You walk into a new company for your first day on the job. You’re a bit nervous, but mostly excited. You liked the people you interviewed with. You’ve heard good things about the company. Your new position aligns with your previous work experience, and you’re confident in your ability to get the job done.
Often, though, by the end of that first day, even in the best of situations, your confidence has faded. It’s not because you can’t do the work. It’s not because you don’t like the work. And it’s not even because you don’t like the people.
It is often because you do not speak the language. Organizations, like any other group of people, have the habit of adopting cultural norms over time—a way that they do things, a language that they speak.
To outsiders, it can feel like all of a sudden being transported to a dinner table of a family that you have never met. They have nicknames for each other. They use words to describe things that do not appear to be part of the English language.
They have inside jokes that they find unrelentingly funny, that you do not find funny at all. They understand what goes where and know what is going to happen next.
To a new person, the experience of walking into that can be disarming, and it can make you feel like you have maybe ended up in the wrong place. And though there are times when that may be the case, it is more often simply the fact that we, as human beings, have a relatively bad track record of making outsiders feel welcome. It is human nature to form groups and to then protect those groups from outsiders, a holdover from when we really did have life-threatening things to defend ourselves against.
As kids, we use that practice to defend our treehouses and cafeteria tables, and unless our parents drilled into us the notion of welcoming new people and making a point of talking to the person no one else is talking to, we often bring those same habits with us to work.
The problem with creating work environments that are difficult for newcomers to penetrate is that integration impeded by cultural barriers and jargon is incredibly inefficient and can cost the organization time and money. If new employees have to spend their time trying to decipher the language, figuring out who does what, and understanding what processes they’re supposed to follow, all before they are able to actually settle in and do their job, no one benefits.
So, how do you avoid this?
The first step is to build a “Hi, how are you?” culture. I have been in the offices of multiple organizations where I am walking around—as a stranger—and no one seems to care that I am there. There is barely any recognition of my existence. What if I was a new employee? How would I feel that no one cared that I was walking around, potentially lost?
Some organizations with the best customer service in the world train their people to simply acknowledge the presence of someone else with eye contact and a smile, and if the person is very close by, to say “Hi, how are you?” Implementing something similar would go a long way to making new employees (and anyone else who enters your office) feel welcome.
The second step is to write things down. Organizations suffer when all of their processes, procedures, and practices are located only within their employees’ heads. Writing things down—everything from a list of clients and vendors to a comprehensive guide to who does what—can give new employees something to review and reference so that they can gain a faster understanding of how the organization works.
A significant piece of this work can be accomplished in the underlying structure of how you set up your process of onboarding new employees. Existing employees can act as guides to new ones, looping them them into your organization’s lunch habits or afternoon runs for frozen yogurt. If there are traditions or inside jokes that exist for a specific reason, but might seem strange or even offensive to outsiders (does everyone boo, for instance, anytime a certain question is asked in a meeting?), tell new employees about these quirks of the organization early, so they don’t feel like they are being hazed into understanding what is going on.
After a few weeks or months, ask your new employees what they found most confusing when they started. What parts of the organization’s infrastructure and relationships were most difficult to navigate? Actively gathering this feedback and integrating it can serve to prevent an organization from creating a culture in which being onboarded as a new employee feels like you are navigating a minefield.
Finally, do regular jargon audits. Take internal documents to a few people you can trust who are outside of your organization and do not know much about your business. Ask them if they can decipher what your documents and acronyms mean. Ask them if they understand them. If they can’t, than you might have a problem with jargon. Sometimes, yes, you do have to use technical terms that the layperson may not understand, but for the most part, we would all be better off by reducing how much of a secret language our organizations speak.
A version of this article originally appeared on The Press-Enterprise. It has been published here with permission.