Training isn’t always the answer

Harri Savage explains why it’s best to understand the problem you’re trying to solve first, and why training alone isn’t always the answer. 

I was working with a charity a few years ago who were battling with their office staff and home visit volunteers over lone worker safety. No matter how many times they asked the volunteers to call the office on leaving a home visit, they just wouldn’t. It was causing a serious organisational risk.

In preparation, I looked at the policy documents and training materials that the charity had already invested in:

  • The policy was clear and easy to access
  • New volunteers were briefed by their manager
  • Key messages were included in the mandatory eLearning
  • The tragic story of Suzy Lamplugh was included in the eLearning to illustrate just how important the issue was
  • Reminders were included in most monthly newsletters

The charity even had a robust process for anyone who didn’t follow the policy. This included various levels of escalation and even ‘dismissal’ for volunteers who repeatedly refused to follow the rules. 

On paper it looked like they had an iron clad procedure, but it was failing, so I asked “What actually happens in practice when someone doesn’t call in after a home visit?” 

The answer was far more complicated than it first appeared. When a volunteer failed to check in, staff were supposed to call the last known location, but they were conscious that meant disturbing service users. The charity’s staff also knew that volunteers repeatedly flouting the rules were given a warning, and could eventually be ‘dismissed’. This was a concern, as the charity could lose so many good volunteers. As a last resort, staff were supposed to call the police, but that seemed extreme and never happened. In reality, when the volunteer turned up again the manager gave them ‘a slap on the wrist’, reminded them of the process and asked them to call in next time.

At this point it was clear that this wasn’t a straightforward training request. The volunteers and staff were all adults, who knew exactly what was expected of them, and what the consequences were if they didn’t comply. Yet the volunteers were choosing not to call in, and the managers were choosing not to take this seriously. This was clearly undermining what should have been a strong message about safety. I needed to dig a bit deeper to find out why staff and volunteers were behaving in this way.

I always work on the fundamental principle that people want to behave safely, compliantly and compassionately. Essentially, we like doing a good job. No volunteer wants to put themselves in a potentially dangerous situation, where they risk being injured or worse. No manager cares so little about their team that they would consciously allow that to happen either. So I asked the volunteers and the staff why they thought this was happening.

The staff felt helpless and exasperated. Volunteers just wouldn’t do as they were asked, no matter how many times the policy was explained. They genuinely felt that if they followed procedure and dismissed repeat offenders, they wouldn’t have enough volunteers to run the service. And that would put service users at risk.  

Volunteers, on the other hand, had a very different view of the situation. “What’s the point in calling in if they never answer the phone?” one volunteer told me. Now this was interesting, so I probed a little further. It turns out that volunteers were frequently carrying out home visits out of hours, up to 8pm in the evenings, and could also work at the weekend. But the office was only manned between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday. If volunteers called the office after 5pm, no one was there. The whole issue had been caused by a practical oversight

I went back to the charity and explained what I’d found. Together we worked up a plan:

  1. The charity already had an out of hours service, a kind of call centre for service users but not volunteers. This was extended to volunteers, so they could check in when the offices were closed
  2. There was a short briefing on the new procedure for everyone
  3. There was a second briefing specifically for managers to encourage them to enforce the new process

And that was it. The first few weeks saw some teething problems but afterwards the number of volunteers ‘forgetting’ to call-in dropped significantly. A couple of the worst offenders were warned then dismissed, but the majority of volunteers felt much safer on home visits and the organisational risk was reduced. 

Sometimes training simply isn’t the answer. As L&D professionals, the value we add is in exploring the root cause of behaviours and helping them explore potential solutions.  

Top tips for identifying solutions:

  1. Always assume people want to do good. If you’re presented with a situation that looks like people are being difficult, awkward or actively disobeying the rules, ask yourself why. 
  2. Find out what people at all levels think to get a good, rounded understanding. Consider pulse surveys, polls, webinars and/or one-to-one discussions with champions. Listening is extremely insightful.
  3. Collaborate with different parts of an organisation to validate your findings. I spoke to people in IT and customer services to find out more about the out of hours call centre.  
  4. Collect any data in a simple, concise way. 
  5. Be prepared to challenge your organisation’s thinking in a supportive and constructive way. 

About Harri Savage

Harri Savage is an Online Learning Specialist at ELK Online and a former member of the Charity Learning Consortium. She focuses on helping organisations facilitate a learning culture through high quality assets, effective marketing and all-levels engagement. 

Read her previous article Creating curious learners on our website

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