The Training Trap

How both employees and employers are increasingly ensnared in a bind that holds them both back.


It starts with the interview….


A candidate asks: “what sort of training will I be given?”


For an employer, this question can be seen a couple of ways:


1) This candidate is interested in learning and growing and will accept training and feedback well. 




2) This candidate is expecting a formal training program and, if they don’t get it, they may blame the company for “not training me” the first time they are given less-than-stellar feedback.


“I wasn’t trained on that.”

While this is not a new “saying” in the workplace, in the last couple of years, we have seen what appears to be a dramatic change in the expectations that employees place on their employers when it comes to ensuring that the employee succeeds. In the last 6 months alone, I have been a part of at least a couple of dozen performance reviews, formal and informal feedback discussions, and performance improvement plan processes in which the employee placed blame on the employer for the current situation by saying (a version of) “I wasn’t trained on that”.


“My company is too small to provide training”

Prolonged, formal training periods are not always an option. For most small businesses (which are most businesses), the ability to set aside time to “formally” train employees under structured conditions (whether that is a classroom type environment or individually at an employee’s desk/video chatting) can be very challenging to accomplish (both logistically and financially). Most employers can’t afford to pay an employee for lots of time when they are not “accomplishing” anything (and also keeping in mind that the trainer is also being taken away from their normal day to day work as well).


Additionally, an argument can be made that many new employees will be less than thrilled (e.g., bored or overwhelmed) doing nothing but “training” for an extended period of time. That early job excitement can deflate very quickly if the first week or two is spent watching video-based trainings, reading manuals, taking tests, sitting in long meetings learning process after process, etc.


So how do we ensure we can strike the right balance for our business? How do we ensure employees are trained in the things we need them to know without having to formally train them on every single thing? And how do we do that while ensuring that employees understand that we are not setting them up to fail just because they weren’t “formally trained” on every task that they need to accomplish?


Train what you can train…

Whatever needs to be trained should of course be trained. No employee should be expected to figure everything out on their own. Also, you don’t want employees going entirely rogue, because that will be unlikely to yield the results you want or need. If you can create at least rudimentary standard operating procedures (i.e., step by step instructions and checklists) then the employee has a takeaway to refer to. If you don’t have that, then there’s nothing wrong with sitting with an employee and walking through a process and having them write down the process while you do it together. This way, the employee has a hand in setting the process themselves. Keep trainings short, do one thing at a time so that neither the employee or the trainer gets overwhelmed and falls too far behind.


…and “empower” the employee for the rest!

Set very clear expectations right from the start, and repeat it now and then, that there will be things that the employee will need to figure out on their own – and that it’s OK if they don’t get it right the first time. And then, set them up for success:


  • Give them the tools they need to do succeed (which sometimes might be as simple as saying, “most of the things you need can be Googled, here are key sites that will help, and anything you can’t figure out, come and ask me”).


  • Also, point out the learning opportunity (for example, “by doing it this way, you will not only learn the way this is done, you will also learn about the subject matter – it’s a great opportunity for you to learn this skill!”).


  • Be encouraging and supportive. Tell the employee, “This is also new to me so I can’t tell you step by step how to do this. I think you will be able to figure most of this out, but it’s completely fine if you can’t. Just take it as far as you can and then let’s talk.” When the employee then comes to you with the deliverable, give them positive feedback on the things they were able to do successfully, and provide further feedback on the things that still need to be done/could be done better. And end it with, “I gave you very little instruction and you figured a lot of it out and did an overall great job!”


“We are all on the learning team.”

It's unlikely you can train everything, and that’s OK as long as you setup a learning culture where everyone is both empowered to figure things out and allowed to stumble without getting “in trouble”. And along the way, everyone is given encouragement, positive feedback on the things they do well, as well as redirective feedback on the things that could be better (and yes, even this is given in a positive way).


-David Freedman, SHRM-SCP