New job, same old bad habits?

Feb 24 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

A new job is supposed to be a fresh start, but the baggage many workers bring from their previous jobs in terms of bad habits or ways of working can often drag down their performance, as well as potentially the performance of those around them.

While previous work experience is obviously important when it comes to progressing up the career ladder, managers need to aware that it may not just be new skills and a fresh outlook that new recruits are bringing into their workplaces, new research has suggested.

In fact, while prior experience can mean valuable new knowledge being imported into a workplace, recruits may also need to be a period of "unlearning" ways of working or poor practices that could damage both their own and, ultimately, their new employer's performance.

A study by academics at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business has suggested that workers who keep old habits and ways of doing things when they move to a new job can potentially hurt their performance in their new role.

The researchers studied 771 employees and job applicants of two call centres for a major U.S insurance firm.

They examined the employees' job performance evaluations and ratings of their work-related skills and knowledge.

They then compared these evaluations against the employees' prior work histories and experience at the current firm to gauge whether there were any relationships.

As might be expected, the results showed that prior work experience at other firms did lead to higher levels of skill and knowledge, which led to better performance reviews at the new company.

But, once the researchers took into account the higher levels of skill and knowledge brought from former jobs, previous experience actually led to lower performance.

In other words, the positive effects of knowledge and skill brought by experienced employees were being at least somewhat counter-balanced by negative factors.

"Organisations pay a premium for workers with job experience that will allow them to just step in and start contributing immediately," pointed out Steffanie Wilk, co-author of the study and associate professor of management and human resources at the college.

"But what employers don't realise is that some of what their employees learned in previous jobs will end up being a negative," she added.

"We found evidence suggesting that experience brings unforeseen costs and well as benefits," Wilk continued.

However, she stressed that the negatives that came from previous work experience did not outweigh the positives, and so work experience should still be valued by managers.

Workers, the study found, could bring old habits and ways of doing things from their previous jobs that did not necessarily work in their new jobs.

The key to success, therefore, was for employees to adapt to their new surroundings by accepting new ways of doing things and shedding their old, ineffective habits, all something that can be encouraged through good first line management, training, coaching and mentoring.

The research team also studied supervisors at the insurance company, asking them to rate their subordinates on measures of adaptability.

They found workers who scored high on adaptability were less likely to suffer from the negative effects of prior work experience.

Another factor in how well employees do at their new jobs has to do with cultural fit, in other words does their new company have a culture consistent with what workers knew from previous jobs?

If it did, they would probably have a more positive experience, argued Wilk.

When asking a sub-set of the research sample how well they fitted in with the insurance company's culture, again, it was found that those employees who said they fitted in did not tend to suffer as much from the downside that generally came from previous work experience.

"If the norms of your new company fit in with your expectations from previous jobs, it will be much easier to become a part of the company and perform well," said Wilk.

One intriguing finding was that, while the longer you stayed somewhere the less your previous experience helped you in your performance, the negative effects from previous experience tended to linger much longer.

"That was surprising to us," said Wilk. "That suggests that the rigidities found in some workers are very stable and that bad habits from previous jobs don't die easily."

Individual differences in workers' personality traits – particularly adaptability - may therefore be crucial in determining how successful they will be in a new job.

"Employees need to realise that not everything they learned in previous jobs is going to help them in a new job," argued Wilk.

"They need to be sensitive to the context of their new organisation and be willing and able to adapt to their new surroundings, even if that means unlearning techniques or ways of doing things they have developed in prior jobs," she added.

As for employers, what was needed was probably to rethink how they socialised and trained new employees, and how much of a premium they were willing to pay for prior experience, she suggested.

"Managers tend to assume that employees with previous experience don't need as much guidance and hand-holding as inexperienced workers," pointed out Wilk.

"But experienced workers may actually need more help, because they have to shake off the ineffective habits from old jobs and learn how to best serve their new employer," she added.