Most companies do a terrible job of onboarding new employees, period. We all, especially startups, want the new joinee to be up and running right away but we just don’t invest in enabling this.
Let’s be fair – at some level, we all do see the importance of onboarding. Many companies do make efforts but these are often half baked. A key issue is that a new employee joining is just one more event in a bunch of things that make up our regular workday. Even where we have been closely involved in the hiring process, we think that our work is done once the employee has accepted the offer.
But think of your own first day at a new job. It is a momentous occasion, a new start. It is an experience that defines how things will shape up. It is also a time of uncertainty and some anxiety. In his book, The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins wrote - "...they are also periods of acute vulnerability, because you lack established working relationships and a detailed understanding of your new role."
A successful onboarding should not only reinforce to the employee that they made the right choice but also positions them for success in the new job... Here are 5 tips for effectively onboarding new employees.
Get the hygiene stuff right
Think about this situation – a day before joining day, the new employee gets a confirmation call from HR. She comes in on joining day and is handed over her laptop. Her email is pre-configured and she already has a welcome mail in the inbox. There is also a mail that directs her to key joining activities and forms to fill up. There is a workstation already assigned to her and she is given the keys for her drawer. On her desk, she finds her visiting cards and stationery.
Sounds like a dream? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, at my last company they almost made it happen (just that the laptop crashed and the drawer keys didn’t work!). Getting the basic hygiene stuff in place conveys to new joinees that the company values them and doesn’t want them wasting time running around for non-value-adding tasks.
Welcome the employee – as a team
In his article – 7 Ways to Screw Up a New Employee – Jeff Haden lists “Play welcome wagon” as the number one way to “set the wrong course and screw up a new employee”. According to Jeff, “Strong interpersonal relationships, positive working relationships, lasting friendships... all those come later, if ever. You hire employees to work, not build personal relationships.”
I beg to differ.
It is extremely important for the new employee to feel welcome into the company. First impressions matter. If you want our new hires to deliver from day one, you also need to make them feel included from day one. A welcome mail is a great 1st step. See if you can also do a team lunch or at least a quick huddle. In an early stage startup, the new recruit may be 5-10% of your workforce! Make it an event; it’s not everyday that teams grow by that much.
Set up for success but don’t overdo it
It is critical that you help the new employee establish credibility. Take time out to introduce them well and share some of their past accomplishments. Talk about why the employee was hired and what you expect them to do at your company. This will not only establish credibility but also serve to set expectations for the new recruit.
That said, in your enthusiasm to brag about your latest ‘acquisition’, don’t overdo it. Remember that your current team will be judging the new recruit; the more you over-play their past success, the more they could tend to look for chinks.
Give direction & guidance
No matter how capable your new recruits are, they will almost always need some hand holding. Skills and knowledge are fungible across jobs; organizational & market context is not. Each market has its nuances and each company has its own idiosyncratic ways of doing things. During the initial period, you need someone to guide the employee.
Most companies have some sort of ‘buddy’ program but this is an area where things are often half-baked. In one of my previous jobs, I actually met my assigned buddy a month after I had joined! Where most buddy programs fall short is that the buddy sees it as an additional, non-essential task. You need to drive home the message that helping the new recruit succeed is a core responsibility; something on which performance will be measured.
Get down to business
Here, I finally agree with Jeff Haden – “New employees are a lot like cruise ships: Once their course is set—especially if that course is the wrong course—it takes significant time and energy to change their direction.” Take time out to explain the larger picture of the company but ensure that you also get down to specifics of the role and set expectations early. In the early days, focus more on the more minute aspects of the role. Employees will learn more on the job than they will through lengthy orientation sessions.
I also strongly disagree with the notion of “honeymoon” period for a new joinee. For the kind of high achievers that you should be hiring for your startup, keeping them under-utilized in the early days could be highly frustrating. Set up some early deliverables for the employee – this is the best way of helping them get the sense of achievement in order to settle down.
Think of the new recruit, not as a plug-and-play synthesizer churning out preset electronic tunes, but as an acoustic guitar that needs to be tuned and played. And what awesome notes at that...
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