Help Employees Hit the Ground Running

Good onboarding programs favor productivity over forms and formalities.

Help Employees Hit the Ground Running

Studies show that on average, about one-third of new employees quit their jobs within the first six months after getting hired. That’s really bad news for employers contending with the double-whammy of a shrinking labor pool and plentiful jobs, not to mention the high cost of training employees that leave before providing a return on that investment.

With these factors in mind, it’s easy to understand why experts say that effective onboarding programs that make employees feel engaged and energized from the get-go are more important than ever.

John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University in San Francisco, suggests using a strategic, data-driven approach to onboarding that capitalizes on new employees’ enthusiasm instead of stifling it with mind-numbing meetings and meet-and-greets.

“People come in excited about their new job and what they get is death-by-form — read this manual, fill out this form,” says Sullivan, an author, speaker and business consultant who’s helped dozens of companies develop effective onboarding programs. “By the end of that first day, all their excitement is gone.”

In addition, poor onboarding raises other risks, says Sullivan, the author of The Onboarding & Orientation Toolkit: Tools That Get New Employees and Transfers Productive Faster. It puts new hires in a position to unknowingly damage customer relations or anger colleagues who believe they’re carrying too much of the load when new hires don’t get up to speed fast.

Positioned to Succeed

The main priority of any onboarding program is simple: Put employees in a position to maximize their production as quickly as possible.

“Learning the rules is important, too,” Sullivan says. “But if you hired Tiger Woods to join your golf team, the first thing you’d want him to do is play, not hold off for a few days and attend meetings.”

The second-most important goal is employee retention. That can be achieved by assigning new employees a “peer buddy;” holding “get-to-know-you” events that hasten the networking process; providing them with answers to frequently asked questions, developed by surveying previous new hires; showing them possible career paths within the organization; and clearly spelling out goals and expectations, Sullivan says.

In addition, a new hire’s manager should be present on the first day and consistently offer them attention, encouragement and training.

“Managers should own the onboarding process,” he says.

In the end, onboarding programs should be systematically evaluated. For example, quiz managers about why certain employees become productive faster and use the findings to establish better onboarding protocols. Also ask new hires what worked best during onboarding — and what didn’t work, too.

“The key questions are what helped them be productive faster and what prevented them producing more earlier,” Sullivan says. “Good data comes from real people.”

Get at It Quickly

Jeff Haden, a noted keynote speaker, writer and business adviser, suggests a results-oriented approach to onboarding in which newbies hit the ground running instead of the usual bevy of formal lunches and meet-and-greet sessions.

“Everyone is rightly concerned about inclusion, diversity and making people feel comfortable and part of a team,” says Haden. “That’s all very positive.”

“But I think things have shifted too far to that side,” he continues. “You’re hired to do a job. And as a new employee, you’re a little nervous about getting along with people, but a lot more nervous about doing the actual job.”

Sure, there’s still a place for making introductions on new employees’ behalf. But Haden prefers less emphasis on relationship-building, which will happen organically over time, and more on becoming a contributing employee as fast as possible. There’s a narrow window of time to make a strong, lasting impression on new hires, so managers should send a message that they’re working for a performance-based organization that values results.

Moreover, giving new employees a chance to succeed right away makes them feel better about themselves. It also enables managers to more quickly determine if employees have the skills to succeed.

Provide Immediate Feedback

Another common managerial mistake is not letting new employees know when they make mistakes, for fear of making an already anxious rookie even more nervous, damaging their confidence or breaking their spirit. Nonsense, Haden says.

“If it’s important enough to do, it’s important enough to do it right. Step in and in a tactful, constructive and positive way, explain the right way to do something. If you want to create a performance culture, you have to actively build one. You can’t step back and just hope that somehow, someone will get there.”

The opposite also is true. Haden doesn’t believe that managers should encourage new employees to critique processes and procedures until they’ve been on the job for a significant period of time. As he puts it, employees shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel until they fully understand how the wheel works.

Preboarding Programs

Other workplaces also employ pre-onboarding — or preboarding — programs, which are aimed at easing the new hire’s equivalent of buyer’s remorse during those weeks between accepting a job and actually starting to work. Radio silence from an employer during that period can promote second-guessing that can quickly squelch a new hire’s sense of excitement and enthusiasm.

In simplest terms, preboarding fills that time gap with activities and events aimed at quelling those inevitable nagging doubts, workplace experts say.

Preboarding can take many forms. For starters, consider sending out an introductory company-wide email to announcing the new hire. Managers also could send a personal email, encouraging new hires to contact them if any questions arise.

Managers also can ease first-day jitters by providing information about the myriad nerve-racking details that most new employees want to know before they arrive — things such as parking and transportation options, what time work starts and ends, workspace and restroom locations, any dress code requirements, places to eat lunch and any documents they’ll need to bring.

Provide Advance Intel

Managers also should provide a detailed job description and summary of expectations, a company and department organizational chart (including photos of people, if possible), a workplace map and a summary of the company’s culture, mission and short- and long-term goals.

Managers also might want to invite new hires to come to work for a tour or have lunch with members of their new team. And if incoming employees are relocating, managers could also offer to help with apartment- or house-hunting. They also could assign someone from the new hire’s team to serve as a local ambassador to help them acclimate to their new surroundings.

To help new employees quickly get up to speed on their first day at work, think about sending paperwork ahead of time; filling out forms for hours on the first day at work is a total buzzkill.

One more thing: Don’t forget to monitor your pre-boarding program’s effectiveness by having new employees critique it. A few weeks after they start, sit down and ask them about their experience and if there’s anything that could’ve made it better.

While there are many other things companies can do to make preboarding a meaningful experience, keep in mind that anything is better than the silent treatment after job acceptance. Think about what would make you feel welcome and enthused — what would help validate your decision to accept a job and get you excited to hit the ground running. 


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