A plea – treat young, new employees well

A real bee in my bonnet (well, I have several, but we needn’t get into the whole hive now) is how poorly some workplaces treat young, fresh-from-school-or-university new employees. I cringe when I hear some young peoples’ stories. I’ve heard their experiences of either being shouted at or largely ignored in the workplace. I’ve listened to tales of hours of work or duties changed without discussion or negotiation. I’ve heard too, of instances of minimal instruction or training being given with the expectation to perform as if fully trained and experienced. I’ve heard too, in some sectors, of the expectation that new, young employees will supervise others, despite them having little or no real experience to draw on. I’ve heard of new employees having their contributions dismissed because of their age, inexperience or the value (or lack of) placed on their qualifications.

I cringe because those examples reflect less-than-ideal practices. I cringe because those first real working experiences for new employees are so formative. Why shouldn’t young, new employees be treated with respect?

Can you remember your experience of starting your first significant part-time or full time job? Remember what it felt like – the heady mix of enthusiasm, excitement, expectation and nerves? Can you remember what your first day, week and month on the job was like? Was it a positive or negative learning experience? How long did it take you to discover the unspoken rules and workplace norms? How long to suss out the people to avoid and the topics never to discuss ? What was your best and worst experience of being the new kid on the block?

Let’s face it. The first employment experience is generally a big shock to the system. The straight-from-schools leave behind a six hour on-site day and about twelve weeks holiday per year. The straight-from-universities transition is from a variable number of hours on-site and an academic working year that’s about 32 weeks duration, all up. By comparison, the workplace is so different and requires some getting used to, both physically and mentally. Think of it – the horrors of set start and finish times; an 8 hour day; set break times and, after first working forty nine weeks straight, three weeks holiday per year, with only the odd statutory thrown in for light relief.

Then there is all the Other to contend with – the actual job to learn; the organisational language and culture to grasp; the formal rules and regulations to follow. There’s the obvious workplace ‘norms’ to conform to and there’s the subtleties to identify and adapt to. You know, the things like ‘X is the boss of the section, but for everything that matters, go to X instead’ or, ‘you never sit at ‘that’ table in the staff room – that’s only for @@’s’ (yes, this still happens in some places).

But wait – there’s more! It’s also the introduction (hopefully) to professional and ethical practices; to personal responsibilities and accountabilities to the employer, colleagues and clients. It’s learning about the appropriateness of boundaries between personal and professional relationships. It’s the first major opportunity to learn how manager’s manage and how ‘things’ are done. And so the list goes on.

Newcomers can take months to settle into their job and to develop confidence in themselves and in their place in the scheme of things. Newcomers are ‘vulnerable’ therefore, because of their newness, their lack of working and life experiences and the number of different yet interconnected learning experiences they must absorb within a short time.

And my plea? Please treat young, new employees well. You can give them a positive start to their working lives by ensuring your organisation has a formal induction process. You can ensure newcomers are trained or coached on-the-job by experienced people who model the attitudes, values, behaviours and approach you want reflected. You can place support systems around the newcomer – a manager or supervisor who is interested in their development and regular ‘how’s it going and anything you need help with?’ checks. You can provide a ‘buddy’, someone to introduce the subtle workplace ways that tend to be outside the formal organisational systems and procedures. You can increase their responsibilities after first ensuring they have had adequate training and experience. You can provide a listening ear (or two, if you must), a guiding hand and wise counsel, if you see newcomers heading into difficulties. Don’t let them struggle or drown if you can avoid it.

Keep in mind too, that the newcomers today are the business owners and other professionals of tomorrow. Consider the words of Wilson Mizner who once said ‘be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on the way down’.

First Published in NZ Business May 2000

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