'Insufficient training' not an easy excuse

Training can advance your performance — but what if you don't get it?

In an automotive factory many years ago, after about five minutes of “training,” the author of this blog was put to work operating an industrial lathe.

That very first day, as he was operating the machine, he looked down and noticed that one of the long, freshly cut ribbons of steel spinning out of the lathe had begun to curl around his ankle like a snake. Seconds after he shook his foot free, the steel ribbon whipped back onto the mandrel and — in a flash — was reeled up back onto the lathe. Had it continued to wrap around his ankle, it probably would have sliced off the author’s foot like a band-saw.

Clearly a case of insufficient training.

Which brings us to the question: Has a lack of training ever gotten you into trouble?

Here’s what the federal government says: “Employees should be provided effective education and training in cases in which such education and training would result in better organizational and individual performance.”

That’s Merit Principle No. 7. But the Merit Systems Protection Board says more: “As jobs evolve, agencies should invest in the training necessary to assure their employees possess the skills to adapt and excel — even, and perhaps especially, in hard budgetary times.” And ideally, as cited above, that training is meant to boost two things: The overall performance of the organization and the employee’s individual performance.

But when it comes to removal or demotion based on performance, training can become a sticky wicket if an employee claims that too little or improper training is at the root of his or her performance shortcomings.

In fact, MSPB says, “it would be a rare case in which an employee could not show that additional or different training might have led to some improvement in her performance, even though at a prohibited cost to the agency, considering the benefit derived.”

Meaning: Without some boundaries on what constitutes an appropriate level of training, employees could almost always use “lack of training” as a sort of get-out-jail-free card when it comes to performance deficiencies — even if that training would have cost an agency a mint.

So, what are those boundaries? For one thing, training has to serve the agency’s interest in promoting better organizational performance. Also, it has to fit into the agency’s overall strategic plan. And of course, the training has to be funded and cost-effective.

Or, as MSPB put it, to show a violation of Principle No. 7, “an employee must show that she did not receive at least the minimum training reasonably calculated to give her the skills and knowledge required to do the job; that additional or different training would have provided those skills; and that such training could have been provided in a cost-effective manner in light of the agency’s mission and its need to apportion limited resources among its numerous programs and objectives.”

Sounds like a high threshold. If you want to see how it works, here’s a pivotal case.

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