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Fine tuning first impressions
How well you support new employees says a lot about your corporate culture
The days of “lifetime employment” are over, yet many firms have yet to adapt
Employees have an enormous amount of leverage today and switch jobs often
The adage “you never get a second change to make a first impression” still holds
Rethink onboarding as a broader process; focus on the employee experience
Money and benefits only go so far; culture matters most for retaining talent
When your passion leads you to a new purpose
My oldest daughter Felicity started her first full-time job this week as an associate working at a GameStop location in a nearby mall. She has been looking for work since graduating high school and has interviewed with several different retail outlets, but her heart has been set from the beginning on working at GameStop. Felicity has long been a gamer whose life revolves around video games, both on consoles and her laptop. Gaming is the center of her social universe and a major influence on her life: she is an expert and wants to apply her knowledge and passion in her job. After getting passed over a couple of times previously at different GameStop locations, Felicity finally got the job offer she wanted to start out as a young adult.
Felicity is a trans woman with no prior work experience, so I have been interested in learning about Felicity’s initial days on the job through her eyes. Too often for new employees, the dream of working a job does not live up to high expectations once they begin. Fortunately, Felicity’s initial experience has been a positive one. Most notably, her first interactions with fellow employees has been positive and the managers have been patient and flexible in getting her up to speed and making her feel part of the team. Beyond the formal onboarding, small gestures like bringing in treats and using her preferred pronouns have been warmly received. Felicity passed up opportunities to earn better pay at other retail outlets because of her love of gaming and prior experience as a loyal GameStop customer, so it is fulfilling to see that her initial reactions have been so positive. It doesn’t matter that GameStop has been a popular meme stock, has seen consistently falling sales and is unprofitable, or is making a questionable bet on NFTs from Felicity’s viewpoint. Her new teammates have been candid about the outlook for GameStop but have also mentioned that they personally have enjoyed working at that location and see it as a stepping stone in their careers.
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You never forget your first weeks on the job
Felicity’s formative experiences as a new employee are unique to her, but all of us have been “the new person” in a given role at an organization. These initial days, weeks, and months are always formative and leave a lasting impression, good or bad. New employees quickly learn a lot about how an organization operates and how its culture supports - or negates - their mission and values. In short, new employees soon get acclimated to “how things are done around here”, much in the form of tacit knowledge passed on by fellow employees as much or more than supervisors. Senior leaders rarely have much direct involvement in the onboarding process, but the tone they set at the top does trickle down to all employees including the newest hires.
Since all new employees are learning on the job, formally and informally, regardless of their level of experience, their minds tend to be more open to all manner of stimuli and feedback. Because new employees do not have a sense for which situations are common and which are unusual, nor the different personalities of each teammate, nor what tasks are important and which can be ignored, every moment is a learning opportunity. Just as infants learn more through subconscious processes than formal instruction, so do new employees. Of course formal training is required, but this is only a small fraction of what is required to be successful in a role.
A big part of what determines who is successful within an organization are those that adapt best to the corporate culture. Since culture is so intangible and hard to quantify, new employees tend to learn about it through interactions and experiences: in particular, what behaviors get rewarded and what get punished. This process plays out continually, one day at a time, and over time employees - consciously or not - decide whether to embrace the corporate culture and become part of it. New employees do not actively embrace or reject all aspects of a corporate culture; rather, they make a crude mental calculation: is this a place I want to continue working at or is it time to look for a new role?
Make the most of your investment in new hires
At the beginning of an employee’s tenure, no matter how successful that the person has been in previous roles, a new hire is not very effective. In the short run, new hires actually subtract from productivity because they cannot contribute much on their own and require other employees to train and assist them while getting up to speed. This burden mostly falls upon more tenured and experienced employees who must perform their duties well while also helping to mentor new hires. In the past, under the traditional “lifetime employment” model, it was consider bad form for employees to leave an employer within 1-2 years unless there were extenuating circumstances (e.g., health concerns, relocation, etc.). Under this model, new employees may have had to “tough it out” and accept friction and disappointment in their roles.
However, these traditional strictures have gone away and the “war for talent” is fully on: employees have more freedom and choices than ever before. Because new hires have so many alternatives, they actually hold a lot of power in today’s environment. Companies invest a lot of resources in recruiting, screening, and onboarding new employees. This investment has a cost to it, but it is necessary and is amortized over the tenure of each employee working at the firm. So if your employees enjoy working at your firm and stick around, the initial cost to acquire them is less relative to the benefit they provide. If, however, new employees leave within a few months, all of that cost is wasted and the organization has to start the process all over again. Conversely, the longer employees stay with an organization, the more they are personally invested in its mission, values, and culture and the more costly it is to leave for another opportunity.
The initial and formative experiences that your new hires have is a critical window on how healthy your corporate culture is. If your corporate culture is good, new hires should have a positive experience when they start. They should be proud of the organization’s mission and values, believe that there is a strong “say-do” alignment between values and behaviors, and feel that they are supported by others within the organization. Support starts at the direct supervisor level but extends to having mentors who can answer questions as well as a broader level of professionalism and have security knowing they can bring their authentic sense of self to work. According to a recent study by the tech recruiting firm Lucida, people and culture is the number one factor that drives employee retention.
By contrast, if your organization is having trouble retaining new hires, it could be a sign that your corporate culture is a challenge. While competitive pay and attractive benefits are important, they will not make up for a bad culture. New hires may not verbalize their true feelings on employee surveys and exit interviews, but will vote with their feet. Ask around: try to assess what the experience is like for your new hires and determine how it can be improved as a first step towards improving your corporate culture for all.
Have you starting working at a new organization recently? What were your initial impressions? Does your organization approach hiring as an operational process or an investment in people? How does the experience of interns compare with that of new hires? Do new hires have access to formal mentors that they can rely upon for support as they navigate through their initial journey? What behaviors are rewarded through promotions and recognition in your organization? Do you measure employee retention by tenure? Are new hires leaving your firm at a faster rate than in the past? Please post your experiences, thoughts, comments, and reactions below.