Bottom Line: The initial support given to new hires by co-workers and supervisors has a powerful effect on the newcomers’ attitudes and performance months down the line, laying the groundwork for employees’ success.
You always remember your first days on a new job: putting a few photos on the desk, figuring out how to work the coffee machine. And then there are the deeper impressions. Did a boss or colleague deliver a memorable scolding, signaling that a steep learning curve lay ahead? Or did a kind co-worker go out of his or her way to help you adjust? There is evidence that shows first impressions live long in the memory, but until now, business research has largely ignored the question of how early experiences help shape an employee’s subsequent job attitudes and performance.
According to a new study, those highly impressionable early days could have long-lasting effects beyond the initial training seminars or an employee’s period of acclimatization. In fact, the attitudes formed by employees because of early interactions, whether positive or negative, had a far more significant impact on their performance three months later than they did during their initial settling-in period.
The authors studied 264 new employees at a major U.S. university, hired as academic advisors, accountants, coordinators, research specialists, and technicians. Each week during their first 90 days on the job, employees used a five-point scale to indicate how supportive their supervisors and co-workers had been by being encouraging, listening, and helping them get comfortable. They did the same for undermining actions, identifying the extent to which colleagues and bosses had made their work life difficult, exhibited signs of animosity, or dispensed criticism.
The employees characterized their weekly work environments according to several different positive or negative adjectives. And they also detailed several aspects of their social and professional integration: how often they sought feedback, the extent to which they felt like “one of the gang,” how much time they spent interacting with their boss, whether they missed meetings, and how productive and proactive they had been.
Overall, a consistent pattern emerged. Higher levels of support from both co-workers and supervisors led to new employees’ having more positive attitudes, trying harder to integrate with the group, and being more committed to their job. On the flip side, higher levels of negative behavior by co-workers and bosses led to new hires’ feeling excluded from the workflow and made them more likely to skip work or show up late. Traditionally, helping newcomers has been viewed as being beyond the call of duty for rank-and-file employees, but these findings suggest it should be a regular part of the job.
Higher levels of support lead to new employees who are more committed to their job.
The authors also found that support for newcomers declined sharply over the first 90 days, even among supervisors who made it a point to provide very high levels of support in the first few weeks. In turn, this drop reduced employees’ positivity and willingness to go the extra mile at work. However, when employees did experience a rare uptick in support from their boss as the weeks rolled on, they reported feeling more positive about the workplace culture—suggesting that attitudes were tied into supervisory support, and didn’t simply become entrenched over time.
The authors posit that support for newcomers dwindles quickly because of deeply entrenched assumptions on the part of management that a new employee typically settles in within a few weeks, or because supervisors eventually dictate more of their limited time to subsequent new hires. As a result, newcomers who were initially welcomed with open arms may turn jaded as their early feelings of organizational cooperation diminish.
Bosses, take note: Employees who reported higher levels of supervisory undermining in their first few months on the job were much more likely to quit within a year. Interestingly, undermining from co-workers had no significant correlation with turnover risk, meaning employees take negativity from their supervisors much more seriously.
As a result, the authors write, supervisors should receive ongoing training that underscores how vital their feedback and support can be to new employees. These development sessions should stress that a new hire’s first weeks can have a profound effect on his or her future performance, and supervisors have the ability to create an office culture that facilitates employee adjustment and integration. Instead of sweeping on-the-job negativity under the carpet, frontline managers should admit that undermining sometimes happens, and encourage employees to report incidents whenever they occur. Research has shown that when employees are treated fairly and equitably, they are less likely to undercut their colleagues.
And most importantly, bosses should realize that a new hire doesn’t become an old pro after the two or three weeks that constitute the typical onboarding period. Providing support throughout the initial few months of an employee’s adjustment period is just as important as having a productive first meeting.
Source: Support, Undermining, and Newcomer Socialization: Fitting in During the First 90 Days, by John Kammeyer-Mueller (University of Minnesota), Connie Wanberg (University of Minnesota), Alex Rubenstein (University of Florida), and Zhaoli Song (National University of Singapore), Academy of Management Journal, Aug. 2013, vol. 56, no. 4