He’s freezing me out, Hema. I don’t know how to get to him at all. He’s great with my subordinates and always accessible to them, but not to me. I’m giving it everything. But at this rate, I’ll throw the towel in. I don’t see myself for long here if that’s how my boss treats me.” He was a new hire, wooed with much perseverance and brought in with even more fanfare. And yet two weeks into the job he was already a potential casualty.
“Infant Mortality”—that’s what they are rather callously labelled, those who come in and quit within maybe a year. The term when you first hear it, almost always has a “shock effect”. Yet as you mull over it, it seems rather apt. The malaise is a common one, especially in boom years; also a reality at all times for competent folk—since they usually have more than one offer in hand when they shift around. And so it is something most smart organizations would do well to track. Statistics and surveys will bear me out. Studies by several organizations—Monster.com, The Wynhurst Group and Leadership IQ, to name a few—have at various points of time highlighted interesting trends on this theme: “6.2 months: The break-even point for new managers”, “46% of rookies wash out in their first 18 months” and “22% of staff turnover occurs in the first 45 days of employment”.
Once “Infant Mortality” strikes, companies are quick to lay the blame. Candidates are fickle, rue most managers; or mercenary. “They use their new titles and compensation to negotiate better deals or even in some cases a strategic location change; or to negotiate a plumier position in the same vicinity, said a “disgruntled with his latest hire’s slippery shoes” CEO to me. Yes, of course, that could be true, but what about the glaring organizational reasons that lead to assimilation disasters? It has always intrigued me—having gone all out and recruited, much as you would conduct a courting ritual, why do organizations then display a cavalier attitude towards the newbie once she or he is in, avoiding the critical follow-through to settle and assimilate them?
Here’s my list of the top “Infant Mortality” triggers—organization initiated...
The ‘in a hurry to hand off’ boss
Unfortunately, in most cases the fault squarely lies with the boss. Tired probably after all the wooing and courtship, he sighs, “I’ve broken enough bread with the candidate, converting him from a prospect into another hand on deck. Surely the silken threads of compensation are strong enough now to secure him fast to the company. Let him fend for himself and find his way around the organization.” The stratagem may work, but yet again it may not. Rudderless and set adrift too soon, the new hire may lurch his way to the exit gate, especially if there is no one into whose safe hands the boss can safely pass the assimilation baton to...
...Or there are no structured, formal or informal on-boarding rituals
Echoing what many of us probably knew instinctively, an Egon Zehnder International study, Executive On-boarding: How to Settle in a New Hire, 2007, said: “Many companies leave executive on-boarding to chance, and as a result experience failure rates in excess of 50% when it comes to retaining new executive talent.” New employee “turn off” litanies are many, with the top of the list being voluminous form filling on the first day in an empty room down a lonely hallway. Desperate hunts for a workspace while the incumbent waits endlessly at the reception, or worse still, is assigned to sit in a hall or cafeteria and delays in getting technology enablers are other common woes. Feeling unwanted, the employee ponders and sometimes makes good her/his escape.
The ‘let’s neuter the new incumbent’ agenda
Threatened by a “foreign object” in the work ecosystem, peers and subordinates may be eager to trip newcomers, at key meetings, hoarding data or excluding the new persons from the office social circle. But the unkindest cut of all is when the boss herself freezes out the new person. Why, begs the question? “Primarily, insecurity related to whether the new hire will overtake the incumbent boss” is the considered view. If by chance the actual hiring has not been done by the reporting manager himself but by a far-sighted Skip, then insecurity quotients skyrocket and the manager is out for the kill. A CEO I once knew, pulled out every trick in the trade to oust the very same deputy he had so assiduously wooed and hired, once he realized that his tenure on the throne would be short-lived should his prized hire succeed.
The traditional screen-saver conundrum
Or to put it another way, surprises of the unpleasant kind. These can come packaged in a variety of ways—a traditional structured environment to a chaotic cauldron, a curve ball in the form of a new, not earlier promised boss (or hierarchical placing in the organization chart), a new set of job specs, some key changes in a promised compensation package or a mismatch of values and culture; even north-south divides and top-line versus bottom-line focus have been known to drive many a new incumbent away. Some of these may be because an overeager prospect glossed over the details in her hurry to crest the recruitment tape, but conversely many may have been the outcome of a deliberate hard sell by recruiters to make the promised land more rosier than it deserves.
Sometimes the ground shifts beneath your feet
Even though the organization didn’t intend it that way. A sudden restructuring which no one saw coming is unveiled and you are stuck with a different chain of command or a reduced set of responsibilities. Or God forbid, as one of my good friends will tell you of the “disappearing” chain of command he personally experienced within six months of joining—one boss who had to leave, another who was “RiFfed” (reduction in force’ed, or downsized, for the uninitiated), and a third who was lost to the “great beyond”.
And finally the ‘siren call of old shores’
For that place which one earlier called a home away from home. The extra financial equity of new pastures may be no match for this pull and if that siren call is augmented with a good dose of the Family Fatale’s wails—significant other and sulking offspring combined—then it is very difficult to ignore indeed.
So to get your “Infant Mortality” stats right, walk arm in arm with the new entrant as he learns the ropes and follow David Zinger’s advice, aptly put in his book Assorted Zingers:
The new guy
down the hall
needs to learn
how we do
things around here.
We’ll train him
without a course
by rolling eyes,
banter at lunch, and
afternoon chocolate bribes.
He’ll fit in,
won’t make waves
and tread lightly
around cultural cubicles.
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.