Management / The American View: The New Hire’s Lament

The American View: The New Hire’s Lament

The notion that businesses have flawless, optimised processes for bringing new employees aboard is more an aspiration goal than a statement of fact. New entrants to the workforce are often shocked to discover that even enterprise-tier organisations don’t seem to have their act together.

The most important life-lessons are often painful. I don’t mean ‘learning how to love recklessly’ or any other movie trope twaddle; I’m talking about surviving office life. The key lessons that every worker needs to learn involve how to start, execute, and end a job. These lessons only imprint through hardship, mistakes, and stupidity. For all that companies about how they ‘take care of our people,’ reality suggests that it’s more hype than practice.

As an example, my oldest son started his first full-time job last month. He was hyped. He’d graduated university and was ready to take on a corporate role. He hired on with a rock-solid company, too – a proud manufacturer featured on the FORTUNE 500. He was a bit anxious; he didn’t know what to expect, having only worked part-time through high school and university. Like most new workers, he assumed that a large company would Know What It’s Doing.SM

Turned out … no. Not so much. The company may have its core processes nailed down and optimized; the specific plant my boy signed on with does not. His first inkling that something was off came immediately. Even though he’d been in the pipeline to on-board for weeks between accepting his offer letter and his arrival, he discovered that IT hadn’t provisioned a network account for him. My son spent his first week on the job shadowing his boss, unable to work, unable to complete any of his mandatory new-hire training, and unable to learn how to use the applications that his job depended on. Not a great start.

I told him this was normal; disconnects between HR and IT are embarrassingly common. My last FORTUNE 500 employer did the same to me. They knew I was coming aboard and failed to provision either a network account or a company laptop. I spent my first week-and-a-half idly chatting with my new colleagues. The company had a solid process for provisioning new users; our specific site was run … let’s say ‘inefficiently’ … because it was a semi-autonomous recently-purchased subsidiary that hadn’t been assimilated yet.

In a merger, the work that Wall Street cares about is done in the boardroom; the real work has to be done in the trenches if the merge is going to be successful.  

Several weeks after he joined, my oldest came home on Friday depressed. His boss discovered that he’d been processing his schedules incorrectly all week. The boss told him that he’d ‘violated company policy’ concerning load management. A reprimand like that would have stung under normal circumstances; it was doubly troublesome when it became clear that his boss had never made him aware of either the ‘required’ process or the governing company policy. My son had been following the process steps exactly as the boss had taught him and wasn’t aware that he’d strolled into a metaphorical minefield. An embarrassing oversight on the boss’s part, but that’s what you get when ‘training’ is unstructured, informal, and undocumented.

Large organisations are supposed to have finely-tuned processes that are both codified in policy documents and are formally taught to the workers entrusted to carry out the work. That’s everyone’s expectation: you start a new role, you get trained adequately to perform the role, and you then perform the role under supervision until you’re certified as being fully proficient in the role. If you need to read a policy, you’re told which policy to read and are given access to it before you’re allowed to start work. It’s a perfectly reasonable assumption

I’m not saying that this manufacturer doesn’t have rock-solid process documentation or training; they very well might … somewhere … just not at this brand-new site. In the new complex, all of the core process steps are ‘tribal knowledge.’ The rules of How Things Are Done HereSM exists solely in the managers’ heads. Anything a manager doesn’t pass on might as well not exist.

I told my son that this, too, is standard practice across the corporate world. In far too many cases, ‘policy’ and ‘process’ standards are written at headquarters for an academic, theoretical model based on how things should work when all of the critical process elements are present and working correctly. This model works best when you have an organisation that’s capable of cloning its facilities down to the last detail so that the London, Leipzig, and Los Angeles locations are indistinguishable. Unfortunately for the model, most organisations can’t manage that.

The military comes closest to the ideal in-processing experience by having every new ‘hire’ complete a regimented (pun intended) training and standardisation course. Oddly, most for-profit companies aren’t willing to send new employees to an eight-week long indoctrination camp. Go figure.

Satellite sites have their own local variants to standards based on unique circumstances. Just as no two ‘standardised’ warships are ever built exactly alike, no two factories, office complexes, warehouses, or retail stores, are ever built exactly alike. Unique geography, regional cultures, differing suppliers, weather, language, budget, and sheer bloody chance all conspire to make every outpost its own distinct entity.

The theoretical model breaks down completely when an organisation acquires an independent company or – worse yet – merges with a rival. In theory, the larger organisation fully assimilates the lesser, and then standardises processes across the board. In reality, the ‘eaten’ entities never truly merge with the beast that ‘swallowed’ them. The consumed element often continues to do things The Way Things Have Always Been Done HereSM for years. True assimilation is difficult, and requires considerable time and effort.

Large organisations are darned difficult to regulate … and that’s perfectly normal. No matter what your MBA professors may have preached, large companies are assuredly not the highly-organised and reliably-regimented entities that shareholders, auditors, and business journalists like to portray them as. Real organisations are messy. The larger a company is, the more likely it is to be a fractured, chaotic, and every-changing conglomerations of people. This isn’t a failure of leadership or an institutional weakness; it’s a problem of people.

People come and go in all organisations creating new processes and then departing with critical process knowledge locked in their heads. Workgroups and worksites are created, merged, reorganised, and disbanded in cycles, increasing churn and exacerbating standardisation. A large company is like the proverbial river that no one can step in twice – a ‘company’ is never truly the same entity from month to month. The ticker symbol stays the same; the faces constantly change.

No one can blame the workers for this situation. With lifetime employment long gone and even basic job security a thing of the past, the only way for most workers to get a raise, promotion, or better opportunities is to change companies. Hence, the endless churn. 

This is probably the most important lesson that every worker needs to learn about surviving: no matter how organised an organisation appears on its recruiting site; the real company is really a boiling mess of legacy processes and people clashing with new hires amidst non-stop storms of change. This isn’t ‘failure.’ It’s the natural result of asking thousands of people to create and maintain a function that’s constantly in flux. Well-meaning people do the best they can with the tools and information that they have at the moment. People frequently screw stuff up for completely understandable reasons because no one ever has the complete picture. This is normal.

As I counselled my oldest, the best thing that a new hire can do is to expect most things to go wrong during their first three to six months on the job. It takes about that long to learn the differences between how your job is supposed to be done and the way it’s actually performed at the site. After that, you should have a lock on all of the ways that the local staff can screw things up and how to ‘nudge’ the half-broken local processes to bring about the desired result. Only then, once you understand the local problems, can you start to make your name by helping to fix those problems. Working life might not be the way you want it to be; it is what it is.

The next most important thing to learn, then, is that each of us have the power to make the next person’s on-boarding experience better than our own was. In the spirit of the ‘motivational’ posters in the breakroom, become the change you wanted to see in the hew employee on-boarding process. It may feel like trying to sweep away the tide with a broom, but it will – for a short while – improve morale, increase efficiency, and reduce preventable errors. It may be futile in the long run, but it might mean the world to the next confused new hire.


Title Allusion: The Housewife’s Lament, from the diary of Sara Price (folksong written between 1850 and 1900)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

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