Training millennials on the culture of compliance

Generational shifts in the workforce are an inevitable consequence of the passage of time: As one generation of workers ages and retires, another enters the workforce to replace them.  This new generation often has different attitudes, habits, and values than the generations preceding them – which can often become a source of conflict. Such a transition is currently underway, with so-called “millennials” gradually replacing baby boomers in the workforce over the next decade or so. Understanding these generational differences can allow compliance professionals to build up and sustain a culture of compliance, and mitigate risk.

Who are these millennials and how will they affect our attitudes and approach to compliance in the corporate context?

Broadly speaking, the term “millennial” refers to a member of the generation born in the time spanning from approximately the early 1980s to the early 2000s.  The term was originally coined in the 1990s, and the generation was so named because they were to reach young adulthood at the beginning of the new millennium.

You’ll find that today’s intellectual forums are flush with literature attempting to address questions of who millennials are and how they will impact the workforce, often with a wide variety of attitudes and conclusions. The general consensus tends to be that millennials are technologically fluent, self-confident, and ambitious.  Furthermore, millennials are thought of as being skeptical of institutions such as governments, corporations, and religion.

How do these characteristics interact with the prevailing corporate work environment – specifically, in a compliance context?  Although many millennial traits may be ultimately leveraged to the organization’s benefit, those attributes that clash with existing standards are felt most immediately, and often result in panic and hostility among those most entrenched in the status quo.

Understanding these points of conflict is the first step toward addressing and eventually transforming them into strengths for the organization to foster its culture of compliance.

Millennials grew up in a world of rapidly developing technology.  They are the most technologically connected generation in history.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the arguably most apparent tension arises from the millennial tendency to share (or, perhaps, overshare) information electronically – specifically, on social media.  According to a 2015 Pew Research study,90% of adults ages 18-29 use social media, as do 77% of adults ages 30-49.

In the context of a culture of compliance where the dissemination of data and records must be carefully managed and structured, it’s plain to see from where the conflict emerges.

Aside from an improper dissemination of information, heavy technology and social media usage by millennial employees also creates the risk of inappropriate communications with clients or competitors – another significant compliance headache for the organization.

Suffice it to say, these are issues that demand attention.

The course of action to best reduce this risk is to educate employees – both millennials and older generations of workers – on best practices for social media, both on and off the job.  Most of the time, employees using social media improperly do not understand or intend to behave in an unethical or otherwise noncompliant manner.  As such, training is often the best way to reduce such behavior, since it can provide valuable insight to employees on these issues.

Nevertheless, instead of stopping at merely remedying potential conflicts between millennial habits and your organization’s culture of compliance, compliance officers would be prudent to harness these skills for the company’s benefit.

Specifically, millennials’ knowledge and experience about social media and technology should be used to better understand and prepare for potential compliance concerns involving such matters.  After all, who better to understand how and why social media presents compliance risks than those who, without proper training, would have been the most likely to create those risks?

In short, millennials should be seen not only as a new, high-tech source of risk, but also, when properly deputized, a highly effective means of combating such risk.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Research study,50% of millennials identify as being political independents, and 29% of millennials report not being affiliated with any religion.  These numbers are notably higher than those of any preceding generation, and are “at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded” for the past 25 years.

Similarly, according to a 2016 Harvard University Institute of Politics poll,86% of 18-29 year-olds distrust Wall Street, while 88% distrust the media.

What does this cynicism mean for your organization? It’s difficult to precisely pinpoint how it will manifest, but one could reasonably expect a general lack of blind devotion to organization directives by millennials.

Specifically, rationales for regulatory compliance such as “it’s best for the company” or “it’s required by the government” may not resonate strongly with millennials.  Although they may nonetheless comply with compliance directives, they may not do so with much enthusiasm – which can undermine efforts to build a strong culture of compliance.

Luckily, counteracting this is easy enough: Identify the underlying rationales behind compliance actions and requirements, such as the need to catch money launderers who may be attempting to funnel assets legally, or to stop drug kingpins looking to legitimize the proceeds from an illegal sale.

Indeed, imbuing more consequential rationales into your compliance culture can reinforce its integrity throughout your organization, as it can help employees to follow not only the letter of the law, but its spirit as well.

One of the most defining personal traits of millennials is their unshakable self-confidence – and some would even argue that millennials are self-confident to a fault.

Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that such self-confidence may become a problem should it get in the way of effective compliance training and reporting.

For instance, a particularly self-confident millennial employee may believe him- or herself to be above required compliance training requirements, or too confident in his or her own abilities to be as receptive to the material as one should be. In addition, employees with an overabundance of self-confidence may not immediately seek out assistance in situations in which they would be expected to.

Furthermore, millennials are thought of as being particularly individualistic. As this pertains to the workplace, a recent surveyfound that 64% of millennial employees in the U.S. expect to leave their current employer within the next five years.

An employee who does not foresee themselves with their current employer in the long-term can be a troubling prospect, particularly in a compliance context. Without any investment of consequence in the fate of the organization for which he or she currently works, an employee may be less motivated to support the company’s culture of compliance.

These two causes for concern are interrelated – but so are the remedies. That is, instead of fighting against a millennial’s sense of self-worth, use it to your advantage: Make the employee feel important. More specifically, underscore the importance of the role that he or she plays in the organization and its culture of compliance.

In the vast majority of situations, such a message isn’t dishonest. Organizations truly do rely on each employee for a strong culture of compliance, and it’s important that all employees understand that.

Once again, it’s possible to transform these perceived weaknesses into strengths: Millennials’ individualism and self-confidence also manifest as strong adherence to personal values, and a tendency to think “outside the box.”

Being able to understand millennials is one thing; but getting millennials to understand what you are trying to communicate – specifically, in regards to training millennials on compliance – may be something different entirely. True enough, “how millennials learn” and “training millennials” are common Google searches, underscoring the very real lack of understanding on millennial training and development in the corporate context.

Unfortunately, although there is certainly no lack of content on the subject, there doesn’t appear to be much consensus aside from the agreement that millennials don’t thrive in a traditional, more structured learning environment.

As such, alternative learning methods should be explored, including, but not limited to, collaborative learning techniques, use of multimedia aids, and “gamification” – that is, integrating game-like features into training curricula.

Interestingly enough, many of these techniques may also increase engagement among other generations within your workforce – once again demonstrating how adopting new practices to engage millennial employees can yield additional benefits felt throughout the rest of the organization.

In truth, nearly any perceived “flaw” of millennials can actually be converted into an asset with relative ease. Once compliance officers can move past the inherent conflicts that accompany generational shifts, they should be able to see the benefits that the new wave of workers can offer. Rather than forcing millennials to conform with existing paradigms, compliance officers would be prudent to adapt their respective cultures of compliance to best leverage the new traits and skills presented by millennials.