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Why do we always pick on the New Guy?

Why do we always pick on the New Guy?

As the child of a military man, we were always on the move. Every one or two years from the ages of 5 to 18 we moved from one military base to the next. We moved so much that after a while I stopped saying goodbye to my friends before I would leave. I would just ‘split.'

My adult life hasn't been much different, as I have transferred quite a few times for jobs. At the college where I am currently employed I have only worked there for two years.

Which means I am quite familiar with the role of the new guy. As a child this always meant new friendships and sometimes exciting new environments. It also meant new bullies and as a teenage male always having to prove myself to different sets of testosterone filled adolescents.

As an adult being the new guy (or gal) takes on a different meaning. The craziness of school yard childhood bullying goes away and is often replaced by passive aggressive workplace behavior from workmates/colleagues and the occasional office tyrant.

Many of you may already know what I'm talking about, but there are a few who may have been lucky enough to have no or very pleasant 'new guy' experiences. Yet, regardless of the severity or pleasantness of the ‘new guy' experience the back and forth dance must take place.

Robert Sommers in his book Personal Space: The Basis of Behavioral Design (2008), talks about two things that affect people's behavior when first meeting each other. Those things are "territoriality" and "dominance." Sommers asserts that most people avoid trouble because they are fully aware of areas that are ‘safe' territories (usually their own) and avoid those that aren't. Further, because they are intimately familiar with the power hierarchies that exist between them and other people within their own environment there is usually no need for conflict (dominance) because arrangements, whether conscious or not, have already been determined.

Now imagine the ‘new guy' entering the new work environment. The people within the organization already have their arrangements in place. They know their roles, who is in charge, their general standing in the scheme of things and written and unwritten protocols of the organization. The new person upsets this balance and the balance has to be restored, albeit in a different way than before.

The established members of the group only have to deal with the new person once in establishing a relationship, regardless if the outcome is positive or negative. The new person has to negotiate terms with everyone in the organization.

As Sommers expressed in his research, established members use territorial claims in negotiating with newcomers and let them know immediately where they stand. These types of claims are often verbal and serve as gentle warnings. For instance, an established member may say, "Don't worry about these invoices, I always handle these." Usually, the new person (without rank) would respond to such statements with deference until they learn where their own boundaries begin and end.

However, if that fails then 'dominance' techniques will be used, depending of course, on the level of aggressiveness the established members are willing to display. But, since the workplace is not designed or tolerates such behavior, newcomers are usually at the receiving end of passive aggressive activity.

Examples of the treatment handed out to ‘new guys' in the workplace include being called a "newbie" or "rookie;" being told an inappropriate joke to see how they will respond; being ignored by someone in the hallway even after being properly introduced; having to listen to rants such as "you young people are all over the place;" and being subjected to the "stick with me and I'll show you the ropes" conversations. In severe cases, established members try to assert themselves by yelling or using threats.

What can be done?

Well, one major way to lessen 'new guy' woes is to make sure you learn as much as you can about your new environment and the role you will serve before accepting a position.Unwritten rules and informal codes always play a role in any job and sometimes can only be learned on the job, but knowing your rights, responsibilities and duties can go a long way in avoiding hassles and 'stepping on toes.'

Is there a cure-all to avoid some of the pinch of being the new guy? Not really, because people can applaud, resent or be indifferent to your arrival for the same reasons. But knowing that friction can and will occur and that its most likely not you, but the circumstance, will help you deal with situations more calmly as they arise.


Bakari Akil II, Ph.D. is the author of Pop Psychology - The Psychology of Pop Culture and Everyday Life! You can also check out his page on Twitter.