By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a new study, corporate onboarding programs designed to imbue new recruits with the cultural values of the organization can backfire if they don’t also take into account the unique traits and skills each employee brings to the company.

The study, a new Harvard Business School working paper, explains how “socialization leads to more effective employment relationships when newcomers can express their personal identities from the start.”

The authors, Dan Cable, London Business School, Francesca Gino, Harvard University, and Brad Staats, University of North Carolina, believe that companies can build better, longer-term relationships with employees when the socialization process focuses on authenticity and personal values.

They write:

“…successful socialization results in productive, committed employees who are excited to come to work and proud of their role in helping their organization advance. We found surprisingly large and valuable changes in employees’ quality and retention by making relatively small investments in socialization practices that focus on newcomers’ personal identities.”

In fact, the research shows that when cultural socialization programs encourage new employees to showcase their authentic personalities and skills, they are more likely to stick around in the long run. Additionally, by focusing on individual strengths, companies could also build a reputation that enables them to attract high performing employees who value the opportunity to express themselves authentically.

Onboarding and Corporate Socialization

When it comes to the corporate space, socialization is a process by which companies express their values and culture to new recruits, with the goal of ensuring the new employees take on these values. “Research has confirmed that the more institutionalized socialization tactics are, the greater the post-entry value congruence between newcomers and organizations,” they write.

But, according to the researchers, when individuals are ignored in the onboarding process, tension is created at an already stressful time, and this can drive conflicts. They explain:

“Given that organizations are made up of people, and many people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, the human drive for authenticity creates a basic tension for organizations. On one hand, employers can address employees’ essential yearning for authentic self-expression, helping them articulate, project, and exercise their distinctive perspectives and strengths at work. On the other hand, organizations need to ensure continuity and control: they need their employees to behave in certain ways and express particular emotions in order to be productive and succeed in the market.”

But companies can work with human need for self-expression and authenticity to create more engaged and more productive employees. In observational and laboratory experiments, the researchers found, by appealing to new employees’ personal strengths, organizations could make the onboarding process more positive and more effective.

Balancing Tension

Even though research shows that focusing on employee authenticity can create stronger relationships and improve productivity, companies are largely ignoring this factor when it comes to the onboarding process. They note, “Both existing research and anecdotal evidence suggest that it is rare for organizations to take an authenticity perspective to socialization, despite the fact that it increases employees’ commitment to the organization and improves the quality of their work.”

In practice, building authenticity into the socialization practice wouldn’t be very costly or require significant other resources. They suggest building in time for newcomers to answer questions about their identity, like “What three words describe you as an individual?” or “What is unique about you that leads to your happiest times and best performance at work?”

They could also be encouraged to create a “personal highlights reel” or discuss their proudest personal and professional achievements with the group. “Giving newcomers the opportunity to present themselves to new colleagues in their best light allows them to affirm their self-integrity in a new setting and construct a social identity around their unique strengths,” they explain.

Finally, the authors point out, a keener focus on cultivating employee authenticity may help companies attract new employees as well. They say, “Our research indicates that when organizations balance this tension – or even better, use it to stand out among other employers – they appear to have gained a sustained competitive advantage.”