Uncertainty is the leading cause of employee noncompliance, Gartner finds

Dive Brief:

  • Compliance leaders often focus on building ethical cultures, but the best way to improve employee behavior is to address uncertainty about how to comply with rules and standards, an April 17 report from research and technology advisory firm Gartner found.
  • Uncertainty is the most common of three situations — including rationalization (thinking that noncompliance isn’t wrong in a certain context) and malice (not complying despite knowing its wrong) — that lead to noncompliance, according to the report.
  • In a December 2023 survey of 1,012 employees, 87% said they faced situations in the last 12 months where they didn’t know how to comply, 77% said they’d been in situations where they rationalized not complying, and 40% said they’d contemplated malice. 

Dive Insight:

“Compliance culture is a valuable part of mitigating misconduct,” but it’s not the most effective approach for dealing with uncertainty, Chris Audet, chief of research in Gartner’s legal, risk and compliance leaders practice, said in a press release.

Instead, Gartner’s study revealed that improved quality standards — the design of policies, training, communication and tools — has more than double the impact than compliance culture on reducing uncertainty, according to the firm.

But compliance culture is still important: It has 1.5 times the impact than improved quality standards on reducing situations where employees rationalize noncompliance and 1.4 times the impact on reducing malice, Gartner pointed out.

“Given that many compliance functions already tend to prioritize compliance culture, however, and that situations of uncertainty are the most common drivers of noncompliance, it is likely that focusing on quality standards will yield better overall improvements in employee compliance,” Gartner stated in the release.

Also, organizational and compliance leaders should keep in mind that employees who don’t want to comply for malicious reasons, such as getting revenge on the company or a colleague, won’t all follow through on their desire, the firm added.

This makes it critical for organizations “to put measures in place so momentary feelings of anger don’t escalate to misconduct,” Gartner said.

Training managers may be key to communicating and enforcing such measures, as well as helping employees better understand quality standards and ease their uncertainty about compliance, studies have stressed.

For example, middle managers can play a key role in shepherding employee growth, progression and productivity, the CEO of a talent management platform previously stated.

But managers, particularly those new to the role, often lack the skills to lead their direct reports, some research suggests. To effectively address this, training sessions can help managers build better habits rather than simply learn new ideas and policies.

The results bear this out: Effective training programs have been associated with better team engagement, workplace culture and a culture of trust and transparency, research has shown.

Training may also be needed to address familiar, high-profile compliance issues, such as how managers respond to employee complaints of harassment, bias, discrimination and bullying, according to an earlier study by pelotonRPM, a virtual workplace training company.

Most complaints are made to managers, rather than HR, yet when approached by employees with a complaint, about 4 in 10 managers and leaders said they did not ask questions, repeat facts or clarify details, and more than half did not explain to the complaining employee the organization’s anti-retaliation policy or define retaliatory behaviors.