Three ways companies undermine new employees (and how they can stop)

New hires already face a daunting array of challenges while they get up to speed. Companies can help by actively encouraging them to chime in

 
Two colleagues conferring at a laptop

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If you’ve ever worked in a single workplace for more than a few years, you’ve probably experienced the onboarding of a new employee. In many cases, the addition is a welcome relief, a sign of hope that the existing mountain of obligations may begin to subside. But in other cases, news of a new employee brings dread, and worries that the newbie will actually mean more work for us—“Oh great! Now I have to watch someone screw everything up!”

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Worries regarding the naivety of the new employee are sometimes justified, but we also need to be careful not to prejudge new hires unfairly. New employees, while often lacking expertise in the specific new role they are taking on, will also often bring to the workplace other knowledge that can be very beneficial. A fresh university graduate may show up armed with knowledge of the latest research. A hire from the firm across the street my bring knowledge of workplace innovations. Nevertheless, new hires often face discrimination based just on the fact that they’re new. And that’s often a practical mistake, as well as being unfair. As Oxford trained CUNY philosopher Miranda Fricker has pointed out, knowledge-based injustice can take several forms, all of which are relevant to the case of the new hire.  Here are three common attitudes we see toward new employees that can hinder their integration into the team.

1. “We doubt what they say they know”

In some cases, we may unjustly doubt the truth or accuracy of what a new hire says. While a healthy-skepticism of ideas brought forward in the workplace can be a useful form of critical thinking, there is a risk that the skepticism toward the new employee is unnecessarily severe, simply based on the employee’s newness. We should be careful not to disregard what might be a new cutting-edge perspective, based merely on the assumption that the new person lacks knowledge. This is especially dangerous where such prejudice holds back novel or innovative perspectives that may be beneficial to the company.

2. “We exclude them from the conversation”

Every business has its own jargon, and often its own alphabet soup of acronyms. Depending on the background of the new employee, they may be unfamiliar with that jargon when starting in their new position. Employing an abundance of jargon that you can’t reasonably expect the new employee to know can be an unjust method of excluding them from discussion. It can inhibit their ability work, and prevent them from feeling valued as an intelligent contributor to the team.

3. “We deny their ability to make decisions and take action”

Not only are we systematically prejudiced against new employees based on what we think they know, we may also treat them unjustly as people who can decide and do things.

On one hand, the new employee’s lack of knowledge makes them an easy scapegoat. If something goes wrong, the easy answer is to say, “It must have been the new person”. In another instances, we may unjustly doubt their ability to carry out the work appropriately—“Don’t let him make this sales pitch; he doesn’t know what he’s doing”. Finally, we may doubt the new employee’s ability to decide what course of action is best—“Don’t take Diane’s advice on that investment, she just got here.”

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This is not to say that it’s always unjust to be hesitant to put our faith in a new hire. New people are, well, new, and they can’t always be expected to hit the ground running. The problem is when we get lazy, and implicitly assume that “new” means “stupid,” or when we make assumptions rather than simply asking newbies how much they know. Even a fresh grad may have practiced persuasive argumentation in courses and during a co-op, and may have exceptional sales skills. Or perhaps the knowledge they have about a new statistical method that you are unaware of demonstrates that a particular investment actually is the best course of action. In these cases, prejudging the new employee simply because they are new is not only bad for the company, but can have a significant impact on the employee’s self esteem as well.

Michael Baumtrog teaches ethics and critical thinking at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, and is a Research Fellow at the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre. Chris MacDonald is Director of the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre, and co-author of the Concise Encyclopedia of Business Ethics.

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