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* Acodemy of Management flevtew

1991, Vcd. 16. No. 1. 92-i20.


Michigan Stale University
University oi Texas at Austin

Although iniormation-seeking efforts during organisational entry are

oi critical importance to newcomers' successful organisational assim-
ilation, the means by which new hires seek iniormation has received
scant research attention. Consequently, in this article we derelop a
theoretical model depicting factors that may ailect newcomers' inior-
mation-seeking behariors. examine the means or tactics by which
they seek iniormation, and present a series oi heuristically-oriented
propositions concerning newcomers' use of these tactics.

Upon entering a new job and organization, newcomers typically expe-

nence some degree of surprise (Louis, 1980) or role shock (Van Maanen,
1975). Faced with learning the formal and informal requirements of a new
role and "the ropes" of the organization, this boundary passage event is
often associated with high levels of uncertainty. Information transmitted
from various organizational sources during the entry or encounter stage
(Van Maanen, 1975) of organizational assimilation is intended to help new-
comers cope with the surprise or role shock and the unceriainty they may
expenence. In particular, messages from management, supervisors, and
co-workers during the encounter penod are usually designed to clarify new-
comers' roles, to indoctrinate newcomers to organizational practices, to
ease newcomers into membership in their work groups, and to help new-
comers begin to develop new self-images in keeping with their new roles
and organizations (lablin, 1987). Taken together, these messages to new-
comers constitute efforts to engender (1) a sense of competence in the task
role and (2) a sense of acceptance into the work group/organization (Feld-
man, 1976; Katz, 1980).
Despite organizations' attempts to provide new employees with inior-
mation that IS relevant to their new roles, there may be inadequacies in the
nature and scope of the information presented. In fact, at least one study has
shown that during the encounter penod, newcomers perceive that they
receive less information from those around them than they believe is
needed (Jablin, 1984). A variety of factors may account for such feelings of
"information deprivation" (Jablin, 1984: 622). Newcomers may experience

1991 Miller and Jablin 93

inadequacies in information they receive due to incumbents' forgetting

what it was like to enter the organization. As a result, "oldtimers" inadveri-
ently omit communicating information of imporiance to recruits. In other
cases, incumbents may be reluctant to disclose role-related information
until recruits have displayed ceriain qualities such as commitment or trust-
worthiness (Feldman, 1976; Moreland & Levine, 1982). Another source for
information inadequacy may be found in the passing of a "honeymoon"
period (Ziller, 1%5). Oldtimers who may have once gone out of their way to
make newcomers feel like guests and were open sources of insider knowl-
edge may gradually become closed to newcomers' inquiries. Moreover, the
above-mentioned information inadequacies may be compounded by man-
agement's use of equivocal messages (Eisenberg, 1984). For example, new
employees may be purposefully sent equivocal messages so that they will
have some latitude to develop their roles.
Newcomers' information inadequacies may also stem from their inabil-
ity to interpret (i.e., decode) messages sent by incumbents. Though incum-
bents may intend that their messages be helpful, newcomers may instead
expenence overload (i.e., receive more messages than can be processed),
have an insufficient context-sp^ecific dictionary by which to decipher jargon,
and be unable to discnminate between "ambient" and "discretionary" mes-
sages (Jablin, 1987: 694). Thus, newcomers who expenence information-
decoding problems may need assistance in recalling, clarifying, amplify-
ing, or discounting received messages.
In brief, during the encounter phase of organizational assimilation
newcomers depend upon information from others for developing role clar-
ity. Although newcomers receive role-related information, the information
they receive is frequently perceived as inadequate; hence, they usually
expenence fairly high levels of uncertainty (Jablm, 1982; Louis, 1980; Salan-
cik & Pfeffer, 1978). This unceriainty is reflected in the levels of role ambi-
guity and role confbct which newcomers experience and is of imporiance
because it may have an impact on employees' )ob satisfaction, productivity,
and, ultimately, job tenure (Ashford 8f Cummings, 1985; Jackson & Schuler,
1985). Thus, it is of no surprise that newcomers are often advised to reduce
their unceriainty by "seek[ing] out the help and information they need to do
their work effectively instead of waiting or wishing their bosses to provide it"
(Katz, 1985: 122).
Curiously, although newcomers' proactive efforis to reduce unceriainty
in their work environments are of obvious importance to their successful
organizational assimilation, the means by which new hires seek informa-
tion has received scant research attention (with notable exceptions, see
Ashlord, 1986; Ashford & Cummings, 1985). As a consequence, our purpose
here is to examine newcomers' information-seeking behaviors during the
organizational entry process and suggest how use of the various behaviors
may relate to relevant outcomes of the entry experience. Accordingly, we
first present a theoretical model of factors that may constrain new hires'
94 Academy ol Management Review January

information-seeking behaviors during organizational entry and then exam-

ine their means of information seeking in light of these factors.


Although most interactions in organizations involve information seek-
ing, we take the position that information seeking is pariicularly impxjriant
and somewhat unique during organizational entry. Entry may represent the
most cntical time of employees' role leaming. The ease and quickness with
which newcomers learn their roles are likely to affect their relationships with
members of their role set and have an impact on their career paths (e.g.,
Gomersall & Myers, 1966). At the same time, new hires (especially those just
entering their chosen profession) are likely to experience considerably
higher levels of role-related and career unceriainty when entering a new
environment than at any other time during their organizational tenure. In
addition, newcomers m comparison to oldtimers are likely to seek informa-
tion in relatively more "mindful" as opposed to "mindless" ways (Langer,
1978: 36-38). In other words, their heightened sense of unceriainty leads
newcomers (1) to be conscious of values and behaviors to be learned and (2)
to often think about what they do not know and how to obtain the informa-
tion they desire. As a consequence, when individuals are new to an orga-
nization they may seek information in a far more deliberate manner than
when they have grown accustomed to their roles and their organizational
environments (that is, developied appropnate scnpts to direct their behav-
ior, e.g., Ashforih & Fned, 1988).
As we noted, uncertainty is a major feature of newcomers' organiza-
tional entry experience. Organizational entry is usually considered to be a
form of boundary passage. Newcomers leave membership in one work
group and organization to )oin another, set aside poriions of their old iden-
tities for new identities commensurate with their new employer, and aban-
don an accustomed role in order to learn a new role and new set of expec-
tations. As such, new hires must cope with the unceriainty that is associated
with a complex configuration of expectations and relationships (Katz 1980).
For instance, newcomers are faced with learning the formal and informal
rights, duties, and privileges associated with their new roles (Katz & Kahn,
1978); discerning among behaviors and attitudes that are pivotal, relevant,
and peripheral (Schein, 1968); comprehending the functional, hierarchical,
and lnclusionary boundaries within the organization (Louis, 1980; Schein,
1968); and determining their fit within the social and task-related networks of
the organization (Jablin, 1987; Louis, 1980; Van Maanen, 1975). Given these
tumultuous changes and demands, it is not surprising to hear new hires
charactenze their entry experiences as being "thrown in to sink or swim."
1991 Miller and lablin 95

According to Brett (1984: 168), newcomers may experience both "effori-

behavior unceriainty," which manifests itself in an introspective question
similar to, "Do I have the skills to produce the behaviors required by the new
job?" and "behavior-outcome unceriainty," which is concerned with "find-
ing out exactly what to do [in the job]" (: 166-167). Effori-behavior uncer-
tainty parallels concerns of self-efficacy (Jones, 1986), is somewhat general
in nature (resembling an underlying perception of background factors), and
is likely to fade from concem with the successful completion of work assign-
ments. In contrast, behavior-outcome unceriainty derives from experiences
of information deprivation, information overload, or conflicting information
cues regarding what constitutes legitimate behavior and "good" perior-
mance, and this may take many months on the job to resolve (Brett, 1984;
Katz, 1980). Hence, a considerable amount of the behavior-outcome uncer-
tainty that a newcomer experiences revolves around the dynamics of the
social milieu of the organization and the complex configuration of expecta-
tions that members of the newcomer's role set consciously and uncon-
sciously associate with the newcomer's role. Because behavior-outcome
unceriainty is ameliorated through information acquisition, this form of un-
ceriainty is the primary focus of this article. As depicted in Figure 1, uncer-
tainty is considered a basic catalyst for newcomers' information-seeking
In sum, the extent to which newcomers experience behavior-outcome
unceriainty should directly affect their communication behaviors, especially
their information seebng. As suggested by Berger and Calabrese (1975:
103), "High levels of unceriainty cause increases in information-seeking be-
havior. As uncertainty levels decline, information-seeking behavior
Social Costs
Even though individuals seek to reduce unceriainty through interac-
tions with others, there are costs embedded m any context associated with
information seeking. In other words, all communication involves costs or
social exchange (Berger 8f Bradac, 1982; Huston & Burgess, 1979; Miller &
Steinberg, 1975; Nord, 1980; Parks, 1977; Roloff, 1981). Social exchange may
be defined as the "voluntary transference of some object or activity from one
person to another in return for other objects or activities" (Roloff, 1981: 21).
These transactions are centered around resources that may be cognitive,
affective, or material in nature. In seeking resources, individuals are fairly
conscious of the rewards and costs of the exchange. Rewards include the
acquisition of resources (e.g., information related to the reduction of uncer-
tainty) and positive affect such as in personal attraction, social acceptance,
social approval, and respect/prestige (Blau, 1964).
Costs are identified as receiving the obverse of social rewards (e.g.,
social rejection instead of social approval) and/or the absence of rewards
(Roloff, 1981). Not surprisingly, research has shown that the consciousness
96 Academy ot Management Review January


b hi


1991 Miller and Jablin 87

of the costs involved in seeking resources from others leads persons to be

cautious, at times, in seeking information because the "costs" may be more
than they wish to expend (Nord, 1980; Walster, Berscheid, & Walster, 1978).
In pariicular, newcomers are very concerned with negative relational con-
sequences/costs associated with observable mformation-seeking requests.
For example, newcomers have reporied to us that they become increasingly
hesitant to ask questions of co-workers because they feel like they are
"bugging" them and fear being reprimanded or "cut off" from future infor-
mation. Others express concem over approaching their supervisors for in-
formation that they think they are "already supposed to know," because
they don't want their bosses to think they are stupid. However, individuals
differ in what they perceive as personally imporiant rewards and costs, and
these differences may lead to variations in individual reactions to similar
situations. Hence, although the social disapproval of peers may be too great
of a cost for some to incur, others may consider such a cost unforiunate but
not significant enough to warrant a behavioral change.
In order to minimize what they believe are high social costs associated
with seeking specific kinds of information from particular information
sources, newcomers may select information-seeking tactics that are less
overi (detectable by the target) and more coveri in nature. The overtness or
covertness of an information-seeking tactic, however, is not a direct deter-
minant of the social costs associated with seeking information. Rather, an-
ticipated costs in seeking information are a consequence of beliefs about the
likelihood of the target becoming aware of the information-seeking act and
the newcomers' relationship with the source, the nature of information
sought, how the information-seebng act will be interpreted by others who
may hear of it, and other relational and contextual factors.

Iniormation Sources

In an effori to make sense out of their entry experiences, newcomers

may turn to available information sources. Potential sources include (1)
official, downward, media-related messages from management, (2) mem-
bers of the newcomers' role set (i.e., immediate supervisor, co-workers, and
subordinates), (3) other organizational members (e.g., secretaries, acquain-
tances in different depariments), (4) extra-organizational sources (e.g., cli-
ents), and (5) the task itself (Greller 8f Herold, 1975; Herold & Parsons, 1985;
lablin, 1982; Louis, Posner, & Powell, 1983; Posner & Powell, 1985).
According to Katz (1980: 95), the "new employee reduces unceriainty
primarily through interpersonal and feedback processes and interactions."
As such, newcomers' information-seeking efforis are likely to be focused on
their supervisors and co-workers because the other sources are usually
neither equally available nor helpful to new hires. In addition, supervisors
are often identified as an imporiant source of socialization because new-
comers must ultimately gain their approval for role negotiation (Graen,
1976; lablin, 1979). Newcomers are also likely to identify supervisors as the
96 Academy of Management Review January

chief sources for determining job requirements and consider them more
reliable than co-workers as an information source (Hanser & Muchinsky,
Co-workers, on the other hand, are identified by recent MBA graduates
as more available as sources than supervisors, and their availability is
linked to newcomers' job satisfaction, retention, and commitment (Louis et
al., 1983). In addition, newcomers repori their daily interaction with peers as
being more helpful than their interaction with supervisors or fellow recruits
with resjDect to mahng the transition into their new jobs (Posner & Powell,
1985). Though these studies that identify supervisors and co-workers as im-
poriant information sources for newcomers are interesting initial explora-
tions, it should be recognized that they fail to measure the content and
frequency of each source's interactions with newcomers. Furihermore,
these investigations also neglect to inquire about the manner in which in-
formation is shared, that is, whether information is sought by newcomers
(they initiate information sharing) or received (others initiate information
shanng) by them.
Other research (Ashford, 1986; Ashford 8f Cummings, 1985) exploring
newcomers' lnformation-seebng behaviors also identified supervisors and
co-workers as imporiant sources, but was rerruss in considenng how new-
comers' information-seeking behaviors may vary among sources. For ex-
ample, Ashford and Cummings (1985) and Ashford (1986) did not examine
whether newcomers prefer ceriain information-seeking tactics with super-
visors and other tactics with co-workers. This omission seems surprising
because newcomers' choice of tactics appears to be based partly on the
perceived social costs of interacting with a pariicular source (Roloff, 1981).
Given differences between supervisors and co-workers in terms of power,
newcomers would seem likely to vary their information-seeking tactics be-
tween sources (Walther, 1978).

Iniormation Content

A number of types of information content have been suggested by

theonsts and researchers as cntical to newcomers' development of role
competencies and relationships with others (e.g., Ashford & Cummings,
1985; Feldman, 1977, 1981; Gommersall & Meyers, 1966; Herold & Parsons,
1985; Katz & Kahn, 1978; Penley, 1982; Staton-Spicer & Darling, 1986). An
examination of these information typologies suggests the types of content
propxtsed by theorists can be reduced to three parsimonious categories:
referent, appraisal, and relational. Referent information "tells the worker
what is required of him or her to function successfully on the job" (Hanser &
Muchinsky, 1978: 48; see also Greller & Harold, 1975). Appraisal information
"tells the worker if he or she is functioning successfully on the job" (Hanser
& Muchinsky, 1978: 48). Relational information tells the worker about the
nature of his or her relationship with another. Even though little attention
has been given to relational information in organizational settings, such
content may be conceived of as a component of all messages (Watzlavick,
1991 Miller and Jablin 99

Beavin, 8c Jackson, 1967) as well as the sole focus of a pariicular message

(Baxter & Wilmot, 1984). With respect to the present discussion, the latter
conception applies. To furiher elucidate each type of information. Table 1
provides examples of the kinds of information that newcomers might seek
that would be classified into each of the three general information content
To date, the only research that has specifically focused on how employ-
ees seek out information has largely omitted considerations of message
content. Specifically, although Ashford and Cummings (1985) identified four
types of message content that are essentially appraisal in nature (e.g.,
periormance feedback, potential for advancement, appropriateness of so-
cial behaviors, adequacy of basic skills and abilities), all these items were

Types of Information Sought by Newcomers
Iniormation Categories and Elxamples'
Iniormation Relational
(Degree oi Iniormation
functioning (Nature oi
Reierent Iniormation successfully relationships
(What is required to function on the )ob) on the job) with others)
Job instructions Reason for doing a Performance Extent of fitting into
task feedback social environment
Job rationale Job procedures Potential for Social/affective
advancement support
Orgaruzationai How to get a Appropriateness of Others' personality
procedures promotion or social behaviors characteristics
Organizational New ideas or ways Adequacy of basic Others likes/dislikes
goals to do things skills and abilities
Nuances of rules What work needs Quality of work Managing job
to be done efficiency in pressures and role
accomplishing conflicts
Iniormal networks How to get ]ob Adequacy of Personal goals
training performance
under pressure
Amount of Interpretations ol Overcoming anxieties
responsibility activities &
Job goals Meaning of Confirmation of a
organizational new self-image
Feelings about
* Extrapolated from Ashford & Cummings (1985); Feldman (1977, 1981); Greller & Herold
(1975); Gommereall & Meyers (1966); Herold & Parsons (1985); Katz & Kahn (1978); Penley (1982);
and Staton-Spicer & Darling (1986).
100 Academy of Management Review January

collapsed together in the operationalization of the variable, "information-

seeking activity," and were not distinguished among one another in their
analyses. Similarly, Ashford's (1986) study focused on employees' inquiries
into periormance feedback and potential for advancement (forms of ap-
praisal information). In sum, it seems clear that in the future researchers
need to more closely consider how newcomers' information-seeking behav-
iors may vary according to the content of the informatiori they are seeking.

Individual Diiierences and Contextual Factors

Individual differences among new hires and distinctive characteristics
of the organizational environments newcomers are entering may also affect
how they seek information. With respect to individual differences, newcom-
ers' levels of self-esteem and tolerance for ambiguity may affect their infor-
mation-seeking behaviors, such that persons with low self-esteem are less
likely to search for information and engage in nsk-taking behavior than
persons with high self-esteem (e.g.. Hall, 1971; Louis, 1990; Weiss, 1977),
and individuals with a low tolerance for ambiguity use more direct infor-
mation-seeking tactics than persons with a high tolerance for ambiguity
(e.g., Ashford & Cummings, 1985; Norion, 1975). Newcomers' levels of cog-
nitive complexity also may affect their information-seebng behavior. In par-
ticular, individuals who are more lntegratively complex will sample more
sources for information and usually will seek more information than persons
who are less integratively complex (Louis, 1990; Stabell, 1978). Other indi-
vidual difference factors that may affect newcomers' information-seeking
behavior include their levels of self-efficacy (Jones, 1986), expenence in
making role transitions, and familiarity with work environments similar to
the new work setting (Louis, 1990; Pavelchak, Moreland, & Levine, 1986).
Additionally, newcomers' information-seeking behaviors may be
greatly affected by the manner in which the organization socializes their
new hires (e.g., Jones, 1986; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). For instance, it is
likely that newcomers who receive "individual socialization" will establish
personal relationships with incumbents from whom they can directly seek
information (e.g., Louis, 1980). In contrast, newcomers who experience "col-
lective" tactics may try to reduce unceriainty by seeking out information
from other recruits who are undergoing similar experiences (Moreland &
Levine, 1982). In turn, the extensiveness and complexity of the cultural land-
scape of the organization (e.g., Louis, 1990), occupational and industry in-
formation-sharing norms (e.g.. Van Maanen & Barley, 1984), as well as a
newcomer's job level, depariment affiliation, and task type may affect the
extent and manner in which she or he seeks information (e.g., Jablin, 1987).

Outcomes oi Newcomers' Iniormation Seeking

One of the pnmary purposes of messages sent by the organization,
supervisors, and co-workers in the encounter penod is to provide newcom-
ers with information leading to role clarity. However, instead of developing
1991 Miller and Jablin 101

role clarity, newcomers frequently experience role ambiguity and role con-
flict (Feldman, 1976; Graen, 1976; Jablin, 1987). Newcomers may experience
role ambiguity and/or conflict as a result of (1) a lack of clarity and unanimity
in others' expectations concerning newcomers' roles, (2) mixed feedback
about their job performance, (3) not being able to negotiate informal agree-
ments regarding others' influence in defining their roles, and (4) others'
breaking or neglecting to fulfill contracts or negotiated functions (Katz &
Kahn, 1978).
Role ambiguity and role conflict are likely to have a negative impact
upon newcomers' performance ratings and organizational tenure. Results
of meta-analyses in this area (Cotton & Tuttle, 1986; Fisher & Gittelson, 1983;
Jackson 8f Schuler, 1985) indicate that role ambiguity and role conflict are
consistently negatively correlated with job satisfaction and, m particular,
employees' satisfaction with work itself, satisfaction with supervision, and
commitment to and involvement in organizations. Moreover, role ambiguity
and role conflict tend to be negatively correlated with job tenure across most
research studies (Cotton & Tuttle, 1986; Jackson & Schuler, 1985). Therefore,
role ambiguity and role conflict may pose serious problems for organiza-
tional newcomers. However, the levels of role ambiguity/conflict experi-
enced by newcomers may depend on their information-seeking behaviors.
To this point in time, researchers have focused only on the relationship
between the frequency of information-seeking behaviors and levels of role
ambiguity; they have not focused on the particular types of information-
seeking tactics that may be most effective in reducing role ambiguity and
role conflict. For example, although Ashford and Cummings (1985) and
Ashford (1986) reported positive correlations between role clarity and fre-
quency of feedback-seeking behaviors, they did not indicate the forms of
information seeking that seem to be the most effective m reducing role
ambiguity and role conflict. Obviously, such information might be ex-
tremely valuable in developing organizational programs designed to help
newcomers learn to use information-seeking tactics that enhance rather
than diminish their levels of role clarity.
In summary, as a result of entering a new organization and beginning
a new job, newcomers are likely to seek information with a heightened
sense of awareness or mindfulness. In an effort to reduce uncertainty (about
the full meaning of their roles, organizational events, others' expectations,
etc.), newcomers often seek information from their supervisors and co-
workers. Information-seeking activities are also likely to be stimulated by the
reception of role-related information from supervisors, co-workers, and/or
others, which may not provide sufficient clarity about newcomers' roles. In
turn, the manner in which newcomers seek information is likely to be
shaped by their level of uncertainty about organizational events, the social
costs inherent in information seeking, differences among newcomers with
respect to personality and past work experiences, and contextual factors
associated with the organizational setting. It is anticipated that newcomers
who are able to utilize a variety of information-seeking tactics to obtain
102 Academy ot Management Review January

role-related information will report lower levels of role ambiguity/conflict. In

contrast, newcomers who do not seek information as readily and who do not
utilize a variety of tactics may experience higher levels of role ambiguity/
conflict. Expenences of role ambiguity/conflict may, in turn, stimulate more
information-seeking activity. Thus, it is expected that the levels of role am-
biguity/conflict experienced by newcomers during the organizational en-
counter period may depend upon their information-seeking behaviors.
Whereas the preceding discussion identified various influences on
newcomers' mformation-seeking behaviors, the following section examines
means or tactics by which new hires seek information and presents research
propositions on newcomers' use of these tactics. Several caveats associated
with the discussion that follows warrant attention. First, because the poten-
tial moderating effects of individual difference and organizational contex-
tual factors on newcomers' information-seeking behavior are so numerous
and complex, they usually are not considered in our presentation of re-
search propxjsitions. Hence, extreme vanations related to these factors
might moderate the nature of the relationships posited in the research prop-
ositions. Second, in offenng propositions, we have limited ourselves to those
that concem issues cntical to the lnformation-seefang process or that have
the most heuristic value for future research.
Finally, it is important to realize that the following discussion of infor-
mation-seeking tactics is intended to descnbe how factors in the model
presented in Figure 1 might have an impact on use of the tactics among
newcomers; our purpose is no( to compare the use of tactics between new-
comers and oldtimers. Although it is possible that oldtimers' use of the
tactics would be the same as newcomers' under similar conditions, there
also may be many distinctions in their selection of tactics. As noted previ-
ously, the information-seeking behaviors of newcomers will become
"scripted" as they reduce uncertainty and become assimilated into their
organizations. As oldtimers, they will follow these scnpts m seeking infor-
mation, though under certain conditions (e.g., in equivocal, "surprising"
situations) their information-seeking efforts may occur in a heightened state
of consciousness. Distinctive factors that might affect oldtimers' use of the
information-seeking tactics are briefly elaborated in the concluding section
of this article.


Iniormation-seeking attempts are usually defined as deliberate, con-
scious efforts (Baxter & Wilmot, 1984; Berger & Bradac, 1982; Brown & Levin-
son, 1978; Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978; Trope & Bassok, 1982). As such, these
crttempts have been conceived as general tactics for obtaining information

' Examples in this section are based on interviews the authors have conducted with or-
ganizational newcomers as part of a larger program of research explonng the organizational
entry process.
1991 Miller and Jablin 103

(Baxter & Wilmot, 1984; Brown & Levinson, 1978). Information-seeking tactics
range in their overtness and the specificity of the information sought. For
example, some information requests may be consciously identifiable to tar-
gets, whereas in other cases, information targets may be unaware that
newcomers have been eliciting information from them. At times, newcom-
ers seek specific information (e.g., instructions on the use of the fax ma-
chine); at other times newcomers seek more generalized information such
as an incumbent's perception of the department's/organization's mission. In
essence, although incumbents frequently encourage newcomers to atk
questions and openly seek information (Louis, 1980), newcomers, in fact,
utilize a wide repertoire of information-seeking behaviors in order to obtain
Overt Questions
A iirst information-seeking tactic concerns the use of overt means. This
tactic IS likely to be utilized when newcomers are comfortable with soliciting
information from a source (i.e., attempt is conducive in terms of target open-
ness and anticipated social costs) and involves direct interaction with infor-
mation targets. Newcomers may opt for overt tactics because such tactics (1)
are efficient in that specific information can be requested (Berger & Bradac,
1982), (2) provide opportunities to clarify potential ambiguities m messages
received, and (3) may assist in further relational development enabling
easier access to the source in future information requests. In addition, new-
comers have told us that they use overt questions to seek information be-
cause they perceive that their supervisors perceive such behavior as a sign
of doing a "good" job and, in tum, to engender their supervisors' favor. In
contrast, newcomers may be cautious m using overt tactics because (1)
preoccupations with their self-presentation may detract from attention given
to targets' responses (Berger & Bradac, 1982), (2) revelations of their uncer-
tainty may be potentially disadvantageous (e.g., a new hire asking for help
in using a computer system that incumbents have referred to as
"elementary"), and (3) the target may not tolerate repetitive unilateral in-
formation requests (Berger & Bradac, 1982; Goody, 1978).
Research indicates that individuals tend to use overt information-
seeking behaviors to the extent that they feel comfortable in approaching
information sources. In a field study of sixth grade girls, Walther (1978)
reported that interrogative questions were the primary mode of information
acquisition when these girls interacted with their peers. On the other hand,
noninterrogative questions were utilized when the students were seeking
information from their teachers. Subsequent analysis lead Walther (1978) to
conclude that the children felt comfortable asking questions of their peers
but uncomfortable asking questions of their teachers (i.e., higher status
According to Brown and Levinson (1978), individuals may universally
use overt information seebng when there is little chance of "losing face" or
being embarrassed by asking for information. It also appears that overt
104 Academy ot Management Review January

question asking is encouraged during the interactions of initial acquaintan-

ces. Open-ended questions dominate the first few minutes of interaction
among strangers (Berger & Kellerman, 1983) and remain a pnme means for
information gathenng among more established relationships (Hewes, Gra-
ham, Doelger, & Pavitt, 1985). However, individuals often use close-ended
questions when they desire a more specific response and when they have
progressed past initial levels of relational uncertamty (Berger & Kellerman,
1983). Even though little is known about the use of overt information-seeking
behaviors m organizations, Ashford (1986) found that employees' frequent
use of direct inquiry was positively related to the perceived value of feed-
back, negative premonitions about goal attainment, and the amount of
feedback recently received, but was negatively related to organizational
A synthesis of the above materials suggests that use of overt questions
is an efficient means to acquire information. However, the likelihood of
newcomers using this tactic appears dependent, in part, upon newcomers'
perceptions of the source's approachability or "openness" (Redding, 1972).
These perceptions of source openness may coincide with a honeymoon
penod (Ziller, 1965) and/'or an invitation from a source to "feel free to ask
questions." From time to time, newcomers also appear willing to risk po-
tential negative consequences associated with asking overt questions when
the information is considered vital. Though asking for information in a direct
manner is efficient m the short term, such an approach may be detrimental
to the newcomers' relationships with others over the long term. Thus, Ash-
ford's (1986) report of a significant negative correlation between the fre-
quency of direct inquiry and length of organizational tenure may suggest a
sensitivity to the long-term social costs of depending on others for informa-
tion and, consequently, the development of alternative modes of informa-
tion seeking. Extrapolating on the research and theory discussed above, we
Proposition 1.1: Newcomers' perceptions of uncertainty
will affect the types of overt questions they ask. such that
they will use overt, closed-ended questions when seeking
information about which they have relatively little uncer-
tainty and overt, open-ended questions when seeking in-
formation about which they have moderate to high levels
of uncertainty.
Proposition 1.2: Overt questions are likely to be used
when newcomers (I) anticipate few negative conse-
quences (i.e.. low social costs) and (2) perceive overt in-
formation-seeking modes as situationally normative.
Proposition 1.3: Due to status differences, newcomers will
have a greater propensity to use overt questions when
seeking information from co-workers as compared to su-
1991 Miller and Jablin 105

Indirect Questions
A second information-seeking tactic involves the use of indirect ques-
tions (e.g., noninterrogative questions) and is typically used when newcom-
ers are uncomfortable in seeking information from a source. Through indi-
rect questions, newcomers are able to ask questions of incumbents in a way
that neither embarrasses newcomers nor puts incumbents on the spot. For
example, with indirect questions, information targets can avoid responding
to questions, and senders can discount the information-seeking intent of a
message. These "face saving" options (Brown & Levinson, 1978) may pro-
vide viable alternatives for newcomers who wish to avoid potential costs
involved in overt attempts. Conversely, potential disadvantages of this ap-
proach include information targets (1) who are neither cognizant of nor
responsive to indirect questions and (2) who respond unfavorably toward
veiled information-seeking attempts.
Tactics associated with this strategy are noninterrogative questions and
hinting. As mentioned previously, Walther (1978) found that children typi-
cally utilize noninterrogative questioning strategies with higher status
sources. In a similar vein, Buzzanell (1987) reported that supervisors believe
subordinates often ask around questions about career advancement issues
rather than directly ask questions. In addition, hinting is often used as an
indirect means for bnnging topics to targets' attention and as a means for
avoiding a "loss of face" (Baxter & Wilmot, 1984; Brown & Levinson, 1978).
As several newcomers have reported to us, co-workers often won't respond
in a straightforward manner to direct questions about newcomers' job per-
In general, there seems to be considerable evidence that indirect ques-
tions are universally used as face-saving tactics (Brown & Levinson, 1978;
Goody, 1978). The use of this tactic seems especially likely if newcomers are
intimidated by seeking information directly from a target or if they are seek-
ing information about topics that are awkward to talk about. However,
because noninterrogative questions and hinting rely on targets' responding
to cues and veiled references, newcomers may use these modes when
seeking information of which they are fairly certain and able to interpret if
given an equally veiled respxinse. Consequently, it seems reasonable to
Proposition 2.1: Indirect tactics are more likely to be used
by newcomers when seeking potentially embarrassing
information such as appraisal and relational information
than when seeking referent information.
Proposition 2.2: Newcomers are more likely to use indirect
tactics when seeking information from supervisors and
high status others as opposed to co-workers.
Third Parties
A third tactic involves third parties as information sources and substi-
tutes a primary source (e.g., supervisor) with a secondary source (e.g..
106 Academy o/Managemen( fieviewr January

co-worker). This tactic is typically used when the primary source is unavail-
able and/or when newcomers feel uncomfortable in seeking information
from a primary source. The use of third parties also provides a mexins by
which individuals may confirm the meanings of primary sources' messages.
In an attempt to avoid potential costs, newcomers are likely to consider the
third person's (1) credibility as a source and (2) potential to tell the primary
source of the information-seeking incident (Berger & Bradac, 1982).
Research indicates that students frequently use third parties as targets
of information-seeking crttempts in order to reduce uncertainty about their
romantic partners' feelings (Baxter & Wilmot, 1984) and to "second guess"
messages from pnmary sources (Hewes et al., 1985). Yet, little is known
about organizational newcomers' use of third parties as information
sources. Rather than obtaining information from their supervisors, Louis
(1980) speculates that newcomers may tum to incumbents who "serve as
sounding boards and guide [newcomers] to important background informa-
tion for assigning meaning to events and surprises" (: 243). Supportive of this
notion, Hewes and his colleagues (1985) found that one-third of a group of
organizational employees they surveyed acquired information about daily
operations from indirect (e.g., secondary) sources rather than pnmary
sources. Farther, newcomers have reported to us that they have sought
information from secondary sources because their supervisors' explanations
were confusing and/'or because their bosses lacked the technical expertise
to answer these questions.
It is probably safe to say that the third-party tactic has widespread use
in both organizational and nonorganizational settings. Indeed, secondary
sources appear to be available and convenient, provide emotional support,
reinforce and/or confirm newcomers' impressions, and serve as informal
socialization agents. However, dangers associated with the exclusive use of
this tactic include receiving incorrect or misleading information and being
lndoctnnated in a manner antithetical to the organization's and/or supservi-
sor's wishes (Lodahl & Mitchell, 1980). As such, newcomers who are overly
dependent upon nonsupervisory members of their role set for information
may have greater difficulty obtaining role clarity. In light of these issues, we
Proposition 3.1: Newcomers are more likely to use the
third party tactic in seeking appraisal or relational infor-
mation (which has evaluative components) than referent
information (which is usually nonevaluative).
Proposition 3.2: Newcomers are more likely io use the
third party tactic when (I) the primary target is the super-
visor rather than a co-worker and (2) the secondary
source is perceived as credible and confidential.
Testing Linuts
A fourth information-seeking tactic involves testing limits or the creating
of situations to which information targets must respond. Targets' responses
1991 Miller and Jablin 107

are monitored by information seekers m an attempt to gain insight into

targets' attitudes toward particular behaviors or issues. The uniqueness of
this tactic resides in its more-or-less specific stimuli and its confrontational
nature. Because targets' responses may be evoked by relatively controlled
stimuli (e.g., violating a written procedure to learn its relative importance),
information seekers may obtain a somewhat specific response. Yet, this
tactic may incur great costs to the information seeker; the target may de-
velop negative feelings and evaluations about the information seeker. In
addition, instead of eliciting specific information, targets' responses may
provide a smaller amount of and/or more equivocal information than would
have direct questions.
Specific modes associated with this tactic are "Garfinkelmg" and
"testing." Garfinireiing involves the deliberate breaking of stated "rules" to
discover both how salient the rules are to incumbents and when these rules
will be enforced (Garfinkel, 1967), Instead of attending to cues, information
seekers focus on the consequences of an action. By retrospectively making
sense of the consequences, information seekers may be able to assess what
rules (and how rules) are actually enforced (Weick, 1979), thus developing
a knowledge built on expenence rather than on speculation about conse-
quences (Garfinkel, 1967). Along these lines, one new hire told us that he
noticed that no one seemed to pay attention when he arrived to work, so he
began expenmenting in arriving later and later. Eventually, he ceased the
practice when he arrived two hours late and expected to receive a repri-
mand from his boss.
A related model, testing, involves "rule deviation to see how much the
other party will withstand" (Baxter & Wilmot, 1984: 186). Whereas Garfinkel-
ing denotes the breaking of rules for the purpose of defining organizational
or work group rules, testing denotes the breaking of rules for the purpose of
defining relationships or priorities. With regard to romantic relationships,
Baxter and Wilmot (1984) found that testing and similar tactics were the most
frequently reported information-seeking behaviors by college students. In
office settings, newcomers report testing limits to be an effective means of
forcing their supervisors to clarify role expectations. For example, one new
hire told us she was able to force her recalcitrant supervisor to identify
which of several competing tasks should be completed first by working on
all the projects at once; because this tactic resulted in delays in the com-
pletion of all the tasks, the supervisor was finally forced to prioritize tasks for
the newcomer. With regards to defining relational rules, another newcomer
discovered how to distinguish between his supervisor's irritated and angry
states by listening in an adjacent room to the supervisor become angrier at
the newcomer's delay in arriving to assist in an urgent project.
Even though little is known about the effects of newcomers' deliberately
deviating from work and relational rules, it is likely that as deviants they will
be treated as rate-busters and that they will be quickly brought back into
conformity (Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939). In turn, though testing tactics
may provide newcomers with important information about work rules and
lOe Academy ot Management Review January

relationships, this tactic may be used reservedly due to the likelihood of

incurring high costs. Further, new hires may slip into a vicious cycle in
which they test unclear rules/instructions and receive feedback that is even
less clear than that which induced the initial testing tactic. Given its anti-
thetical nature to newcomers' need to "fit in," the testing tactic may be
employed only as a last resort (e.g., when frustrated or in situations of role
conflict). Consequently, we propose:
Proposition 4.1: Because the usual purpose of rule-
breaking as an information-seeking tactic is to generate
through a response information about a particular rule,
newcomers are more hkely to use the testing tactic in
situations of low uncertainty than those of high uncer-
tain ry.
Proposition 4.2: Newcomers are likely to use testing tactics
when (I) they anticipate the consequences of seeking in-
formation, in general, to be minimal (e.g., reprimand) as
opposed to maximum (e.g., dismissed) and (2) when they
perceive no other less costly means by which to obtain
the information.

Disguising Conversations

In considenng their organizational encounters, it is not uncommon to

hear newcomers remark, "I felt so disoriented that I was not even sure
where to begin asking questions." In such situations a fifth information-
seeking tactic, disguising conversations, may be used. This tactic involves
the disguising of information-seeking attempts as a natural part of conver-
sations, and It IS typically used when information seekers wish to appear
nonchalant in their attempts. The tactic has two parts: while putting their
targets at ease, information seekers subtly encourage their targets to talk
about certain topics. A potential drawback to this tactic concerns the lack of
control over targets' responses. Even though targets may be encouraged to
talk on a particular topic, there is no guarantee that targets will not wander
to another topic rather than reveal the sought-after information.
Specific modes associated with this tactic include joking, the use of
objects in the environment, verbal prompts, and self-disclosure. Jokes pro-
vide a means to reduce targets' defensiveness through the expression of
shared backgrounds and values (Brown & Levmson, 1978). At the same
time, targets' reactions to information seekers' jokes provide cues to targets'
attitudes. Thus, for instance, in order to measure the seriousness with which
incumbents take work-related safety issues a new hire might make fun of the
wording within a safety memorandum sent from corporate headquarters. If
no one else in the group joked along with him or her, one might conclude
that safety rules are taken seriously in the organization. Similarly, referring
to objects in the environment (e.g., a typewriter, papers stacked on a desk)
helps to establish a common ground for conversation. Moreover, targets'
1991 Miiier a n d Jablin 109

responses to such references may provide both factual and attitudinal in-
formation. Berger and Kellerman (1983) found that college students who
were asked to seek high amounts of information from their interaction pxirt-
ners used this mode significantly more often than moderate or low informa-
tion seekers. In addition, information seekers frequently use verbal prompts
along with references to objects in the environment for managing conver-
sations. Verbal prompts encourage speakers to continue talking along the
same line of explanation or reasoning (Berger & Kellerman, 1983). As such,
verbal prompts are usually interpreted as indications of receivers' interest in
a topic as well as a means of conversational management (Duncan, 1975;
Patterson, 1983).
Self-disclosure, in contrast, involves revealing a part of the information
seeker's self in order to solicit information from a target. Using the "norm of
reciprocity" (i.e., others tend to reciprocate information similar in depth and
kind that one is willing to disclose about him- or herself), information seekers
attempt to solicit information from targets (Berger & Bradac, 1982; Cozby,
1973; lourard, 1971; Knapp, 1984; Miller & Steinberg, 1975; Pomerantz, 1988).
As Jablin (1987) suggested, a newcomer may attempt to discover his or her
supervisor's work style by disclosing, in an appropriate conversation, how
he or she "pulls all-nighters" rather than turn in projects late. Should the
supervisor respond m similar depth and topic about managing workloads,
the newcomer will be provided with relevant information about the super-
visor's attitudes regarding meeting deadlines and dedication to work. How-
ever, targets' reciprocations may or may not be connected to the topic of
information seekers' disclosures (Dmdia, 1988). Furthermore, initiators of
self-disclosure tend to be viewed positively by targets only if the behavior is
used m moderation (Gilbert & Hornstein, 1975; Knapp, 1984; Worthy, Gary,
& Kahn, 1969).
In sum, individuals appear to be quite sophisticated in their ability to
solicit information in a manner that cloaks their willful and conscious intent
(Pomerantz, 1988). Although no research has specifically examined organi-
zational members' use of disguising conversation tactics, this tactic may be
best suited for use when anticipating high social costs and/or when seeking
potentially embarrassing information. What this tactic lacks in term of effi-
ciency (as compared to overt questions), disguising conversations makes up
by being a part of naturally occurring conversations and building upon
shared values (Brown &. Levinson, 1978). The likelihood of this tactic's use
increases when newcomers are experiencing high levels of uncertainty
and/or seeking high amounts of information (Berger & Kellerman, 1983). In
turn, as newcomers become more familiar with the work group/
organization they are likely to have a greater opportunity to employ this
tactic given a concomitant increase in knowledge of specific objects about
which to make jokes or references. Thus, we offer:
Proposition 5.1: Newcomers are more likely to use the
disguising conversation tactic when seeking appraisal or
110 Academy of Management Review January

reiafionai in/ormafion (about which they often experience

high levels of uncertainty) than referent information.
Proposition 5.2: Newcomers are more likely to use dis-
guising conversation tactics when seeking information
from supervisors than from co-workers (from whom it
may be less costly to directly seek information).
A sixth information-seeking tactic involves observing targets' behaviors
in salient situations and is typically used when individuals wish to unob-
trusively obtain information concerning a target's attitude or information
about how to perform a task (Berger & Bradac, 1982). For example, new-
comers are able to obtain information about what their supervisors' value
by observing the behaviors other work group members enact that result in
their receiving rewards from the boss. The observing tactic also discreetly
provides information that may stimulate the modification of newcomers'
behaviors and attitudes. For instance, new hires are able to evaluate the
quality of their work and performance by comparing themselves to other
more experienced workers. However, it is important to realize that at times
newcomers may mistakenly "fall back" on well-learned behaviors if stimuli
in the new work environment "resemble triggering stimuli in [an] old
environment" (Brett, 1984: 153). Observing others perform salient tasks can
also provide newcomers with models to emulate in the learning of new work
skills (Weiss, 1977). Hence, it is common to hear new hires' reports of initially
"tagging along" with an incumbent to see how he or she pjerforms the role
(e.g., selling) or of watching others actuaUy apply principles that were
taught in a training program.
As an information-seeking tactic, the advantages to observing anoth-
er's behavior rest in its inconspicuous nature and in an individual's ability
to imitate others' behaviors (Bandura, 1977). In addition, it seems the ob-
serving tactic would be particularly salient for obtaining information from
co-workers as opposed to supervisors because co-workers are likely to per-
form tasks similar to that of the newcomer, usually are more available for
observation, and often provide a more comparative basis for evaluation of
performance. However, this tactic is limited in terms of the amount of ac-
curate information obtained about targets' attitudes and behavioral moti-
vations. Trying to develop a rationale for another's action often leads to false
attributions (e.g., Tversky & Kahneman, 1974).
Research on information seekers' observational behaviors has focused,
in part, on the types of situations that individuals find the most informative.
Several studies have found that observers prefer to watch targets interact-
ing informally with others as opposed to observing targets performing tasks
in formal or solitary situations (Berger & Douglas, 1981; Berger & Perkins,
1978). Research in organizational settings indicates that employees' use of
1991 Miller and Jablin 111

observational behaviors for information gathering are positively related to

perceived value of feedback, negative premonitions about goal attainment,
self-confidence, and the amount of feedback previously received (Ashford,
1986). Additionally, research has focused on employees' inclination to use
modeling behaviors. Weiss (1977) reported that subordinates who had low
self-esteem as opposed to high self-esteem were more likely to value their
supervisors as models, especially when their supervisors were perceived as
successful and competent. Weiss (1977) speculated that all new hires may
use modeling behaviors to leam their roles, but those with high self-esteem
may rely on previous models more than models that were readily available
in their new organizations.
An integration of the above matenals suggests that observing is a crit-
ical means for the gathering of Information useful m the construction of
sensemaking cognitive schemas, filling gaps in role knowledge, and repli-
cating others' behaviors that are perceived as rewarding. Further, its ad-
vantages are many: (1) few, if any, negative consequences result from its
use; (2) it can be utilized concurrently with other tactics; (3) it facilitates
comparisons of past knowledge/experiences with present stimuli; and (4) by
making self-compansons to others' behaviors, newcomers are able to make
comparative judgments about their own attitudes and performance. Hence,
we propose:
Proposition 6.1: Though new hires may utilize the observ-
ing tactic m both high and low social cost situations, they
are more likely to use observing tactics when they are
uncomfortable (i.e., high costs) as opposed to comfort-
able m seeking information from the source.

Proposition 6.2: Newcomers are more likely to use observ-

ing tactics when seeking information from co-workers as
opposed to supervisors.


A seventh information-seeking tactic involves the use of a surveillance

or a monitoring mode. This tactic is also inconspicuous, and it may be used
by individuals at any time. A chief distinction between a surveillance tactic
and an observation tactic is that surveillance is based primarily on retro-
spective sense making and is indiscriminate in the cues to which individuals
pay attention. In contrast, the observation tactic focuses on targets in order
to acquire information about specific attitudes or to model specific behav-
iors. Furthermore, though the surveillance tactic may focus on cues given
through "ambient" messages/experiences (Jablin, 1987), the observing tactic
may concentrate on "discretionary" messages/experiences. Managers uti-
lize monitoring tactics when they walk among their employees' workstations
with no specific information target in mind (Peters 8f Waterman, 1983), or
112 Academy ol Management Review January

when employees walk through a particular workstation just to "see what's

up." Information that is obtained through monitoring is usually serendipi-
tous and made sense of through retrospective analysis.
Although little research has been done in this area, the work of Salan-
cik and Pfeffer (1978) supports the notion that new hires may monitor the talk
of co-workers. Specifically, these authors suggest that new hires may mon-
itor the aspects or dimensions of work that incumbents most frequently
speak about. Along these lines, newcomers have told us that they fre-
quently eavesdrop on peers' conversations to make sure they are not miss-
ing anything that they should know. Further, by noting the most frequent
topics of conversation, new hires may obtain guidelines for structuring their
attention processes. In addition, newcomers may pay attention to co-
workers' social constructions of events (such as ceremonies, rites, and ritu-
als) because these definitions convey work group attitudes and assumptions
about the underlying culture of the organization (Ashforth, 1985). Finally,
newcomers are likely to monitor co-workers' conversations that emphasize
certain work-related needs as well as the omission of other needs. These
emphases as well as omissions may provide cues about what is important
to members of the work group and suggest things one is expected to know.
For example, one newcomer informed us that by listening to the conversa-
tions of several recently promoted incumbents, and m particular their re-
peated references to a special night class, she was able to discern that
taking the class was necessary if one wanted to "have a future with the
firm." Another newcomer reported searching through her college lecture
notes in order to make sense out of overheard cnticisms by incumbents of a
newly installed software program she remembered hearing about while in
Therefore, the surveillance tactic requires new hires to use their retro-
spective sensemaking skills by integrating novel stimuli with past experi-
ences. Over time, the accumulation of retrospective accounts may foster the
assignment of meaning to present experiences and facilitate the creation of
new cognitive maps (Weick, 1979). Because newcomers are likely to be
functioning in a heightened state of awareness and, consequently, they
usually are more sensitive to novel stimuli, surveillance tactics may be
utilized with greater frequency during organizational entry than at any
other time m their organizational tenure. Consequently, we propxjse:
Proposition 7.1: Although newcomers are hkely to en-
counter unfamiliar stimuli in any situation, they are more
likely to use the surveillance tactic in situations of high
uncertainty than those of low uncertainty.

Proposition 7.2: Given that newcomers usually have more

opportunities to locate themselves in contexts in which
they may overhear the conversations of co-workers than
supervisors, they are more likely to use surveillance tac-
1991 Miller and Jablin 113

tics when seeking information from co-workers as op-

posed to supervisors.
Iniormation-Seeking Outcomes
As we noted previously, newcomers often seek information in order to
gain role clarity and to make sense of their organizational experiences. We
believe that the particular tactics by which newcomers seek information
significantly affects their development of role clarity. As might be expected,
all things being equal, the use of direct means (e.g., overt questions) of
information seeking should obtain a higher quality of information than the
use of less direct means. However, it is important to recognize that at times
newcomers have no choice but to use a less direct information-seeking
tactic, given anticipated high social costs for asking an overt question or the
unavailability of the primary target to answer questions. Thus, building on
positions advanced previously, the following propositions suggest rela-
tionships between the use of information-seebng tactics and newcomers'
levels of role ambiguity/role conflict:
Proposition 8.1: Newcomers who rely on overt questions
(often stimulated by observations and surveillance) in the
majority of their information-seeking attempts are more
likely to experience (1) less role ambiguity and (2) lower
levels of role conflict than those who use overt questions
with less frequency.
Proposition 8.2: Over time, newcomers who rely on third-
party sources to the exclusion of their supervisors are
more likely to encounter (1) higher levels of role ambigu-
ity and (2) higher levels of role conflict than those new-
comers who rely on both their supervisors and third-party
sources for information.
Proposition 8.3: Newcomers who often employ less direct
tactics (i.e., indirect questions, disguising conversations)
are more likely to encounter higher levels of role ambi-
guity and role conflict than those who use such tactics
with less frequency.
Proposition 8.4: Newcomers who often employ testing tac-
tics are more likely to expenence (1) higher levels of role
ambiguity and (2) higher levels of role conflict than new-
comers who engage in such tactics with less frequency.
To review, existing research suggests seven tactics which, to some de-
gree, represent potential means through which newcomers may seek infor-
mation. The nature of the Information-seeking tactics presented above pro-
vides a sharp contrast to those studied in the only existing organizational
research in this area (i.e., Ashford, 1986; Ashford & Cummings, 1985). Spe-
114 Academy o/Management Review January

cifically, Ashford and Cummings (1985) and Ashford (1986) present only two
general information-seeking tactics (inquiry and monitoring) when there
apparently are a variety of methods that employees may use. Further, these
researchers do not adequately consider factors that may influence employ-
ees to choose one tactic over another. In particular, their analyses do not
investigate any situational factors such as the employee's level of uncer-
tainty concerning the desired information or the social costs inherent in
obtaining information. These omissions seem particularly troublesome in
light of the work of Spitzberg and Cupach (1984), which states that compe-
tent communicators utilize a vanety of communicative strategies in obtain-
ing iniormation. In other words, the most appropriate information-seeking
tactic for a newcomer in a particular situation will likely depend upon his or
her uncertainty about the information, assessment of the target as an infor-
mation source, and beliefs about potential social costs associated with use
of each tactic.


Although the manner by which newcomers cope with or make sense of

their new organizational environments has been a focus of interest for some
time, very few theoretical or empirical investigations have considered the
means by which individuals acxjuire information. Rather, most research in
the area has explored how newcomers process information and make sense
out of their work environments once they have acquired information (e.g.,
Brett, 1984, Katz, 1980; Louis, 1980; Nicholson, 1984). Thus, in many respects
research explonng organizational assimilation suffers from the same weak-
ness as much extant research on decision making: A focus on how infor-
mation IS processed without adequate consideration of the processes by
which the requisite information is acquired (O'Reilly, Chatman, & Ander-
son, 1987). Briefly, it seems apparent that if we are to understand how
newcomers reformulate their interpretive schemes/cognitive maps to adapt
to their work environments we must know how they acquire relevant infor-
mation and why they process it as they do. Moreover, it is also evident that
we need to broaden our conceptualization of how individuals acquire in-
formation to include consideration of both the information organizations
cfive to newcomers (via socialization) and the information newcomers seek
from those around them.
Although it is quite likely that the information-seeking tactics that we
have outlined in the preceding pages are used by newcomers as well as by
more tenured organizational members, there are a number of important
reasons for distinguishing the information-seeking behaviors of newcomers
from those of incumbents. As noted previously, in comparison to oldtimers,
newcomers are likely to be more mindful of their information needs and the
ways in which they are attempting to seek information. The information-
seeking tactics of oldtimers are more mindless In that they are often uncon-
sciously selected based on existing knowledge structures about oneself and
1991 Miller and Jablin 115

Others in the organization (e.g., Ashforth 8f Fried, 1988). In a related vein,

the information-seeking tactics of incumbents reflect organizational infor-
mation-sharing norms (e.g., DeWhirst, 1971), behavioral knowledge that
newcomers are still in the process of trying to discover and learn. In addi-
tion, newcomers' lack of knowledge of organizational information-sharing
norms provides them with a larger repertoire of tactics to choose from in
seeking information than is the case for incumbents. Whereas newcomers
can violate norms and "get away with it" because they are still in the
honeymoon period (Ziller, 1965), incumbents are exp)ected to know the pre-
ferred ways of seeking information in the organization. Finally, even though
the factors discussed previously that affect newcomers' information-seeking
tactics are likely to also affect mcumbents' information-seeking behaviors,
the relative influence of the factors in determining choice of tactics will
probably vary between newcomers and incumbents. For newcomers, level
of uncertainty will likely be the major factor affecting their choice of infor-
mation seeking tactics, but for oldtimers, knowledge of the social milieu
(relationships with sources; explicit and implicit "costs" associated with ac-
tions) may be more important in determining choice of tactic.
To summarize, although our model depicting factors that affect new-
comers' information seeking may be applicable to incumbents as well, the
relative importance of elements in the model m determining choice of in-
formation-seeking tactic will likely vary between the two groups. As a con-
sequence, the research propositions presented m the preceding section
may prove valid for newcomers but not for more tenured employees. Ob-
viously, longitudinal research exploring individuals' use of information-
seeking tactics across stages of the organizational assimilation process will
be necessary to determine how use of tactics changes over time.
It IS also important to realize that m our earlier presentation of research
propositions we did not systematically explore how individual difference
and organizational contextual factors may moderate individuals' informa-
tion-seeking behaviors. Moreover, in our treatment of the other factors m the
information-seeking model, we considered the impact of each factor in iso-
lation of the other factors. Though this approach facilitated discussion of the
issues, it also masked how some of the factors in the model interact to affect
newcomers' choice of information-seeking tactics. For example, it seems
apparent that we need to consider how information content and information
target may interact to affect newcomers' choice of tactics. As Hanser and
Muchinsky (1978) discovered, employees tend to identify certain sources
with the receiving or acquisition of referent and appraisal information.
Hence, researchers should explore how the interaction of factors in the
model affects newcomers' choice of information-seeking tactics, as well as
how individual difference and contextual factors may moderate their selec-
tion of tactics.
In addition, in discussing newcomers' use of information-seeking tactics
we have tended to consider the tactics in isolation of one another. It is likely
that newcomers use the tactics in various combinations and that the manner
116 Academy o/Managemenf Review January

in which they select and combine tactics is related to the responses they
receive from their targets. Thus, theorists might explore how newcomers
alter their information-seeking tactics when their initial acquisition attempts
are foiled. For instance, if an indirect tactic does not gam the needed infor-
mation, do newcomers revert to overt questions or use a secondary source?
In attempting to answer these types of questions, researchers may ulti-
mately be able to identify how newcomers combine information-seeking
tactics to form lnformation-seefang strategies.
In conclusion, it seems clear that research along the lines suggested in
this article is necessary if we are to fully understand how newcomers make
sense of their new work environments. 'The types of interpretive schemes
and cognitive maps newcomers construct in order to understand their new
jobs and orgaruzations are tightly coupled with how, with whom, and about
what they seek (and receive) as information. Along these lines, we hope that
the theoretical model describing factors affecting newcomers' information-
seeking tactics and the related set of research propositions we have sug-
gested concerning tactic usage will stimulate additional study about how
individuals acquire information during organization entry.

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Vemon D. Miller received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is an
assistant professor of communication at Michigan Stale University. Correspondence
concerning this article may be addressed to him at the Department oi Communication.
Michigan State University. Ekist Lansing. MI 48824.
Fradric M. Jablin holds a dual appointment as a professor of speech communication
and management (in the Graduate School of Business) at the University of Texas at