That Really Happened? Using Sanitized Cases to Make Ethics & Compliance Concepts Real

Learn how and why to incorporate anonymized ethics and compliance cases into your ethics and compliance program to make E&C concepts real to employees.

There has been quite a bit of buzz lately about the use of sanitized case studies in ethics and compliance training and ethics communications.

A “sanitized” case is an anonymized story that really happened at the organization. It may be something reported to the compliance, human resources, legal, health and safety, or other department that handles employee issues and complaints.

It could also be an organizational problem that broke in the news or crossed many functions. Use of sanitized cases is a best practice but there is often organizational reluctance to embrace it.

Why You Should Use Sanitized Cases

There are four very good reasons to use sanitized cases for learning purposes.

  • Use of real cases satisfies several principles of adult learning. First, adults want to use their experiences and others’ as tools for learning. Mistakes and poor choices are great teachers. Second, adults want to hear about topics that are relevant to their lives and jobs, where they can immediately apply what they learn. Third, adults are problem-centered learners. Slides with bullet points and lists of facts do not easily engage this audience. They want to uncover the content themselves by digging into relevant stories.
  • Everyone is interested in learning how to avoid trouble. The psychology behind self-preservation most likely goes back to the first caveman. After the most primitive fears of death, mutilation and entrapment (which presumably are largely absent from the workplace), research indicates that humans fear two things the most: separation from others and humiliation. At work, separation can manifest as being frozen out of the social group, getting the silent treatment or feeling undervalued and disrespected. Humiliation and shame are feared because they lead to a breakdown of self-confidence and self-esteem. The idea of violating laws, rules and accepted standards stirs these human fears, so employees are extremely interested in learning how to stay out of trouble—the kind that could happen (and has happened) in their workplaces.
  • Organizational justice is important to employees. Bruce Anderson, Chief Compliance Officer of Health Net Inc., said, “A key area of an ethical culture is for employees to understand and see organizational justice in action.”  Employees want to know that the rules are really enforced in their organization and real situations where it happened.
  • Employees want real cases. We often ask employees in focus groups how compliance training could be improved. Overwhelmingly, they respond by saying, “Use real cases from our company.” Instinctively, employees understand the appeal of real cases as a good learning vehicle and their value in helping people avoid the same mistakes.

Objections to Use of Sanitized Cases

Often, when compliance officers raise the idea internally of using sanitized cases, Anderson says they encounter “very practical and important limits on communicating organizational justice,” often from their legal department. The two primary objections are:

  • The potential for violating labor and privacy laws. Protection of private, personal information is a big risk area for many organizations these days. And when someone is found guilty of misconduct and gets disciplined or terminated from the company, everyone wants to know the juicy details. However, employers owe their employees the commitment to protect personal information during and after their employment, whether or not they are involved in wrongdoing. Furthermore, revealing such personal information publicly may open the organization to legal liability.
  • The possibility of causing reputational damage to the organization. Publication of real cases, even if they are sanitized of personal information, can feel like publically displaying your organization’s dirty laundry. Once these stories are shared with employees at large, they risk becoming viral beyond the walls of the employer, even if marked “confidential.” If social media teaches anything, it is that the more sensational a story is, the more people want to share it. The fear is that such stories will capture the attention of customers, shareholders, regulators and others and will sway public opinion enough to threaten the fiscal health of the organization—even if the cases were properly handled internally.

Mitigating Risks & Overcoming Objections

While these objections are important to address, they are not deal breakers. Try these strategies to remove the roadblocks.

  • Tell those who object all the reasons you should use these cases. As stated above, they appeal to the way adults learn best, they are organizationally relevant, they illustrate enforcement of organizational justice, they often describe disciplinary situations that employees will want to avoid and the “realness” factor makes them memorable.
  • Wait until the case cools off. Anderson suggests, “While time may or may not heal all wounds, putting some time between you and the incident may help mask the identities.” You will find that the “who done it” factor minimizes with time, which increases the instructional power of the story. The distraction of side concerns like “who” can overshadow the learning points if the case is too fresh.
  • Change enough, but not too many, details of the case. Change genders, locations, departments, job titles and any other necessary facts to protect confidentiality, but not the key information so that the message is not altered.
  • Make sure appropriate remediation is part of the story. The outcome of the case is as important as the fact pattern. This plays to the employee desire to avoid trouble. And if the case goes outside the organization, it demonstrates that even though we make mistakes, we are not a bad organization. The real public story is that we address bad behavior and therefore have nothing to hide. Sometimes such transparency can even strengthen your brand.
  • Ask legal to review the sanitized cases to make sure they are “clean” enough. But acknowledge this fact: no matter how much you sanitize, you will always have employees trying to guess the identity of the players in the story. They may even guess correctly. However, if you anonymize the identifiers, guessing does no harm.

How to Use These Tools

Even if your organization uses purchased eLearning libraries with included hypothetical scenarios as your main training tool, you can and should use your own cases as part of your compliance education curriculum.

Best practice is to use a blended learning approach for compliance training, which means using a variety of methods that include both electronic and live formats. Consider these ideas for adding sanitized case studies to your compliance education plan.

  • Add them to instructor-led compliance courses. Risk and role-based compliance curricula often include eLearning courses followed by a classroom session with scenarios targeted to employees working in high risk roles. For example, the sales force in a global company may complete the online Code of Conduct course containing a segment on anti-corruption, then attend more in-depth live training on the same topic, featuring sanitized, real bribery cases.
  • Use them in short, manager-led live discussions. A good compliance education plan will include multiple communications annually, for target audiences, on the organization’s highest risks. One or more sanitized cases with talk points can be the focus of a short risk-focused discussion led by the manager during a staff meeting. The benefit of this format is that, in NAVEX Global focus groups, employees consistently say they want to hear about compliance topics from their bosses so they can discuss how the risks and remedies are applicable to their jobs.
  • Launch periodically on your intranet site as quick awareness pieces. There are many ways to use sanitized cases on the organization’s intranet site. Question and answer formats are well-suited to this type of delivery. For example, the case can be presented as:
    • An “Ask the Compliance Officer” piece.
    • A real-time polling piece (if technology allows) asking “What would you do?” with immediate feedback comparing the user’s answer to the rest of the employee population.
    • A competition where the case study is presented one week with one or more questions to answer and submit, followed the next week by the correct answers, debrief, and the list of winners who got it right.
    • A list of “Did This Happen Here” short case studies, with revelation the following week of which cases “did happen here” plus debriefs if the issues and actions taken.


Sanitized, real cases are engaging and effective training and awareness tools. While legal objections may dampen your organization’s enthusiasm for using such cases, there are definite benefits to moving ahead.

Chat with a solutions expert to learn how you can take your compliance program to the next level of maturity.

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