HR started using it for its own training purposes. “This year is the first year, in addition to ethics and compliance, that we also licensed Second City’s diversity and inclusion video, because our HR department wanted something to spice up their training, as well,” Ungerman says.

“We send them to our board as well, and they always respond positively,” Ungerman adds. The Web series has been so well-received, in fact, that members of Lennox International’s board of directors “often have their ethics and compliance group call us and ask how they can get those videos at their company as well,” she says.

It’s also important to pick and choose the right topics that are going to resonate most with your employee base.  At Lennox International, for example, the ethics and compliance office as a team reviews the Real BizShorts together and makes sure that the message is right for Lennox and that the tone is right, so as not to offend anyone. “There are some [Real BizShorts] that we don’t use, and there are a ton that we do,” Johnston says.

Supplemental training

Generally, an ethics movie or sitcom is just one part of an integrated ethics and compliance training strategy. At Otsuka, for example, the sitcom training model is “accompanied by discussion guides to be used by managers and their teams,” Miller says. “We also have more traditional e-Learning courses and continue to require employees to review and certify to our policies and procedures.”

Lennox International, too, employs various communication tools for global use to increase awareness and ensure a proper mood in the middle. These communication tools include quarterly bulletins, in which we include a cartoon using “StoryboardThat,” Johnston says. Those quarterly bulletins are translated into different languages and posted on the company’s Intranet, “and we send them to HR, so that they can send them to every location,” she says.

Additionally, the company has online training that it licenses, as well as an annual online code of business conduct training. Among the company’s 10,000 employees, the training is provided in a total of nine languages.

Compliance and ethics officers agree that what effective training boils down to is relating to employees on a personal level, engaging their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But as with many other ethics and compliance decisions, it’s important to weigh both the pros and cons. In addition to the upfront costs, using ethics movies or sitcoms for training purposes sets the bar high, “which is good and bad, because then [employees] wonder, ‘what’s coming next year?’ ” Jenkins says. “You have to one-up yourself each year.”