Hazing: uncovering one of the best-kept secrets in the workplace
by Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
Sep 26, 2012 | 3608 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print

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Learning the ropes, paying your dues, passing muster, earning your stripes — all terms we use to refer to the rites of passage from outsider to insider.

Practical jokes, intentionally meaningless or humiliating tasks, and unnecessary assignments are all forms of hazing, and newcomers are hazed to test them for potential membership. Will they fit in, be loyal to the group, be reliable, have a sense of humor? The tests for compatibility are varied: a new counter clerk at McDonald’s is told to inventory pickle slices, a hospital orderly is asked to look for the fallopian tube, a bank teller has her keys hidden, an engineer is given cleaning jobs and a new lawyer gets the most boring cases.

Hazing accomplishes a number of goals for a group: it gives senior members a way of establishing their seniority and dominance; it ensures that formal work rules will be respected, and that unwritten practices will be followed; it ensures continuity of the existing ways of relating and working; and it makes membership something to be valued.

Group membership is valued more if becoming a member is a privilege that must be earned. The group will temporarily keep the newcomer on the outside because the longer he or she stays there, the more appealing membership becomes.

In order to prevent newcomers from rocking the boat by participating too soon, group members will often try to put them in their place — at the bottom of the ladder. Like most animals, we align ourselves in a definite pecking order. It is always the dominant male lion who gets to eat from the carcass first and the same cow that leads the others to pasture.

Acceptance is usually not marked by a specific event but by the person’s inclusion in informal get-togethers after work, casual sharing of information and gossip, and implicit assumptions that the new member will take part in the hazing of other newcomers.

As long as hazing is done more or less equally to all newcomers, has an end and the goal is membership, then it is not harassment. The objective of hazing is inclusion, whereas the goal of harassment is exclusion.

Primitive tribes, medieval guilds, fraternities and sororities, and corporate offices all have rites of passage for new members. And the transition from outsider to member is surprisingly similar, whether in the African bush or on Wall Street. Often the only difference is that the tests in primitive tribes are public. The terms and conditions are clearly spelled out: the initiates know more or less what to expect; the rules of behavior are understood; and, above all, initiates know that the rite is common practice, that they are not the first or the only ones subjected to the ordeal, and that the reward for the humiliation is membership and acceptance.

This may not be so for employees entering a new organization today. Here the initiation rites are covert, criteria for membership are unknown, tests are unpredictable and correct behavior is not spelled out.

Initiation rites must be considered not as isolated events, but as a function of the human need to maintain social order. They are thus a necessary practice that eases the transition from newcomer to group member. Putting hazing in this context may help reduce the stress it evokes.

The unpleasantness and the duration of hazing depend on three factors: the cohesiveness of the group, the individual’s fit into the group and the newcomer’s response to hazing. My research has shown that the tighter the group, the more difficult it is for new members to be accepted. The looser the group, the less resistance they encounter. When coworkers are not a group but rather an agglomeration of individuals who happen to work in the same place, then membership is not an issue and hazing does not occur.

There are many creative ways to deal with hazing and to gain acceptance into the desired group. The keys seem to be patience and tolerance. Keeping a cool head while seeing this whole experience in perspective, maintaining a sense of humor and generally being low key are all successful outward responses to hazing.

Hazing in fraternity houses that has gone out of control with several fatalities has been in the news recently. These are adolescents testing their powers. As we know, the frontal cortex is not yet fully developed until the early 20s and the rational part of the brain that controls impulses is not activated, thus the hazing goes further than originally intended. Universities are now attempting to curtail the culture of extreme hazing

When the hazing is harmless, the manager should explain to the newcomer that it is typical, that he or she is not being singled out, that it can be endured and that membership will eventually follow. Being forewarned will make the hazing bearable, perhaps even fun.

— Natasha Josefowitz taught the first course in the U.S. on women in management and is the author of 19 books. She lives at White Sands La Jolla.
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