Starting Out Right

New employees and their teams will function better if the emphasis from the start is not on inclusion and relationships but on getting a quality job done

As the public sector grapples with a wave of retirements — some have called it the “silver tsunami” — more and more new employees are taking their place. To get the most from new hires, writer Jeff Haden suggests that organizations follow some words of wisdom from a Toby Keith song: A little less talk and a lot more action.

Haden suggests that managers skip the formal lunches, meet-and-greet sessions and dog-and-pony shows and focus on helping new people hit the ground running.

“Everyone is rightly concerned about inclusion, diversity and making people feel comfortable and part of a team,” says Haden, who spent 20 years in production management and has written more than 30 nonfiction books. “That’s all very positive. But I think things have shifted too far to that side. You’re hired to do a job. And as an employee, you’re a little nervous about getting along with people, but a lot more nervous about doing the actual job.”


Contributing sooner

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for being courteous and polite and making introductions on new employees’ behalf. Haden just prefers more emphasis on helping employees become contributors quickly and less on building relationships. There’s a narrow window of time for managers to make a strong, lasting impression on new hires, so it behooves them to send a message that they’re working for a performance-based organization that values results.

“Giving new employees a chance to succeed as early as possible makes them feel better about themselves and sets the tone from an organizational point of view that we’re here to work,” Haden says. “This also gives managers a quicker look at whether employees have the skills to succeed, so it benefits both the employer and the employee.”

And if organizations fail to set a positive, action-based tone, changing it is a lot like turning an aircraft carrier: It can take a lot of time.


Relationships develop

Haden doesn’t discount at all the value of strong workplace relationships. He just believes they take time to develop, so it doesn’t make sense to strive to make someone feel integral to a team right away.

“Over time, people will develop those relationships while working with people and working through problems with them,” he observes. “Some people will never develop interpersonal relationships, and that’s okay, too. In the long run, new employees will feel like part of a team after they work together — you can’t force-feed it.”

In the same vein, it doesn’t pay to give new hires too much context for their jobs. For example, Haden says that in theory it’s nice if new sewer inspectors know all about what the other departments do and understand how they fit into the scheme of things.

“But when you spend a lot of time introducing them to people in other departments and giving them a big-picture overview, they can’t absorb all that,” he says. “What’s the point if it doesn’t help them perform their job better?

“As a new employee, I never liked this approach. I remember once spending my first five days meeting people. Now, I met a lot of great people and saw a lot of cool stuff, but felt like I wasn’t contributing. I believe that if you have a good day at work, it’s usually not because you made ten new friends — it’s because you got something accomplished and did a great job. I think that often gets lost early on.”


Immediate feedback

Another common managerial mistake is not letting new employees know when they make mistakes, for fear of making anxious rookies even more nervous, damaging their confidence or breaking their spirit. “If it’s important enough to do, it’s important enough to do it right,” Haden says. “Step in and in a tactful, constructive and positive way, explain the right way to do something.”

Most people would rather do things correctly, even if it means getting feedback along the way, than to do it wrong and have no one say anything. Confrontation-adverse managers should keep in mind that whatever discomfort they may feel in pointing out mistakes is momentary. Letting it go usually results in more damage.

“If you want to create a performance culture, you have to actively build one,” Haden argues. “You can’t step back and just hope that somehow, someone will get there. Besides, it’s easier to correct someone new than a 20-year employee who’s set in his ways. How and when you correct someone is really important, and constructive criticism is more likely to be well received early on.”

The opposite also is true: Haden doesn’t believe managers should encourage people to critique processes and procedures until they’ve been on the job for a significant time. As he puts it, employees shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel until they fully understand how the wheel works.

“If new employees question things because they don’t understand something, that’s okay,” he says. “But it’s not their place to tell you things would work better if you just did x, y and z. If that happens, tell them it’s cool that they have ideas about improving processes, but to hold that thought until they get settled in.”


Empowerment can wait

The same principle holds true when it comes to giving new employees latitude to make their own decisions. Haden advocates giving that freedom after they’ve earned it. Giving people decision-making authority on day one isn’t wise because managers don’t yet know anything about their decision-making skills, and they don’t have any context for making decisions.

“A lot of people these days assume that if you don’t do this right away, you’re stifling new employees and making them button-pushers,” he says. “But I think it’s something that’s earned, not given. Don’t hand it out automatically.”

In the long run, Haden says managers will get more out of new employees by getting them busy than by spending time on feel-good policies and procedures.


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