Key Factors for the Success of Employee Development Programs

Silhouette of people looking at screen.Many organizations today proudly tout how they offer “employee development programs” of one type or another. Yes, every company seems to have one. Typically, these programs are promoted under a wide variety of names, including:

  • Employee Training and Development Program
  • Employee Development Program
  • Workforce Development Program
  • Career Development Program
  • Individual Development Program
  • Staff Development Program

Such a variety of names, many of them used interchangeably! Within the human resources world, each label may have a specific meaning or implied objective. However, in reality, the individuals participating in such programs most likely do not know or care about the technical differences in the names.

What’s in a Name?

Actually, a lot! Be careful, as the name alone can affect the perceived intent of the program. This perception, whether accurate or not, can drive the degree of acceptance by employees. Of course, other factors may also impact how the program is received by staff. For example:

  • Did employees see any value in previously offered programs?
  • Employees can be highly influenced by what their coworkers think about a new program.
  • What level of trust currently exists between management and employees?
  • Finally, if the program is poorly explained upfront, misunderstanding and confusion will result.

As humans, we are wired such that if something is unclear, our brains simply create and assign meaning to it. Unfortunately, quite often, that meaning is inaccurate. Thus, if not communicated clearly, or its name is generic or vague, the program’s true intent is apt to be misunderstood.

If you ask a dozen staff what they think about an upcoming new program based on its name, you will likely hear a dozen different answers. Some might be positive. Others may be ho-hum and call it just another flavor-of-the-month management fad, something to be tolerated. Plus, don’t forget those who always suspect any new programs hatched by management must have a devious motive. Ouch! Talk about being off to a bad start!

A Real-World Example

Consider the case of the large manufacturing firm that created a program simply named “Employee Development Program.” This organization employs several thousand people located at over a dozen geographically diverse facilities. The modest goal of the program—its creation ordered by senior management—was to get all employees on the same page regarding information every employee needs to know regardless of their job title, position, level, or length of time on the job. Topics included sexual harassment, workplace violence, confidentiality, industry-specific laws, and proper use of IT systems, just to name a few. The program content was developed by a dedicated team that included first-line workers, training staff, managers, and a few high-level executives.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. This program was not a substitute for new employee orientation or other normal onboarding activities. Those were already in place. The new mandatory program was simply a method to ensure all staff received a documented and up-to-date refresher on vital topics. It also included training in skills valuable to everyone, such as communication, conflict management, customer service, etc.

Once every employee had gone through the initial program, the firm planned to repeat it periodically. A sister program was also in the works which would focus on career development. That program would include activities such as day-on-the-job (to raise awareness of positions in other work areas), mentoring for newly promoted staff, skill training, etc. Excellent programs to support employees who wished to further their formal college education already existed.

So far, so good…or so it seemed.

What Happened?

Once launched, confusion spread like wildfire among front-line workers regarding the actual purpose of the “development” program. Staff overseeing the program reported receiving phone calls—lots of them. Callers asked questions such as, “What if I don’t want to be developed?” Or, “I’ve worked here a long time. Why is this being forced on me now?” Implementation of the program throughout the company was inconsistent and spotty, and the level of success could not be determined.  

Lessons Learned

In hindsight, several critical errors were identified as the cause of the lackluster outcome for the program. These include:

  • The program name was generic and did not clearly convey its purpose, resulting in confusion among employees.
  • Supervisors and mid-level managers responsible for rolling out the program to their respective work areas did not effectively communicate its purpose.
  • The program did not get promoted at staff meetings in a positive manner as the team had intended. Many supervisors simply handed out the program materials, without explanation, as yet another mandatory task. Employees were simply told, “It’s mandatory. Just do it.”
  • High-level executive commitment and support were lacking in several ways:
    • These leaders did not actively serve as cheerleaders for their own program.
    • They failed to hold supervision accountable for presenting the program to employees as instructed.
    • Although requested by the team, senior management intentionally avoided and disapproved using metrics to measure implementation. Thus, identifying non-compliant work areas was not possible and remedial measures could not be taken.

The Bottom Line

As evidenced in the case above, a combination of three primary deficiencies—a perfect storm of mistakes—resulted in a less than optimal implementation of the company’s prudent and well-intentioned program.  When creating and rolling out any type of employee program, remember the three Cs:

  • Clarity
  • Communication
  • Commitment

These are key to success!

Featured image courtesy of geralt/

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