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Onboarding Matters: How Great Managers Get it Right
Liesa Taylor
, 12th November 2019
9 min read
For Employers

In The Power of Moments Chip and Dan Health describe two different “first days” at a new job. Imagine the first scenario: your laptop isn’t ready, no one has cleaned off your new desk since your predecessor left, and since no one is available to meet with you, you’re left to make sense of seven different emails with similar-but-not-the-same benefit instructions. You probably don’t have to work very hard to imagine this scenario.

The other scenario—a description of John Deere’s First Day Experience—is much more inspiring. From the moment you accept the job, you receive human-sounding emails with resources that prepare you to get started. On your first day, you’re greeted by friendly faces and a “Welcome” banner next to your (clean!) desk. When you log into your (working!) computer, you’re greeted with a video from the CEO sharing the company mission and wishing you a successful, fulfilling career. There are other important aspects of John Deere’s First Day Experience in The Power of Moments, and it’s worth reading in full for anyone onboarding new employees.

In 2019 Global Human Capital Trends, Deloitte describes an important trend: the opportunity for us to expand the concept of the “employee experience” to address the “human experience” at work. While organizations are investing in programs to improve life at work, research shows the most important factor is making work meaningful and giving people a sense of belonging, trust, and relationship. Onboarding and an employee’s first day is your first opportunity to do this.

This is important whether you’re a Fortune 500 or an early-stage startup, and not just because it’s a more human way to welcome someone to a team. According to Bamboo HR’s survey of 1000 US workers, 31% of people left their job within the first six months, and 68% of those departed in the first three months. These losses add up; estimates of the cost of turnover are 125% of salary for a mid-level employee.

So how can you onboard employees better? In my experience helping companies build robust and effective onboarding programs, there are five things to get right. While it’s ideal to tackle these company-wide, I’ll also share strategies for managers who work at the 20% of companies without a formal onboarding program.

1. Connect with your new employee before their first day.

Ask your recruiting team what information is sent to new employees. Some companies send welcome letters from a senior leader and schwag; others send only instructions for new hire paperwork. If you can, influence your company to send the sort of warm welcome letter you’d like to receive. If you can’t, write a letter yourself and send it to new hires on your team. You could write an email overview of the team and the challenges & opportunities she’ll face, or you could send a handwritten card expressing your enthusiasm for her start.

2. Ask an experienced employee to be an informal buddy.

Choose someone with a keen sense of your organization’s culture and a good attitude. Almost anyone can be an onboarding buddy, but it shouldn’t be you; the goal is to grow your new hire’s network. Introduce buddy and new hire before the first day so your new hire has somewhere to go to with those seemingly trivial first-day questions. Set new hire and buddy up for success by sharing expectations with both: suggest they meet 2-3 times over the first 90 days and share that buddy can provide casual advice, guidance, and help meeting people.

3. Provide a first-day welcome which builds a sense of community and belonging.

If your organization has an onboarding program, some (but not all) of this may be covered. If not, it’s up to you (the good news about this is most new hires want to be onboarded by their managers). Start with an announcement about your new hire that includes her professional background and a couple of details about her interests or family (hint: this should sound like it was written by a human). Then, re-send the announcement to your new hire’s most important stakeholders with a cc to your new hire setting up 1×1 meetings where she can get to know her stakeholders. Schedule these meetings yourself so they happen in the first days. Meet your new hire at the beginning of the day to orient her and the end of the day to answer questions before day two (do this even if you must do it by phone).

4. Plan a series of orientation sessions (web-based training alone doesn’t count).

Here it’s obviously best to have a company-wide program but if you can’t influence your organization to invest in one, you can do some of it yourself. Your goal is to teach your new hire about the history, culture, and operations of the organization, and ideally to create space for him to get to know other new hires and employees. Your orientation should include:

  • Strategy and organization structure: an org chart (with names) is essential. If you’re on your own for this, schedule time for someone senior to discuss it with your new hire.
  • The purpose and values of the organization: this can be shared in a powerful way through videos combined with discussion questions. Videos don’t need to be created just for orientation—consider any video assets you have access to (advertisements, video of retreats or meetings, or even a TED talk that considers a topic important to your ways of working). If you have a group of new hires, they can discuss concepts together. If just one, arrange for a discussion with the new hire’s buddy. Don’t leave it to your new hire to read this important stuff by himself—it’s important that you create a way for him to discuss the concepts with colleagues and consider how he will apply them in his role.  
  • A way to connect with the work of the organization. If you work for a product company, arrange for new employees to see and interact with products. If you work for a service company, consider videos of or case studies about customers. These don’t have to be complicated or expensive to create: ask current employees to share stories and examples of their work over lunch and give your new hire names of employees he can hit up with questions.

5. Create experiences that last beyond the first day (and week).

While the Heath brothers focus on the power of the first-day as a defining moment, onboarding lasts much longer than that. It’s impossible for people to absorb everything they need in a day or week. Create a program that supports people through their first 3-6 months. Include social activities, tours of company operations, visits to stores or with customers (especially for functional employees), and opportunities for new hires to interact with employees from different parts of the business. And don’t just create a schedule of activities. Talk with your new hire about what she observes, what she is learning, and what ideas she has, and help her connect them to her role.

While these suggestions might seem obvious, most companies haven’t done a good job and they can be a differentiator for you. Plus, onboarding employees in this way is simply more human: if we remove all the silly bureaucracy we have come to expect in the corporate world and imagine how we would like to be welcomed to a new group, we imagine something much closer to this than what we’re doing today.


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