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David Lee

David Lee, the founder of HumanNature@Work, works with employers who want to improve employee engagement, customer service, and morale. An internationally recognized thought leader in the areas of optimizing employee engagement and onboarding, he is the author of over 60 articles and book chapters published in North America, Europe, India, China, and Australia. In addition to his research and work with both struggling and top performing organizations, David Lee’s work draws from a wide range of scientific disciplines including cognitive neuroscience, anthropology, and paleopsychology. Taking this research which typically doesn’t find its way into the business world, he translates these principles of human nature into leadership and managerial practices that optimize employee performance. Using the popular TV show The Dog Whisperer as an analogy for the difference understanding human nature makes in the workplace, David’s work helps leaders and managers become “Employee Whisperers.”

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Make Your Employer Branding and Onboarding More Fascinating With a Compelling Origin Story

David Lee
Mar 5, 2014, 12:30 am ET

Jean Hoffman and CatDoes your company have a compelling Origin Story? If you do, are you  using it to its fullest advantage or is it more of a best kept secret?

If so, you’re missing out on a powerful tool you could be using to make your employer branding, hiring, and new hire orientation more fascinating and inspiring.

In a previous ERE article, 5 Kinds of Stories to Tell During Onboarding, I included the Origin Story as one of the key stories to include in your onboarding process. In this article, we will focus on this one genre and why it is such an important part of your talent management arsenal.

First, though, let’s go deeper than the obvious answer to “What is an Origin Story?”

It’s far more than a fact-filled documentary about how and when your organization got started. It’s not the workplace equivalent of the high school history classes you snoozed through because they were filled with dates and events to memorize … but no stories.

Your Origin Story is a drama and a mini-documentary. It tells of the motivation behind the creation of your organization. It speaks of the difference your founders wanted to make in the world, the problem they saw and decided to solve.

When done well, your Origin Story accomplishes three things: keep reading…

Quick Tips for Starting Your New Employees Off Right

David Lee
Apr 12, 2013, 5:21 am ET

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 4.07.21 PMI’ve been working on a program for a hotel group that includes how to onboard new employees and thought I would share with you a modified version of the tip sheet I created for it.

While it obviously doesn’t include the level of detail and nuance to design the perfect new hire experience, it will give you guidance and a framework.

The first list will help you assess whether your onboarding process accomplishes what it’s designed to accomplish. The second list will provide you with specific recommendations for onboarding your new hires “faster, smarter, and better.”

Eight Outcomes An Effective Onboarding Accomplishes keep reading…

Invite Feedback; Accelerate Your Career

David Lee
Apr 23, 2012, 5:16 am ET

This article, along with my previous article, Your Relationship and Reputation Credit Score: How You Earned It and How It Affects Your Relationship Karma, is designed to help you help the people you serve, whether you are in the recruiting or career development field.

In the previous article, we explored how the way we treat others creates, metaphorically speaking, a credit score that affects whether people want to do business with us, help us, or … hire us. This score also affects whether people trust and respect us. While it affects every aspect of one’s professional life, a person’s “Relationship and Reputation Credit Score” plays an especially central role in one’s job hunt and career trajectory.

Enjoying the positive career benefits of a high Relationship and Reputation Credit Score requires emotional intelligence, especially in the dimension of self-awareness. It requires cutting through the self-absorption brought on by busyness and preoccupation with one’s projects and agendas. It requires not taking liberties with the position power we have, and thinking that small acts of disrespect — like repeatedly taking calls or texting during meetings with “subordinates” — go unnoticed and leave no emotional wake. It requires becoming mindful of the many Relationship and Reputation Moments Of Truth which, depending on how we handle them, build up or diminish our Relationship and Reputation Credit Score over time.

Becoming More Mindful of Relationship and Reputation Moments of Truth

Here are a few examples of what I mean by Relationship and Reputation Moments Of Truth that affect our score: keep reading…

Your Relationship and Reputation Credit Score: How You Earned It and How It Affects Your Relationship Karma

David Lee
Mar 14, 2012, 5:13 am ET

I recently watched a DVD from a conference for entrepreneurs. One of the speakers, Stephen Snyder, gave a presentation on how a business person’s credit rating affected them in far more ways than most people realize. As you know, lending institutions offer more favorable rates to people with high credit scores. When we engage in behaviors that lower our score, lending institutions lose interest in doing business with us. We pay a price for this disinterest either by having our loan request denied or having to pay a higher interest rate. Thus, our “bad behavior” makes us less desirable, and we pay a price for that.

What was most fascinating — and concerning — was what he had to say about how even very smart and successful people unwittingly do things that damage their credit score. Even really smart people have credit-related blind spots that cost them, and because they’re blind spots, they don’t even realize which behaviors penalize them.

The Relationship and Reputation Credit Score We Don’t Even Realize We’re Accumulating

I found myself thinking about credit scores as a metaphor for how we treat others, and how the cumulative effect of our actions creates a metaphorical Relationship and Reputation Credit Score. This credit score influences whether others want to do business with us, and how favorably they think of us and treat us. They influence the quality of our relationships and our reputation.

The Cumulative Effect of Your Treatment of Others Creates Your Relationship and Reputation Credit Score

This metaphorical score profoundly affects how people feel about us, how much they respect us, and whether they want to work with us. I use “work” both in the literal sense and the figurative sense. Our Relationship and Reputation Credit Score affects whether people want to do business with us, hire us, or be on their project team.

Your Relationship and Reputation Credit Score Affects Your Relationship Karma

Our Relationship and Reputation Credit Score also influences whether people want to work with us collaboratively or whether they strive to squeeze the most they can out of us. It affects whether they are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt when we unwittingly do something insensitive or unkind.

It affects whether they see us as someone who can be trusted, who can be counted on to keep their agreements and commitments, and whose word is their bond.

All these perceptions—based on what we put out—come back to us in “relationship karma.” keep reading…

5 Kinds of Stories to Tell During Onboarding

David Lee
Feb 22, 2012, 5:36 am ET

From You can be proud to work here.

That is one of THE most important messages your new employee orientation program should communicate.

This is so crucial because people of the caliber you want to attract and retain place a high value in working for an employer of whom they can feel proud.

So, make sure you communicate to your new employees — both explicitly and implicitly – that they can be proud to work at your organization.

You communicate the message “You can be proud to work here” implicitly by conducting a well-designed, well-organized, effective onboarding program. They see by the way you deliver the onboarding experience that your organization does things right. Conducting a high quality onboarding program engenders both pride — “I’m part of a great organization” –and respect for management — “They know what they’re doing here.”

You communicate the message “You can be proud to work here” explicitly by sharing stories that demonstrate why your organization is worthy of pride.

“Pride Story” Themes You Can Draw From

These include stories with the following themes: keep reading…

Your Onboarding May Be Teaching Your New Employees to Be Cynical

David Lee
Feb 9, 2012, 5:23 am ET

The title of this article comes from a conversation with a senior-level HR professional who demonstrated a level of awareness that many employers seem to lack about their onboarding process.

We were talking about their need to upgrade their onboarding, and she was describing her concerns about the effects of a poorly executed process.

While she listed the typically cited negative costs of sloppy onboarding — increased turnover, longer time to productivity, etc. — she hit on one of the biggest prices employers pay for a shoddy, sink or swim, unwelcoming onboarding process:

You take someone who is initially excited and even starry-eyed about working for you, and rapidly turn them into a cynical, skeptical, eye-roller, who does not respect or trust management and their employer.

I experienced this harsh reality with the one and only corporate employer I worked for. I remember wondering why my new co-workers would roll their eyes whenever we got a directive from management and say “That’s insert name of insurance company here for yah.”

It didn’t take me too many weeks to realize where this cynical attitude came from. keep reading…

Avoid This Common Recruiting Mistake — and Forward This to Your Management Team

David Lee
Jan 25, 2012, 5:03 am ET

While talking about customer service on a radio program, I shared a customer service nightmare story last week that also happens to be a perfect analogy for the mistake so many employers make. More specifically, the way the business allocated resources to advertising vs. customer service mirrored the costly mistake employers make when it comes to recruiting, employer branding, and onboarding.

It’s a mistake you want to ask yourself if you’re making.

The story speaks to how often employers waste time, money, and creative horsepower when it comes to attracting and retaining talent because they put their attention in the wrong place.

So here’s the story …  keep reading…

Coaching Gen Y Employees: What to Do When They Think They’re Ready to Advance … and You Don’t

David Lee
Dec 14, 2011, 5:49 am ET

Do you have Gen Y, or Millennial, employees who, in your opinion, think they are more proficient than they are or think they should advance faster than you believe is realistic?

If so, join the club. This is one of the biggest frustrations I hear from managers.

While it may be frustrating, how you handle this will make a huge difference in whether your Gen Y employees:

  1. Listen to, and respect, your feedback now and in the future.
  2. Stay.
  3. Remain engaged if they stay.
  4. Refer their friends to become job candidates at your company. keep reading…

Become a Better Leader: What You Can Learn From the Strangest Question I’ve Ever Been Asked

David Lee
Oct 25, 2011, 1:00 am ET

Someone asked me a question out of nowhere yesterday — in a restroom of all places — that took me aback.

It got me thinking about a very different — and more important — question you need to ask if you’re a manager.

“I Beg Your Pardon?”

As I approached the hotel restroom sink to wash my hands, a man in a suit turned to me and said:

“I know this is a weird question to ask, but … do I smell bad?”

He explained that he had been sweating profusely because of the hot conference room and was worried that he now reeked and would repel others. While this is never a pleasant thought, since this was an event where you wanted to network with others, he was especially concerned about being perceived as a noxious life form.

Since he was being so authentic and genuine, how could I not accommodate his request? I got a bit closer and took a whiff. keep reading…

Attention Managers and Employers: How We Teach Others Not to Care About Us

David Lee
Sep 22, 2011, 5:40 am ET

“Most partnerships don’t end up in court.

Most friendships don’t end in a fight.

Most customers don’t leave in a huff.

Instead, when one party feels underappreciated, or perhaps taken advantage of, she stops showing up as often. Stops investing. Begins to move on.

No, I’m not going to sue you. Yes, I’ll probably put my best efforts somewhere else…”

Five things happened recently — three in the last week — that reminded me of the price we pay for thoughtlessness.

Since I’m always asking: “Is there a lesson here for the workplace?” when reflecting on experiences that happen in everyday life, these made me think also of the price managers — and employers as a whole — pay for:

  1. Taking people for granted.
  2. Forgetting basic courtesy, like not returning phone calls, not acknowledging time-sensitive information emailed to them (especially when someone asks you to confirm you received it), or not following up like they said they would. keep reading…

Is Your Hiring Process Hurting Your Employer Brand?

David Lee
Oct 13, 2010, 1:33 pm ET

“Your website and application process is the absolute worst I’ve ever encountered. Hopefully your company is not as disorganized as this site makes you appear.”

“…I was completely disappointed in the lack of professionalism and consideration. If this is how potential new employees are treated I can only surmise that existing employees are treated poorly, too.”

“This experience has change many perceptions about (your company) for us forever. We may choose other healthcare options in the future.”

–Source: anonymous job applicants, responding to Improved Experience employer surveys

Are job applicants saying things like this about your organization to their friends and family? Do you know what job applicants are saying about you? Do you know what your job application and hiring process says about you as an employer?

If you’re thinking “Who cares, it’s an employer’s market,” feel free to stop reading this and move on. This article isn’t for you.

However, if you agree with the following four points, this article is for you. keep reading…

2 Employee Morale and Engagement Killer Apps

David Lee
Nov 30, 2009, 5:55 am ET

Picture 2Wouldn’t it be great to have access to an off-the-shelf, easy-to-execute morale-boosting program, one that includes two “employee engagement killer apps”? Given how challenging—and important—it is these days to keep employee morale high, wouldn’t it be great to have this morale boosting program, and not pay a fortune for it?

Well you can.

It’s called: keep reading…

The Hidden Gift Your Gen Y Employees Are Offering You

David Lee
Feb 27, 2009, 5:52 am ET

Yesterday, I read one of those “10 Tips for…” type of articles on how to manage the Millennial or Gen Y employee. They included recommendations such as:

  • Provide leadership and guidance.
  • Listen to the Millennial employee.
  • Provide challenge and change.
  • Provide structure (i.e. clear expectations, goals, assessment of progress, etc).

One of the website’s readers posted a point-by-point criticism of the article, concluding with: “The advice given is good for employees of all ages. Contending that it is uniquely applicable to a new generation is nonsense.”

While I agree with the rather prickly poster’s perspective that the author’s advice applies to all employees, I do think he missed the nuances the author was trying to convey.

keep reading…

Do You Know What Your New Hires Think About Your Orientation Program?

David Lee
Sep 3, 2008, 6:23 am ET

In my last article on onboarding, titled “Your Onboarding Program Needs A Pair Of Fresh Eyes,” I shared a rather humbling personal experience. In the article, I described the mistake I made that was analogous to the one many employers make in their employee orientation and onboarding processes:

They forget to examine their orientation and onboarding process from the perspective of their new employees.

This creates two problems for employers interested in creating an onboarding process that leads to maximum employee retention and engagement:

  1. They don’t realize the negative perceptions they inadvertently create through mindlessness — perceptions that can lead to employee retention problems or diminished engagement.
  2. They forget how confusing, complex, and daunting things look to someone without institutional knowledge of “how things are done around here.” Because of this, processes that might seem obvious and easy to navigate if you’re an “old pro,” are anything but to the newcomer. Thus, they inadvertently dampen the new employee’s enthusiasm by adding unnecessary frustration and anxiety.

This is why you must borrow the “fresh eyes” of your new employees. They can see things you can’t.

I was reminded of this — and the impact of careless orientation and onboarding — by an interview I did recently with a former college senior, who, as part of a business class, participated in a bank’s orientation program. Here are some of his observations, along with a bit of commentary.

Since he requested anonymity, I will refer to him as “Brandon” as I share his observations.

keep reading…

Your Onboarding Program Needs a Pair of Fresh Eyes

David Lee
May 15, 2008

Do you know the impact your onboarding program has on your new employees, moment-of-truth by moment-of-truth?

Do you know what it’s like to experience your company as an employee on the first day of work? The first week? What about the week prior to that first day?

keep reading…

Onboarding That Welcomes and Inspires

David Lee
Apr 10, 2008

At the recent onboarding conference I spoke at in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to listen to some great examples of companies that get concepts such as “It’s About the Experience” and “What’s The Emotional Take Away?”

At the conference, Diana Oreck, vice president of Ritz-Carlton’s Global Learning & Leadership Center, shared how their employee orientation program and onboarding process welcomes and inspires their new hires. She also talked about the mindset that informs how they design the experiences they deliver.

keep reading…

Before You Waste Your Time and Money on So-Called Employer Branding

David Lee
Oct 2, 2007


Employer branding is quite the rage these days. Yet, I’m still amazed at what many people think it means to “create” an employer brand.

Let me give you an analogy for what I see as a common and very misguided approach to employer branding. Engaging in this mistake doesn’t just hamstring your ability to become an employer of choice; it will diminish employee morale, loyalty, and engagement.

keep reading…

13 Questions to Maximize Your Onboarding Efforts

David Lee
Sep 12, 2007

If you’re serious about upgrading your new-hire orientation program and onboarding process as a whole, here are 13 questions you need to ask. Ask them of yourself, your HR department, your management team, your frontline supervisors, and most important, your new employees.

    keep reading…

If You’re Serious About Onboarding Success, Remember This Mantra

David Lee
Feb 2, 2006

If you want a successful onboarding process, one that quickly engages new employees and helps them succeed — rather than leaving them with “new hire’s remorse” — there’s a mantra you must remember. More importantly, you need everyone on your management team to remember this mantra. It comes from a lesson that branding guru Scott Bedbury learned at Starbucks.

After joining the java juggernaut, he went on a coffee-hunting expedition with Dave Olsen, Starkbucks’ chief coffee buyer. Bedbury, author of A New Brand World: Eight Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century, probed Olsen for the secret to Starbucks’ branding success. What was, to use anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson’s famous term, the critical “difference that makes a difference”? What mattered the most to the company’s branding success? Was it all about the coffee beans; were they that different? Was it the ambience Starbucks has so assiduously created? Was it the employees they’ve hired? What particular part of their winning combination mattered most? After pondering Bedbury’s question and weighing the variables, Mr. Olsen responded: “Everything matters.” All world-class brand managers know that everything matters. They know that every communication and every interaction with the customer matters. Every decision and every choice matters, because they will either strengthen or weaken a brand. This same principle holds true when it comes to organizational and managerial practices and how they affect employee morale, engagement, and pride. Every decision, every moment of truth in which an employee bumps up against organizational policies, procedures, and processes matters.

Noticing Minor Flaws

The principle “everything matters” is especially true in the first 60 to 90 days of an employee’s tenure with your company, because employees are the most impressionable during this period. When people are in unfamiliar territory, they are more alert for any clues that will help them navigate the terrain. In this state of uncertainty, they are also more likely to leap to conclusions when forming perceptions and opinions. This is because when we feel vulnerable and uncertain, we’re more prone to remove any uncertainty possible. To use a term from cognitive psychology, they are vulnerable to making “premature cognitive commitments.” When we make a premature cognitive commitment, we leap to a conclusion before having enough data to make a truly informed choice. Because new hires are more vigilant for clues, they’re likely to notice even the most minor examples of a poorly designed and executed orientation program and onboarding process. Because they are prone to premature cognitive commitments, they are more likely to see these as indicative of a poorly run organization that doesn’t care about employees. Thus, when it comes to onboarding, everything matters.

Everything You Do Sends a Message About Your Company

Every choice, every action, every communication has potential consequences. Every choice has a consequence in terms of how quickly an employee gets up to speed. Every choice communicates to the employee something about your organization. For instance, poorly organized, “fly by the seat of your pants” orientations communicate something very different about an organization than does a well-organized, professionally delivered program. Recognizing the importance of having new-hire orientation reflect and support the company’s culture of excellence, Eric Wood, president of EnviroSense, requested that his HR team conduct an “orientation makeover.” Because every action carries an implicit message, their new orientation program communicates to employees a message consistent with the company’s culture, mission, and values. “In our business,” says Wood, “high levels of performance and attention to detail are critical and expected of every employee. In order to ask for this level of performance, we want to make sure we show our employees the same commitment.”

Showing You Care Is One of the Strongest Drivers of Employee Engagement

The level of support provided to employees after leaving orientation also communicates an important message. Using a “sink or swim” approach to onboarding communicates a loud “we don’t care about or value you” message, while an onboarding process that provides new hires with a mentor and periodic check-ins sends employees the kind of message that leads to engagement and loyalty. At Community Living Association, a Maine non-profit organization that provides services to individuals with developmental disabilities, employees frequently complained about how awkward it was going into a new home when they were both new to the job and a stranger to their future client. To remedy this, new employees no longer have to “cold call” their new client. Instead, a staff member who already knows the clients makes the introduction. By demonstrating their concern for their new employees’ comfort, management obviously communicates a far different message than if the company had adopted a “that’s just how it is…deal with it” stance.

Is Your Orientation Program All Rules and Red Tape?

Another significant moment of truth that matters greatly is whether your orientation focuses on rules and regulations and neglects the inspirational component of being a new employee. Making orientation primarily about rules and regulations communicates something very different about an organization than an orientation that communicates these messages:

How to Avoid the Four Deadliest Onboarding Mistakes

David Lee
Nov 22, 2005

An investment in effective onboarding is an investment in employee retention, morale, and productivity. Research at Corning Glass Works revealed that employees who attended a structured orientation program were 69% more likely to remain with the company after three years than those who did not go through such a program. Another study conducted at Texas Instruments showed that employees whose orientation process was carefully attended to reached “full productivity” two months earlier than those whose orientation process was not. More recently, Hunter Douglas found that by upgrading their onboarding process, they were able to reduce their turnover from a staggering 70% at six months, to 16%.

These changes also translated into improved attendance, increased productivity, and — not surprisingly — a reduction in their damaged-goods rate. At Designer Blinds, an Omaha based manufacturer of window blinds, upgrading the onboarding process played a central role in reducing turnover from 200% annually to under 8%! Because of the dramatic drop in turnover, they were able to reduce their recruiting budget from $30,000 to $2,000. A 2003 study by Hewitt Associates demonstrating the connection between effective onboarding and engagement revealed that companies who invested the most time and resources in onboarding enjoyed the highest levels of employee engagement. Both research and common sense tell us that it makes sense to invest time and effort into preparing employees to be successful at their jobs. If you want them to become productive as quickly as possible, why would anyone not do what it took to make that happen? If you’re going to spend all that money on acquiring them and paying them to come to work, why would you not prepare them to succeed? Despite the obviousness of this, many organizations approach new hire orientation with a level of professionalism and quality they would never tolerate in their daily operations.

Orientation as Nightmare

Rex Castle, senior vice president of human resources of State National Bank of Lubbock, Texas, captures the typical new hire orientation nightmare:

You come in and sit down in monumentally uncomfortable chairs and are bombarded with papers, rules, policies…you know those ‘this is how you get fired’ sort of comments. If it’s a big employer and a big group of new hires, someone stands in front of a PowerPoint slide show and reads the slides to you. Usually it’s an HR underling who is totally uncomfortable in front of a group and rarely, if ever, smiles. You sign and sign and sign more paper than you would if you were buying a house, and then you walk out thinking, ‘Man, I hope I don’t get fired, but at least I know how to get fired.’ And those are the good orientations. The poor ones are done by a harried manager on location and God only knows what it is the employee is receiving in terms of an understanding of policies and procedures.

keep reading…