From a manager’s perspective, a new hire can’t come up to speed fast enough. Balancing the newcomer’s need to learn the ropes and your desire to have her quickly produce is a challenge for any time-strapped boss. What’s the best way to bring your new employee on board? Who do you enlist in the training? And how long should you expect it to take?
What the Experts Say
“If you want people to perform well, you have to get them off to a good start. That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?” says Dick Grote, performance management consultant and author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals. It’s important to be thoughtful and deliberate about their first few months. “People are very excited and quite vulnerable when they take new jobs, so it’s a time in which you can have a big impact,” says Michael Watkins, author of the bestselling book, The First 90 Days. “Often the people who get the least attention are those making internal moves,” says Watkins, but those transitions, “can be terribly challenging.” Whether your new hire is joining the company for the first time or transitioning from another part of the organization, here’s how to make it as smooth as possible for everyone.
Focus on culture
Most managers focus on orienting the new hire to the business — strategy, formal structures — or explaining rules by going over the employee manual or sharing compliance regulations. All of that is important “but the focus should really be on culture and politics,” Watkins says. And you shouldn’t wait until the employee’s first day to broach the subject. Effective onboarding starts during the recruiting and hiring phase — when you’re interviewing the potential hire and assessing fit. Talk honestly about how things work and answer questions. Then, once the employee starts, set time aside in your initial meetings to continue the conversation. If your new hire is coming onboard from outside the company, don’t assume he knows the lingo of the organization and the industry. Take the extra time to translate for him. Help him understand meeting dynamics by debriefing afterwards, addressing some of the finer points of relationships between people that an outsider would have no way of knowing. Connecting socially will help your new hire better understand the culture or politics. So before he starts, consider: who does that person need to know to be successful? Start with three people, and facilitate introductions between them and the new teammate.
Get your entire team involved
Watkins recommends enlisting your team in getting their new teammate up to speed and sharing “collective responsibility” for his success. Ask one person to act as a sponsor, advises Grote, and designate him or her to be the go-to person when the new teammate runs into problems. This is good for the sponsor, for whom this is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills, and the new employee, who can get feedback without having to worry about asking his new manager (sometimes silly) questions. It also takes some of the responsibility off of your shoulders.
Set expectations early on
Your new employee needs to know job expectations from the start. Grote explains that at Texas Instruments, for example, each new or transitioning employee gets a copy of the performance appraisal. “On the first day, the manager goes over the form; they use it as a tool to explain how performance will be measured and what they’ll be held accountable for,” Grote says.
Don’t overlook the little things
Put yourself in the new hire’s shoes. “You want to make sure that his first day is memorable in a positive way,” says Grote. “Say an employee goes home at 5 PM on his first day, and his partner asks about his day. His response shouldn’t be that he filled out 37 forms.” Simple things make a difference. “Ask coworkers to coordinate so the new teammate doesn’t eat lunch by himself the first week,” Grote suggests. He acknowledges this may seem mundane but it makes a difference. Similarly, part of creating a welcoming environment includes having logistics like business cards, workstations, and access passes ready to go. Watkins explains that he’s seen companies forget to do this and it has an impact: “For the first week, the new hire had to walk around with a visitor tag, and that sent a particular message to the newcomer and everyone around him,” he says.
Give them time to grow
So, how long before your new hire is fully assimilated into her position? “90 days and not a minute longer,” Watkins jokes. Humor aside, Watkins explains there is no one-size-fits-all answer. “When you look at high-level employees transitioning within a company, research indicates they feel they add value by about six months,” he says. “But if you’re coming into a challenging job from outside the company, it may take a year.” Grote agrees: “Onboarding time is a function of the job.” The idea of a new employee “hitting the ground running” is a farce, he says. “You know what happens if you do that? You fall on your face.” Grote says new teammates need to start at a reasonably paced walk and accelerate as quickly as is comfortable. “Ask your existing employees how long it took before they felt they were part of the team. What they say is the best data you’re going to get,” he advises. While you’re at it, ask them about their overall onboarding experience. “The old-timers won’t remember, but those hired two months ago will have feedback about what they wish they’d learned earlier,” Grote says.
Principles to Remember
- Take time to explain and answer questions about the company’s culture
- Create collective responsibility for the success of the new teammate by sharing onboarding duties with their peers
- Ask current teammates about their onboarding experiences to gain insight into the process
- Bury your new hire in paperwork on the first day — make her feel welcome and happy to be there
- Forget to handle simple logistics like workstation set-up and business cards
- Expect your new teammate to “hit the ground running” — understand that the time it takes to get up to speed is a reflection of the position
Case Study #1: Stay organized so things don’t fall through the cracks
Emily Burns has worked for Ruan Transportation Management Systems for nearly four years, and currently works in human resources. After a year on the job, she noticed her team’s onboarding practices were too informal. “We often didn’t have everything ready for the new teammate on his or her first day,” she explains.
Emily set out to standardize the process. She created a master checklist that managers could go through and put all the relevant new hire documents in a shared file on the company portal. “These files document every single thing that has to happen, and by what day, in order for everything to be ready on the day the new hire starts,” Emily says. The list of tasks begins 14 days before the new hire starts and ends six months into their employment.
Have Emily’s efforts helped? “Well, turnover has decreased, and our new team members can start training and contributing on day one,” Emily asserts. Emily notes the new process makes new employees feel taken care of and more satisfied with their new job, manager, and company. “When they experience this type of security and stability on their first day and their onboarding has been seamless, they can better focus on learning their job and doing their work.”
Case Study #2: Help them learn the lingo
In the fall of 2014, Ryan Twedt, owner of Be Always Marketing, hired a new salesman, Justin Thompson, to join his team of seven employees. Because marketing terms seemed like such basic concepts, he didn’t think to incorporate them into Justin’s training, even though Justin was coming from a different industry.
He soon realized his mistake. When they went into their first sales meeting together, “Justin was using industry lingo at the wrong points in conversation, and it became clear there were basic definitions he didn’t know,” says Ryan. “It hurt our ability to close, and it impacted our client’s trust in us.”
Before he could train Justin, Ryan needed to set expectations. He created a formal description for Justin’s role, including accountability metrics. Then Ryan worked with Justin to help him practice sales techniques. “Justin had to call me every day and act as if he was trying to close a sale with me, and I would take on the role of a different industry leader each time,” Ryan says. Through practice, Justin learned the lingo and the techniques he needed to approach a potential client.
Justin’s performance improved rapidly as a result of Ryan’s efforts. “I saw a major improvement within the first week, but the tangible results started coming in about three weeks later.” Ryan noticed Justin’s closing rate increased, overall leads increased, and Ryan started to hear about Justin’s sales calls from people outside the company who were impressed with his skills. As a result of his experience with Justin, Ryan now takes the same approach with each new hire.
Sara Stibitz is a freelance writer and editor based in Des Moines, Iowa. In addition to the Harvard Business Review, she has written for the Des Moines Register, YogaIowa, Juice, Spoilage Literary Magazine, and other publications.
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