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How to get people to follow the rules: lessons from the pandemic’s ‘great experiment’

When a deadly global pandemic broke out, compliance — the act of following rules — became critical. Yet many people didn’t adhere to the rules. 

On May 9th, lawyer and compliance expert Richard John, adjunct professor at Cornell Law School, held a live webcast through eCornell to explore the COVID-19 pandemic as a global compliance experiment, applying its lessons to the daily challenges organizations encounter in maintaining rule systems.

“When it comes to compliance, businesses usually have far more time, they’re looking at a much smaller subset of people than the entire nation and they have the advantage of paying its employees for leverage,” said John, answering questions from an audience of over five hundred listeners around the world. “But the pandemic was such an experiment — the ‘Great Experiment.’ Suddenly, you needed the whole country to pay attention, figure out what the rules are, and follow them — and do it in an incredible hurry. And while this has been a tremendous tragedy…to some extent our rules worked.”

Professor John also explained how getting people to work together and follow rules takes careful thought and planning, and that compliance inside businesses and organizations is essential to accomplishing just about anything.

“Anywhere you see real value or real risk in a business, you’re going to develop a rule system,” said John. “And rule systems work to protect the process. Compliance has a reputation of being bureaucratic, slow or obstructive to the core mission of the business. That’s because if you’re doing it wrong, it’s all of those things. But if a rule system is designed well, people don’t necessarily know that they’re following the rules. It just makes sense. And if done in an effective way, you can add tremendous value.”

John is also the author of Cornell Law School’s new certificate program in Compliance Systems delivered online through eCornell. In the three-month, online program, students explore how compliance can be beneficially applied to their organizations and maintained sustainably through internal rule systems.

“When you get down to it, compliance is about behavior change — implementing rules to encourage a behavior,” shared John. “Big banks, colleges and universities, a sales team and even a local ice cream stand can benefit from better compliance systems — it's universally relevant.”

Learn more and enroll in the certificate program. John’s full Keynote with eCornell is also available to view as a recording.

Jamie Bonan is a contributor for eCornell.


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