3 Tips To Help New Hires Understand Your Company Culture

What I'm Learning About HR is a series of blog posts where I highlight some of the key ideas and concepts I'm learning about HR -- all through the eyes of a newbie to the field.

"For most new hires, understanding a new company's culture is a difficult, nuanced, and gradual process...The sooner new hires understand the organization's unwritten rules, the more risk we can take out of the system for them, and the more quickly they can make an impact and feel gratified by their contribution." - mark stein & lilith christiansen

Successful Onboarding: Strategies to Unlock Hidden Value Within Your Organization by Mark Stein and Lilith Christiansen

Successful Onboarding: Strategies to Unlock Hidden Value Within Your Organization by Mark Stein and Lilith Christiansen

Last week, I wrapped up Successful Onboarding: A Strategy to Unlock Hidden Value Within Your Organization by Mark Stein and Lilith Christiansen. The book is packed full of methodical tips and powerful case studies to help any organization craft an effective onboarding program.

I wanted to hone in on understanding company culture because I joined a new company about 6 months ago. Aside from starting-a-new-job jitters and mastering your role, there's a whole host of seemingly invisible aspects of culture that can be tough to learn when it's not explicitly taught. There are a lot to consider, but I wanted to focus on three aspects of culture you'll want to make sure is woven into your onboarding program:

  1. How do we make decisions? Think about the first time attending a meeting at a company you just started working for. Maybe there's an agenda or bullet points on a white board. Maybe people are standing or sitting - perhaps both. There could be one person talking for most of the time or a collaboration of voices throughout. It makes me think of those scenes in movies when a character, not used to fine dining restaurants, peers at the person next to them -- which fork are they using when? Start from the outside or inside? What utensil goes with that specific dish? Ground rules for how the company approaches meetings and decision making is helpful to be codified into "ground rules" that everyone agrees to follow. Make them visible and accessible for everyone. Also, once a discussion is coming to a close, "What gives people 'permission' to decide on an issue?" Does your company rely heavily on data to make decisions or does the boss pull rank and have the final say? Do you lean toward consensus or look to "the decider"? Being clear about how meetings are conducted and who decides can make the new hire feel much more relaxed, as well as part of the process, leading to being more engaged from their very first meeting.
  2. How do we communicate as an organization? Communication happens everywhere and all the time. By what's said and isn't said. Again, as a new hire, most of the time you're picking up tidbits of information here and there. Oh, it looks like presentations are designed this way; people seem to talk very little in informal settings and have the meatiest conversations in actual meetings. The boss tends to send really long emails, updating everyone about minute details of a new policy. The most up-to-date information can be found in this or that Slack channel. Giving your new hire insight about how the company communicates can literally give them a voice earlier on in their career. They'll be able to better navigate the information coming their way, as well as start thinking about how they'll craft their own messages. Remember, communication doesn't only happen in meetings and presentations. Communication is non-verbal, visual, even expressed in how the workspace is designed. Providing guidance about communication styles helps new hires more seamlessly integrate into the company as a whole.
  3. How can you propose ideas? New hires can run the spectrum of quietly soaking up information to being outspoken from the first day. As a person whose brain is always observing situations and generating ideas, I often wonder - how can I express this idea and to whom should I tell it to? Is it okay to email a senior member of a specific team? Will my ideas be seriously considered, even though I'm new? As Stein and Christiansen write, there is much to consider when addressing idea advocacy for new hires: "Does the organization prefer a structured or formal process for bringing forward ideas or is open brainstorming the norm? Do ideas need to be run through a "superior" before being brought into an open forum or can the idea be raised as soon as a new hire thinks of it?" Being explicit about idea advocacy from day one can be a tremendous asset for your company. New hires have a set of "fresh eyes" which can bring forth valuable insight that's often overlooked by veterans who unconsciously think, "That's just how it's done." In addition to asking for feedback about the onboarding process, equip new hires with the various avenues and go-to people they can approach with ideas to improve systems, processes, or company quirks.   

One of my primary takeaways from this section of the book (chapter 3) is that if you're wondering whether something is part of your culture - ask yourself this: Does an employee need to learn or pick this up along the way? If a new hire has to learn something by observation, it's likely part of the unwritten rules of your company. Take the time, whether through informal onboarding presentations, one-on-one mentors, or great-at-guiding managers to get this information out into the open where it can be communicated to a new hire sooner than later. This will improve their time to productivity, increase the likelihood of contributing in significant ways, and allow your culture to become more tangible for all to see.