By MJ Plaster
Businesses go to great lengths to recruit the right employees for their workplaces, but that’s only half the battle. The first day on the job is often as unsettling for new employees as their first day of school was. They’re entering foreign territory, and they may feel like an interloper until they get their bearings. They’re hoping to blend in as quickly as possible—just like the new student who enters a new school in the middle of the year. Employers can help to make the new hire welcome and ease their transition into the workplace. And you don’t need us to tell you how important it is to have a happy workforce.
A Tale of Two Onboarding Experiences
I have held two “jobs” as an adult, and I had two strikingly different back-to-back experiences in onboarding. The first was when I was in college, and I worked as a legal secretary at a law school. I walked through the doors, was assigned a desk, given a pay card and told I would be assigned “my” professors—and that was that. It was, “Sink or swim, baby!” From day one, I counted the days until I could break free.
My second experience was the polar opposite of the first one. May 5, 1976, was my first day at Breech Training Academy. Breech is where mere mortals earned the wings as TWA flight attendants.
The first morning, the “Breech Babies” were herded into a large auditorium. When the lights went down and the curtain went up, the film opened with 747 lumbering down the runway at JFK for takeoff—to the tune of “Up, Up and Away (With TWA).” In the film, the CEO, along with many TWA luminaries welcomed us to the company. By the end of the film, we knew we were part of a family, part of an experience that was reserved for a special few.
I’ve interviewed many successful small- and medium-sized business owners, and the theme that’s woven through all their stories is that their team is a family. These employers hire people who share their vision and goals, and they expend a lot of energy onboarding and nurturing their employees throughout their career.
Onboarding in the 21st Century
Many people work for small-to-medium-size businesses where employee loyalty and longevity are valued. A partnership exists between the company and employees. Employees are valued, and the bond begins with the onboarding experience. Thoughtful onboarding is an investment in the business as well as an investment in the new hire.
The first 90 days cement the new hire’s career path. The goal of onboarding is to acclimate new hires to the company, its mission, goals and vision—and to lay the foundation for the new employee’s path to success at the company.
The first day
Just as the prospective employee was expected to make a good first impression during the interview, it is important for the company to make a good first impression on the new hire. Make sure everyone (especially the receptionist) expects the new employee’s arrival. Assign someone to shepherd the new employee through the first day.
Note: Most of the tasks below must be accomplished during the first day or two, but the order may vary.
HR paperwork must be completed. Instead of calling it “paperwork,” you might call it a “welcome package.” Review this guide to paperwork; your state forms will vary. Include a FAQ in the package to address the most often asked questions before they’re asked. Just as you anticipate your customer’s needs, anticipating your new hire’s needs is part of the onboarding process.
After the HR paperwork is complete, a tour of the facility is in order. People don’t want to have ask where to get a cup of coffee or where the restrooms are located. Now is a good time to show the new hire to his or her cubicle. Wouldn’t it be nice to be greeted by cards and welcoming notes in your new cubicle—something to say, “Welcome; we’re glad you’re here”?
By now, it’s probably time for lunch. Imagine it’s your first day at a new job. It’s lunchtime, and you’re turned loose in the employee cafeteria—by yourself. What could be more terrifying? Think back to the school cafeteria scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Arrange for one or more persons to accompany the new hire to lunch and to make introductions as appropriate.
Set up a series of informal, welcome meetings with immediate supervisors, managers, etc. During these meetings, the new hire should learn how he fits in with the company’s mission, vision and goals. He should come away from these meetings with a clear idea of his responsibilities, how his performance will be measured and at what intervals. It’s important that the new hire understands that there is a career path available to those who desire it and merit it.
The point is to make the new hire feel a part of the family from the minute he or she enters the workplace. A warm, personal touch goes a long way to putting the new hire at ease. If she goes home feeling good about her first day on the job, you’re halfway to cementing the employer/employee relationship.
Onboarding Is a Journey
New employees require training in procedures and processes. Whether it’s classroom training or eLearning, the key is engagement. It takes time to reach the sweet spot where engagement and learning intersect. Evaluations help you gauge the effectiveness of your training programs.
Lunch and learn programs are a good training tool for a number of reasons—they last around an hour and offer bite-sized information, and everyone has to eat, so you’re not “wasting” half a day with training. Make them fun, and people want to attend.
When I was a freshman in high school, we had a buddy system. Each freshman was assigned a senior to help her adapt to the school. Companies have begun to use the buddy system as well as mentors to help new hires reach their potential. The beauty of a buddy system is that it’s peer based, so there’s no intimidation.
If your company has in-house social networking, set up the new hire with an identity and password, and make sure you have a forum for new hires. That way, new hires can receive more peer support as well as mentoring support.
Schedule one-on-one meetings between the new hire and her immediate supervisor during the first three months. Encouragement can be offered and corrections in course can be made early. Plan around 15–30 minutes for these meetings.
It’s important that you don’t overwhelm new employees with too much information or too much responsibility all at once. It takes time to absorb and internalize everything that’s thrown at a new hire. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, but one of them won’t be hanging a sign that says, “Sink or Swim” in the new hire’s cubicle. By paying attention to evaluations, you can tweak your onboarding to perfection, and once you hit your sweet spot, you’ll be thrill with the return on investment. A productive workplace is made up of a happy team.