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Lower Your Employee Expectations

Are your first impressions of new hires forcing them out the door? Then it's time to open your eyes.

Earlier this year, Catherine Margles was ecstatic about a talented new hire. But her enthusiasm began to fade when the employee seemed timid, especially on the phone. "It concerned me," says Margles, 41, founder and president of Creative Cooking Schools, a cooking school in Las Vegas with annual sales approaching $1 million. "Communication skills are everything."

Margles spoke with the employee and discovered she just needed to get comfortable on the job. Margles encouraged the employee and stayed focused on the good qualities this person brought to the company. Keeping a positive outlook kept the relationship on solid ground; the employee is now one of the company's best performers.

First impressions aren't just for first dates. They matter in the workplace, too. An owner or manager's perception of a new hire is shaped in the first few days, and many employees may be on the fast track to failure. A recent study by the Corporate Leadership Council found that 40 percent of new hires will be dismissed within the first year and a half--or worse, they'll stay with the company, but will be seen as hiring mistakes.

Set Up to Fail

Managers see what they expect to see in employees, says Jean-Fran├žois Manzoni, co-author of The-Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail. He has found that if a manager's impression of a new employee turns bad suddenly, it stays bad, and everything the employee does only reinforces the negative impression. "We see fouls committed by the opposing team much better than we see those committed by the team we support," Manzoni says. "The boss thinks, 'Damn, I was hoping I was wrong, but I was right. [This new employee] is a slacker.'

Not surprisingly, a manager's mind-set wreaks havoc on a new hire's productivity and tenure. But the boss's attitude affects everyone else's morale too, since even star performers see it's not OK to make a mistake. Eventually, other employees won't take chances-a bad thing for a small business.

Entrepreneurs sometimes forget that procedures and cultures differ from company to company, and it takes time for a new employee to adapt. Bosses also assume that new employees will ask questions, but new hires tend to keep questions to a minimum for fear of appearing incompetent. Then they take on too much, too soon, and both the boss and the new hire are blindsided when errors happen, because neither side expected mistakes. "[New hires] think, 'Everyone will think I'm a star,' but the odds aren't in their favor," says Robert Kelley, management professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "People make mistakes. It's that the mistake comes as a surprise."

Adjusting your perspective and expectations in the beginning will go a long way to help new hires succeed. "New hires have an eagerness," says Bob Witeck, co-founder and CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications Inc., a PR firm in Washington, DC, with 12 employees. He's learned to manage new employees differently, like holding small meetings to help them learn how things are done. "We focus more on 'how-tos' so we give them more structure," Witeck, 53, says. "And we like to find things they're good at from the start." It's working: Annual sales are about $1.5 million.

Off on the Right Foot

When Manzoni asked managers what leads them to doubt an employee's competence, certain personality traits--low energy, negativity or a know-it-all attitude, for example--influenced managerial mind-sets more than mistakes made on projects. "Research shows that bosses' perceptions get shaped too quickly for actual performance to explain the entire phenomenon," he says. "Subordinates who think and behave like the boss tend to enjoy better relationships with the boss."

Speak with new hires about how the job has been done in the past. Ponder the obstacles they will face and how to minimize the chance for mistakes. Think about creating a buddy system that pairs new hires with longtime employees. Also, propose a few milestones instead of a laundry list during the first three months, and have check-in points with new hires. These could range from stopping by their desks in the morning to having a weekly one-on-one conference. This way, "the entrepreneur gets targeted, realistic performance, and the new hire gets feedback," says David Berke, senior custom solutions associate with the Center for Creative Leadershipin San Diego.

Finally, keep a realistic view of what's possible for the first few months. Margles has learned even the most talented hires are only human. "They're going to have fears of being accepted, succeeding and failing," she says. "If someone makes a mistake, they're doomed unless the environment is conducive to mistakes being made." With some thought, your new employees will be set up to succeed instead of fail.

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the February 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Great Expectations.

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