Organizational Socialization

Organizational SocializationOrganizational socialization describes how people learn to fit into a new organization or job. It is a process by which an individual learns appropriate attitudes, behaviors, and knowledge associated with a particular role in an organization. The general theory asserts that people who are well socialized into an organization are more likely to stay and develop their careers with that organization. This is a critical process for individuals pursuing successful careers and for organizations building effective workforces. Every year in the United States, around 3 million people graduate from high school and 2 million people earn college degrees. Most will begin looking for jobs and organizations that will provide satisfying careers. However, for many new and established employees, the fit between themselves and their organizations is better described as a misfit. About 2 million people voluntarily quit their jobs in the United States every month. This figure does not include retirements, deaths, or disability reasons for quitting, and most of these people will try again to look for new jobs and satisfying careers.

Building a competent workforce, one where people believe they fit in well with their organizations, is often viewed as a competitive edge in today’s business. For organizations, a competent and committed workforce minimizes costly turnover and selection expenses. Moreover, individual employee attributes associated with successful organizational socialization can accumulate across the organization to positively affect organizational performance and effectiveness. Organizational socialization is a primary process to facilitate work adjustment for new employees or for employees taking on new roles.

For individuals, a good fit within the organization can lead to several positive benefits. People who are well socialized are more committed to their organizations, more satisfied with their jobs, and earn more than people who don’t learn to fit in with their organizations. Furthermore, people who are well socialized are less likely to quit their jobs and more likely to build successful careers within the organization. The extent to which both organizational and individual socialization processes support a good person-organization fit will define the extent to which that individual has been successfully socialized.

Who is Socialized in Organizations?

Typically, organizational socialization concerns how new hires adjust to a new job and organization, and these people are generally described as organizational newcomers. However, the process by which an individual learns appropriate attitudes and behaviors applies to anyone who faces a new job. Thus many employees who have been promoted or transferred within their current organization will also need to adjust to their new roles. Organizational newcomers generally have more to learn than job changers, because they need to adjust to both a specific job and an organizational culture, so most of the research on organizational socialization focuses on organizational newcomers.

When an individual begins a job at a new organization, that person may already have some expectations of what the job and organization will be like. Some of these expectations may be realistic (e.g., “I will work from 9:00 to 5:00”), whereas other expectations may be unrealistic (e.g., “Top managers will adopt all my suggestions”). Furthermore, as the individual begins work, early experiences will meet some expectations (e.g., “I expected to work in teams and I was assigned to a team”), but other expectations will not be met (e.g., “I did not expect some of my team members to be difficult to work with”). Many newcomers experience reality shock when their expectations are unmet, regardless of how unrealistic those expectations may be. Newcomers who experience these surprises would try to make sense of them. Based on their own predispositions and past experiences, and based on how others within and outside the organization interpret these surprises, the sense-making process can help a newcomer resolve unmet expectations. Individuals whose sense making complements the organization are more likely to stay with that organization (e.g., “Top management did not adopt my suggestion because they saw problems I didn’t foresee”). Individuals whose sense making attaches negative attributes to the organization are more likely to quit their jobs (e.g., “Top management did not adopt my suggestion because they are closed minded and stupid”).

Although most of the research in organizational socialization examines organizational newcomers, many established employees also undergo socialization processes as their jobs change. Obviously, employees who are transferred to new locations or to new business units need to learn how to fit in with their new job demands. Global organizations are constantly moving their personnel around in order to maximize the capacity of their human resources. Less obvious are the socialization needs of employees who might stay in their positions but experience organizational changes around them. Employees with new managers might have to adjust to a different vision for the business unit. New technologies may render old ways obsolete and demand adjustments from established employees. Finally, organizational mergers and acquisitions may force new values and work processes on established employees, requiring them to adjust and fit in with the new order. Thus organizational socialization is a relevant issue for any individual faced with substantial job or organizational changes.

How the Organizational Socialization Process Unfolds

The organizational socialization process unfolds within human resource management processes.

Recruitment and selection systems identify candidates who are considered for employment and those who are eventually hired. These processes are often designed to hire a particular type of person who will fit into the organization. Furthermore, recruitment and selection activities are often first-contact experiences for the newcomer and organization; they help shape initial expectations each has about the other.

There are several stage models of organizational socialization; each describes evolving experiences of newcomers as they adjust to a new job/organization. Most of these models describe three basic stages, beginning with anticipatory socialization, entry-encounter experiences, and ending with change and mutual acceptance. The anticipatory socialization stage describes how early job/organization expectations are shaped as a person selects and prepares for a particular career. Career choices are often based on rough ideas or expectations of what that career will be like. For example, a person’s family, teachers, and friends might share their experiences and influence an individual to choose a career in business. Preparation for this career might include a university’s masters of business administration program. Faculty and fellow students can further shape this person’s initial job expectations even before the person has applied for a job. Furthermore, managers and recruiters can help a job candidate form specific expectations about an organization and the candidate’s role within that organization. The extent to which these expectations are met on the job will define the amount of adjustment required to successfully fit into the organization.

The second stage of socialization typically includes early learning and adjustments after organizational entry. The newcomer learns how to do the job as well as how to fit into the organization’s culture. This learning stage includes the sense-making process that helps the newcomer reconcile unmet expectations and surprises. Organizations can conduct formal orientation and training programs to help newcomers learn how work is conducted in the organization. In addition, informal learning occurs on the job as the newcomer observes and solicits information from superiors, peers, and subordinates. These informal lessons may reinforce formal organizational procedures (e.g., a secretary reminds you to be on time for your department meeting) or they may introduce informally acceptable behaviors that are not sanctioned by the organization (e.g., a coworker tells you that it’s OK to call in sick if you need a personal day off).

The final stage of socialization generally recognizes successful adjustment as an organizational newcomer is transformed into an organizational insider. Insiders have learned the ropes to fit in and can serve as valuable resources of information for future newcomers. Organizations may hold initiation ceremonies or rites of passage to signify that a newcomer is no longer a rookie or recruit but a full-fledged member of the organization. Although most of the research on organizational socialization centers on newcomers, some studies recognize that insiders can learn more about their own roles as they socialize newcomers or as newcomers precipitate shifts in role expectations for insiders.

Research in organizational socialization has failed to support any particular stage model. Although stage approaches provide rich descriptions of the transformation from organizational newcomer to insider status, they ignore many organizational factors and situational contexts that may unintentionally influence the socialization process, and they ignore personal characteristics of individuals who are adjusting to a new job and work environment. Thus, stage models can help describe what newcomers experience, but they do not offer any specific interventions to help newcomers to be successfully socialized into their organizations.

Following the development of socialization stage models, six classes of organizational socialization tactics have been proposed as ways for organizations to socialize their newcomers. These strategies are described as continuums of organizational intervention, with one end of the continuum describing an institutionalized approach and the other end describing an individualized approach. First, the formal-informal continuum describes how formal and structured socialization tactics can range, from formal orientation programs to informal spontaneous conversations with organizational insiders. Second, the collective-individual continuum concerns the number of people who are socialized together, ranging from massive training and induction programs for large groups to individually tailored strategies for one person. Third, the sequential-random continuum describes the extent to which discrete, identifiable stages of socialization exist versus socialization that proceeds within a general newcomer stage. For example, a police recruit may undergo a sequential pattern of academy training, field training, and patrol assignment with a senior partner, whereas a secretary may not have a set of socialization experiences to complete. Fourth, the fixed-variable continuum describes the extent to which the socialization process unfolds over a specified time frame. For example, after six months of police academy training, a ceremony is held for rookies as a rite of passage—recognition that they have become police officers. Conversely, a secretary may not have a specific time frame to become recognized as a full member of the organization. Fifth, the serial-disjunctive continuum describes whether there are role models for newcomers to imitate. Serial tactics have existing role models performing the same job as the newcomer (e.g., rookie officer can model senior officer), whereas disjunctive tactics do not have any role models (e.g., unique job is created to manage new technology). Sixth, the investiture-divestiture continuum describes the extent to which a newcomer’s individuality and identity are accepted by the organization. Investiture strategies welcome individual characteristics and embrace this diversity into the organization. Conversely, divestiture strategies mold the newcomer to behave like all other organizational members with little tolerance for unique behaviors (e.g., military recruits trained to dress and act alike).

The socialization tactics provide an organizational perspective on newcomer socialization. Different tactics will process people into different types of organizational members. Organizations that use more institutionalized tactics—by processing newcomers together in groups, establishing a fixed sequence of career progression, exposing newcomers to insider models for the new role, and pressuring newcomers to change their self-definition—are thought to yield more compliant employees who understand and accept organizational values. In contrast, individualized tactics—which involve individual processing, more variable career progression, few existing role models, and greater acceptance of the self—are predicted to yield more innovative employees who are less accepting of the status quo.

Although the organizational perspective helps us understand processes for work adjustment, it neglects socialization factors that are not organizationally designed or controlled. In particular, newcomers processed by institutional tactics must at some point be integrated into an organization’s social network. They will come into contact with supervisors, coworkers, and staff who will comprise a more local socialization context. Socialization will continue in ways that may be either consistent or inconsistent with formal tactics. How well are the effects of formal tactics likely to hold up under this resocialization effort? As newcomers adjust to their jobs, they may be less responsive to institutional socialization tactics and more responsive to other aspects of the workplace. Moreover, the organizational perspective often treats newcomers as a passive employee open to socialization tactics. An individual’s personality and career expectations might be powerful drivers in seeking information and engaging in proactive socialization experiences to fit in more effectively than other newcomers.

In contrast to the organizational perspective, other researchers have focused on the individual perspective, examining information seeking by newcomers as they attempt to comprehend the organization and its defining characteristics. This research has examined what newcomers attempt to learn (content) and how they attempt to learn it (process). In addition, some research has sought to go beyond information acquisition per se to understand how informal, insider processes influence newcomer socialization. For example, much of the information-seeking research has focused on active newcomer efforts to ask questions and inquire of insiders. However, active efforts by supervisors and coworkers to socialize newcomers are relatively more important to adjustment than newcomer proaction. Positive work relationships with supervisors and peers reduce negative effects of unmet expectations on job satisfaction and other traditional indicators of socialization effectiveness.

The research literature on information seeking and successful socialization is mixed. Some studies support a positive link with findings that show that information seeking reduces uncertainty about the newcomer’s job/organization, which in turn, helps build the newcomer’s competence and self-efficacy. Conversely, other studies found negative links between information seeking and newcomer socialization when there are social costs if a newcomer is constantly asking questions or if feedback is not positive. Thus information seeking may backfire on newcomers who ask too many questions, because insiders may perceive them as incompetent, intrusive, or meddlesome. Finally, there may be no link between information seeking and socialization if the information is not related to adjustment and/or the newcomer cannot use the information to facilitate his or her work adjustment.

The organizational socialization process is complex because it involves actions taken by both the newcomer and the organization, and lessons learned may be intentional or unintentional. Newcomers will go through a socialization process, regardless of what the organization may do or not do; thus good human resource management would prescribe some planning to guide employee adjustment to the job and organization. Transparent human resource practices that support the organization’s mission and values are more likely to help employees make sense of their roles in the organization than management practices that conflict with or confuse employees. For example, mentors can provide an informal, personal socializa­tion process when senior members tutor junior members and groom them for successful careers within the organization. Although this mentoring may be informal, managers and supervisors who are likely to be mentors can be trained to provide positive socialization experiences for their newcomers.

The socialization process is not entirely controlled by the organization; nor is it entirely controlled by the individual. The mix of formal organizational interventions (e.g., orientation program) and informal interventions (e.g., a mentor) may not provide compatible lessons, thus rendering the sense-making process complex. Furthermore, an individual’s acquisition of knowledge does not always occur at a conscious level. A newcomer’s learning may be implicit knowledge gained from observations and experiences but without a concerted, conscious awareness that one has learned anything. The first day on a new job is often one of information overload for the newcomer. Explicit lessons (e.g., a supervisor explains the workload to a newcomer) and implicit lessons (e.g., a newcomer feels uncomfortable around a particular supervisor) merge to help the newcomer determine if he or she fits with the organization. The tacit knowledge gained from implicit learning serves as a base for a newcomer’s sense of intuition. This intuition could influence subsequent attitudes and behavior. Thus a newcomer may not be able to articulate why he or she feels uncomfortable about a supervisor, but that feeling may signal potential problems as the socialization process unfolds.

What is Specifically Learned in Organizational Socialization?

There are several models of socialization content describing what a newcomer learns during the adjust­ment process. One of the earliest models describes three dimensions for learning: functional, hierarchical, and inclusionary. The functional dimension focuses on the content of a person’s job functions. Obviously, in order to be successful in a job, one needs to know how to perform it. Knowledge in one’s function (e.g., accounting knowledge for accountants) is essential to career success. The hierarchical dimension focuses on the rank of a person’s position. Different attitudes and behaviors are usually associated with different positions related to status and power. Thus executives might be expected to hold a set of values and behaviors that differ from technical staff, secretarial staff, and production crews. Finally, the inclusionary dimension focuses on the extent to which one is included in work operations. Regardless of rank or function, a person with critical knowledge, political connections, or negotiation skills can be instrumental or central for others to get their work accomplished effectively. People who know their job, know their rank within the organization, and know how to help others are well socialized. They may be so successful that they are prime candidates for promotion. If this occurs, then the learning cycle repeats as the newly promoted individual learns a new function, new rank, and new inclusionary knowledge and behaviors. Although this three-dimensional model can be useful in describing different content areas for newcomers to learn, it has not received much empirical research support.

More recently, socialization researchers developed six content areas for organizational socialization and developed scales to research learning in these areas: performance proficiency, language, people, politics, organizational goals and values, and history. Performance proficiency involves learning to perform a job successfully. Language involves learning special acronyms and terminology used by the organization. The people dimension includes learning to get along with other organizational members. Politics involves learning formal and informal power structures. Organizational goals and values involve understand­ing the organization’s culture. Finally, history involves learning about the organization’s past as well as the specific history associated with the newcomer’s business unit. Organizational newcomers generally scored lower on these dimensions than organizational insiders. Furthermore, people who are better socialized tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, are more involved in their careers, and earn more income than people who are less well socialized. Perhaps most interesting is the finding that people who don’t perceive themselves to fit with the organization’s goals and values are most likely to quit their jobs and change organizations. Regardless of how people learn in these content areas, mastery was associated with greater socialization and greater socialization was associated with positive job and career outcomes.

Other content areas have been discussed that involve personal learning (e.g., learning more about one’s own desires and needs), role management (e.g., learning how to manage work and personal lives), and specific organizational interventions (e.g., training received). Within global organizations, new socialization content areas include cultural issues as expatriates and host-country nationals learn to bridge cultural differences and work in multinational environments. These content areas vary widely in terms of their application to most newcomers and illustrate how lessons learned during the socialization process can affect personal values and sense of identity that go beyond organizational control.

Practical Implications

Organizational socialization occurs whether the individual or organization manages it or not. Organizations can facilitate this process by building a strong organizational culture that provides consistent lessons to newcomers using both formal and informal methods. A strong culture describes clear values and expectations shared by most organizational members. This base of common knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors will maximize the likelihood that a newcomer will receive similar instruction from most organizational members. Thus, coworkers can reinforce what was learned in a formal training program by serving as good role models for the newcomer. If an organization does not have a strong positive culture, or if the culture is not endorsed by top management, the potential for conflicting lessons increases and the confusing experiences make adjustment more difficult for a newcomer. In this case, organizations should carefully manage the socialization process by designing appropriate orientation/ training programs for newcomers, matching newcomers with appropriate role models and mentors, and monitoring the socialization process to correct misunderstandings or to help newcomers make sense of their early experiences. However, no amount of organizational intervention can socialize newcomers to be radically different from current insiders unless factors supporting new organizational roles and values are promoted to all employees.

In addition to culture-related socialization inter­ventions, organizations can help their employees adjust to their jobs by providing adequate training and resources to help employees maximize their job per­formance. Company manuals can help newcomers learn important acronyms and jargon that distinguish organizational members. Employee handbooks can shape newcomer expectations and identify behaviors and customs of insiders that the organization would like to promote. Finally, performance feedback can give newcomers a sense of how the organization perceives the person-organization fit and provide guidance to improve the fit, if warranted.

Individuals should also be proactive managers of the socialization process. By astute observations, selective information seeking, and positive responses to organizational demands, individuals can better determine if the type of person desired by the organization is the type of person the newcomer wants to be. Newcomers should adhere to the organization’s dress code and be sensitive to behaviors that are judged to be acceptable or unacceptable by management. Newcomers should also learn organizational jargon and acronyms quickly in order to avoid calling attention to themselves as “outsiders,” naive to insider language. Finally, newcomers with exceptional job performance may be identified as having high potential in the organization with great value for long-term career success.

Both short- and long-term career goals can help determine whether the person-organization fit is good enough for the newcomer. Individuals should also rec­ognize the need for resocialization when jobs, assign­ments, and work groups change. An individual might perceive a great fit with the organization when the person is a professional, but the fit might be disastrous when the person is promoted to management. Building a wide and strong social network within the organization can help the individual anticipate realistic expectations for future organizational roles. Extending the network outside the organization can help an individual learn whether a different organization, new job, or even new career would provide a better fit to that person.

Future Research Directions

We have seen an evolution in socialization theory and research from descriptive stage models to a focus on variations in process and outcomes attributable to the organization (tactics), to current attention on the individual being proactive, seeking information, and learning specific content areas for work adjustment. With relatively few exceptions, there has been little integration across theoretical perspectives. Clearly more research is needed to better understand how organizational interventions and newcomer sense making interact to shape lessons learned and the fit between newcomer and organization.

Theorists in organizational socialization caution that efforts to mold people into organizational members with rigid roles and values may result in an overconforming workforce that may lack the capacity to be innovative or creative. Thus the maximum benefits from organizational socialization might be best realized from adjustment processes that give newcomers a good sense of identity with the organization, without overly restricting a newcomer’s individuality. Future research can explore a continuum of socializa­tion adjustment and perhaps identify a tipping point where too much socialization can be detrimental to organizational adaptability and innovation.

New developments in network theory may be applied to organizational socialization research. A newcomer’s social networks significantly influence organizational socialization. Specifically, information networks affect the newcomer’s learning, while friendship networks affect the newcomer’s assimilation. Together these networks help a newcomer learn how to fit in well with other organizational members and with the organization as a whole. Future research can focus on newcomers’ networks by examining types of network links that would aid or hinder their work adjustment. In addition, future research can expand beyond the newcomer’s network to study how multiple networks of a work group can build a particular type of organizational climate that would be passed on to the newcomer. Within a dynamic framework, these networks can be explored to examine the socialization process as it unfolds, to determine critical transitions or experiences that influence socialization. Furthermore, not only can the dynamic perspective examine how the newcomer changes, but it can also examine how newcomers might change an existing organizational climate of established insiders. A particularly strong or powerful newcomer has the potential to resocialize insiders to a new way of work.

Finally, future research can explore the link between organizational socialization and personal adjustment. Most of the research has examined organizational socialization from the organization’s perspective and what the organization can gain from well-socialized employees. Little research has examined how organizational socialization affects an individual’s personal mental health. In an extreme example, organizations that mold employees to adopt a strong set of values may create a cult of people engaged in behaviors that may harm the individual. Military organizations socialize soldiers to protect their own and kill the enemy. Unethical organizations socialize managers to promote unsafe products or report false earnings. These tactics may have short-term benefits to the organization, but the long-term effects on the organization and the individual may be devastating.

Future research in organizational socialization will be challenging. Ideally, research should examine how organizational interventions and individual actions and reactions interact to determine the person-organization fit. Corrective measures taken by one or both parties who perceive a misfit should be explored. Actions taken to correct misperceptions could save a valued employee from leaving the organization. Conversely, if a true misfit is identified, a separation of the individual from the organization is likely to benefit both parties, and early recognition of a misfit could minimize negative consequences. Well-designed longitudinal studies can track the socialization process as it unfolds, shedding more light on the dynamics of organizational socialization.

Organizations interested in attracting and retaining the best people should manage the socialization process in order to maximize a workforce that is committed to providing value to that organization. Individuals interested in building a satisfying career should manage the socialization process in order to effectively determine if the present organization fits well with that individual’s needs and desires. Together the intended and unintended actions of the individual and the organization will determine what is learned, how it is learned, and whether the fit between the individual and organization provides rewards for both.

See also:


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