What can a Warning Sticker teach us about Compliance?

How a LinkedIn post turned into a behavioural experiment and made a Compliance point even more powerfully than I'd originally intended.

(Don't) Read The Warning Signs

Earlier this week, I wrote a post on LinkedIn [included at the end of this post].

It was inspired by this warning sticker on a new bike:

In the post, I explained that on the face of it, the warning sticker was there to keep customers like me safe. In reality, though, we know, and the manufacturer knows, that while there will be some riders — safety fanatics and lawyers, in particular — who will read the sticker, the majority won't bother.

But that's not the main reason it's there, because the primary purpose of the sticker is to protect the manufacturer's legal position. And possibly to comply with a regulatory requirement.

I mention the sticker because there's a Compliance lesson here that we need to see the sticker for what it is — an exercise in shifting liability, rather than a serious attempt to influence people's behaviour.

Legally defensible vs user friendly

Yet many Compliance programs rely on techniques that use 'sticker logic' — they assume that an exercise in shifting liability or simply doing the minimum required by the rules is all that is needed to get people to behave in the way you want them to. Sometimes, of course, it works. But if your focus is just on defensibility — ensuring the company is in the best possible position if something goes wrong — then you're missing an opportunity to also focus on preventing that thing from happening in the first place.

It may be comforting when an employee fails to comply with the rules, and you can use sticker logic to say, "we told them not to do that". But wouldn't it be better if they didn't do it in the first place?

My point is that we obviously need to comply with the rules and mitigating liability is a sensible objective. But if that's your main or only focus, then you're missing a trick, particularly when the mitigation exercise causes a negative or unhelpful reaction in the target audience.

So that's what I posted on LinkedIn, which is when things got interesting.

Unleashing the experiment

I had several responses to my post, mostly agreeing that the sticker is unlikely to be read. What I hadn't expected — which is why I love having discussions on LinkedIn — was that I would also be unleashing an admittedly unscientific behavioural experiment. Because I'd be seeing how closely people who read my post were reading the sticker.

Two responses, in particular, caught my eye.

"Yay, new bike, super cool! Right, first, let's get all these unsightly and uncool stickers off. Then, wheelies..."?

I am very guilty of riding my bike up extremely non-level surfaces. And back down again at speeds where it becomes very difficult to read these kinds of stickers. Mostly I think these stickers are cheap ways for companies to think they have offset liabilities. Perhaps in some cultures and jurisdictions, that is an effective ploy. I say "ride on!". 😉

There's absolutely nothing wrong with either comment. But here's the thing. The bike the sticker is attached to isn't a traditional outdoor bike. It's a Peloton spin bike, which means that the things the respondents were suggesting — doing wheelies or riding up on non-level surfaces — is impossible.

Why does that matter? Well, if you read the sticker carefully, there are clues that this isn't an outdoor bike. A point that my two respondents obviously missed. That's not a criticism, by the way. Because if I were responding to a post on LinkedIn, I wouldn't have read it that closely either. But it does neatly illustrate the limitations of the sticker as a means of communication. Even when we're paying attention to them, we're not.

Of course, you could argue that if you were reading it for safety reasons, you'd know the context and be paying closer attention. But you might well not, which is why Peloton also provide a detailed user manual and video safety guides that you can watch on the bike's TV screen. What's more, when they deliver the bike, you get a personal safety briefing from the delivery team.

When it comes to rider safety, the sticker isn't doing any (heavy) lifting at all. But it's not designed to. That's why it's a sticker that you can easily remove and not a permanent feature of the bike.

Which brings me back to my point. If your program uses the equivalent of Warning Stickers, then make sure they're only being used for things that warrant that approach. Otherwise, like the sticker, you might easily come unstuck.


Here's the content of the original LinkedIn post. Click here to see the responses to my post.

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