What's Your Dark Pattern?

In my most recent post about employee growth at your company, I paraphrased Brian Balfour’s words on authentic growth and applied them to employee onboarding. Now, I want to explore the idea of dark patterns, another concept he speaks about as it relates to customer growth. Companies make and practice dark patterns not just on their customers, but on their employees, too.

As Balfour notes, dark patterns arise when a company insists on growing in a manner that benefits them, but not the customers. For example, those awful pop-ups that force you to sign up for something because you have to answer yes to escape are dark patterns. We see those patterns throughout the customer journey — customers have a lifecycle and so do your employees. The employee lifecycle looks something like this:

Employee Lifecycle

Let’s examine some of the dark patterns companies engage in during the employee lifecycle:

  • Advertising jobs with a career page that shows a stock photo of a more diverse workforce than they actually have
  • Encouraging applicants of underrepresented genders or backgrounds to apply, then failing to notify those specific applicants who weren’t called for an interview (via automated message, etc.)
  • Transitioning new hires from a great recruiting experience to a nonexistent or terrible onboarding experience (especially when hiring rapidly)
  • Offering money for professional development, but never reminding employees about it or encouraging (sometimes requiring) them to take time to do it
  • Telling high performing employees that they have to prove they’re worth the promotion by “working two jobs for a while, then we’ll see”

Failing to effectively support an employee who leaves — especially if the reason is a bad manager or poor HR support As an example, let’s dissect one: Transitioning new hires from a great recruiting experience to a nonexistent or terrible onboarding experience(especially when hiring rapidly). This one seems like an obvious place to start for me because so many companies do it.

It’s easy to do the interviews, send the offer, set the start date, and dust off your hands and get onto the next one that teams rarely consider that limbo period between the offer and the start date.*

The second limbo period we fail to manage is the first 30 days for new hires:

  • If you have a welcome email, if it doesn’t have context about Day 1 (what to wear, when to show up, lunch plans, what to expect…) then it’s an issue.
  • If you have a Day 1 experience, and you have some talks that spew everything the new hire could possibly ever want to and not want to know about benefits, payroll, the company org chart, HR team members… (catching my breath) and an IT setup that has some grumpy IT person growling at them to change their passwords, learn what PII is, don’t do this on your phone, use your laptop this way, and oh yeah, you don’t know Google Apps? Yeah sorry we can’t teach you that…. If that’s your onboarding, that’s an issue.
  • If you haven’t created a minimum viable onboarding program and you don’t have at least a list of people to talk to (with context) and links to read (with context), that’s an issue.
  • If you haven’t worked with managers to make a culture of 1:1’s and you haven’t gotten them to schedule them weekly with new hires, that’s an issue.

I know it’s hard to make all of this (and more) happen before a new person arrives. But what’s not hard? Asking your most recent hire to help you reverse engineer a better onboarding process. You shine light on dark patterns when you consciously recognize them, realize the impact they have on employees, and, oh wait — what is the impact?

When companies remain in this particular dark pattern, dark things happen.

Things like culture not getting delivered to all members of the team equally (because the brand story and values weren’t shared). Things like employees taking way too long to get set up and really get cranking on the work they were hired to do. Things like employees leaving because they didn’t feel like they were a part of the team.

The next time you find yourself thinking you might be able to slide by with what you have, or with nothing at all, think about the dark pattern you might be in, and the long term impact it’s going to have on your team and your customers.

You’re building the best product in your category in the world.

Why not build the best team? Learn more about building the best team with Edify by your side at edifyedu.com!

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Posted by Kristen Gallagher

Kristen Gallagher
Kristen Gallagher is an organizational strategies and learning designer. Specializing in onboarding systems, manager development, and knowledge management, Gallagher delivers programs that are designed to evolve and scale with rapid changes. She is the founder and CEO of Edify and has architected and delivered onboarding programs for companies bringing on just one person a quarter to 50+ people a quarter.

She brings over eight years of learning design, business development, and program operations and strategy to Edify. She guides growing tech companies to create amazing people systems, learning programs, and cultures that scale. Kristen speaks on human resources, human centered design, learning & development in technical environments, and integrated people operations across the country. Informed by her interests in technical product design, art history, contemporary Southeast Asian art, and museums, Kristen brings an iconoclastic approach to designing and implementing learning programs in tech environments.

She's spoken and taught at Learning Dev Camp, ATD Cascadia, ACTW, Refresh Portland, Product Tank, PHRMA, and dozens of other conferences. Effective, efficient programs, events, and strategies are what motivate her, and in every project, she engages teams to understand trade-off’s, make data-driven decisions, and design evolvable solutions.

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