Guest Column

The Stupid Period

by PATRICIA A. NUGENT

N-e-w-k-i-d. That’s the password I typed every morning to get into my school district computer. I did that to reassure myself I wasn’t stupid, just new at the job.

Why did I need reassurance? I was a seasoned central-office administrator who had recently retired after a successful career in one district and subsequently accepted an interim position elsewhere. I knew the work that had to be done and understood the regulations governing my department. I never expected to feel insecure.

But I did because I didn’t understand the culture of the new organization. I found myself floundering to fit in, to act like everyone else. I was aware I was doing things differently but didn’t know how to self-correct.

A Style Difference
One day I received an invitation to a birthday celebration in my building. Oh good, I thought. I can do birthday parties. I know how those work, at least. And off I trotted, only to find that I didn’t know how birthday parties worked in my new school district.

As I sat there, I realized I was the only one who hadn’t brought a birthday card with a lottery ticket inside. As each card was opened and each contributor thanked, I felt more and more stupid. Why hadn’t I asked someone? I chastised myself. The answer is now obvious to me: You don’t know what you don’t know when you are new to an organization.

We can train a new hire on the mechanics of the job, but teaching them the culture is a much more elusive task. Because those immersed in the culture can’t easily explain it or identify what makes it unique. Research indicates that the primary reason new hires fail is a lack of understanding of the culture (interpreted by others as a lack of respect for the culture), yet that culture can be indecipherable to “newbies” for a long time. Meanwhile, they make stupid mistakes and, hence, feel and look stupid.

In many ways, it’s like visiting a foreign country and being conversant in the language but violating the social mores. For instance, in meetings at my former school district, everyone just spoke up. At my new district, attendees raised their hands and were called on before speaking. At my former district, adults used first names to address or speak of someone. At my new district, titles were consistently used. Neither practice is better — it’s simply a style difference. And style is difficult to codify.

Imparting Culture
I know I unwittingly violated the informal rules of my new culture in these and other instances. I was a stranger in their land, still employing customs from my native country. I was trying to assimilate at the same time I was performing the technical aspects of my role. It was a struggle to do both, especially since my self-concept was suffering from feeling stupid.

The irony is that as director of human resources, I had been responsible for new employee orientations for years. I knew enough to warn new hires they would feel stupid for awhile and not to get discouraged.

However, following my experience as a “new kid,” I would now emphasize some things more than others. I’d concentrate more on explaining the culture of the organization, such as unwritten rules, informal practices, professional etiquette, priorities, shortcuts and pet peeves. For instance, what do you say when you answer the phone? Is it OK to correct student papers during a faculty meeting? Do you address parents by first names or titles? Where do you get and eat lunch?

And my new personal favorite: How are birthdays celebrated?

Mentors are an important source of this cultural information because current employees know how things really work. They can model survival tips and reinforce expectations in a nonjudgmental way.

Another good way to discern what new hires need to know is to ask one-year veterans to tell you what they wished they’d known going in. I scheduled end-of-year reunions for all those who started together and survived to talk about it. Their feedback was priceless to the organization and, consequently, to the new hires who followed. We never again wanted someone eating lunch in her car because she didn’t know where else to go.

Full Orientation
Culture is pervasive, affecting all classifications of employees, and everyone needs to understand the same culture (although there are cultures within cultures — ask any teacher who has transferred schools within the same district). Therefore, all new employees benefit from a comprehensive orientation program. I made it a practice to orient all new hires together, to build collegiality among groups and to help break down the caste-like barriers that too often exist in public education.

Administrators and support staff also should be assigned mentors (or at least “buddies”). How do custodians, for example, know whether they should break up a fight in the hall or go get the principal?

Because new employees arrive all year long, and it’s generally harder to pick up the rhythm midyear, an ongoing orientation program is also essential to a new hire’s success.

All new hires will still live through a Stupid Period — we can’t avoid that. But we can shorten it, hasten competence and improve retention by offering a comprehensive orientation program that imparts the unspoken, unwritten rules of the -organization.

Patricia Nugent is a human resources and communication consultant in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. E-mail: pnwired@verizon.net