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Teaching Culture in Employee Onboarding: What’s really important?

Onboarding is a critical time for acclimating new employees to a company. While it’s important to familiarize the new hire to the company’s culture, this is often overlooked during onboarding. To make things worse, there may be underlying negative aspects of a given company’s culture that may be overlooked or actively swept under the rug. The challenge becomes: how do you deliver effective onboarding when there may be underlying problematic elements to your company’s culture?

Onboarding as a First Step

A good employee onboarding program should quickly and effectively get new hires up to speed on their responsibilities and expectations. It should establish what daily engagements the new employee should expect on day one, including when to take lunch breaks, what time they’re expected to leave at the end of the day, and other HR aspects of the job like paid sick leave and vacation time. Employees should finish their onboarding feeling confident in their roles, as well as being aligned with the company’s business goals. In particular, they should understand how their role fits into the larger organizational picture and how they help to achieve those goals. All of this ties directly into understanding the company culture.

Culture is the Core of Onboarding

Company culture should be the cornerstone of your onboarding process. The integration that happens during onboarding lets both the employee and employer discover whether the employee will be a good fit for the job. It can also provide insight into the employee’s potential for growth. In a way, company culture is often what gives companies their competitive advantage, so encouraging new hires to acclimate to the culture can increase buy-in, and help drive success. As companies bring in new hires, being able to set a clear, consistent message becomes more important. Executives will have a harder time making that personal connection as a company grows to a certain threshold, so the employee onboarding process needs to be able to set that tone and expectation instead.

However, even the most successful businesses aren’t without pitfalls, whether minor or major, lurking in their culture. The benefits of centering culture into onboarding can only be achieved if the culture is inclusive and functional for all employees. But what happens when problems exist within the culture?

How Transparency Can Overcomes Pitfalls

Sometimes a culture leads to unexpected results in daily engagements. Examples include a driven company culture translating to poor work-life balance or frequent overtime, or a laid-back office culture leading to lower throughput or less consistent punctuality from the employees. Or, an unfortunately common example, the culture being tailored for one group of employees while posing a stumbling block for others; what might work well for helping managers succeed might also make the entry-level employees want to quit.

The challenge for those conducting onboarding is, how to acknowledge that these pitfalls or imbalances exist, when they might be subtle or only affect some employees? During onboarding, it should be the priority to be specific about what the job will entail—therefore, being transparent about any existing problems should also take priority. One approach that should be avoided, however, is simply bringing up all these shortcomings like a list of grievances and complaints to each new employee (for example, if the culture is more driven, don’t tell the new hire that lots of people quit because it’s “too hard”). This will likely come across as petty gossip and ward off any potential good-fit candidates.

Instead, effort should go towards communicating openly and fairly, discussing both the ups and downs. This kind of transparency should focus on objective impacts on employees, not just gossip or negative opinions. For the driven culture example, onboarding should say that motivated employees tend to do well, but be honest that things can get strenuous over time, and that long hours may be a regular occurrence.

It may be tempting to simply avoid discussing these issues or pretend that they don’t exist. But without transparency, especially at such an early stage like onboarding, employees may feel underappreciated, unsure about their future in the company, and may become doubtful of the management practices in place or decisions being made by executives. But by including new hires in an honest discussion about what happens, what they should expect, and how their role fits into the bigger picture, they’ll instead feel like a part of the team, and may even become catalysts for positive change for the company and its culture.