Getting more from new hires: Don’t focus on ‘fit’
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Getting more from new hires: Don’t focus on ‘fit’

Every business person knows that finding and keeping the best employees is critical to success. But if that’s the case, why do so many organizations do the wrong thing when it comes to onboarding new talent?

The experts say that “fit” is critically important — that companies must help new employees acclimatize and adapt to their new employer’s culture. They emphasize getting the newbie up to speed quickly on the way workers think, behave and get things done.

Research into different methods of onboarding, however, suggests that employers often overemphasize “fit” in a harmful way.

The experiments

In one study, researchers from Harvard, the London Business School and University of North Carolina conducted two experiments. The first involved people who signed up for a temporary job in a research lab. They were divided into three groups, each of which received a different orientation experience.

  • In the control group, new hires were given general information about the job and company.
  • In the organization-oriented group, the focus was on what made the company unique. New hires received specific information about the company’s values, culture, identity and achievements.
  • In the individual-identity group, the focus was on what made the new hires unique. They reflected on their talents and described their “personal highlight reel” – their best moments at past jobs and achievements that made them proud.

After all participants had worked for two hours, they were asked whether they’d like to return the next day for another hour. Twenty percent more of those in group three — the “personal highlight reel” group — returned for day two. They also performed more efficiently, committed fewer errors and were more satisfied with the job.

In a second study, the researchers tested how these same three experiences affected job performance in full-time employees in a customer-facing department. New hires were assigned to one of the three orientation groups and monitored over a nine-month period.

This time, the gap between employees in the “personal highlight reel” group versus the other two groups was far greater. They achieved a higher rate of customer satisfaction, and the employee retention rate was up to 50% higher.

High anxiety

The researchers suggest that orientation programs that focus on the company’s culture create anxiety. New hires feel pressured to change their behavior. As a result, they create a “work self” that is different from their true personality.

The researchers pointed out that acting in an inauthentic way at work creates psychological tension. The dissonance between the “work self” and the “actual self” can undermine performance and cause stress and dissatisfaction.

In contrast, when people feel comfortable being themselves at work, they’re more committed to their job. They perform at a higher level, and are significantly less likely to leave.

Their uniqueness, not your culture

This isn’t to suggest that “fit” doesn’t matter. Organizations shouldn’t hire people whose values, personality, work ethic and habits are out of sync with the work culture. But the research suggests you’ll get better retention and productivity if you create an onboarding experience that celebrates their uniqueness, not your organization’s culture.

Here’s how you can craft an onboarding program like that:

  • Have new hires identify their strongest attributes and how these strengths will help them succeed in their new position.
  • Reframe the traditional meetings where legacy employees describe to new hires “what this place is about and what it takes to make it here.” Coach your employees to keep the focus on the uniqueness of the new hire.
  • During the first month, ask new hires to keep a daily journal where they describe how they’re deploying their skills and talents. Requiring a diary gives you a chance to show you’re an eager audience for this latest installment in their “highlight reel.”
  • Do a preliminary performance review after one, two or three months. Ask new hires how they’ve deployed their talents successfully. And in your feedback, emphasize that they’ve made a difference.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Employee Onboarding: Why Too Much Emphasis on ‘Fit’ Can Backfire.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research study: Cable, D., et al. (2013). Breaking Them In or Eliciting Their Best? Reframing Socialization Around Newcomers’ Authentic Self-Expression. Administrative Science Quarterly, 58(1), 1-36.


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