Workplace Socialization and Inclusion


Several years ago, while working on a re-design project for a company’s onboarding, I became familiar with the work of  John Van Maanen and Edgar H. Schein. In “Toward a Theory of Organizational Socialization” (1979), they identified 6 major dimensions that represent how organizations approach socialization – in other words how newcomers are introduced (“onboarded”) to an organization. 

Today, as we near 2023 and leave 2022 in the rea-view mirror, companies – and HR teams – continue to battle with tweak and adjust how to adequately ensure that outsiders (candidates/new hires) successfully become insiders (employees).

There are individual-specific characteristics associated with successful group integration of course; personality, work style, value-alignment, and all the assorted behaviors are, after all, the types of individual attributes we attempt to suss out (often unsuccessfully) during the interview process.  

But from an organizational standpoint, Van Maanen and Schein identified the following 6 tactics/dimensions (in 1979!) as driving adjustment to ensure that newbies develop understanding, confidence, and acceptance. These remain a guide when planning onboarding, social acclimation and, ideally, employee satisfaction and retention:

  • Collective or individual: the degree to which newcomers share common group experiences versus individual ones
  • Formal or informal: formal tactics involve giving newcomers a set of officially prescribed and customized experiences apart from experienced employees, such as through an academy or internship, whereas informal tactics involve unplanned learning through trial and error, while working amongst experienced employees
  • Sequential or random: the degree to which newcomers progress through distinct phases
  • Fixed or variable sequencing: the degree to which the socialization process has a stated timetable
  • Serial or disjunctive: the degree to which existing workers help socialize and mentor newcomers
  • Investiture or divestiture: the degree to which a newcomer’s identity is affirmed versus stripped away

While these are all integral and must be given weight, it strikes me how “Investiture vs. Divestiture Socialization” is an indispensable component of an organization’s DEI&B lifeforce:

  • The investiture approach affirms the individual’s identity – recognizing and celebrating the personal characteristics inherent to their personality.  This occurs when organizations ask “what makes this person unique and how can we, the organization, support, empower and benefit from their skills, attitude and value?” 
  • The divestiture approach, on the other hand, disaffirms the personal identity of the newbie and requires them to eliminate, tamp down or change their personal characteristics to develop new habits (beliefs?) and a new ‘identity’ to fit in with the organization.

It’s the culture-add/culture-enhancement conversation which, over the last 5 years or so, has been “packaged” as a new and earth-shattering concept – perhaps to make the DEI&B conversations more palatable for resistant leaders? In much the same way out-of-touch companies were finally faced with dumping their dress codes when CROWN Act legislation passed?

It’s certainly worth asking when designing or revamping (or taking a good hard look at!) a company onboarding process and program:

  • “do we REALLLY welcome outsiders as they are?” or
  • “ do we strive to remold them into OUR image?”

Inclusion and belonging?  We’ll see.


Why Your Employee Engagement Tactics are Destined to Fail

engagement failure

Organizational leaders and HR professionals love tossing around the word engagement. They’re quite fond of saying things like “we need to increase our employee engagement” or “let’s do an annual survey!” or “what’s the budget for employee engagement activities?” (more on that later). We can’t fault them; the engagement industry is a bajillion dollar cottage industry loaded with HR tech solution providers, pundits and ‘thought leaders.’

Over the years however when I’ve asked leaders/HR folks “what specifically do you mean when you say these things?” they’ve usually been unable to provide an answer. (Hint: use of buzzwords does not equal strategy and successfully tossing a word-salad does not improve outcomes).

To avoid being doomed to failure, here are five issues to tackle before launching the next-great-initiative:

Issue 1: You lack a definition of “engagement”

Part of the reason is there is no common definition of engagement; it will, in fact, vary from company to company. At some organizations it means emotional commitment, It may refer to employees who care about both their own work performance and the organization. It may mean discretionary effort; employees who go-the-extra-mile. It may be as simple as “engagement at Acme Corporation means that our employees give a shit.”

Issue 2: You haven’t defined the “why”

Saying we have a focus on increasing engagement (which most of us haven’t even defined as listed above!) sounds sexy. For HR people it’s way more fun to talk about engagement as opposed to EEOC claims or employee benefits. Often missing though is the “why” – and again, this will be unique and specific to an organization.

Why is the organization focusing on this? Is it to create a better work environment? Promote trust? Increase collaboration? Drive revenue? Cut costs? It’s critical to articulate the purpose in order to fully determine if there are any realized results from the time and effort put forth.

Issue 3: You have no means/methods to measure and monitor

If you’re like lots of other organizations you run an annual survey, gather a lot of data points, slice-and-dice it (“tsk tsk; they sure have some low engagement in the warehouse!”), craft action plans, and assign a bunch of goals to Department leaders. You have monthly (maybe quarterly) meetings, talk about what activities have happened or programs have been implemented and hope and pray that 12 months from now you’ve moved the needle in an upward direction.

But are you measuring the right things? Are you reviewing the data appropriately and comparing apples to apples? Is, for example, engagement so low in the warehouse because the turnover for those jobs is 70%? What will happen next year, come survey time, when 2/3’s of the employees being surveyed are brand new?

Issue 4: You really don’t want to do the hard work

Here comes the hard part – fixing the problems. What actually has to be done to achieve engagement (however you’ve defined it) nirvana? You’ve asked the right questions (ideally) and gotten answers from employees…so now what are you going to do about it? I worked with an organization with very low (abysmal actually) pay and benefits; compensation was most assuredly, at that company, a primary driver of poor engagement.

Survey after survey, year after year, the same responses were loud and clear: “I work here because it’s close to home but I can’t survive much longer on this low pay. I just want to come in and get through my shift.”  Yet, even though this was number 1 (year after year) there was no intent to do the hard work to fix it.

Rather, as is quite common, the leaders and corporate HR team decided the answer was more “stuff and fluff.” They upped the $$ in the “engagement” budget (literally a line item in the HR Department budget) in order to purchase t-shirts in March, increase the food offerings at the annual picnic in June, and purchase fancy service award pins. Stuff and fluff.

Issue 5: You’ve decided it’s an HR issue

While the HR team may be the architects of the over-all initiatives and planning, they don’t “own” engagement. They aren’t solely responsible for improving engagement scores. (Would you believe I’ve spoken with HR Leaders who have “increase engagement scores by xx% year-over-year” as part of their performance/bonus plan while none of the managers/executives do? That’s absurd).

Any work (and it might very well be hard work) is owned across the organization with the need to do some heavy lifting firmly in the domain of managers/supervisors. As my very wise friend Paul Hebert has said “most engagement problems exist in the three feet of air between an employee and their manager.”

Train and involve your managers and then hold them accountable; they will make or break any efforts at improvement. This is not an HR program; this belongs to everyone.

Checklist for success

  1. Define engagement for your company
  2. Define why engagement is important
  3. Measure and monitor
  4. Do the hard work
  5. Remember: managers matter

You can do it!


Chaos in a Talent System


Recently, while lazily channel surfing, I watched bits and pieces of Jurassic Park for (approximately) the 372nd time. Fortunately for me they were the snippets with lots and lots of Dr. Ian Malcom action (and I think we can all agree that Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcom, not the tribe of velociraptors, is the actual star of this movie).

Ian (we’re on a first name basis) is the voice of caution in the film. As a mathematician who specializes in the branch of mathematics knows as “chaos theory” he seeks to inform the others (and the audience) how minor events can lead to unexpected consequences. As he explains:  

“It simply deals with predictability in complex systems. The shorthand

is the butterfly effect, the butterfly flaps its wings in Central Park,

you get rain in central Asia.”

In other words, understanding chaos theory means understanding that systems that appear straightforward and deterministic can still exhibit highly complicated and seemingly random long-term behavior. Something we often forget about in our organizations; especially in our talent (HR) system.

The “talent system” as I’m referring to it, means all the aspects of the employment experience that fall under the bailiwick of the HR Department. From candidate outreach to off-boarding. From work technology usage to human interaction. From messaging to written policies to the nebulousness of organizational culture. And a system, quite simply, is a collection of parts and subsystems that are highly integrated to further the achievement of an end goal. Within any system there are various inputs and numerous processes and there are also, as we know, forces (both internal and external) potentially bringing friction.

Our responsibility, as the architects or caregivers of any given component of a talent system, is to be cognizant of the fact that chaos exists; it’s neither random nor wholly arbitrary. Within any system, even when there appears to be confusion and unpredictability, there is an underlying order. There’s even a name for it within the field of strategic management: complexity theory involves the use of the study of complexity systems in order to examine uncertainty to find understanding about how organizations adapt – particularly during times of change driven by micro-events or a coaction of events.

And talent systems, even when seemingly straightforward and modeled on well-defined processes, are forever at the mercy of chaos. The most linear action is not only inter-connected, but is also at the continual mercy of the flapping of butterfly wings:

  • The solidly built employer brand and messaging to candidates can be disturbed and thrown off course during the course of the interview process once the candidate interacts with people (ineffective hiring managers), processes (so many steps… including assessments, multiple interviews and post-offer hoops-through-which-to-jump), and systems (the employment application that takes 45 minutes to complete including resume upload and the answering of essay questions)
  • The fun, lively and engaging onboarding, effectively facilitated by an effervescent HR staff member, becomes but a distant memory once the newly hired employee is working on their team and provided with contradictory information from their manager (“well yes you’ve been front-loaded with 3 weeks of PTO for the year but I won’t be able to approve any time off until you’re here for at least 6 months”)

The talent system…can collapse.

Predictable? Yes. If you’re paying attention these sorts of system disruptions are both foreseeable and changeable. Then it’s time to figure out WHY …. and focus on improvement.

Because the butterfly will always be flapping its wings.  


I’m Hesitant to Ask, But…


Over my years as an HR practitioner, in a fair number of organizations, I had employees stroll into the HR Department and start a conversation with “I’m not sure if you can get this for me, but…”

This phrase, or some variation, has often been the preface to a request for a piece of equipment or some business item necessary for the adequate performance of everyday tasks and duties: 

  • A chair without a broken leg
  • A new pair of safety goggles
  • Pens
  • A paper shredder that could handle more than 3 sheets of paper at a time (as the close-to-tears Office Clerk referenced 6 banker boxes of records she needed to shred)

Now ordering office supplies and work tools for employees is not a resume-building highlight that many fresh-faced HR professionals envision when they embark upon their HR career. (Although it is worth noting that in many small/mid-sized businesses it often falls upon the HR staff to stock the supply cabinet along with the office kitchen).

What’s more note-worthy here is when employees in larger organizations (those with a purchasing manager, a facilities team, and department leaders with budgets and company credit cards) go to HR as a last resort in order to acquire the most basic items to adequately perform their job in a safe manner.

Is it because the manager is not paying attention to the work environment in which employees are toiling? Perhaps the manager is telling staff members there’s no budget to update equipment until (if it’s approved) 7 months from now.? Or maybe, as is common, there are numerous hoops to jump through – and 5 signatures required – to place an order for tools and equipment.

So employees do the best they can with the items at hand. Sometimes with disastrous results. “I didn’t think I could ask for…”

  • A new can opener for the office lunch room (replacement cost to company = $1.00 from the Dollar General located next door). In the absence of a can opener and, apparently in her eagerness to adequately caffeinate her office mates, Bridget felt it would be perfectly A-OK to use a butcher knife to open a can of coffee. The knife (hello Captain Obvious) slipped, she sliced her hand open, and Bridget ended up taking a delightful trip to the ER where she received stitches, pain medication, and, perhaps, a lollipop.
  • A 2-drawer filing cabinet to replace the cabinet purchased in 1989 (replacement cost to company = $49.95 at the local office supply store). The 1989 relic had jagged metal edges running along the tops of the drawers that had not closed in a functional manner for 20+ years. Ellen cut her hand while attempting to close a drawer and bled all over the A/P files.
  • A new set of protective coveralls (replacement cost to company = $7.00 in the company supply shop). Because Karl did not wear appropriate protective gear (i.e. without holes and with workable elastic bands at wrists and ankles) he became sensitized to the chemicals in the environment, developed an allergy (and an absolutely disgusting rash), was moved to permanent partial disability status, and lost his job.  Note:  Karl was fully authorized to pop in to the supply shop – every day – and get a new set of coveralls.

Now these 3 situations were obviously safety issues which, with hindsight and information in hand, led to various operational improvements – and some performance discussions with assorted shift supervisors/managers/HSE staff on the “coverall” one.

But there’s a lesson here for HR practitioners about paying attention to the basic operational efficiencies (or inefficiencies as the case may be) in one’s organization. One of our responsibilities, I strongly believe, is to remove obstacles and roadblocks that get in the way of employees doing their best work.

Sometimes an employee may pop into the HR office or send an email with a question. At other times, while wandering the building or having conversations with people in other parts of the business, HR staff will hear stories or comments that may, seemingly, have nothing to do with HR’s responsibilities (“What a pain in the ass; I’ve been waiting over a month for my expense reimbursement!”).

But you know what? That’s a golden opportunity for HR folks to wield their internal influence and raise an issue, work to resolve the problem, and remove the obstacle that’s negatively impacting the employees’ work experience.

And think about it…

If Joe in the Mail room is afraid to ask for a new stamp-licking squeegee bottle so he can get the mail out on time, do you seriously think he’s going to report fraud, harassment, or any of the other things we tell him to bring to our attention?

So what’s the real deal at your company?  I’m hesitant to ask, but…


My HR “Customer” Experience

employee experience

I recently started a new job (sort of; my company was acquired) and, for the first time in my working career, I am NOT a member of the HR staff.

I don’t have to worry about learning the employee benefit offerings inside-out. I’m not wondering when I’m going to have to conduct my first employee investigation. (note: at a previous gig I had to kick-off a Sexual Harassment investigation at 1 PM on Day One of my employment tenure. #GoodTimes). I’m not worried about expeditiously memorizing every policy in the Employee Handbook. (confession: I’ve been feeling so carefree that I didn’t even read the Employee Handbook, in its entirety, until several weeks after my start date!)

This atypical experience has been simultaneously rejuvenating and surreal.

I don’t have to, as a new hire, observe my HR team to discern how cultural norms, procedures, and historical precedents dictate the inner workings of people operations. I’m not privy to the decision-making that has informed “why” the company has XX number of holidays or “how” employees are socialized and acclimated to the organization.

I am, instead, merely a willing recipient of HR’s services. I’m a new vessel, fresh off the OnBoarding Assembly Line, into which the People & Culture team is pouring information and assistance. I dutifully open all their emails, follow their directions immediately (“it’s time to enroll in your benefits!”), and attend every informational session and meeting whether mandatory or not. I’m fully immersed (I love this stuff!) into the values and culture and community aspects;I was posting on a Yammer community by day 3.

I think, if I do say so myself, I’m a great HR customer.

And it’s really confirmed something I’ve long believed – every HR professional, preferably at an early stage of their career (unlike me), needs to join a company in a non-HR role. When I think about peers and friends who work in HR I realize that the vast majority have always worked in human resources. Lots of them came out of school, landed a gig in HR, and have never gotten off the treadmill.

I get it. It’s a profession. And we’ve battled – seemingly for decades – for HR to be acknowledged as a profession. We’ve grown our HR careers by switching back-and-forth from generalist to specialist roles or moving up the ladder/criss-crossing the lattice from Coordinator to HRBP to Director to VP. There are some (many?) who say “HR is my calling; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” There are others who are content, comfortable and possess a soupcon of complacency (I get that too!) and don’t want to try something else.


… how can we, the individuals in charge of designing and nurturing the environment for employees to be successful, truly understand the “employee experience” if we’ve never…well…EXPERIENCED “work” as an employee?

How many HR professionals have ever:

  • been subjected to their own HR-devised Attendance Point Policy?
  • had to navigate Benefit Enrollment without fully understanding the difference between co-pay and co-insurance?
  • held off on making plans as they’ve wondered if the company will close early on December 24th, like they have for the last decade, because HR refuses to memorialize it as an official “company holiday” (even though it sure seems to be one).
  • tried to figure out WHAT, exactly, “performance calibration” means and HOW in the world it seems to be the only explanation provided when annual performance increases are announced?
  • wondered how transfers and promotions happen for others yet they never seem to even get an interview (or a response) when applying for an internal move?

It’s the quintessential dictum isn’t it? “Put yourself in their shoes.”

Personally, I think I look quite styling in my new pair of pumps loafers flip flops.  

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