Mark was upbeat at the end of his first day at his new job as a programmer for a small tech company. He was shown around, introduced to his coworkers, and given a desk and a computer. He had spent most of the day alone and settling in, which was fine with him.
A few days later, he wasn’t so upbeat. He had been given an interesting assignment, but he wasn’t sure how it fit with the overall project, and he wasn’t sure how to do some of the work. He was concerned about asking too many questions because he wanted to look like he knew what he was doing.
By the end of the week, Mark was seriously wondering whether he had taken the right job.
This was bad news for Mark, but it’s worse news for the company.
Most large companies have processes for onboarding and integrating new hires. (How well they are implemented is a different issue.)
But smaller companies tend to be laissez-faire about how they bring on new employees. They are often more flexible, innovative and resilient because they are less bureaucratic and allow more individual freedom. But when it comes to onboarding new employees, they pay a huge price.
Eager new employees quickly become demotivated when they don’t understand what they need to do to be successful. The opportunity to capitalize on their initial energy is lost. It takes longer to integrate them. And it’s not uncommon for them to quit in frustration – 16% of new hires quit after the first week.
Many managers do a fairly good job explaining the basics to new employees. (You find out where your desk is, you get a computer and are shown where the printer, copier and supplies are. And if you’re lucky, you might be shown how to use them.) But successful onboarding is about learning the ropes, and that involves more than a quick overview.
Don’t play “Battleship” with new employees.
Too often, getting on board is like playing the game of “Battleship.” You win the game if you can keep at least one of your ships from getting sunk. The problem is it’s a guessing game – you don’t know where your opponent’s ships are and even if you win, you learn by making mistakes and will lose at least some of your ships.
That’s no way to learn a new job – having to figure out how things work by making mistakes.
3 simple ways managers can successfully and quickly onboard new employees.
- Provide a clear explanation about the specific work assignment.
Provide clear information not just about the company goals and the overall work, but even more importantly about the new employee’s work assignments – what they are expected to do on their own, where they need to coordinate with others, what resources are available, what the deliverables are and when they are due.
- Invite questions.
Recognize that new employees are reluctant to ask too many questions. Don’t just have an “open door,” where people are welcome to come in anytime. Ask employees what’s working, what’s confusing, and what’s challenging. Make it ok to ask questions. Explain that there is no such thing as a “dumb question” – that questions are a sign of learning and that you expect them to ask questions.
- Assign a peer mentor.
Ask a team member to help the new employee get the lay of the land and to explain the informal rules. Make this a formal role. Choose someone with good social skills and who wants the new employee to be successful.
#2 Invite questions seems so simple but is so powerful, especially to ask what is confusing and challenging to show it’s okay to feel that way. And, if the leader doesn’t have the answers, the best they can do is admit this and promise either find out or help the new person discover the answer.
Glad you raised the point that it’s not necessary for the manager to have all the answers – it’s the manager’s responsibility to help find the answers. One way is through making connections with the people who do. Especially in company with specialized roles, managers often don’t know all the specifics of how to do a particular job. But they need a good understanding of what the job is and where to find the resources.
The other way is by helping the person discover the answer through coaching. This is a particularly important role for a manager in supporting employees who need help thinking through an issue or approach, as you point out in your excellent book The Discomfort Zone. Thanks for sharing your insights, Marcia!
#2 Seconding Marcia’s comments… How the leader and others respond to questions will be one of a new employee’s first chances to assess the sincerity and reality of the invitation to communicate.
Great point, Tom. How the manager responds is as important as that they say. Taking the time to listen and understand and also following up later to make sure the answer was helpful builds trust and the foundation for a strong relationship. It also sets the tone for how team members will treat each other.
When I was coaching across the board at all levels of management; the best advice I gave interviewees on how to hit the ground running was to immediately develop and align their objectives with their direct report and enterprise key objectives. This provides clear integration and much needed confidence to new hires. ALIGN key objectives is the A of MYCASKI leadership reminder. Best Regards Raymond @mycaski
Excellent advice. Thanks for sharing, Raymond.
Just as we are doing in an upcoming Berrett Koehler Authors’ Retreat, assigning a volunteer to be a “buddy” to the new comer is very worthwhile. First–notice I wrote “volunteer”. The seasoned employee should want to do this. It is not something that can be ordered. Second, the volunteer also needs to be vetted for a right match. Marriages go sour and so do work relationships if the match doesn’t spark interest and compatibility. Third, the “buddy” should be someone who is known for great work habits, understands of the organization, and knows something aboutthe role the new employee will play.
As always–thanks, Jesse.
Much thanks, Eileen, for pointing out 3 important conditions for matching up the right mentor/ buddy!
I think that all organizations need a conscious on-boarding process. Among other things, it’s a productivity issue. Why block any new employee from doing their job right away? Plus, there’s often a rigorous effort in interviewing the person as a candidate during the hiring process, but little effort to sustain that rigor after the start date. Since the hiring process can be flawed – fitting square pegs in round holes – a weak on-board effort will only mask issues in the hiring effort.
I have a colleague who’s under a performance review only two months after starting a senior role. A week ago his boss finally shared a strategy document pertaining to his work – it had been produced just prior to his arrival. He’s highly qualified, smart, etc., but only now is it becoming clear that both sides may have made the wrong assumptions during hiring process. A good on-boarding effort might have prevented both him and his boss from unintentionally straying down separate paths.
Also, I’d align the processes of hiring and the on-boarding. The interviewing process can be tool for a smooth transition into the work. For example, the interviewer could ask the candidate about how they’ve handle on-boarding in the past. The candidate should be asking about the process for first week on the job.
It’s a bit like partnerships, mergers and acquisitions – if you don’t think about how to quickly integrate the new resource into organization there’s going be complications.
Great point that the best, and smoothest transition occurs when the hiring process is aligned with onboarding. Unfortunately, too many organizations don’t understand the importance of approaching onboarding seriously. Stories like the one about your colleague are all too common. Thanks for adding to the conversation!
In the long run, it takes less time to answer questions and assign a peer mentor in the beginning than to fix mistakes made by a new employee who did not know what to do and felt anxious to ask. Making new hires feel comfortable about asking questions also encourages them to be better team members.
Thanks for the affirmation of how helpful it can be to do it right in the first place – both in terms of avoiding mistakes and also not demoralizing new hires.