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Dare we include realistic advice in onboarding?


Onboarding is usually an upbeat process. However the truth is that bad things happen in any organization and the question is whether we should warn employees about them. What sort of bad things? Here are a few:

  • You tell a co-worker something in confidence, but it gets spread through the office.

  • You do a good job on a project, but someone else gets the credit.

  • You are assigned to a project that was sure to fail and get blamed when it does.

We surely don’t want to sound like we accept that these things are okay and we don’t want to discourage people; on the other hand it isn’t really fair to let young employees find out the hard way.

If young employees have unrealistically rosy views of organizational behaviour then they’ll feel betrayed when one of these unfortunate incidents occurs. If we can find a way to give people a slightly more realistic preview of some of the bumps they’ll run into, then we can prevent some heartache and perhaps some unwanted turnover.

How to build realistic advice into your onboarding process

lIt’s tricky to warn employees about the truth of unfairness in the workplace. Jeffrey Pfeffer got some flak for his book Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time in which he warned people about the darker side of leadership. Some people got upset because they read it as an endorsement of ruthless office politics. That wasn’t Pfeffer’s intention, but these emotional issues are dreadfully hard to write about.

The trick is to frame this topic as being about resilience in the face of setbacks that were not your fault. Resilience is a positive trait and it puts the focus on how you react to hardship (which you can control), rather than ensuring there never are hardships (which can’t be done).

Resilience training, which includes resilience in the face of things that are unfair, will help new employees cope with the rougher side of organizational life. However, even framed in this context it will be difficult to talk about the darker elements of human behaviour in a formal training course. If you mention that there will be times when others take credit for your work, then the natural question will be “What is the organization doing to stop it?” rather than the more productive “What can I do to minimize this problem in my own career?” The secret truths of organizational life are best shared one-on-one between a mentor or buddy and the new employee.

Setting up these one-on-one discussions is a little bit tricky too. You can’t be sure what topics will be covered or how well they will be covered. Nevertheless it’s a good idea to ensure new employees have a buddy they can talk to and suggest that one thing worth talking about is organizational politics.

As professionals we need to face up to the unpleasant realities that crop up from time to time in every organization. We are not doing employees a favour if we pretend the world is a kinder place than it really is.

Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, shared a story with me about one of his clients. They told him that when you were brought in, there was a bullet fired at your head; the question was whether you would see the bullet coming in time to dodge it. That’s not a nice onboarding practice, but it was the reality at the firm. It’s a tough world, we should warn employees about this, and we should prepare them so they can dodge the bullet.


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