Training From Hell

June 1, 2007
Looking to take your training sessions to the next level? Make sure you know what not to do.

Are you the type of trainer who shows up late and forgets to bring handouts? The type of trainer who uses foul language, takes cell phone calls, chews gum and jingles pocket change throughout the session?

If so, consultant Jonathan Klane of Fairfield, Maine, has coined a phrase to give you a glimpse of what the experience is like from the employees’ point of view: “training from hell.”

As part of his “Training from Hell!” presentation, Klane travels to safety conferences and acts out the most common trainer gaffes, bloopers and blunders in rapid-fire fashion – asking the audience to tell him what he’s doing wrong.

“They shout out, ‘Don’t be insulting! Don’t be late! Don’t be sloppily dressed!’ and all of the things I’m doing,” Klane says. “Typically we have a lot of fun with it, and there’s a lot of laughter on their part.”

While it might seem like dwelling on the negative, Klane believes that knowing what not to do in safety training often can be more instructive than knowing what to do.

“You think about so many situations when it comes to the safe operations of machinery, the use of chemicals or anything else in safety and health, and we’re always saying: ‘Whatever you do, don’t do this! Don’t put your hand in that machine. Don’t bypass a guard.

Don’t have any flammables around this chemical,’” Klane explains. “The don’ts tend to overwhelm the do’s – in both number and, if you think about it, in print. Anytime you see a standard operating procedure, the don’ts are always in bold, all caps, with as many exclamation points as the person feels are warranted.”

Klane believes that in safety training, the importance of the “don’ts” often supersedes the importance of the “do’s.”

“You can be doing the best training in the world and if you do something really bad – if you tell some really offensive, off-color jokes, for example, or you get demonstrably upset in the classroom and let your emotions take over – you’re going to drive what was very good training up to that point right down the tubes,” Klane says.

With that in mind, OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS asked Klane – as well as experts from J.J. Keller & Associates, PureSafety and Summit Training Source – to share some examples of what not to do during your next training session. Learning from the gaffes, bloopers and blunders of others just might help you avoid training from hell.

Don’t Make a Bad First Impression

What the trainer does and says at the beginning sets the tone for the rest of the session. As the cliché goes: You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

“The whole thing about first impressions, of course, is that most of us do really form some sort of judgment about the [trainer] very, very quickly,” Klane says. “And it can change. But oftentimes, once a person forms that opinion, it becomes harder and harder to get them to change their minds.”

There are a number of ways that safety trainers can make a bad first impression, including showing up late for the training session and telling an offensive joke.

“In public speaking, people often recommend telling a joke [to loosen up the crowd],” Klane says. “You can tell a joke that bombs and that’s not too, too bad. People might groan or just not laugh. But the worst thing is telling an off-color joke. You don’t go there.”

Just as the first impression sets the tone for the training session, Klane points out that the last impression often dictates how trainees “feel about the training when they walk out the door.” Hence Klane’s advice: Don’t end on a sour note.

“That last one is a lasting impression,” Klane says.

Don’t Let Stragglers in

Shane Austin, CSP, a safety and risk management specialist for PureSafety – a Nashville-based provider of online safety training and learning management products – notes that when safety trainers fail to take control of the schedule, the training suffers.

“A class may be scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. for 30 people,” Austin explains. “Nineteen people show up on time. Five others show up at 10:05 and the remaining six straggle in as late as 10:15. One of two things has now happened: No. 1, you wasted 15 minutes of time waiting on everyone; or No. 2, you started at 10 and at least one-third of your class didn’t get all of the information.”

Austin adds: “Neither option is a good one.”

“A trainer should communicate the start time as the start time,” Austin says. “Once the door closes, the other individuals will have to be rescheduled. People need to understand the importance of training and that they need to hear all of the information.”

Once trainers establish firm ground rules on start times, Austin promises that “you will be surprised by how many people show up on time.”

Don’t Forget to Mention the Subject

Too often, Klane says, companies hire him to conduct safety training but give the employees little advance information about the training they’ll be receiving.

“I get there and ask [the employees], ‘Well, what were you told about the training?’” Klane says. “And they were typically told just to show up.”

That’s just one reason why trainers need to start the session by explaining the course objectives.

“It’s important for the trainer – for his or her own purposes and the purposes of the learning – to explain not only what the topic is but also what the context is, why it’s being done, what needs were identified and then, of course, go right into the learning objectives of the course,” Klane explains.

That leads to another “don’t”: When designing the training course, don’t forget to set clear objectives for the training.

“If you don’t know your objectives, the training program might be off target,” says Judie Smithers, a workplace safety editor with Neenah, Wis.-based J.J. Keller & Associates. “ ... You have to know what you want the employees to do at the end of the training.”

Don’t Forget to Give Handouts

Although there are several different learning styles – visual, auditory and tactile – Klane notes that most people are visual learners. Consequently, most trainees want and need handouts to help them retain the information.

“I have to admit that my biggest frustration in large conferences – and I’m not picking on any, so I won’t even mention any names – is a session that consists of a PowerPoint presentation with a ton of text and no handout and you’re scrambling to write everything down,”Klane says. “ ... Most people have a very, very difficult time learning by hearing.”

Some trainers worry that distributing handouts at the beginning of a session creates a distraction. Klane, however, asserts that if the trainees are reading the materials that you gave them, at least “they’re learning.”

“And I think that’s what you want them to do,” Klane says. “We need to acknowledge and incorporate into our training the multi modalities that people use.”

There are, of course, pitfalls to handouts. For example, Smithers cautions against cramming too much information onto handouts.

“If they’re these lengthy, five-page dissertations on something, nobody’s going to read them,” Smithers says. “On employee handouts, you want to just highlight the main points or the main steps [of a procedure] and go with that.”

Don’t Be a Talking Head

A talking head is a trainer who stands in front of the class and just talks. Perhaps he or she is reading from notes or from a PowerPoint presentation. But the bottom line, Klane says, is that there is no interaction between the trainer and the class, because the trainer “is just talking at you – and at you becomes the emphasis.”

“It becomes less of a learner-centered environment and more of an information-centered environment,” Klane says. “And that, to be honest, is the opposite of a learner-centered environment.”

Putting information first, Klane says, “puts the trainee at least second, if not further down.”

Austin believes that some employers tend to get stuck with a talking head because these employers assume that all supervisors and managers – perhaps even safety professionals – have the interpersonal skills and public speaking acumen needed to be an effective trainer.

The moral, Austin says, is don’t assume “that all trainers are created equal.”

“You have some people who are very polished speakers who know how to get the point across effectively and others who know nothing more than to read off a sheet of paper,” Austin says. “ ... I’ve sat through some people who have literally just taken a sheet of paper and read it as the most lifeless, emotionless person in the world, and stuff like that generally doesn’t stick.”

That’s not to say that employers should give up on trainers whose presentation skills lack polish. Employers could enlist those trainers in Toastmasters, Austin points out, or enroll them in a public speaking course at a local community college. Austin also has seen employers hold on-site train-the-trainer sessions geared toward public speaking skills.

Don’t Skimp on Training

It’s one thing to have a qualified safety trainer who lacks polish in his or her presentation skills. It’s quite another to have a safety trainer who lacks the necessary qualifications to teach on the subject.

Scott Wallace, production manager for Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Summit Training Source, has noticed that in recent years – particularly after 9/11, when the economy took a turn for the worse – some employers have been cutting back on their training budgets.

As a result, Wallace now sees more companies leaving safety training in the hands of people with limited knowledge of the subject matter.

“For instance, let’s say an industrial company has a production line. Instead of a safety person or a professional trainer giving the training for that particular topic – let’s say they have 10 people working on the line – well this month, person No. 1 might be in charge of training,” Wallace says. “And then next month another person is in charge of it. So you’re getting production people training production people only because they have to do it.”

In such situations, Wallace adds, training often consists of showing a video.

Even though Summit Training Source is in the business of producing safety training videos, Wallace notes that Summit training videos are designed to provide general, introductory information about a topic – and are intended to be just one component of a safety training program. After showing a video in the classroom, the trainer should discuss site-specific safety information related to the topic.

When employees are training employees – and merely popping in a video – Wallace doubts that such discussion is taking place. And if the other employees have questions about the topic, the underqualified, employee trainer “can’t necessarily answer them.”

“I’ve also seen classes put on by what seem to be professionals but they really weren’t or they really didn’t know the topic,” Wallace adds. “And when questions were asked, they’d answer them but answer them incorrectly.”

When a company delegates safety training to someone who isn’t competent or who lacks adequate knowledge of the subject matter – regardless of whether it’s a production-level employee, a supervisor, a trainer or a safety professional – it not only hurts training but also undermines employee morale and loyalty.

“[Trainees] may come away with a viewpoint that the company isn’t really concerned about them that much, that it’s more about profits than it is about safety and people,” Wallace asserts.

Sidebar: Avoid ‘Training From Hell’

Jonathan Klane offers dozens of tips on how to avoid “training from hell.” Here are a few of them:

  • Don’t start late.
  • Don’t brag (about your credentials or experience, for instance.)
  • Don’t be poorly groomed.
  • Don’t jingle change (it’s distracting).
  • Don’t have your cell phone on.
  • Don’t forget to have coffee/refreshments.
  • Don’t lecture.
  • Don’t set a bad example.
  • Don’t forget to check the audio/visual equipment ahead of time.
  • Don’t swear.
  • Don’t chew gum or eat.
  • Don’t cite meaningless statistics.
  • Don’t forget to repeat trainees’ questions before answering them.
  • Don’t make up an answer if you don’t know the answer.
  • Don’t do non-stop theory without any practical exercises.
  • Don’t do the same thing year after year.

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