Many employers have noted a shift in the mindset of new employees from before the COVID-19 pandemic to now. During the pandemic, many people had a significant mindset shift that affected how they viewed their employment and what they would accept from an employer. Many placed their lives and needs as more important. They became more intentional, or purpose driven. How can organizations work with this shift? The work of a psychiatrist by the name of Walter Menninger conducted over 50 years ago may shed some light on how we can win with this new shift in mindset. We will examine what is known as the “morale curve.”

What is the Morale Curve?

Walter Menninger’s morale curve is more important today than it ever has been due to the modern employee’s mindset. People used to primarily base their selection of employment on their personal needs. While that is still the case in many situations, we’re seeing more and more people base their employment choices on purpose-driven criteria in addition to their personal needs. Never have we seen so many people willing to rapidly change employers due to their purpose not being fulfilled. This is also a reflection of the job market itself. How many times have we heard the terms “understaffed” or “now hiring” over recent months? How many times have we seen retail establishments have to change their operational hours due to being understaffed? How many times have we seen companies have to rearrange their production schedules due to staffing issues?

This brings us back to Walter Menninger’s curve. Walter Menninger’s curve focuses on an employee finding purpose from their job thus leading to increased retention. Before we dive any further, let’s take a look at the word retention and what it means and how it applies to employee needs. To retain means to hold back or to keep possession of. While yes, we want to hold on to our employees, we must ask, is that all that we want to do? Would not a better word be to “sustain”? To sustain means to strengthen or support something physically or mentally. It means to give the nutrients it needs in order to thrive in its environment. Walter Menninger’s morale curve shows us the danger of not providing the right nutrients in an employees’ learning and development (L&D), such as coaching, training and mentorship.

Let’s examine the morale curve in the light of the modern employee’s mindset. During the “arrival” time, that one to three month period that we welcome our new hire, what do we see? We used to see a wide-eyed, best foot forward, maybe even a little timid version of the person we hired. We still see that sometimes. More often though, we are seeing folks that seem to be auditioning our organization as to whether it will be a good fit for them. And whether it’ll bring purpose in life — whether that’s growth, development, money, a promotion or another factor.

These new employees are checking out how the company will provide what for them. During that first 90 days, we are bound to see a slide in morale as that newness transitions into becoming overwhelmed by newfound responsibility. This is a critical engagement period where we must provide a roadmap to meeting their purpose and keeping them. If we don’t engage fully during this period, we will most likely lose them to the pit, and they will never rebound to the acceptance phase.

How Can it Help with Engagement?

It starts at the very beginning with onboarding and new hire orientation. What do you provide? Is it simply a dry run down of benefits and company policies delivered lecture style by a less than polished speaker? Afterward, they sign papers like they’re buying a home and are then whisked away to their new area only to be instructed on their new responsibilities by someone who: a.) didn’t expect them and; b.) doesn’t really like to train people. You tell them, “Shoot me an email if you need anything!” Is that your orientation? (I hope not.)

What we need to do is immediately grab their attention! Provide a learning experience. Engagement during orientation and then into onboarding should be about how the organization can make them successful. That can help engage new hires purpose with the company. Here are a few tips to help:

  • Provide a thorough interactive discussion of human resources (HR) and employee benefits.
  • Give them an interactive discussion and assessment of organizational safety.
  • Cover any special procedures that new hires may need to be aware of early on.
  • Lead activities and icebreakers that teach lessons that can be directly applied on the job.
  • Show and explain the pathway for growth, development and promotions in the organization.
  • Ensure that their trainer, coach or mentor has been preassigned and is prepared to help.

In my role at Pharmaceutical L&D, we provide an entire day of onboarding focused on “quality.” We make it fun, interactive and engaging. All the while discussing topics like food and drug administration (FDA) regulations, current good manufacturing practices (cGMP) regulations, good documentation practices, process training and lean and waste and so forth.

All of these items are must haves in the pharmaceutical world, but they are delivered in a way to engage the mind and hold new hires’ attention. We do this by providing an experience that they can remember! We even gave it a clever moniker. Since it is the second day of new hire orientation, the day is all about quality training, we settled on “QD2.” Thus, everyone in the facility is aware of what QD2 is. It also reinforces the training because the moniker brings back memories of what was taught.

That is just getting them in the door. Once they are working, you want to provide more.

For example, our L&D team is also an experience unto themselves. We are also known as the IDEA Academy. IDEA is an acronym that means identify, design, execute and achieve. That’s what we aim to do. We have a logo and everything. Like popular companies that are known by their logo, internally we brand everything we produce with the IDEA Academy logo. That way, when people see that logo, they think, “this is something I need to know or learn.” It immediately inspires them to pay attention. Along with that, it’s also good to provide guideposts for your new employee. Some examples are:

  • A 30-60-90 day training and development plan outlining knowledge new hires will receive.
  • Provide a copy of a that plan so they have visible goals to work toward with their training manager and direct manager.
  • Encourage frequent check in visits from L&D, HR and management to give them a chance to ask questions.
  • Schedule meet and greets with key personnel in the organization to make them feel welcomed.
  • Provide coaching sessions to check morale and provide encouragement.
  • Celebrating milestones as they are achieved.

This can truly work if we give our new employees a roadmap that outlines the pathway to increased compensation as they move through the employee lifecycle. Employers can tie salary increases to various stages of growth on the job. By attaching levels to job knowledge along with pay differentials, it not only gives the employee goals to reach for but will in turn help us to see the overall qualification level of our workforce. We can then quickly ascertain where we need to focus our training efforts. It makes knowledge gaps come to the foreground. It’s also a must if we intend to cross-train.

Having an organized system for coaching, mentoring, developing and promoting (where possible) can help keep our purpose-driven new hires engaged. By providing regular coaching, we may turn the engagement pit into a small dip. Once we do that, we can make it much easier for new employees to enter the acceptance phase, where they can start adjusting to their role and company expectations — and where the organization is meeting their “purpose” and ensuring that they feel supported in what they do.

All of this is vital as we shift into a more purpose-driven world of work, where it’s more about employment fitting into one’s life rather than fitting one’s life into employment. Dr. Walter Menninger’s work on the morale curve was done over 50 years ago — but it still rings true today in the lives of the modern employee.

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