There's no need for the latest e-learning course or enhanced multimedia facility at Rochester, N.Y.-based Paychex, where employees are trained the "old-fashioned" way. "We still get the most impact out of the basic Socratic method with an instructor, close mentoring and things that involve personal contact," says Paychex's vice president, William Kuchta.
Old-fashioned or not, Paychex is reaping the rewards of its training program and sticking to founder, Tom Galisano's, basic belief that if you train people properly to do their job, they will do a better job.
Paychex opened for business in 1971 as a payroll, taxpay and employee services provider to small businesses. It filed a successful ipo (in 1983) and followed this with 10 consecutive years of 30-plus percent earnings and profit growth. And one of the keys to its fiscal prosperity: continual training and employee development.
Consider: in the last fiscal year alone, nearly 5,000 employees were trained at the University of Paychex, 750,000 additional hours were spent doing field-based testing and ongoing training, and more than half of the 30 programs offered at the corporate university receive college-level certification.
So what does the University of Paychex hold that's so special, besides your future paycheck? The same old good stuff just done better and better, according to Kuchta (and no, "old good stuff" does not yet mean online). Every Paychex employee undergoes an intensive orientation program held at the 15-year-old corporate university. The program—a two-week, eight-hours-a-day event—is exclusively confined to a classroom setting. And upon the program's completion, trainees must pass a senior exam. Rigorous and boring, you say? Read on.
Before entering Paychex U, employees train for training, so to speak. For four weeks prior to the two-week orientation session, employees go through an induction of sort, learning the basics of the company through a series of exercises. Each employee is assigned to a mentor who aids the trainee in preparing for his or her training.
Once through orientation, training still does not end. Employees return to their branch or department and enter a seven-step, self-paced learning process—largely consisting of workbook assignments and a small amount of online exercises—that can take anywhere from eight to 14 months. That, alone, could potentially equate to 15 months of initial training.
Training, though, really never ends for Paychex employees. Every Friday, employees gather in a classroom session at each of the company's 77 branches for refresher training on new products, services or software. "If you have a new product, many companies simply hand out big binders, and employees are supposed to go home and read them," says Kuchta. "We never do that. The whole culture here is one that if there's ever a new product or a new process, it is trained into the organization. It's not just sent out."
Despite the long hours and follow-up assignments, the motivation to learn at Paychex is high, with the company's 50 professional trainers instrumental in ensuring trainees are fully engaged during the eight-hour sessions. "There is not much time for goofing around," Kuchta explains. "Training is a formal process for us—it's a route to promotion—plus trainees get a nice watch and lots of recognition."
"We just use a lot of good classic classroom, good trainer modality. We mix up the delivery," Kuchta says. This includes limiting each discussion or activity to no more than an hour, using two to three trainers per course, and giving trainees ample opportunity to take comfort breaks. "We use some AV in most of our classes, and on the payroll side, trainees do a lot of work on the computer, so it's very hands-on with a lot of application," explains Kuchta. He is quick to point out, however, that this is not online learning. Rather, the trainees are learning how to use specific systems, like payroll, for example, on an "almost live, dummy system." Using technology to deliver other forms of training, accounts for less than 5 percent of the company's employee development programs.
Several unique aspects of the payroll sales training course made the "learning experience enjoyable as well as educational," explains Dawn Wilcox, a recent graduate of the University of Paychex and now manager of employment and employee relations. "The use of different activities such as group exercises, lectures, hands-on work, pre-shadowing pre-work and homework provided an opportunity for me to learn in a manner that was effective for me."
Some activities are actually held off campus as well, allowing students to observe real work situations. For example, Wilcox's class visited the National Sales Support Center, which enabled her to work one-on-one with a phone representative, listening in on how the rep handled each call. "The opportunity to listen in on phone conversations provided me with a clear understanding of how nss interacts with our clients and supports the sales organization within Paychex."
Before beginning official work at Paychex, Wilcox was required to attend the two-week orientation session even though she was entering a managerial position. "Although it was designed for new sales representatives, I found it extremely beneficial as the manager of employment and employee relations," Wilcox admits. "It provided me with an in-depth understanding of our products and services, and now I can use this knowledge when acquiring talent for our company."
It is clear, though, that the trainers must have a particularly challenging job to keep students such as Wilcox interested and motivated to learn. Enter continuous train-the-trainer sessions, in which the 50 instructors attend meetings and workshops to critique each other, evaluate the effectiveness of each class and discuss possible improvements. Such ongoing sessions are paramount to the overall success of Paychex, since the company operates in a highly regulated government business. Every time tax laws or regulations change, so must Paychex. Consequently, the Paychex trainers end up rewriting 15 to 25 percent of the curriculum each year, which is why more than 25 of the trainers are technically writers.
Kuchta and his staff firmly believe in the personal contact benefit that classroom training affords. "The trainers take ownership to ensure that each participant understands the material and can use the newly acquired skills immediately on the job," says Wilcox. "For individuals who are having difficulty learning a certain aspect, the trainers make themselves available before and after class, each day, for private tutoring. Teamwork and camaraderie are definitely a part of the learning environment."
Ongoing assessments—both of the trainees and trainers—are crucial to the success of any training session, says Kuchta. "We're rigorous about our evaluation methodology," he explains. Upon conclusion of the two-week training session, for example, each trainee fills out a lengthy survey of the course. The training instructor then compiles and analyzes each survey and distributes them to other people in the department, including Kuchta, for comments. "I read every one of them," he says. "So does the training center director—every evaluation from every course."
Not only are the surveys analyzed to make sure the sessions are well received, but Kuchta and his staff also receive an added benefit: They are able to get a better handle on the learning style of each individual. "We actually give our trainees, not in every class, but in most of them, a pre-training learning styles instrument that is then reviewed by the trainer on the first day," Kuchta explains. "The instructor goes through it and says, 'Do you realize what this means to you? How do you play to your strengths when you're in a modality that is in your weakness area? How do you get over that?'"
The second part of the assessment process is a survey conducted by trainers and executives who travel to the individual branches over the course of 30 to 60 days following training. "We have developed a list of key questions working with the sales department to say, 'How are we going to know if these people are really using what they learn, and is it actually making an impact? Has this person used tool A, B or C in his or her sales presentations? Have you seen them doing this?'" Kuchta explains. The managers rate the employees, and once the results are in, they are distributed so "we can monitor that on a very regular basis by class. We actually physically go out and use, what some would call, a levels-of-use tool."
Lastly, the trainers regularly call the branch managers asking if the programs worked, whether or not they have seen any changes, and if the payroll specialists are returning to work better or worse than they used to be. "It's very much the day-to-day feedback from the line that helps evaluate how well we are doing," says Kuchta. Programs also are evaluated by tracking the number of employees who return to the training center. "We bring them back," Kuchta proudly affirms. "Our head of sales training is a person who started in sales, came into the training center as a sales trainer, went back out into the field as a district sales manager and just recently came back in to be the manager of sales training. That's terrific for the company." Also, knowing the trainers have returned to teach after having "been there and done that" out in the field does wonders for the trainees, Kuchta says.
"There's a lot of evidence that just reading a book, or nowadays just going online, isn't anywhere near as effective as good teaching," Kuchta says. "I'm sure someone would label me as a reactionary, but for all the stuff we put into training, I don't think it's changed much at all."