2019 Volume 22 Issue 2

Shaping New Employee Context

Shaping New Employee Context

How Managers can Help New-to-the-Workforce Employees Succeed

A recent article in Forbes explained that “recent graduates seem to feel—for the most part—that they are going into their new gigs reasonably prepared,” yet their managers disagree, feeling that “the latest additions to their organizations need to develop some further skills.”[1]

This disconnect between management and employee perceptions often leads to managers’ frustrations with new-to-the-workforce employees. Although many recommendations for combatting under-preparedness suggest that these new employees further develop their abilities in order to succeed, alternative recommendations flip the onus for success to management. For example, Netflix offers the following direction to its employees: “Managers: When one of your talented people does something dumb,don’t blame them. Instead, ask yourself what context you failed to set.”[2] Following this line of thinking, we introduce three recommendations managers can take to set the right context and provide talented new-to-the-workforce employees (which we will refer to as new employees going forward) with every opportunity to succeed.

Encourage Information Gathering and Listening

Megan[3] had been working at her first job out of college for a few months when her manager told her that she needed to improve her performance, reporting that her colleagues saw her as naïve and unwilling to learn. Previously being an “A+” student among the top of her class, Megan was not used to negative feedback and did not know how to react. The feedback felt like a punch in the gut. Megan retreated to her desk and tried to process what she had just heard, replaying her job experiences in her head. A particular meeting kept coming to the forefront of her attention. Megan had received an invitation to the meeting during her second month on the job, and the invite indicated it was scheduled to discuss the “best practices” within the department. Megan remembered feeling honored to be invited and had spent a couple of days gathering her thoughts on what she thought was working well within the department during her short tenure. She spoke up often during that meeting. Yet, her comments were met with silence. They did not seem to resonate with anyone, and the conversation quickly turned away from her every time she spoke. Once, a member of the team even started talking over her mid-sentence without hesitation. Megan felt the pit in her stomach growing as she recalled this meeting, knowing this is where the communication problems with her coworkers started becoming a seemingly unsurmountable rift.

In learning about Megan’s organization after the fact, it became clear that her invitation to the meeting was a courtesy so that she could learn from others, because it was a meeting of many of the most senior people in the department. Her naive interjections were seen as a sign that she did not understand the complexities of the business, rather than a sign that she had learned a lot in her short tenure on the job. Building from this, the second author of this article and an executive at a large organization offers this advice to new employees “Listen more than you speak. Here are three reasons why, especially when you are new to a job:

  1. You can’t learn when you’re talking.
  2. You don’t have any context yet, so waiting to get other perspectives will help you avoid putting your foot in your mouth.
  3. Listening makes the few words you say more impactful.”[4]

Whereas managers can simply offer this advice to new employees, the authors encourage managers to go further and shape employees’ environment to encourage listening and learning. Let employees know that gathering information is not only encouraged, it is expected. For instance, in receiving the invitation to the “best practices” meeting, Megan later told the authors that she was not sure why she was invited, but assumed (incorrectly) it was to share her perspective. If Megan had been encouraged by her manager to seek out as much information as possible, she likely would have felt more comfortable asking her manager or a coworker “How can I best contribute to this meeting?” rather than making her own assumptions. In doing so, she probably would have heard about the company’s seniority system which she would need to navigate carefully. We know encouraging this type of information gathering is associated with a smoother adjustment into organizational life.[5] [6] As such, the following is recommended:

Recommendation 1 for Managers:Managers should encourage new employees to seek information, ask questions, and listen. To do so, be explicit that these behaviors are expected, and offer affirmations when new employees are enacting these behaviors. Remind employees that listening and learning is a huge part of their job.

Our experience has shown that some new employees will fight this notion, arguing that leaders speak up rather than sit back and listen. To test the importance of listening to leadership, Johnson and Bechler looked for patterns of who emerged as leaders in groups.[7] They found that those who were effective listeners were also those who were emerging as leaders. More recently, Tang and colleagues similarly found that whereas observation, inquiry, and networking were all important for new employees, observation was the most critical for socialization.[8] So, yes, leaders speak up, but they also sit back and observe. We want to be clear that by encouraging listening, we are not encouraging managers to silence their employees. Rather, new employees may veer towards speaking up in place of listening. Managers should work to encourage listening to accompany speaking, as sharing is most valuable when you have something informed to say.

Treat Feedback Like a Gift

Lecturer Carole Robin of Stanford University wrote an article which she titled, “Feedback is a Gift.”[9] Although a great article, her characterization of feedback as a gift is a sentiment with which many new employees would viscerally disagree. We doubt that Megan interpreted her manager’s feedback as a gift. Yet, feedback shouldbe a gift, and managers need to show new employees its value. To effectively deliver feedback in a way that it is valued, acted upon, and avoids a snafu (which is “a badly confused or ridiculously muddled situation”[10]), we have developed The S.N.A.F.U. framework that managers can use in providing feedback:

Soon – In most cases, feedback is most helpful when it is delivered as soon as possible. The least developmental approach to feedback is to surprise an employee with unexpected criticism of repeated “bad” behavior. Although those managers less comfortable with giving feedback often delay giving feedback in hopes that the behavior will change, unchecked behavior rarely changes and it usually gets more difficult to deliver feedback with time.

Non-Evaluative – It turns out that more than half of your rating of someone else reflects your own characteristics and not theirs, a phenomenon known as the idiosyncratic rater effect.[11] In other words, your feedback is riddled with your own assumptions. Because your perception may not be universal to others, feedback is often the most well-received when it is as objective and non-evaluative as possible. Consider the following two statements: “Your mistake was careless” versus “Joe was upset that his order arrived late.” Both provide feedback regarding an error in processing a customer’s order, yet the former is likely to elicit an excuse whereas the latter is more likely to result in a change. When you find it difficult to be non-evaluative, one easy trick is to “own” your comments through using “I” statements—such as saying “I came to a different conclusion” rather than saying “that’s wrong.”

Actionable – Feedback should have practical value to the recipient and should be able to be acted upon. To do so, it is important to focus on specific actions and behaviors that can be changed. As an example, because an individual cannot change his or her tenure on the job, feedback such as “you will get the hang of it with more experience” is not very helpful. A more advantageous approach is discussing the knowledge or skills that can benefit the recipient’s development.

Focused – Feedback which focuses on the needs or desires of the recipient will be more likely to stimulate their desire to change. Through framing your feedback to focus on the recipient, the feedback will be more likely to be internalized and acted upon. For example, “I believe that participating more during project meetings will expose top management to your ideas and help you get the promotion you’ve wanted” will likely receive a better response than “I need you to participate more in this project.”

Understood – The goal of any communication is to be interpreted correctly. Yet, we know that messages are frequently misunderstood and misconstrued by the receiver. In order to help overcome this challenge, it is important to ensure that your intended message was the one that was received. To do so, as the giver of feedback, you should ask the receiver for his or her interpretation of what was discussed.

Returning to Megan, the feedback from her manager about her underperformance felt like a punch in the gut rather than a gift. The blunt, non-developmental feedback did not follow the S.N.A.F.U. framework: it was not delivered timely (as it had been a while since the “best practices” meeting), it offered evaluative and harsh assumptions about Megan with little direction for moving forward, it was not focused on Megan’s desires to succeed in the organization, and the comments stewed in Megan’s head with a high probability of misinterpretation.

Imagine if Megan’s manager had instead pulled her aside shortly after the “best practices” meeting and offered the following: “I don’t think that your participation in that meeting went as well as it could have. I deserve some of the blame, as I should’ve been clearer in my expectations when inviting you. However, your senior coworkers have a lot to offer and are critical to your career here. Let’s schedule some time to debrief from the meeting and figure out how to move forward as effectively as possible.” Although this feedback still may have been a little difficult to hear, it would have allowed Megan to forge a productive path forward and ultimately grow as an employee. Our bet is that Megan would not have been in her current situation if her manager had approached feedback with this approach, which utilizes the S.N.A.F.U. framework. Accordingly, the authors offer the following:

Recommendation 2 for Managers: Managers should use the S.N.A.F.U. framework to provide helpful and timely feedback to new employees to shape their behavior and actions.

Help Make the Job “Right”

As a manager, what should you ask your new employee to do? Often what comes to mind is that part of the project that no one else wants to do. And sure, you can ask new employees to do that, as that may help the team and organization succeed. However, managers should also keep in mind that asking new employees to focus solely on monotonous and seemingly meaningless tasks can lead to demotivated and dissatisfied employees who drag the entire team down. As such, managers should carefully consider the tasks and roles that are assigned to new employees. In doing so, they should consider:

  • How can this new employee best contribute?
  • What will make this new employee most excitedto come to work every morning and productive when here?

Common approaches to onboarding often focus on the tasks that need to be accomplished and/or emphasize the values and norms of the organization. However, evidence has shown that onboarding that instead focuses on leveraging an employee’s identity can lead to less turnover and more satisfied customers.[12] This approach, coined person-identity socialization by Cable and colleagues, involves encouraging new employees to recognize their strengths and figure out how to incorporate these strengths into their jobs. As an example, “a restaurant cook who is a natural social connector could apply this strength by visiting restaurant guests and making them feel welcome.”[13]

Consistent with this strength-based approach, the idea of job crafting has been introduced as the employee-initiated process that can enhance employee engagement and satisfaction.[14] When managers encourage job crafting, they are encouraging employees to mold their job in a way that their work is completed in a manner that excites and motivates them. Employees can do so through altering relationships (i.e., approaching someone they admire to act as their mentor), altering tasks (for example, developing a new approach for a frustrating task), and altering thoughts (i.e., changing the way they think about their job duties). There are, of course, some elements of jobs that employees will have to do no matter what, but why not allow employees the freedom to craft some other elements?

For example, returning to Megan, another new employee started a few months after her, and this employee seemed even more lost than Megan had when she began. Feeling sympathetic for this new employee, Megan started showing her the ropes. While doing so, Megan realized that the onboarding manual for her department was outdated, and after running it by her manager, started updating it in her spare time. She loved the new responsibility, an enthusiasm that carried over to her other tasks. Further, her manager was thrilled that Megan decided to take this task off his plate.

In another example, Frank, who works at a large organization in the technology department, was frustrated that people would continuously reach out to their department with interruptive and unproductive calls about routine technology problems. To curb this trouble, he decided to proactively schedule training sessions with other departments, teaching them how to better deal with the company’s technology. In doing so, he reduced his frustration with these phone calls and also ended up building some new friendships at work, both of which made him more excited to come to the office every day.

Despite the potential benefits of job crafting, the authors’ experience is that new employees frequently wait for direction rather than thinking to proactively shape their jobs. Correspondingly, we recommend that managers help new employees begin job crafting through helping them figure out ways to mold their jobs in order to make them as satisfying as possible. For instance, managers can ask employees “What aspects of your job do you like most? Is there anything you can do to streamline the more frustrating components of the job?” Building from these answers, managers can help employees figure out how to translate the answers into action. Accordingly:

Recommendation 3 for Managers: We encourage managers to help new employees craft their jobs to match their identity and be as satisfying and motivating as possible.


When new employees fail to reach their potential, we too often look to those who failed rather than the context that contributed to this failure. Of course, there may be times when there is nothing a manager or organization could have done to halt a new employee’s failure. However, it is also possible that an employee’s failure may be at least partially attributable to the context established by the employee’s manager and the organizational norms. Although new employees frequently undergo introductory orientations, these programs are often mediocre[15] and employees can fail to become adequately socialized into organizations. We contend that managers can help overcome some of the challenges associated with new employees by working to shape their work contexts. Accordingly, we offer three actionable steps—1) encouraging information gathering and listening; 2) treating feedback like a gift; and 3) helping making the job “right”—that managers can adopt in order to begin successfully molding the environment of new employees to be a catalyst for success.


[1] Strauss, K. (2016). These are the skills bosses say new college grads do not have. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/karstenstrauss/2016/05/17/these-are-the-skills-bosses-say-new-college-grads-do-not-have/#2f9674265491

[2] Hastings, R. (2009). Culture [Slide 84]. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664/84-Managers_When_one_of_yourtalented

[3] Megan is fictitious but inspired by real individuals and events encountered by the authors.

[4] Margolis, J. P. (2017). 10 tips for success in your new job. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/10-tips-success-your-new-job-josh-margolis/

[5] Morrison, E. W. (1993). Longitudinal study of the effects of information seeking on newcomer socialization. Journal of Applied Psychology78(2), 173-183.

[6] Ostroff, C., & Kozlowski, S. W. (1992). Organizational socialization as a learning process: The role of information acquisition. Personnel Psychology45(4), 849-874.

[7] Johnson, S. D., & Bechler, C. (1998). Examining the relationship between listening effectiveness and leadership emergence: Perceptions, behaviors, and recall. Small Group Research29(4), 452-471.

[8] Tang, C., Liu, Y., Oh, H., & Weitz, B. (2014). Socialization tactics of new retail employees: A pathway to organizational commitment. Journal of Retailing90(1), 62-73.

[9] Robin, C. (2013). Carole Robin: Feedback is a gift. Retrieved from: https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/carole-robin-feedback-gift

[10] Snafu. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/snafu

[11] Buckingham, M. (2015). Most HR data is bad data. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/02/most-hr-data-is-bad-data

[12] Cable, D. M., Gino, F., & Staats, B. R. (2013). Reinventing employee onboarding. MIT Sloan Management Review, 54(3), 23-29.

[13] Ibid, p. 24.

[14] Berg, J. M., Dutton, J. E., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2008). Job crafting exercise.Retrieved from https://positiveorgs.bus.umich.edu/cpo-tools/job-crafting-exercise/

[15] Acevedo, Jose M., & George B. Yancey. “Assessing new employee orientation programs.” Journal of Workplace Learning 23.5 (2011): 349-354.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Authors of the article
Jaclyn Margolis, PhD
Jaclyn Margolis is an Assistant Professor of Applied Behavioral Science at Graziadio Business School, Pepperdine University. Her research focuses on teamwork, team membership, social comparisons, and leadership. Her research has appeared in journals such as Organization Science and The Leadership Quarterly. She received her PhD in Organizational Behavior from Drexel University.
Josh Margolis, JD, MBA
Josh Margolis is the Vice President of Loyalty & Digital Products for Caesars Entertainment. His team leads loyalty, national promotions, and digital products for the enterprise. He has marketing experience across multiple verticals including category leaders in legal services, financial services, media, gaming and hospitality. Josh holds a BS in marketing from Lehigh University and a JD/MBA from Temple University.
More articles from 2019 Volume 22 Issue 2
Related Articles