by Chad Harrington
18 August 2015
Since 22 percent of employee turnover happens within the first 45 days in a new job, employers must pay attention to this fragile period of time. Specifically, employers must understand the nature of change in order to successfully retain new employees.
What you need to understand is liminality—the in-between time of the hiring process.
With regard to hiring, liminality is the in-between time from your new employee search to securing the new recruit. Understanding this transitional period in the hiring process could save your company from spending unnecessary time and money on high turnover rates.
The pain associated with finding and hiring new employees has to do with this concept of liminality, and understanding the nature of this transitional phase will help you navigate the hiring process with grace, especially when you don't feel like it.
What is liminality?
Liminality is the in-between phase of change, any change! It's part of everyday life, because every change involves a period of transition with an in-between phase. Here's three examples from everyday life:
- The time between dating and marriage: engagement.
- Between childhood and adulthood: adolescence.
- Between your old job and your new job: unemployment.
For each of these transitional phases of change, there's a certain pain associated with it. Adolescence, for example, is awkward because you're not a child, but you are not yet an adult either. You're going through changes, and it's emotionally and physically painful at times.
As you will read below, Arnold van Gennep developed the idea of liminality in anthropology, but it is helpful in understanding the hiring process, because hiring is full of change.
Here’s what liminality looks like in picture form.
The woman in the picture is "in-between" where she was and where she's going (in this case outside and inside of a waterfall). This picture represents liminality, which is the in-between phase of change.
Change is hard, and this is especially true for the hiring process, which is pregnant with change.
Liminality applies to the hiring process
Hiring a new employee is a liminal period of transition for the team, the new employee, and the company as a whole. This liminal time is the time between the first day of a new hire and full assimilation into the company workforce.
The pain is the time, money, and effort spent in onboarding, training, and orientating your new employee. It's hard because the new employee is taking more than giving at this early stage of employment. But it's good because you have the position filled! This is the tension of liminality. You are tempted, at times, to give up because it's hard, but that's just how change works. That's how liminality works.
If you're a manager within your company, bringing in new skin means entering into the "waterfall" of new employee orientation, which has major obstacles. Your company, department, and new employee are not where they were before the hire and they haven't arrived where they're going. They're in the middle of change; they're experiencing liminality.
How does liminality fit within the big picture?
In The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969), Arnold van Gennep, the anthropologist who coined "liminality," connects this term to the rites of passage: "rites which accompany every change of place, state, social position and age." It's the in between time, and whether you realize it or not, employee training is a liminal time, the rite of passage for new employees and for the employer.
Here’s the three stages of liminality:
- Separation. What was before.
- Liminal period. The time between what was and what will be.
- Reassimilation. What will be.
The word “liminal” comes from the Latin root, “limen” means “threshold,” like carrying a bride across the threshold of a house.
The "threshold" is what the husband and wife cross as they pass into their new life. That's where the concept of liminality comes from.
How does liminality apply to the hiring process?
Here's why understanding liminality matters for hiring managers: If you embrace the difficulties inherent in the hiring process, you will make it through in one piece. This may not always be a challenge for you, but when a rough transition comes, you'll be glad you understand the nature of change better.
Even more if you don't understand that your new employee is experiencing liminality, your new employee may not make it through either. That's where you come in: Just knowing that pain is part of the process could help everyone make it through and reduce high turnovers.
Gennep, the anthropologist I mentioned above, says that the liminal period is "necessarily ambiguous," and people in this period are "normally passive or humble." Sound like a new employee? The connection between Gennep's work in anthropology and the hiring process is profound.
Here’s how Gennep's description of liminality applies to the hiring process and why it’s essential for you to embrace it.
- Separation. The employee has decided to look for a new job or is no longer employed. (For you, the company hiring manager, you need a position filled but it's not filled yet.)
- Liminal period. The employee is transitioning into a their position. (You are onboarding, training, and orientating the new recruit.)
- Reassimilation. The new employee is assimilated into the new position of the company. (You have a fully functioning, self-reliant employee.)
The most difficult period of change is the liminal period, because it's the most fragile and painful.
As I mentioned above, 22 percent of turnovers happen within the first 45 days of a new job. Generally, new employees have about 90 days to prove themselves, so not only are they testing you, but you are seeing what they’re made of too.
How to make it through the liminal phase
Here's a few tips for getting through the liminal stage in the hiring process. If you're a hiring manager you can do these things to help the new employee make it past the first 45 days.
- Introduce new skills, concepts, and processes slowly. Remember, this stage is necessarily "ambiguous," so when you are explaining company culture, job-specific skills, and new processes to your new employee, be patient and introduce concepts slowly. This will keep them from becoming overwhelmed and dropping out before they make it through liminality.
- Get comfortable repeating yourself. The new employee will forget new information or miss something you said during the first week on a new job. Be ready to repeat yourself without getting frustrated. They need time to learn the things that you might take for granted. That's just how change works.
- Set clear expectations with a positive spin. I love what Jeff Haden of Inc. recommends for employers to say to new hires to encourage them: "Few statements are more motivating and set the stage better than, "I hired you because you are absolutely awesome at X... and we're all counting on you to crush X.” What better way to inspire your new hire than to tell them! Make clear to them what their job is, and add a personal touch of positivity.
Employers must push through the challenges of liminality, because new employees are not fully onboard until about 45-90 days. After that, they are in Van Gennep's third phase (reassimilation), and turnover rates tend to drop.
You’ve got to make it through liminality, the transition time in bringing new employees on board, because when you embrace the struggles, ambiguities, and tensions of this phase, you'll save your company time and money by retaining new employees. You can do this!
What is your secret to making it through the liminal phase of hiring? Leave your tips below.