Onboarding your new employees: Minimising the jargon and the miscommunication
My brother-in-law dropped by last weekend to help troubleshot a 3D printer. After poking at all the mechanical bits, he started interrogating me on my process to determine if the “malfunctioning” device was perhaps suffering from user error. Questions like “What slicer are you using to set your wall geometry?” and “Have you manually reset the temperature of the heated bed?” All I could do was blink and said: “I never intentionally did whatever that was and if I did it on accident I apologize.” He rolled his eyes and proceeded to lecture me on a syllabus’s worth of obscure terms and concepts that hadn’t appeared in the printer’s manual.
This experience is normal for everyone when entering any sort of new technical discipline. A newcomer is expected to have already absorbed dozens or hundreds of obscure new vocabulary words and have completed making all the conceptual linkages between the words and the tech is to be used. “Introductory” lessons, manuals, and tutorials all assume a baseline level of proficiency that often isn’t warranted. Attempting to get started with a new platform or tool can be daunting to the point of violent frustration when you’re missing crucial mental models; to then be condescendingly lectured when you ask a proficient person for help is galling.
No wonder, then, that people are reflexively averse to taking up new technologies. I not only empathize; I feel it too. I’m not the least bit interested in trying to install LINUX on a toaster in my downtime because the learning curves for such endeavours is steep and the payoff – for me, anyway – simply isn’t worth the buy-in cost in terms of time, attention, and frustration.
The thing is, though … We all know this by now. The “home computer revolution” started back in the late 1970s. We’ve had more than enough time as a society to accept the concept “new technology can be intimidating to learn.” It’s a pop culture staple now. It’s normal for evangelists of new tech to develop online content to help people of all proficiency levels get comfortable with new tech. Even corporate project plans incorporate a phase for pre-emptively mitigating technical skill deficiencies. We’ve normalized this …
… except we haven’t, really. That is to say, not entirely. While we have recognized and responded to the problem of our end users not necessarily fully understanding endpoints (e.g., computers, phones), peripherals (e.g., printers, drives), and software (e.g., operating systems, applications), that understanding only covers the tools used with the context of job or function. Often, we forget that there can be just as many obscure or function-specific terms and concepts in the job itself and independent of the technology that workers must understand before they can successfully use tools or automation to accelerate their work.
Let me illustrate this idea via a mildly embarrassing personal anecdote. You’re free to re-use this as an icebreaker when starting your next webinar. No attribution required.
During my first year of university, I found myself frequently broke. I was still a military reservist – I had been since high school – and banked my drill pay every month. I was also assigned a “work study” job as part of my financial aid package. I was allotted ten hours’ work each week or one of the academic departments. All told, after paying towards tuition and accounting for taxes, I had about $35 (£17 in 1980s money) a week leftover in cash to address everything that wasn’t already pre-paid (like lodging). A full third of that cash went to the dorm’s coin laundry machines and another third to cheap groceries, leaving me just enough each week to cover a single meal off-campus. If I wanted anything else – like new socks – I’d have to forego the one meal and save up.
I was constantly on the lookout for a better-paying part time job. Not that I had time for a third job on top of my academics. Still, I had this idea that if I could find something near enough to campus that paid a few dollars more per hour, I’d be able to participate in more school activities … and maybe do things with my more affluent mates. There were a few of us poor kids on campus that flocked together and artfully dodged social events because it was embarrassing to go out to dinner with a group and not be able to pay for your own meal.
That said, we did get dragged along to several student outings. One in particular stood out: a Sunday afternoon lunch off campus to celebrate the return of a popular upperclassman. I caught a ride with my well-to-do girlfriend, intending to lurk in the back of the social circle and listen since I didn’t know anyone in the group. My main interest was to see what being a waiter in a chain restaurant was like (I’d only ever worked in the kitchen at a fast food joint). I’d heard that college students made good month waiting tables and wondered if that might be an option.
That notion was dashed straightaway. As our cheerful waiter did the drinks order, the returning celebrity student looked the fellow dead in the eye when it was her turn and said: “I’d like to have sex on the beach.”
My jaw must’ve hit my chest because my girlfriend gave me a funny look and asked me why I was upset. “I’m just … surprised … that’s all.” I said. “I’ve never seen anyone proposition a stranger so blatantly.”
My girlfriend blinked and asked me what the heck I was talking about.
“You friend,” I gestured. “When the waiter asked her what she wanted to drink, she invited him to have sex with her. On a beach.”
My girlfriend blinked three more times then howled with laughter. It took quite a while – and some near hyperventilating – before she could calm down enough to explain that a “sex on the beach” is a cocktail made from fruit juice, vodka, and peach schnapps. Her friend hadn’t asked to “have sex-on-the-beach” but had order “a sex-on-the-beach” … which, of course, the well-trained waiter had recognized and translated without committing any sort of social faux pas.
The entire table enjoyed a healthy laugh at my expense. I didn’t begrudge them that. As much as I didn’t enjoy being shown up as an unsophisticated poor kid from nowhere special, I’d gotten accustomed to it. The only part of the experience that stuck with me was the realization that the barrier to entry for waitering work was dangerously high for the uninitiated.
That misunderstanding became the decisive GO/NO-GO point for me in pursuing a part-time gig off-campus – either waiting tables or anything else. I could clearly envision the exchange that would eventually get me fired (and perhaps) bludgeoned senseless by an irate customer:
“Welcome to [chain name], everyone. What can I get you to drink? Let’s start with you, sir.”
“I’ll have a double rusty xylophone with a loving embrace.”
“Thank you. I’m flattered, but I’m already in a relationship.”
“YOU IGNORANT FARMHAND, THAT’S TWO SHOTS OF UZO IN TONIC WATER WITH A QUARTERED BANANA!” [PUNCH! PUNCH! PUNCH!] “EVERYONE IN PARIS IS DRINKING THESE NOW!”
Would my waitering career have gone off the rails that badly? Probably, yes. The prospect of that, combined with the hassle of walking three miles each way to and from the restaurant and the need to memorize hundreds of obscure cocktail names was simply too much. I shifted my efforts from “find a different gig” to “find a way to get a raise in the gigs I’ve already got and know how to perform.”
I hope you’ll remember that ridiculous sex-on-the-beach misunderstanding when you’re thinking about how best to on-board your new employees. Some people arrive with a working vocabulary of industry terminology; some people don’t. For those folks changing careers or just starting out, make a concerted effort to minimize the use of local jargon when orienting your new staff and make available resources for explaining the key terms you use. Provide context as well as definitions so that people from outside your peculiar vocational niche can get up to speed with a minimum of miscommunication and mortification.