What Is ‘Shift Shock’ and How Can You Prevent It?

Male professional in a button up and tie in a busy office sitting at his desk in front of his laptop with his hands on his temples and looking confused

Frustration, regret, and disillusionment are probably not the words company leaders think of when describing how they want new hires to feel. But if shift shock is a problem in your organization, it’s exactly what newly onboarded candidates will experience. 

Shift shock is a workplace trend that’s unfortunately becoming more common. We’ll tell you everything you need to know about the term and share strategies for preventing it from damaging new hire morale and satisfaction. 

What Is Shift Shock?

It’s natural for new employees to have a period of adjustment when they first start a job. Learning different systems, getting to know colleagues, and acclimating to the company culture can contribute to feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. This is pretty normal and tends to subside once a new hire has had a few weeks to settle in. 

However, when those feelings are driven by a dramatic mismatch between what the new hire expected and what they’re actually experiencing on the job, this is what’s known as shift shock. Shift shock is when a newly hired employee finds their position to be significantly different from how it was advertised or sold to them during the hiring process. It can be caused by intentional misdeeds, like a company withholding unfavorable information about a role to get more candidates to apply, or have more benign roots, like a disorganized hiring process. 

Whatever the source, shift shock can lead to increased turnover, poor performance, and low morale. It’s on the rise, especially since the pandemic, so it’s a crucial problem for employers to nip in the bud if they want to prevent negative staffing and operational impacts. 

Why Is Shift Shock on the Rise?

While the term ‘shift shock’ has only emerged within the last decade or so, the phenomenon of new hire disillusionment is nothing new. The rising prevalence of this phenomenon, though, is being driven by several factors that are unique to the present day. 

Evolving workforce expectations 

As of 2023, Millennials make up the largest segment of the workforce. Together with Gen Z employees, they account for close to 40% of all workers globally. These generations have varying ideas about work compared to their older counterparts, and one of the most significant differences lies in their expectations of the employer-employee relationship. 

Millennial and Gen Z workers expect employers to respect and value them. Notably, they view this as a baseline requirement rather than something that’s earned through excellent performance. Workers in these age groups don’t feel the same sense of obligation to their employers that older generations do. If they feel taken for granted at work, they have far fewer qualms about leaving for a better opportunity. 

Post-pandemic mindset shifts

The global pandemic caused massive shifts in people’s views on work, causing millions to reconsider their priorities. Many decided that long commutes and soul-crushing jobs simply weren’t worth it, and some opted to change careers to pursue their passion or left the workforce altogether to focus on family.

In short, workers aren’t as apt as they once were to put up with things like long hours, overwork, or unreasonable demands (see also: the rise of ‘quiet quitting’) and are more likely to leave if faced with these things unexpectedly.

Talent shortages

While the competitive labor market has eased a bit, employers in many sectors are still dealing with persistent talent shortfalls. When companies feel desperate to hire, the added pressure may cause recruiters to oversell the upsides of a position while downplaying the disadvantages to get more candidates in the door. When one of those candidates is hired and the rose-colored glasses eventually come off, it can lead to feelings of having been misled–a.k.a. shift shock. 

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Why Is Shift Shock a Problem?

New hire turnover

The biggest impact of shift shock, and perhaps the most obvious in terms of cost, is turnover. Employees who feel shift-shocked have no problem resigning, even if it’s only been a few months. In fact, close to half of workers say they’ve left a job because it wasn’t what they thought it would be, according to HRdive.

If left unchecked, new hire turnover can lead to ballooning hiring costs, reduced productivity, and potentially even service disruptions due to excessive vacancies. 

Reduced engagement

It’s never a good thing when a new hire quits soon after they’ve started, but it may be even worse if an employee hates the job and sticks around anyway. Aside from being poor performers, disengaged employees bring down the entire team’s morale. 

Distrust of leadership

At its worst, shift shock results from deception during the hiring process. This includes lying by omission–i.e., leaving out key details that make a job less desirable. When this happens, new hires feel they’ve had the wool pulled over their eyes, and it’s no surprise they’re subsequently distrustful of company leadership. This results in employees who are difficult to manage and resistant to company directives, which can be detrimental to achieving goals. 

How Employers Can Prevent Shift Shock

Create accurate job descriptions

The first step in preventing shift shock is reviewing your process for drafting job postings. Shift shock results from a fundamental disconnect between expectations and reality, so it’s essential for everyone involved in hiring–HR staff, hiring managers, and recruiters–to be on the same page. 

Have systems in place to ensure job descriptions accurately reflect the duties and requirements of the position. Develop job postings hand in hand with hiring managers and update them frequently. Elaborate on other aspects that factor into new hire satisfaction, like the company culture, office environment, and development opportunities. Use new hire feedback surveys to gather input on where your job descriptions and hiring could improve overall.

Related: Browse Sample Job Descriptions

Set proper expectations throughout hiring

Head off misalignment by calibrating candidate expectations early and often. Have candid conversations about what success looks like for the role and what will be expected in the first 30, 60, or 90 days on the job. Invite questions and provide transparent answers. 

Allow finalists to shadow people currently working in the role. Use pre-hire assessments and supplement your selection process with AI-enabled tools to predict candidates’ likely success. All of these tactics will increase your hiring accuracy and reduce the chance of a poor fit. 

Offer outlets for dissatisfied employees

Even with the best preventative measures in place, shift shock can still happen. When it does, you want quitting to be a last resort. Offer channels for dissatisfied employees to voice their frustrations and find solutions where possible. Additional training may help overwhelmed new hires find their footing or an internal transfer may present an opportunity for an employee to apply their skills more effectively in a different department.

Don’t get blinded by desperation 

When you have an urgent staffing need, desperation can cloud your judgment. Building a talent pipeline allows you to have strong candidates at the ready at all times so that when a need occurs, you don’t have to prioritize speed over quality. We outline how to build a talent pipeline here. 

By streamlining your hiring process and prioritizing clear expectations, you’ll ensure candidates accurately understand the role they’re signing up for. This will reduce turnover and promote employee satisfaction while helping maintain strong engagement. 

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the President of 4 Corner Resources, the staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. 4 Corner is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance, and the top-rated staffing company in Central Florida. Recent awards and recognition include being named to Forbes’ Best Recruiting Firms in America, The Seminole 100, and The Golden 100. Pete also founded zengig, to offer comprehensive career advice, tools, and resources for students and professionals. He hosts two podcasts, Hire Calling and Finding Career Zen, and is blazing new trails in recruitment marketing with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn