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Hiring a new employee comes with a whole lot of uncertainty that most companies do not address well. Looking at our onboarding as a rite of passage can help us address this uncertainty and simplify the means of building trust through the organization.
Onboarding is Done Poorly
In this Gallup article:
Gallup finds that only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job onboarding new employees.
It also states:
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employee turnover can be as much as 50% in the first 18 months of employment.
The article goes on to explain that if onboarding were done better, we could see an increase in employee retention. This is a big deal and costs businesses a lot of money, time, effort, and skilled individuals.
I believe, and have antidotal evidence, that better rites of passage can help here.
It is a Time of Uncertainty
Being new to an organization is a huge time of uncertainty for the individual who was just hired. There is all the HR, legal, and benefits stuff that needs to be figured out. There is the employee’s new manager and reporting structure and team that they need to mesh with. There are written and unwritten policies and norms to navigate.
The new employee is not the only person to enter a time of uncertainty. The company enters one because they are uncertain the new hire will work out. That person’s boss needs to figure out how to best help and guide the individual. Their team needs to learn how to incorporate the new person’s quirks and knowledge.
All this uncertainty means that the first year or 18 months is a veritable minefield of unknowns.
Dealing with the Emotional Impact of Uncertainty
Rites of passage are a psychological and sociological method that humans have used to deal with known changes that cause uncertainty. As described in the previous article, they serve to guide the individual going through a change and those affected by the change. This reduces uncertainty by giving a known way to deal with it, and predefined signals for when the change has started and ended.
Each Company Needs a Different Approach
In creating a rite of passage for your new employee, it is important that this process consider several things that are unique to your company. The first is the company culture you wish to promote. A good onboarding rite will help the new employee feel welcomed, supported, and guided in learning and experiencing company culture over the next 18 months. This is intended to help the employee not make simple mistakes and give them an explicit place to question what they see.
Beyond company culture, there are company processes to navigate. Some of these processes have become so familiar to the people doing them that they are easy to overlook when deciding what to explain to new people. A good rite of passage would help in these situations since it would call attention to cultural knowledge.
By guiding an employee through the company culture, we gain insight into what we have become accustomed to. This allows us to better address the unfamiliarity of the situation and improve the overall onboarding experience.
Each Group Needs a Different Approach
A new employee is not only joining a company, but they are also joining one or more groups within the organization. These groups have important features that make them unique within the company. Each of them will need their own rites of passage for new employees. Each group will have a subculture they will want to promote. Guiding a new employee through that subculture is essential. Taking these subcultures into account leads to a better integration of the new employee into the group.
Power Differentials Need to be Considered
The most basic power differential is that of role-based power. Different roles have different perceived and granted power within an organization. Dealing with these power differentials in an explicit way can help people adjust to each other and trust each other despite the threat imposed by the differing power.
There are other power differentials that need to be considered. Social, economic, ethnic, and many others. The goal in dealing with non-role-based power differentials is to reduce the effect the perceived differentials have. Even if there is no intentional or unintentional bias in your company, (yes, I know that is impossible) the new person will have experienced biases outside of the company. As such, your rite of passage will have to deal with that perception.
Considering power differentials in a rite of passage helps ease the uncertainty that happens when people of different perceived or granted power interact and helps them bridge that gap to form trust.
Many rites already exist in each company without any formal thought or communication. Every company has an onboarding process that they are aware of, and hundreds of onboarding rites of passage they have no insight into. By encouraging thinking about the rites of passage we want, we uncover shadow processes and can course correct to improve them.
The rite of passage
Thinking about the stages of a rite of passage allows us even greater control. As stated in the first article in this series, there are three stages of a rite of passage. Each of these stages serve different purposes. I want to spend a little of my time relating these stages to the above information.
The first stage is about accepting the initiation of a change in social role. This happens when a new person joins a company. They were unknown, with no social status or role, now they are expected to contribute in some way. The conditions used here are usually the employee’s first day, though I can see benefit for some groups to think of this starting with the first interview.
The biggest things to consider for a company to consider regarding a new employee in the first stage is how a group can make policies, both written and unwritten, discoverable. This is where the company and groups work the hardest to support a new employee as they transition into their new role.
The second stage has two main intents. The first is to help the individual acquire the skills they need in their new role. Here is where power gaps will be addressed along with guiding someone through the unwritten expectations of individuals.
The second intent of this stage is to allow the new groups to explore what integration of a new person means to them. The focus for the group is to better understand how they are going to have to change with the addition of a new person who will have new skills to offer.
The last stage is the integration of the individual within their new groups. What determines that the individual is going to be successful in their new position? Has the individual been given those things? Integrating someone into a group takes time and effort. Knowing when that is done is crucial for the success of everyone.
In a back in 2015 I wrote about how the company I was at was handling onboarding. Looking back at that post, I realized I was writing about a rite of passage that was designed for that company’s context. It came about by talking to new hires about the problems they faced when being hired. By listening to their contexts and input, we had covered all three stages needed for a rite to be successful.
It is true you can leave all onboarding design and action up to HR. But then you miss the true power of thinking of it as a rite of passage. You see, a rite of passage serves the community, not just the leader. A rite of passage deals with people, not just the requirements of law. An HR process is something that is mandated and must be done. A rite of passage is something that is desired and evolved.
Onboarding is generally not done well. It can be and needs to be improved. Looking at our onboarding process as a rite of passage allows us to better address the uncertainty generated in hiring a new individual. It allows us to identify and target areas where a person is struggling, and better guide all involved through this period. Lastly, rites of passage for new hires already exist, but in most cases are not well-thought-out.
It might be worth the exercise to examine your onboarding through a lens of a rite of passage. Taking time to think about how to identify and handle each stage of that rite may garner insight that can reduce initial turn-over.