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Attention On-Boarders: Teach Culture

January 19, 2012
Related Topics: Strategy and Management
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I often joke with friends and family about how much I enjoyed the "company culture" that came with being a graduate journalism student at Northwestern way back in 2010.

Aside from doing a lot of my student reporting and writing from Medill's lavish downtown Chicago newsroom, much of my work was done in the comfort of my own home.

In the newsroom, the student culture was, you could say, loose -- T-shirt, jeans, baseball caps, buzzing our executive managing editor's hair between writing stories (I swear, this happened).

The few times I reported from home, I was allowed to create my own "work culture" -- one time, as I interviewed a bank executive by phone, I was wearing nothing but my favorite vintage youth-sized Michael Jordan basketball jersey and my boxer shorts. Not exactly C-suite attire.

Obviously once I entered the professional environment -- both in my time interning with Crain's Chicago Business and here at Talent Management magazine -- my Jordan jersey found its way out of my work attire section of the closet. But corporate culture, as many know, goes far beyond what a person wears to work. An organization's culture can often grow to include a trove of norms and practices, and a new hire's experience in coming on board is likely to be riddled with having to learn them on the fly.

The message for talent managers and on-boarders: Make an effort to teach culture as part of the on-boarding process.

That's what Mark A. Stein and Lilith Christiansen write in their book, Successful Onboarding: A Strategy to Unlock Hidden Value Within Your Organization.

In fact, they dedicate an entire chapter on how teaching culture should be a major step in the on-boarding process. Doing so "improves the learning curve and helps reduce the painful outcomes for those who 'don't get it.'"

Organizational culture is hard to define, but people know what it is when they see it. Often -- as was my experience when I started here in August -- new hires have to navigate the dreaded waters of a new office environment's culture on their own. While this wasn't necessarily a bad experience -- I managed to pick up the lingo and norms eventually -- it would bode well for larger organizations to take time upfront to really hammer out what the organization's culture is like, and how getting a new hire acclimated will be presented during the on-boarding process.

Stein and Christiansen offer 10 principles talent managers can use to help new hires get up to speed on company culture. I'll bullet the first four, which are pretty self explanatory, and then I'll add some further detail for the final few, which the authors do in the book.

1. "Use simple language that new hires can understand."

2. "Go beyond lofty rhetoric to provide specific examples of how the performance values might play out in everyday life."

3. "Make some effort to explain the business rationale behind the values."

4. "Express the culture in passionate terms while also invoking the authority of company leadership."

5. "Make it interactive" -- Because something like culture is so vague, use one-on-one mentoring as a mechanism for a more interactive experience. The book suggests using a peer buddy system, which, in theory, would pair a new hire with someone in a similar job role who has been with the organization slightly longer than the new hire.

6. "Interactive technology is better." Some companies use wikis on the company's intranet as a tool for on-boarders to refer to when learning about adapting to culture. Netflix has an 128-page PowerPoint presentation, the book said, on company culture "in which the CEO and founder Robert Hastings himself introduces the firm's culture in an open, honest and engaging way."

7. "Reinforce the message and make context relevant." This includes one-on-one mentoring, media via the company's intranet and broadcasts played during the start of training sessions. Keep the message fresh and in the mind of new hires, according to Stein and Christiansen.

8. "Brand your on-boarding program -- and brand it appropriately." "Outfitting the on-boarding program with a unique brand sets the tone and distinguishes the corporate culture from an external brand identity," the book said.

9. "Get everyone involved." Alert veteran employees to a new hire's arrival. This enables those employees to lend a hand when a new hire may make a cultural misstep or, on the contrary, does something well to exemplify his or her fit into a new culture.

10. "Take it into the field." The best learning, after all, happens on the job. In time, a new hire is eventually going to figure it out.

My take is, if the first nine steps are taken into consideration by talent managers and on-boarding advisers, the last one simply won't take as long.

Do you have any interesting tidbits or stories to share on getting a new hire up to speed on organizational culture? Please, as always, I'd love to hear about them. fkalman@talentmgt.com.

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