Although most retailers would agree that poor training tends to lead to poor performance and, ultimately, higher turnover, the average supermarket spends just eight hours orienting and training new hires, according to Harold Lloyd, a former retailer and restaurant owner turned author and consultant.
“The better companies spend 20 hours or more, and the best companies spend 40 hours,” he added.
In recent years, the struggling economy has papered over one of the food retailing industry's most nagging problems — high employee turnover. Having an abundance of qualified applicants for every opening is also not typical. Companies that fail to take advantage of this potential boom time for staffing may be missing an opportunity.
“We have these talented people who don't really think of supermarkets as a long-term career option, but they're doing the job out of desperation,” Lloyd said. “If we treat them the way they could be or should be treated, they may want to stay and find out that our jobs are not as boring as the job they had before. It's got some opportunities for advancement and mental growth and personal interaction.”
To spark the long-term interest of a new hire, it helps to get off on the right foot, giving the new employee a sense of where they could go with the company, and ensuring that he or she feels confident with their new position prior to being left alone.
The most effective training programs tend to have a blended approach, noted Paulo Goelzer, president and chief executive officer of the IGA Institute, an employee development organization founded by the Independent Grocers Alliance with the support of The Coca-Cola Co. Citing a 2004 study conducted by Josh Bersin, Goelzer said that employees that were trained for new tasks performed 30% more accurately when they were trained for the task in more than one way.
Start by having the new hire watch a video explaining the position, or have him or her complete an online training course, Goelzer explained. Afterward, during on-the-job training, have a manager or staff member begin by reiterating the key points addressed in the training course. Physically demonstrate how those key points are performed, have them practice those key points.
Once he or she is comfortable, demonstrate how to perform the rest of the job. Continue close supervision as he or she performs the whole job. Only then should the new hire be left alone with periodic feedback.
To give new hires a broader perspective on the company and the industry, Lloyd also suggested a third component to training programs — group activities such as sitting in on meetings with other departments.
Instead, training is often skewed toward a manager saying, “‘I'm busy, watch this video. It's 20 years old, but you'll get the idea. Ask me any questions when it's done,’” Lloyd said.
The IGA Institute offers a wealth of online courses that range from the basic “onboarding” process described by Goelzer, to specialized courses for fresh food departments and management training courses for higher-level employees. Goelzer said that the courses are available not only to IGA member stores, but to any independent retailers that do not have in-house training programs.
Training programs offer a good way to give employees a sense of internal mobility within a company, Goelzer said. Cross-training employees in multiple departments can keep the job interesting, give an employee a broader perspective on how the business works, and could help uncover hidden talents.
Some retailers use these career development programs for succession planning, when a key employee is retiring or planning to leave and replacement is needed for their position. Others use the courses to link performance to pay increases, or as a condition of employment or for incentivized long-term development.
Regardless, “it's a way to create a culture of learning within a company,” Goelzer said.
When retailers are able to establish that culture of learning, they have the luxury of focusing on other issues during the hiring process. Lloyd argued that personality, integrity and a willingness to learn are often more important qualities than existing knowledge where new hires are concerned.
Attitude matters, especially to the other employees with whom the new hire will work. To make the best hiring decisions, Lloyd suggested a process that involves a store manager whittling down a pool of applicants to four or five candidates, having the department head narrow the selection to two, and then letting the employees who will work with the person make the final decision.
“That would be ideal,” he said. “But at the very least, the department manager should be the one making the final decision. … They'll feel like they own [the decision] then.”
Lloyd explained the concept of “owning” a decision with an example he sometimes uses during industry presentations. He'll ask the audience, “How many of you have rented a car?” Almost everyone will raise their hands. Then, he'll ask how many people have taken a rented car to a carwash. No one will raise their hands.
“When it's not your car, you don't take care of it like you would if it were yours. If you made the decision on that employee, if it was your final call, then you're going to make that person work out somehow,” he said. “If personnel sent them down to you, the first mistake they make, the first day they come in late, you're going to think, ‘I wouldn't have picked them. I knew that person wasn't going to make it.’”
Of course, times of high turnover are also the most difficult time to advocate increased training or the institution of a more rigorous interview process. After all, why waste more time hiring and training when so many employees leave after a few months, anyway? Similarly, why bother during a time when jobs are hard to find and applicants are plenty?
For retailers having doubts, Lloyd suggested calling a peer from a share group or their cooperative wholesaler. Pick the retailer they respect most in that group, and ask them how many hours they spend training new deli clerks or cashiers.
“They know money is tight. They're not going to be wasting money.”