how to train a new hire

A reader writes:

I’m transitioning out of my job and into a new one. My replacement will start a week from today, and I’ll have a full week to train the new employee. Historically, my organization has not been good at training. When I started this job, my predecessor sat over my shoulder and instructed me what to do as we simply did her/my job together for the entire eight hours of three consecutive days. It was exhausting and painful.

I want to create a training plan so that I can give my replacement independent tasks and some down time to absorb everything, rather than sitting next to her for eight hours for five days and overloading her brain with too much information too rapidly. Although I have written manuals for most of the specific tasks of my job, we don’t have an employee manual or other literature to introduce the new hire to the organization in general. How do I go about creating a training plan? My organization has never used a formal training plan, so my own boss can’t be helpful here.

Is it better to end up sending the new hire home early if we move through the plan too quickly, or is it better to create an ambitious training plan that we may not get all the way through if some things take longer than anticipated? Is it okay to give a new hire the freedom to work independently on non-critical tasks during this initial training period, even though she has only just been trained on the tasks that same day or week?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. hayling*

    It’s definitely a good idea to reflect on how things were when you started and what information would have benefited you.

    When I left my last job, I created a 40-page manual. In addition to instructions for some of the more technical things, I included a list of vendors, including “institutional knowledge” like “Jane prefers to send invoices by fax” or “Joe is great at sourcing promo items that are on clearance.” I learned all this piecemeal when I started and it would have been great to have up front.

  2. AnonEMoose*

    Besides all the excellent advice, sometimes it’s helpful to not only include the “what” and the “how” of a task, but the “why.” So if you’re teaching the new hire to update records, for example, don’t just show her what to do. If there’s a specific reason it has to be done X way, tell her that as well.

    When I’m training new coworkers on a process I handle, I try to explain “I need you to do X task Y way, because it causes Z issue with later steps if you don’t.” It seems to help them retain the information. Also, knowing the reasoning behind something can really help with problem solving later on.

    1. Hermione*

      It can also help an overeager new hire from misunderstanding why a step is so complicated if an “obvious” shortcut is evident. As an overachiever myself, early on I found myself jumping to ways to streamline processes, but because I didn’t understand WHY the painted teapots needed to cure for 24 hours before packaging to avoid the potential for increased cracking, I might go ahead and pack as soon as they weren’t tacky anymore, because I’m not the type to wait until tomorrow for things that could be done today.

      So I agree, the whys are important!

      1. Shell*

        Yeah, this. Back when I trained new employees in a lab, I always explained the whys behind the procedures. A lot of our reagents had to be added in a specific order, and if you add the internal standard before you’ve added hydroxide the entire procedure died right then (and cannot be salvaged). Continuing the procedure after that point was a waste of time and resources.

        Explaining why doesn’t prevent mistakes completely, but it often lessens the frequency of mistakes.

    2. Jade*

      Yes, this!!

      When I started my new role, there was a manual of instructions on how to do tasks, but no why. After 6 months I was still learning things that would have made SO much more sense had I had all the information from the beginning.

  3. HR Pro*

    There’s a cute phrase about training that I can’t remember right now – something like “show, practice, do.” The point is that when training someone on a task you generally show them how to do it the first time, then let them practice the second time (but with you sitting right there and reminding them of the steps), and then let them do it with you mainly sitting there silently, unless they have questions. The point is that if you skip one of these steps, or just stay in the “show” step forever, then it’s harder for them to learn how to do it on their own. It sounds like OP’s trainer was stuck in the show or practice steps.

    But the other key to training a new person, as the OP learned (and as Alison explained), is building in time for them to work quietly at their desk alone. Even on the very first day, before you’ve actually trained them on any work, give them some time on their own (ideally not first thing in the morning) to get their desk arranged a bit, set up their email/voicemail, read over the benefits paperwork, etc. (The reason I say ideally not first thing in the morning is that you’d want to talk with them first, maybe introduce them, etc. It would be pretty lonely to show up on your first day and then be sent to a desk alone.)

    1. periwinkle*

      Instructional designer over here! We prefer to follow Merrill’s first principles of design, which from the learner point of view is:
      1. Tell me
      2. Show me
      3. Let me
      4. Watch me

      It sounds like the OP has captured the explicit knowledge of the job. The difficulty is passing along the tacit institutional knowledge and that’s not easy to write down because it’s just second nature after a while to copy on any emails about the caramel teapot lid issues, IM Wakeen instead of emailing him, and push on the cabinet door to make sure it locks correctly.

      To reiterate what AnonEMoose said, explain the “why” as well as the “what.” You copy Jane on the emails because she’s the company expert lid melting, Wakeen is away from his desk much of the time but always has his phone, and the cabinet door is bent slightly out of shape due to some duck-related activities.

      1. Hermione*

        and the cabinet door is bent slightly out of shape due to some duck-related activities.


    2. Judy*

      Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts use the EDGE method.

      Explain how it is done – Tell them
      Demonstrate the steps – Show them
      Guide learners as they practice – Watch them do it
      Enable them to succeed on their own – Use memory aids, practice it, they teach it

      1. Heartlover*

        It may depend on the role (and the amount of time you have), but the training process I’ve learned from others:
        -You do; They watch
        -You do; They help
        -They do; You help
        -They do; You watch
        -They do.

      1. The IT Manager*

        Yes. I had the same problem, turned adBlocker off, and then refreshed the page to see Alison’s answer.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you’re outside the U.S. or using an ad blocker, Inc. may ask you to register in order to read more than one article there. That’s because they otherwise aren’t able to earn any revenue from those page views, which they’re of course dependent on.

      1. Meg Murry*

        It seems like this comes up in the comments almost every time you post an Inc article Alison. Would it be worth updating your standard paragraph that says read this article on Inc to say “Having trouble opening the link to tbe article? Read here for assistance” with a link to some kind of FAQ where you could provide this “register, turn off adblocker or use an incognito window” advice.

    2. Hermione*

      You can also just open it in an incognito window if you use Chrome. I’m not sure about other browsers, but incognito temporarily unblocks my ad-blocker.

  4. xarcady*

    I’ve done a fair amount of training, and one thing I find helpful is building in some breathing room for you. You will still need time in your day to check email, respond to questions, eat your lunch, etc.

    You can accomplish this by having things for the trainee to read, or by having someone else train her on something. In OldJob, I had the office manager do a brief training on the copiers and printers, one guy who was really good with our odd email program got roped in to teach all newbies the basics of that, etc. It gives you a bit of space, and helps the new person meet more people in the office.

    If you can, get a few people together to eat lunch with the newcomer on the first day, even if you are all just bringing sandwiches from home. That first lunch, where you don’t know anyone, can be awkward.

    And you have probably already thought of this, but do clearly point out where the bathrooms are. I’m temping, and a new temp started on Monday. Someone took her around and introduced her to everyone, but I checked in with her just before lunch and she had not been shown where the kitchens and break rooms were. And as we started down the hall to those, I thought ask her if she knew where the bathrooms were, and no one had mentioned those. So I ended up giving her a bit of an office tour.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      Yes – breathing room for you is important.

      It’s also really nice to check in with the trainee once in awhile (every couple of hours, at least), just along the lines of asking if they need to take a few minutes to run to the restroom, get something to drink, that sort of thing. Most people will just speak up if they need to, but some won’t want to interrupt you.

  5. Liza*

    I am happy to see this! Training is a great thing to put time and thought into.

    And where possible, it’s also really useful to start documenting things when you start a new job, because the things that stand out to you when you’re new might not be things you’d think twice about once you’ve been in a job for a while–so if you don’t make notes of them when you’re new, you usually won’t remember to say them to others you train in the future. My department has a shared document called “Notes for new hires” that I started when I was new and as other people join the department, I always invite them to update it and add to it.

    (I’m amused to note that I started writing the above comment a while ago but got distracted by updating documentation.)

  6. Stranger than fiction*

    Sounds like the Op may be stuck doing a combination of training and on boarding? Hopefully not, but it would be awesome if the training manual she creates was implemented company or department-wide because that’s an accomplishment in itself. But ideally, as others have pointed out, the new hire would be spending time with his or her manager and maybe some other key individuals, rather than one on one with the Op the whole week. And definitely agree there should be some time in the day to absorb what they’ve learned, maybe study about the company’s products and services, etc, instead of just learning their specific tasks all day. Getting the big picture is definitely helpful.

  7. Mimmy*

    This is terrific.

    Silly question: I’ve had varying experiences being trained as a new employee, but one job in particular always comes to mind when articles related to training are posted here. Ideally, is training actually one-on-one with your direct manager and/or coworkers?

    In the job I’m specifically thinking of, training consisted mostly of reading through resource and other related materials, watching videos and a couple of site visits. I had a little bit of face-to-face time with my manager and one coworker (as well as the office manager for the administrative stuff), plus a couple of visits to other sites. It was all very interesting, but I think I tried to absorb too much too fast, and became completely overwhelmed when I realized the information wasn’t clicking as well as I’d hoped. This was a customer-facing role too (via phone).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It totally depends. Sometimes it makes sense for it to be your manager, other times your coworkers. There’s no one right answer; it just depends on things like who has the knowledge you need, who’s good at training people, who has the time/capacity to do it, etc.

    2. Charityb*

      Some things can be taught well that way, but in my experience it’s always useful to have someone to ask questions of at some point. There’s a big difference between reading how to do something in a manual and being able to do it perfectly in “field conditions”; it’s difficult for any manual or resource to describe every possible circumstance. In a lot of cases you can probably figure it out through intuition and past experience, but sometimes a task is so complex and unfamiliar that there isn’t really a way to intuit what to do when something unexpected happens.

      I think having good documentation (videos, reading materials, etc.) is definitely solid and too many jobs don’t even have that. Sometimes you’re forced to do one-on-one training with coworkers or managers not because that’s the best way but because that’s the only way — there are no resources you can look at solo and your coworker is the only person in the company or possibly the world who can teach you.

  8. snuck*

    One thing I hated was being given an org chart. Org charts rarely tell you who where when, they are just a name and a job title.

    Far better to have something that has functional tasks on it and the name (and the org chart for reporting/mgmt purposes). Even if your role isn’t administration it’s always handy to have on it things like

    Shaun Smith
    Office Admin
    Organises stationary orders
    Handles finance and office bills
    Coordinates maintenance and special equipment
    Is unofficial IT support – everything from software to hardware issues Shaun’s the man
    Coordinates official IT support requests including user access issues.

    Joe Bloggs
    Fred’s Personal Assistant
    Organises birthdays and events
    Manages Fred’s and Suzies Calendar
    Knows who is who in the Head Office
    Great at Excel and data migration issues

    This sort of stuff is the stuff that new hires really need to know at times and if it’s all in a simple document/chart they can hunt through it and find who they need to talk to.

  9. AnonEMoose*

    A few more things that might be helpful:

    I try to be very specific in terms of “with this process, I’m going to talk you through/show you the whole thing once. Then we’ll go through it again more slowly, and we’ll go over your questions” or “we’re going to go through this step by step, stop me when you have questions.” I try to tailor my approach to both the process and the person, where possible – some processes you really need to see the whole thing once, others it makes more sense to break it down from the beginning.

    It’s a small thing, but I like to build in the assumption that they will have questions, and reinforce the idea that it’s a totally normal thing . Which it is, but some people do seem to have a thing about being afraid to look like they’re not getting it, even if they’re not. Using the “when you have questions” language, rather than “if you have questions,” seems to work well to convey that having questions is “ok,” if that makes sense.

    For me, the most challenging thing about training is remembering to tell them the things that are very basic to me, but that someone new to a task or a company doesn’t have enough background to ask about. I try to remind myself of how it felt to be new, and the things it would have been really helpful to know, but I didn’t know I needed to know, and wouldn’t have thought/didn’t think to ask, because I didn’t have enough context yet.

    When training a new person on something like updating records, I’ll generally have them watch me and take notes, then I have them do the task while I watch. If they seem nervous, I’ll reassure them that “don’t worry. I won’t let you screw up.” Then I let them go through the process and ask me questions, and I’ll stop them if they’re about to do something wrong. For one thing, it lets them get some practice while not having to worry about making mistakes. For another, it helps me see what they’re understanding well, and where they seem to need some additional coaching. Plus, it lets me see where the job aid (if there is one) and their notes might need to be improved.

  10. EW*

    Great suggestions all around! I’d add that a list of reading materials – perhaps sorted roughly by priority, i.e. what to read first – can be really helpful in filling the ‘gaps’ between direct instructional training. It depends on the job and the company/industry, of course, but I’m thinking things like: the company’s or organization’s most recent annual report, the most recent report on the grant/project the new person will be working on, relevant articles to bring them up to speed on the particular topic/project/subject area, etc. These will often reinforce the 10,000 foot view (the broad foundation), which helps put the specific training in perspective. And with a ready-to-use packet of reading materials, you can take a break from direct instruction and still have something for the trainee to do (other than going home early).

    I always found it best to start a new hire off with an office tour and brief introductions to the other staff. You can also set up (or suggest that the trainee set up) brief 1-on-1 meetings with other staff to learn more about what they’re working on or how their projects will interact with the trainee’s projects. These meetings can help fill in the ‘gaps’ in direct training, too.

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