The first rule of improv comedy is simple: Always say “yes.” Not so simple with compliance, huh?

Indeed, the “Department of No,” as it is often referred, doesn’t have much similarity to improv on the surface, but folks in the comedy space would tell you otherwise. Humor has become a crucial element in compliance training for many, as it engages the audience in a way talk of regulations and legalese tend to fall short on.

“We don’t know about compliance,” says Norm Laviolette, co-founder and CEO of Improv Asylum. The comedy theater began doing corporate training not long after its founding in 1998, its performers drawing from their own experiences in the corporate world. “But what we do know is we understand how groups communicate and work or how individuals communicate and work.

“We don’t come in as industry experts; we come in as experts within our industry, and then we show you how that applies to yours.”

How improv approaches compliance training


If improv is all about the yes, how can it properly address the “Department of No”? Laviolette explains:


“What we’ll do oftentimes in talking with compliance or legal, if we’re working with those teams, we don’t say you can no longer say no. That’s stupid, that’s your job. What we’ll often talk about is these are the unintended psychological consequences that you may not even realize you’re engendering in your colleagues.


“For instance, if you’re the ‘no person’ in your company and all you’re doing is saying no all the time … we know that if somebody keeps hearing no … it’s going to engender negative feelings for me, even though for you, you’re going be like, ‘What the hell man, I’m just doing my job.’


“What it also leads to is if you’re always saying no, you’re not incentivizing me to come to you. You’re incentivizing me oftentimes to come to you as late as I possibly can—where you in legal or compliance will be like, ‘Oh no, if you came to me early in the process, we could have worked this out. But you came so late.’ And I’m saying, ‘Well the reason I came so late is because you’re always telling me no.’


“So then we start talking about how do you within a job like compliance or legal address the feelings that you’re causing in other people, explain to them that you’re actually here to assist them.”

Laviolette’s team has conducted training for compliance, legal—“all the boring people,” he jokes. Still a performer himself, his goal is always the same: If you get people laughing, you get them to relax, you get them more engaged, and then they’re more open to new information and new ideas.

“Just because you’re in compliance, HR, or FinTech, you’re all the same,” he says. “Every company is an individual, lovely snowflake, and you’re also exactly the same—meaning that the psychology is the same no matter what.”

The psychology of compliance is in fact a growing industry, says Donald Langevoort, a Georgetown law professor with expertise in psychology and behavioral science. Langevoort notes the links between psychology and compliance have been around for decades, though the last five or six years has seen more people on the compliance side buying in.

“We’re every year learning more and more about the social science of compliance,” Langevoort says. “What we know is when you try to make presentations to people who feel under pressure to perform, to deliver revenues, to cut costs, they are somewhat what psychologists call ‘reactant’ to the insinuation that you need ethics training—because the implicit message there is we don’t trust you.

“And there’s the promise in using comedy and lightheartedness, which is you soften the situation and make it less preachy and less finger-pointy by lightening things up.”

Kim Yapchai, chief ethics and compliance officer at Fortune 500 auto parts manufacturer Tenneco, has been in the legal space for more than 25 years. Even when she started as a lawyer doing training on financing statements, consignment arrangements, etc., she saw the opportunity to use humor as a way to lighten things up.

That’s evolved throughout the years for Yapchai, whose incorporation of games in her training globally has earned her recognition in the compliance space. The ideas come from unlikely places—what her kids are doing at school, for example—but the results have been largely positive and have prompted responses from employees she never expected.

“A 30-year employee will come up to us after and say, ‘I’ve been with the company 30 years; this is the best training ever,’” she recalls. “… It just completely changes the way people view the program.”

Toeing the line

“It can’t be all play,” Yapchai says. Finding the balance between enjoyment and education is critical to the successful use of comedy in compliance training, especially when you consider the stakes.

 “If sarcasm or mockery is the form the comedy takes, you worry that the audience is going to go home with the message, ‘The way it was portrayed made compliance demands look foolish,’” warns Langevoort. “If that seed is planted in somebody’s mind—somebody that may be facing a difficult situation—it can turn into cynicism and rationalization that this isn’t all that serious. That’s a place you don’t want to be.”

Yapchai describes her process of using an interactive game to poll the audience followed by opening up the results to discussion. Having employees explain their thought process adds a different voice, “and it facilitates peers teaching each other and builds the community culture to tackle difficult issues,” she says.

For Laviolette, coming from outside compliance, the risks are equal. If his team is hired for a corporate event, that means one person thought they were the right fit to communicate to hundreds. Quite a different feeling than performing in front of hundreds who bought tickets at the theater because they wanted to be there.

“Contextually we have to understand that the humor and the ways we’re going to approach humor have to be appropriate for that medium. There is a fine line,” Laviolette says. “… The first thing you have to do is be relatable. And then you can be funny.”

Improv Asylum shared with Compliance Week the following video highlighting its corporate training program.

Get in on the fun

For compliance officers struggling with their training programs, humor shouldn’t be out of the question. But getting buy-in might not be easy, and convincing a CEO that jokes might be the best way to avoid a million dollar fine doesn’t always go over well.

“Start small,” Yapchai advises. “If you’re really worried and you’re not sure if your corporate culture will be supportive, try something within your own department and see how people react. … It doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Even if you can just try something small, you can really change the dynamics and impact of the session.” Using humor does not mean your program is not serious or there are no serious consequences to non-compliance, she adds.

Here’s where comedy and compliance align: Testing is key. Like a comic trying new material, a compliance officer has to take different approaches to get a message across. In both cases, captivating the audience is key, and whether it’s your peers, your family, or your friends, there’s always an audience available for the purposes of seeing what works and what doesn’t.

“Offering pizza goes a long way,” says Yapchai.

Sounds simple enough.