Training a new colleague is not going well, how to get over the hump?
September 8, 2018 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I am responsible for (most of) the training of a new co-worker and I think she's made very little progress. What steps should I take to help fix this?

I, a mid 30s woman, have been tasked with mentoring and training a new hire "Sarah", a woman in her late-50s/early-60s, who has the same job title as me. My boss has been happy with my work and she thinks this is a great growth opportunity for me.

She has been with us since the end of July and my observation is that she's made very little if no progress with many of the tasks she will eventually be responsible for. When I check her work, I see her repeat fairly large errors over and over again, despite my numerous corrections and advice. I have tried to explain to her that in our role, it's important to get these minor and major details right because lots of people depend on us getting it right.

There are a couple factors that have made the training process challenging in general: 1) our manager is several hours away so she doesn't see the day-to-day interactions, and 2) due to my own workload, I am not able to sit with Sarah all day and work with her directly.

So I give her an assignment, the same projects we have to work on every day, I ask her to work on it up to a certain point independently, then I check her work. At first I would tell her the specific corrections she should make, but I decided yesterday to let her try to figure out the correct answers herself (especially if it's something I know we have talked about over the past few weeks) and yesterday is the day she started showing impatience with my suggestions. She said, "why can't you just tell me?" when I advised she check notes and other cheat sheets that have been provided for her, because that's what I do every day. Some other challenges:

-- She doesn't take many notes though I have suggested she should. I've told her I took books full of notes and it really helped when I was learning this job last year but she doesn't seem interested in doing the same. When I explain something, she says she understands but sometimes I feel she is saying that just to get me to stop talking.

-- She has admitted that, on one particular task she has trouble with, she tries to rush through it out of frustration. I told her I understand that feeling but she should work slower to avoid mistakes. She still tries to work quickly on many things.

-- Yesterday she started snapping at me. For example, she showed me an email she was going to send a client. I reviewed it, told her the basics were fine (though there were grammatical errors), but made some suggestions on how to ask the questions more specifically to get the answers she needed from the client. I asked her, "so that's how I would do it; do you have any questions as to why I made the choices I did?" She replied, "no, because there's nothing wrong with the email I wrote." Also, when I told her to do a minor step 15 minutes before her shift was over, she said, "but I have to leave in 15 minutes!" She could've done the step in the minute she spent complaining about it.

I did tell my boss about two weeks ago that I thought Sarah was struggling, right before Sarah spent two days one on one with another colleague, and while boss understands Sarah is behind, boss felt like she should pick it up soon, especially with the one on one training. I haven't seen a marked difference in Sarah's work since she came back from training.

So, my questions are as follows:

How do I explain this to my boss in an effective way? I personally think she (our boss) needs to intervene but I'm not exactly sure how that would look. No one expects Sarah to be a master at the process in 6 weeks but I'm not sure how to explain to our boss that she has made very little progress on what is, frankly, one of the easiest parts of our job.

This is my first time training someone. Is there another approach I should take with training Sarah? Should I make her start doing things instead of suggesting? I do wonder sometimes if she doesn't take me seriously due to our age gap and/or that we have the same role. We are in a very small office and I'm the only other person with this role so if she's going to get daily, in person feedback and instruction, it has to come from me.
posted by girlmightlive to Work & Money (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you need to tell your boss that this isn't working out, that Sarah is still making significant mistakes on areas where she's received instruction multiple times, is not taking responsibility for becoming independently capable (won't take notes or refer to cheat sheets), and is pushing back on your instruction.

Your boss might reassign the training of Sarah, give you training tips, let Sarah go and hire someone else, re-think her role, or something else entirely.

Part of your responsibility here is to not waste company resources continuing to train her when it doesn't appear to be effective and your management is unaware of the situation. If management is *fully* aware and wants you to soldier on, then at least you've told them and they've made a decision based on all the facts.

Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 2:48 PM on September 8, 2018 [23 favorites]

As for how to say it - keep it as fact-based and neutral as possible. Have examples ready to show your boss. I'd schedule a meeting over the phone myself.

* First trained on widget polishing 3/18 and has had many opportunities to practice and receive feedback. As of 9/7 she still leaves smudges on the widgets despite being told multiple times that smudges are not acceptable
* Have been working with her on widget foo since 4/1. She's attempted foo several times but each attempt contains significant mistakes and requires correction.
* Does not take notes or refer to the cheat sheets I have provided.
* Here's a copy of her most recent email to client before I edited it. We've discussed X and Y multiple times but mistakes with X and Y are still happening.

I'm concerned that she does not seem to be making progress towards being able to perform the job independently. How would you like me to proceed? Is there anything I can do to be more effective as a trainer?
posted by bunderful at 2:57 PM on September 8, 2018 [13 favorites]

What are Sarah's strengths, and what do you think her learning style might be? You and her seem to have different learning styles, so perhaps it might be more difficult for you to empathize with her when she's having trouble with your recommended learning style.
posted by aielen at 4:07 PM on September 8, 2018

Have examples ready to show your boss.

This will also supply an important documentation trail if it turns out the situation can’t be resolved.

As for her, it’s not surprising that her attitude is deteriorating as either a) she’s aware that she’s not able to do the job and is embarrassed, b) believes she is doing fine and that you are relentlessly nitpicking her, or c) a mixture of both.

The situation having reached this point I think it would be good to turn responsibility for her over to a mentor. You’ll obviously still be providing technical training but she’ll have someone to support her who isn’t the same person who is pointing out her faults. Normally this would be the role of a manager, but as you point out she’s not around.

But from what you say, I think thorough documentation is key here.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:13 PM on September 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

First, this sounds like a really challenging training experience, especially for your first time doing it, so you have my sympathies.

Honestly, this doesn't sound super-promising - sometimes people are hired for jobs they're just not right for, and that sucks, but it's no one's fault. This is why job offers usually have trial periods. However, since you don't have hiring/firing power, you can use this as a chance to develop your own skills, and maybe salvage the situation.

A few ideas:

- Can you think of specific things she has picked up quickly - ie, that she is naturally more talented in? Is there a way you can use those natural talents to help her learn the things she's not as good at, or to value those things more? Similarly, has there been a time when you were able to train her more successfully? If so, is there anything you did differently then?

- Ideally you'd be giving your boss updates every week when you check in, so it doesn't have to be a Big Heavy Conversation. Really, your boss should have made sure this was happening. But I'd suggest giving your boss a regular update about how training is going, either over email or in your weekly check-in, if you have one. Don't feel bad about this - it's your responsibility to let your boss know how this is going, and it doesn't help anyone for you to "protect" Sarah.

- Similarly, can you ask your boss for help troubleshooting how you might work with Sarah? It sounds like you need some training too, and there's nothing wrong with that - you're learning a new skill.
posted by lunasol at 4:18 PM on September 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

So 6 weeks isn't that long. It does take people a really long time to adjust to work environments and there is a ton of information coming in all at once. (6 months in a complex role is normal!) Some of it is the technical parts, some if it is practical there is building layout, culture , the code to the copier, and other tasks that aren't the production part of work but matter. So first off, how is she doing with that? Does she have a routine to have everything she needs and be comfortable working in her space? If so, that free bandwidth to learn the technical parts. But, say she starts a task, needs an extra log in, has to bug someone for the print code, then spends time looking for the restroom ect she won't learn as well and she will have more mistakes.

Are you teaching too many tasks at once? She should have pretty good mastery of step A before adding step B. If you teach them at the same time , there is more chance for compounded errors and it's harder for her to catch them because she's looking at a bunch of new stuff all at once.

Also remember big issues to small. So, glaring mistakes that really impact work should be addressed and THEN move towards smaller issues. Like, some people do learn by doing, and it's okay to ask a question without the best nuance and it take a dailouge to get where she needs to be. But it's NOT okay for her not to ask the question at all. Later she can improve the conversation to streamline, part of that will happen naturally over time.

Obviously, depending on your field, basic skills grammar, editing, reviewing work and such are things that come before the job and if there isn't a standard review procedure she may simply not have the skill level you are looking for. But, it is hard looking a new procedure it's entirety and figuring out mistakes, she brought it you because she thought it was done and right! Otherwise she would have asked the question beforehand.

So do give her hints and where to focus. It is frustrating to pour over a, document for an hour to find a mistake when you don't quit understand especially when you know they know and they want you to get it and move on to something else.

Part of what you can do is have her verbally walk through what she is doing. This allows praise (yes, that's, exactly right) and feedback. If she's really stuck on a step focus on just that, because learning about something ten steps away is too much at that point.

Notes are just a non starter for me, I remember policy like some people remember plot lines of good movies though and it makes me angry when someone is saying I'm not paying attention because I'm not performing a task that's ultimately just for them. (To be clear, I end up taking fake notes and throwing them out because I want my boss to like me if I end up in this situation).

Some people are bad hires , it does happen . But your new at training and being adaptable to her is important too.

For me I expect people to work and learn at my pace and I'm not average. I'm way above the curve and expect far too much too soon. I overload people and really have to step back. And remind myself that it's normal ,really normal,to learn in different ways and different paces.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:16 PM on September 8, 2018 [13 favorites]

It may be worth to distinguish between factual errors that could be avoided by self review, especially if you’ve discussed the key aspects of the task multiple times, and emails you’d write differently. Factual errors that impact the next steps in a workflow are factual errors and have to be fixed. Stylistic preferences are stylistic preferences. If the email does not go to a very tricky customer and is not extremely time critical let her send it unless it makes your organisation look really bad. If she has to follow up because she doesn’t get the response she needed that is also a form of learning.

And nobody is ever going to say ‘no’ to ‘do you understand’ type questions, at least not in that age group. You have to give people an opportunity to save face. And you have to allow for the possibility that they don’t even know where to start with asking a question, especially if your field or organisation uses a lot of jargon. I work in a field with a lot of jargon. I have to force myself to go back to basics with trainees, including language I might only use in external communication with people outside the field otherwise.

And yes, she may just not be a good fit for the role. It happens. So yes, absolutely loop your boss in regularly and with specific examples.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:44 PM on September 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Firstly, be patient. It takes most people a lot longer to learn stuff than we generally think it should/does. Seriously, stuff that seems obvious as self-evident to us can seem confusing and arbitrary to people who are new to it.

Secondly, checklists and reviews are really useful to catch repeated errors until they become habit. Work on writing a checklist with her, that she can run through before she passes it on to you. This will hopefully reduce your coaching, encourage self correction, and embed the habits.

Thirdly, on email tone and stuff. I get this totally, work in communications, and when we have grads or interns with us, they do need coaching sometimes on how to write emails to get the right response. But it's also worth remembering that just because somebody doesn't write a thing the way I would it doesn't mean that they are wrong. I deal with this a few different ways: 1) for common types of emails, I use/give them templates to use that they can just alter to suit. 2) When I do coach, I always explain that I'm changing X to get Y kind of response, and I try frame it as something to do with our organisation and culture rather than their writing, 3) I try not to sweat the small stuff. If the email is 80% there, that's fine.

Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 6:05 PM on September 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

The assumption here seems to be that Sarah’s mistakes require ever increasing oversight and training. Is it possible that the opposite is true: perhaps you’re over training her and not giving her room to try things out, experience failure, and then learn from those mistakes? In my experience, training only goes so far, at some point you need to step back and let them start doing it themselves. They will absolutely screw up, but it is actually the screwing up part that pushes them to figure out how it should be done. That is a much more effective method than constant monitoring and correction.

Above someone mentioned that there are certain tasks in any job that must be done a specific way and there are other tasks for which multiple methods will be effective. It may be that Sarah ‘s preferred approach is both different from yours and still just as effective. Make sure that your training allows her independence to figure out the right method for her, which is not necessarily the method you would use.

After you’ve backed off and allowed her to find her style, give it another six weeks and reassess. If at that time she is still struggling then go to your boss with specific examples and talk to them about your concerns. At this point, I think a conversation like that would be premature.
posted by scantee at 6:06 PM on September 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

Since becoming a manager I have become more aware that many places of employment have a multi-generational workforce, and the members of each generation have different learning and communication styles. Two things you could do are consider the learning style of your coworkers generation and attempt to have some empathy for a new hire in her position.

I think that how you could mention it to your boss would be that you are concerned that Sarah is having trouble with some of the material and that your own work assignments are preventing you from giving her as much training as you would like / as she needs. Your boss is also Sarah's boss, bosses have an obligation to get their employees the training they need, and your boss knows or should know that. It's not unreasonable for your boss to provide resources other than yourself to train Sarah.
posted by Rob Rockets at 7:34 PM on September 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

It sounds like she's having a harder time learning the material than you both expected, and you're both getting frustrated. Before you declare her a bad hire, or pass her off to someone else, perhaps it would be good to consider the following:

- How steep is the learning curve on this job?
- What is a realistic time period to learn to do the job to the necessary standards?
- Do you have too many responsibilities to adequately administer training?

It's important to call out errors when she makes them, but also watch for areas of improvement. Do you see progress on the learning curve? If so, acknowledge it. This will encourage both of you. Maybe she's feeling you're being too nit-picky. Maybe being nit-picky is necessary in order to get the job right. But if that's the case, take a step back and focus on the broad strokes first, before zeroing in on getting a task 100% right out of the gate.

When giving her a task, just set the bar lower to begin with, to allow her a chance to achieve certain aspects of the task first. Then start narrowing focus to more and more specific things.
posted by cleverevans at 8:09 AM on September 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

One more thought - there's a larger question lurking in the background re your boss's expectations for progress, what kind of information they need and when they need it. That's totally a conversation you can have with your boss.
posted by bunderful at 10:12 AM on September 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Do you still have the notes you took while you were learning the job? They could be a valuable resource for her, especially if you updated and condensed them. Some people (myself included) can't pay full attention to someone teaching them new information or tasks and make decent notes on the subject at the same time, but clear notes or checklists from someone else can be very helpful for working through tasks and being able to catch and correct their own mistakes.
posted by ethiowin at 3:42 AM on September 10, 2018

I wanted to thank everyone for their advice. I just learned today that my colleague and our company have parted ways. I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but I will apply the great advice given in the future. Thank you.
posted by girlmightlive at 12:12 PM on November 27, 2018

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