Making Onboarding Work

With fresh faces in organisations and new interns flooding offices, it’s time to really think about what the first steps are for bringing a new employee onto your team.

Originally, the process of converting a newly-hired stranger into a fully-contributing and knowledgeable employee was left to the personnel department’s most junior benefits clerk in the first-day orientation program, with the employee left to sink-or-swim her way to success from there. Today, onboarding is the most recent addition to a manager’s checklist. Companies realise that there’s a high payoff in this unique early honeymoon period by making the new employee feel welcome and comfortable in her new surroundings, assuring the person that she’s made a good decision, and minimising the time it takes to become productive members of her new workgroup.
Traditional orientation tasks, of course, must still be completed, whether all of them are done by the hiring manager or some of the load is borne by HR. Some paperwork must be handled. Keep in mind, though, that when your new hire goes home to tell his family about his first day on the job, he would rather have something more exciting to report than, “I filled out over 30 forms today.” The person should leave work the first day convinced that she made a good decision to join your company.
If you’ve got an HR department, find out what they’ll do to orient your new employee. Everything else — all the important stuff — is your job.
The experience of current employees can be extremely valuable, particularly those who themselves were recently the new kid on the block. Ask your current employees what they wish they had known sooner. Brainstorm a list of buzzwords and acronyms. And ask current employees what their plans are to help the newcomer get on board and up to speed. Don’t think you have to figure this out yourself. Make assignments.
A key assignment is to get one person to take responsibility for shepherding the newcomer to lunch every day. And it’s ideal for everyone on the team to take the newcomer out to lunch on her first day as a ritual of celebration of her arrival.
Generic checklists for the conventional on-boarding tasks are easy enough to find — and the HR folks at the University of North Texas have produced a fine one — but don’t overlook some of the subtler items:
  • Send out an e-mail to everyone in the office so they’re prepared to welcome a new employee.
  • Set up the computer and configure the new employee’s e-mail accounts. Provide guides for any necessary software he or she will be using.
  • Set up her phone system, and provide instructions for using voicemail. And the copier. And the fax machine. And the Blackberry. And any other items of office technology.
  • Have a stack of business cards waiting.
  • Designate a workspace and provide a name plate on his or her desk or office door as a tangible sign that you’ve prepared the space.
  • Help the newbie learn names and jobs. Make an informal org chart of your department that spells out who’s responsible for what. Include your boss and her boss, too, along with any other people your newcomer is likely to run into.
  • It’s wise to assign a sponsor to help the new person get quickly on board. But make sure that the sponsor is a person that you want the new employee to emulate. Too often the assimilation process is shuffled off to the first available employee, including the most cynical, burned-out, turned-off, and disengaged members of the staff.
Finally, explain to the new hire your expectations about performance. A close review of your company’s performance appraisal form is one of the most important — and most neglected — onboarding tasks. Tell her what parts of the form you consider to be the most important. Explain how the rating system works, and the fact that a middle rating doesn’t represent average or mediocre but rather shooting par.
A good job of onboarding can take weeks off the learning curve and get the newbie up to fully-productive fast.
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