Your Onboarding May Be Teaching Your New Employees to Be Cynical

Feb 9, 2012

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.

I can still remember like it was yesterday — sitting in on the employee orientation program I was hired to overhaul. I watched with dismay as new call center reps were driven into a coma by an unrelenting data dump with not a single inspirational component that signaled:

“You just joined a great company and will be doing important work. Welcome aboard!”

The only respite came in the form of someone from human resources, safety, or some other department barging in unannounced to have the new hires fill out paperwork.

Then there was my own orientation, which included the obligatory sexual harassment video, along with the obligatory scenario of the HR person discovering that someone had taken the video player, making calls to track it down, while we waited … and waited.

I probably wasn’t the only one who wondered “Is this the norm for how this place runs? Is this what it’s going to be like working here?”

You’ve had your own version of this, I’m sure.

First Impressions Last

Remember the old saying “You don’t get a second chance at a first impression?”

Just as job applicants are admonished to remember this for good reason, so should employers.

First impressions matter because they shape how everything that you say or do after that impression is perceived. One of the many experiments showing how an initial impressions can color future impressions involved two speakers, both confederates of the experimenter.

Speaker A fumbled the beginning of his presentation, but finished off strong, while Speaker B demonstrated the reverse trajectory. His opening was fantastic, but the rest of his speech was downhill from there. The one who started out clumsily was judged worse than the one who started out great and got worse as his speech continued. No matter how good the rest of his presentation, the negative initial impression of Speaker A colored the respondent’s impression of everything that followed.

What Perception Will They Take Away From the Experience?

When it comes to your new hires, impressions made by their early onboarding experiences will create a mindset that will shape how they perceive future experiences. That’s why you need to pay close attention to what impressions you create with each onboarding moment of truth.

You do that by asking this question:

What perceptual takeaway are we creating in this moment of truth … and is it a good one?”

So for instance, when our call center reps spent their first day in a disorganized data dump that was techno-centric and administrivia-intensive, new employees probably took away from the experience these perceptions:

“That was boring … I wonder if my job is going to be this boring?”

“That was bogus. Are they this clueless in general?”

“If my job is going to be like this, this isn’t going to be a very fun ride.”

In New Situations People Tend to Leap to Conclusions and Overgeneralize

When we enter new territory, we look for clues that might give us greater understanding of what we’re dealing with.

Think of when you have been a new employee. Weren’t you on the lookout for clues about these things?

  1. Organizational norms — codes of behaviors, how things are done, how to dress, etc.
  2. Where on the mediocrity/excellence continuum employee performance was expected to be.
  3. What your new boss was like.
  4. Whether leadership valued and respected employees.
  5. Whether this was going to be “just a job” or an exciting adventure.

Humans are hardwired with the need to make the unknown known. It makes us feel more secure, more in control. This need translates into a natural tendency to look for patterns — even when they’re not there. It also translates into the human tendency to jump to conclusions and overgeneralize when given even the smallest scrap of information in a new situation.

“The brain is incredibly adept at picking up subtle cues,” says Daryl Travis, Founder and CEO of Brandtrust, a firm that helps companies communicate their brand promise.

Because the human brain is a “pattern making machine,” notes Travis: “That first exposure (to a new employer) is huge, that’s when the first mental models (about one’s new employer) are created.”

Seemingly Little Things Take On Exaggerated Importance In New—and Important—Situations

For an example of a new employee’s pattern-making brain and meaning-making mind in action, consider the following commentary of a new manager, describing his first day working for his Fortune 500 employer. His comment describes his reaction to discovering on Day 1 that the event, which was supposed to be the highlight of his first day, wasn’t going to happen:

What did it mean to me? It meant they were unprepared; and if they’re not ready for me to come in on my first day, what else are they not ready for? This is something they knew about eight weeks in advance. I committed a career shift and went to a company that isn’t even sure about this minor detail? If that was uncertain on my first day, what else am I going to deal with here?

He then went on to say that his department had two welcome lunches for new team members, one for him and one for another team member.

He remembered wondering why they didn’t coordinate the two lunches and have one welcome lunch, rather than create this weird “Which new teammate do I welcome?” situation.

You have to look at it through the new hire’s eyes. They’re thinking: ‘I’m seeing inconsistency and confusion, here.’ One of my future direct reports didn’t sit at my table. That sends a signal. Why would they have created that environment? That doesn’t make sense …. As a new employee, you’re trying to piece things together and figure out the norm. You (the employer) have to pay attention to the signals you’re sending.

As he reflected on the various Day 1 experiences that created confusion, disappointment, and awkwardness, he captures perfectly why it’s important to design a great first impression:

It’s not that these are major things, but when you’re new, your senses are peaked. You are searching all these clues to define the norm. So negatives take on bigger weight.

Notice that “little things” made a huge difference. That speaks to the importance of putting your onboarding process under a microscope, and applying greater mindfulness to the new employee experiences you create. You want to develop greater mindfulness for the perceptual takeaway each onboarding moment of truth creates in your new employees. Doing so will prevent the common decline in morale and motivation new employees often experience when the reality of their new workplace sets in. Consciously creating positive perceptual takeaways will also increase the respect and trust your employees have in management and the decisions management makes… resulting in a workforce that is far more enjoyable to lead, and far more capable of greatness.

So Now What?

Show this article to the new employees you have hired in the last 6-9 months and ask them for feedback about your onboarding process.

Ask them about what perceptions your onboarding process created for them — and why. Ask specifically about impressions they had about:

  1. How well your organization is run.
  2. How competent management is.
  3. How much management cares about employees.
  4. Whether employees get the chance to do great things, a chance to matter.
  5. How high your standards are.

Make sure you interview new hires from different timeframes, as it is easy for someone who has been on the job for nine months to forget important details that could help you upgrade the “First Day On The Job Experience,” the “First Week on The Job Experience,” etc.

As you redesign each step of each process in the onboarding experience, ask:

  1. “What’s the perceptual takeaway here?”
  2. “What perception would this leave the new employee with?”
  3. “What perceptions would I live to create?”
  4. “How could we create such a perceptual takeaway?”

In a future article, we will explore a powerful tool for answering these and other onboarding redesign questions with even greater precision.

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