Culture & Society

The Secret Sauce in Workplace Training

First-time workers do better when trainers focus on “unwritten skills,” such as how to talk to strangers.

June 20, 2018

| by Edmund L. Andrews
Professor Aruna Ranganathan with factory workers| Courtesy of Aruna Ranganathan

Stanford GSB professor Aruna Ranganathan (second from left) interviews workers at a garment factory near Bangalore, India. | Courtesy of Aruna Ranganathan

The bustling garment factory near Bangalore, India, had a curious problem: Even though it offered above-market wages, almost half the women it hired were quitting within three months.

The owners were baffled. The women who dropped out (90% of the workers were female) were just as productive as those who stayed on, but they were much less happy. By contrast, those who stayed past three months appeared to thrive and exuded new confidence.

What accounted for the difference?

Aruna Ranganathan, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, spent nearly two years studying the workers and the factory to find out.

It turned out that most of those who stayed and thrived had one thing in common: They had been trained by veteran supervisors who had taught them more than just sewing and stitching.

The highly experienced trainers had also coached the new hires on the unwritten skills of workplace readiness: how to balance work and home; how to overcome timidity and communicate with co-workers; how to make sure they arrived on time at work; even how to find the restroom or take an adequate lunch break.

I noticed a pattern where the experienced trainers talked about a lot of different topics, not just the specific job. They would talk about what it had been like for them when they first started.
Aruna Ranganathan

“These were women who had never had a formal job before and often never been outside their villages,” says Ranganathan, who is publishing a new paper on her findings. “For many of them, the idea that they had to be at work promptly at 9 a.m. was entirely new. They were used to doing household chores before leaving and then catching a bus whenever it might come. They had to learn how to carefully plan their schedules.”

Where’s the Bathroom?

It turned out that the less-experienced trainers, though sincere, tended to focus only on specific job skills and left the new workers to figure out the rest on their own.

“I noticed a pattern where the experienced trainers talked about a lot of different topics, not just the specific job,” Ranganathan says. “They would talk about what it had been like for them when they first started. They focused on broader skills to survive in the work force: how to show up on time, what to wear, how to speak to strangers — even questions like ‘Where is the bathroom?’”

The experienced trainers had gradually gleaned the importance of those issues as they noticed the emotional struggles that many of the new hires were suffering.

Many of the women, for example, were extremely unsure about taking enough time for eating or work breaks. Some women went all day without going to the bathroom, simply because no one had told them where it was. Meanwhile, many new workers were agonizing about their responsibilities back at home.

In shadowing some 510 first-time workers and recording more than 200 pages of field observations, Ranganathan noticed that some women went through a dramatic transformation during their first few weeks on the job.

Losing Their Shyness

Almost all of the women started out painfully shy, reluctant to make eye contact or to talk to anyone. If they did speak, Ranganathan noted, their voices were often so quiet that she could barely hear them.

Over the next several weeks, however, some of the women would display a new self-confidence. They would become talkative and cheerful, even making jokes in a way that had seemed unimaginable weeks earlier.

Not every woman went through that kind of evolution, but those who did were much more likely to stay for the long term. They were also more likely to have had the most-experienced trainers.

Only about 5% of the women with experienced trainers dropped out in the first month, compared to 15% of those with less-experienced trainers. Only about half of those with less-experienced trainers made it past the three-month mark, versus about 75% of those with more experienced trainers.

The Three-Month Threshold

The three-month mark was a key threshold. The new hires who made it that far generally became long-term employees. In general, Ranganathan adds, the women who became long-term employees were happy about their work and proud of their new earning power.

Ranganathan says the findings have implications beyond training and retaining garment workers in India. High dropout rates are also common among first-time employees from historically underrepresented groups in the United States, such as inner-city black youths and single mothers.

And while experts have long focused on the need for better workplace training, many well-intentioned programs have had mixed or even poor results.

“What this tells us is that we need to better understand the challenges of transitioning to formal employment for people from historically underrepresented groups,” says Ranganathan. “Learning to be a worker is more complex than it may seem, and workplace training that goes beyond job-related skills to also include ‘work-readiness’ skills is likely to be more effective in retaining first-time workers in the formal labor force.”

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