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The Pros & Cons of Cross-Training Employees

written by: Marjory Pilley•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 9/29/2010

Are you looking for a way to fully utilize your employees, keep them motivated and increase customer satisfaction? Cross-training employees can help you meet all of these objectives...if you do it right.

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    Are You Cross-Training? The "Pros"

    Employee cross-training benefits the employee and the company. The pressure of a recession causes a business to resort to extreme measures. When someone leaves, he or she is often not replaced. If sales are temporarily down, someone loses their job. The remaining employees pick up the slack and perform the duties of their missing colleagues. At first blush, it seems that almost everyone is pursing a form of cross-training these days!

    Not so fast...a good cross-training program is not a haphazard assumption of duties that occurs in crisis. It is a well-planned strategy. And, there are many good reasons to do it right and make it part of an overall employee development program:

    • It provides staffing flexibility when an employee is absent for a planned vacation, emergency or after a position is vacated. When cross-trained employees step in and fulfill open job responsibilities, you don't have to spend money on temporary staff.
    • Employees gain an understanding of the connections between departments and tasks to run the business. As a result, they are better able to answer customer questions and effectively handle problems that come up.
    • Problems and suggestions for improvement may be identified when a different person performs a task.
    • Employees experience a change in routine and boredom is reduced.
    • Employees feel valued because the employer is investing time and resources in their development.
    • Candidates for higher level jobs may be identified during the process.

    All of these positive outcomes lead to even bigger benefits: increased job satisfaction, morale and productivity.

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    Why Not? The "Cons"

    If you are not taking advantage of this strategy, then perhaps you are aware of the downside. It costs money to implement a well-rounded cross-training program. There is less productivity while training occurs. In addition, a poorly implemented program can have the following effects:

    • Decreased morale-if employees feel that they are in jeopardy of losing their jobs.
    • Resentment-if employees feel that they are assuming more responsibility for the same pay.
    • Confusion-if employees lose sight of their primary responsibilities.
    • Loss of specialized knowledge-if employees spend all of their time learning a little bit about everything.

    A poorly managed program can result in less productivity, dissatisfied customers and possibly even costly mistakes.

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    Steps to Create a Successful Cross-Training Plan

    To reap the benefits and avoid the negative effects, a cross-training program must be carefully developed. It is not a successful strategy for every business. Small businesses generally are more successful than larger businesses. The level of technology and culture of the company also play a role. Consider including employees in the planning phase to garner a team effort.

    Take the following steps to create a successful employee cross-training plan:

    1. Identify the tasks performed for various jobs and designate which ones could be successfully performed by other people.
    2. Identify who is interested in participating in the program. It may counterproductive to force someone to participate. Decide how to deal with this situation.
    3. Identify who has the competencies to perform the tasks designated as cross-trainable in step 1.
    4. Develop a training process. The supervisor can do the training or the person currently performing the job can do it. It is important to provide adequate instruction to the trainer on how to train. Don't assume the person has this expertise.
    5. Reduce workload during training and while tasks are being performed. Otherwise, the people involved may feel resentful about the process.
    6. Allow time to learn and practice skills. Don't assume an employee will pick up the new process and retain it forever. Outline a schedule to perform the new skill periodically and expect beginner mistakes while learning.
    7. Recognize and reward employees that have new skills and/or responsibilities.
    8. Incorporate the cross-training process into an overall development plan for an employee.

    Image credit: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/21816






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