Don't Let New Employees Get Lost on the Learning Curve

Are your employees getting lost on the learning curve?

Are your employees getting lost on the learning curve?

Jesse stood awkwardly next to her trainer who was ringing up customer orders. It was a busy weekday morning at the bagel shop where Jesse had just started working. The trainer didn’t have much time for training.

Jesse anxiously looked over the trainer’s shoulder, hoping to learn some of the cashier functions by observation. She felt self-conscious as customers looked at her and wondered why she wasn’t taking orders too. 

She wanted to be useful but she didn’t know how. Jesse hadn’t yet learned to ring up orders. She hadn’t yet learned to make orders. She didn’t know how to operate the espresso machine. She could wipe down tables, but all the tables were clean. She could pass out orders, but there weren’t any orders to pass out at the moment.

A chance to serve finally came when a customer approached and asked her a question. The awkwardness quickly returned when Jesse realized she didn’t know the answer. She had to interrupt the store manager who was also busy cashiering.


Why it’s hard to be a new employee

Most new employees aren’t fully trained when they begin serving customers. Stan Phelps recently wrote that only 25 percent of companies have a formal on-boarding program. For the remaining companies, on-boarding consists of a minimal amount of training before being thrown into the fire.

Minimally trained new employees know how to do a few things but don't know how to fully do their jobs. They must constantly stop and ask questions. They lack the skills, experience, and confidence to serve customers the right way.

It’s not their fault. 

It’s just that customers don’t care if this is your first hour of your first day or your 10,000th hour on the job. They expect to be served a certain way. This puts added pressure on the new employee who wants to get it right but doesn’t yet know how.

Experienced employees and managers often don’t understand either. They’re the ones who should be helping the new employee succeed, but it’s been too long since they were in their shoes. Besides, they have a lot to do today besides training. 

So new employees like Jesse fumble along.

Some eventually learn to do their jobs and do them well. Others pick up bad habits and never fully realize their potential. Still others dread the feeling of awkward helplessness that comes with being new and quickly decide to take their talents somewhere else.

It’s this place between minimal training and customer service mastery that so many employees like Jesse are needlessly lost.

Preventing this from happening requires an understanding of where new employees get lost on the learning curve.


Four Critical Stages Along the Learning Curve

Noel Burch first identified four distinct stages along the learning curve. Each stage is marked by the learner’s skill level compared to how conscious they are of their skill level.


Stage 1: Trainers sometimes refer to stage 1 as the bliss stage because learners don’t know what they don’t know. For a new employee, this might be just prior to the start of a new job. You’d expect someone to be excited about working somewhere new.

Stage 2: Learners become aware of their limited skill level when they reach stage 2. This is usually marked by a corresponding drop in confidence. New employees typically reach this stage when they start learning a new skill.

Stage 3: Learners can demonstrate the skill at a minimal level but they haven’t mastered the skills necessary to be fully successful. The newness and unfamiliarity of the skill makes them very self-conscious This means confidence remains low. 

New employees like Jesse are typically somewhere between stages 2 and 3 when they start working directly with customers. 

Stage 4: Employees reach stage 4 when they can do their jobs without really thinking about the basic procedures. Confidence here is generally high.

Let’s look at the four stages again with typical confidence levels for each stage:


It’s critical for trainers to offer encouragement to new employees during stages 2 and 3. 

Low confidence can quickly lead to disengagement if new employees don’t feel supported. Here are some critical messages that must be communicated to new employees to prevent this from happening:

  • Let them know it’s okay to make mistakes during training.
  • Commend then on the progress they’re making.
  • Be available to guide them and provide assistance.
  • Encourage them to stay on track.

The store manager and the trainer at Jesse’s bagel shop weren’t doing any of these things. They were both too busy serving customers to notice Jesse trying hard not to get lost.

Undercover Boss goes to White Castle

The latest episode of Undercover Boss features David Rife, one of the owners of White Castle, going undercover in the company's operations to view it from a fresh perspective. As always, there were some fantastic lessons for all of us and a few unbelievable moments. I don't want to spoil anything, so use the link below to watch the show first if you haven't already.

Watch the show here

"Do they look like they're happy?"

That's a quote from Geenie, a General Manager at one of White Castle's new stores. She says this to her new employee (David, the Undercover Boss) while complaining about corporate's practice of bringing in too many workers and managers to help with a new store opening. She's referring to her unhappy employees.

This is awesome on many levels. Geenie is the boss, yet she's somehow found a way to blame her employees' unhappiness on "corporate". She makes this complaint to a new employee, perhaps as part of the "soul and spirit crushing" initiative she's included in new employee orientation.  Best of all, those cameras aren't hidden. Geenie makes her complaint knowing full well she's being filmed. Awesome.

My take? We don't always like the direction from corporate, but it's not the boss's role to join the employees in being disgruntled. A good boss can complain up, but he or she had better put on a good face for the employees and help them accept whatever direction they must head.

Blame the trainer, not the trainee.

In another segment, David struggles to learn how to feed a box load of buns into a packaging machine. Time after time, he gets the buns misaligned and the machine destroys them. By the end of his shift he had destroyed 4800 buns.

The highlight was when David's trainer, Steve, blamed David. Uh, what about your lousy training, Steve? Steve knew how to correctly feed the buns into the packager, but he couldn't explain it clearly to his trainee. He also lacked the patience and ability to coach David through his errors. On-the-job training is often referred to as "showing them the ropes", but it takes some skill and preparation to avoid rope burn! The worst mistake a trainer can make is blaming a trainee who hasn't received any real instruction.

"We all need to try to be more like Joe."

Undercover Boss always features an inspirational story or two. My favorite in this episode was Joe. He showed David how to work the drive-thru window at a White Castle store. Unlike Steve the bun packager, Joe was patient and calm and showed David how to work the window efficiently. David marveled at Joe's enthusiasm and willingness to connect with his customers. It's great to see the business owner connecting with those employees that really are the heart and soul of the business.