Onboarding New Employees with Social Learning

Onboarding New Employees with Social Learning

The field of psychology is ripe with revelations for human resources managers. (See our previous post on unconscious bias in hiring to learn more about how to recruit using psychology.) One of the most interesting aspects of psychological influences is that they are constantly affecting us, whether it’s intentional or unintentional. So how can HR representatives mindfully leverage these influences?

Social learning theory, proposed by renowned psychologist Albert Bandura, is the idea that people learn through observation. In his famous Bobo doll experiments, some children observed adults beating and punching a blow-up doll. The children in the control group saw adults playing with other toys and ignoring the doll. When it was time for the kids to play with the toys, 90% of the children who had observed the adults behaving aggressively imitated that behavior. They learned to be abusive towards the doll by seeing and imitating what others had done.

While this is a study on aggression, the principle can be applied to practically any scenario. Even if you’ve never held a football, you could make a reasonable attempt at throwing it because you’ve seen others do it on television. Humans learn through observation, especially in unfamiliar scenarios. And in the workplace, onboarding new employees is one such scenario. To understand how one can apply the theory of social learning to new employee onboarding, we need to understand the basics of the theory.

How Do People Learn?

Bandura posits that behaviors are learned in three ways: verbal instruction, live models, and symbolism. When onboarding new employees, the first two are going to be the only factors you can affect. Here are some ways each might influence the success of your onboarding program.

Verbal Instruction

These are the directions you give when onboarding new employees. Although Bandura limits these instructions to those given verbally, written instructions would likely fall under this umbrella as well. It’s possible, however, that verbal onboarding might be more effective than simply handing your new employee a stack of booklets on corporate culture and expected job duties.

Live Models

This is the behavior your new employee sees on an everyday basis, both during ‘official’ onboarding and beyond. The way your employees act, the culture they promote, and the attitude and dynamic around the office is self-perpetuating. With reinforcement, your new employees will imitate the behaviors of your veterans, eventually coming to identify with them. Identification, in this case, means that your new employees take on the attitudes, behaviors, values, and even beliefs of those around them.

Necessary Conditions

Of course, we don’t adopt every behavior we see, hear, or read about. What determines which behaviors we imitate, and which we ignore? Two factors especially relevant for new employee onboarding are attention and retention. Ask yourself these questions when planning your new employee onboarding program:

  • Is this skill relevant?
  • Does this employee already know how to do this?
  • How important is this skill for the fulfillment of job duties? Your new employee is not likely to attend to and retain knowledge about the minutiae of, for example, filing, if it isn’t a critical skill.
  • How complex is this skill?
  • Are there opportunities for the new employee to repeat back or demonstrate what he or she has learned?

Reinforcement also plays a major role. During the new employee onboarding process, stress the consequences of something like harassment. To the extent that you can, use actual examples. Seeing and hearing about someone who was actively reprimanded for a poor choice reiterates the importance of these policies for your new hire.

Positive reinforcement is also a great motivator. Do you have a ‘Wall of Fame’ for your greatest employees? Do you brag about the success stories of others? Motivate new hires to imitate certain behaviors, actions, and attitudes by consistently rewarding those characteristics.

Intrinsic reinforcement includes the pride and sense of accomplishment your new hire gets from seeing his or her own success. By the time you’re in the new employee onboarding phase, you have little control over this type of reinforcement. During the hiring process, though, you can screen candidates to learn more about what makes them tick to seek out new hires who are intrinsically motivated.

How Does This Change New Employee Onboarding?

Awareness of social learning theory broadens the scope of employee onboarding. It doesn’t just take place through the verbal instructions you’ve given a new hire, or through the onboarding software you use. Your new employees – and, in fact, your entire workforce – are immersed in your corporate culture. If the employees at your company aren’t living your values and seeing their efforts rewarded, your new hires will adopt less-than-positive behaviors. Over time, quality and performance go downhill. Counteract this by creating an onboarding program and a culture that teaches and rewards. In this way, you’ve got nowhere to go but up.