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New Employee Onboarding: How to Set up Your Team for Success

Kristen Craft | November 14, 2018

This guest post comes to us from Devin Bramhall, Director of Marketing at Animalz. She’s a storyteller, writer, and marketer. Devin is also founder of the Master Slam, a poetry slam-style debate about startups and tech and former Executive Director of Boston Content, the largest community group and career development resource for content marketers in Boston. You can find her on LinkedIn here and on Twitter as @devinemily.

Hiring can be a surprisingly divisive topic. No matter what anyone says, it is personal, it is subjective, and even the most scientific of hiring processes still produces the occasional bad hire.

But while leaders and managers alike fret over choosing the right candidate, many aren’t paying enough attention to a perhaps more crucial part of the hiring process: onboarding. At the end of the day, onboarding isn’t an expense, it’s an investment in your bottom line

The most readily available literature online speaks to the tactical aspects of onboarding: tell new hires what time to arrive, given them an onboarding buddy, have their equipment set-up when they arrive, etc. In fact, those are the very things I dutifully recited in this article when I first began drafting it. While those items are important – crucial, in fact – in setting new employees up for success, those are also things your HR team is already doing.

The truth is, there’s really only so much HR and managers can do to make new hires successful. That’s because they report to you, dear leader, and if you’re getting in their way, then things can go haywire quickly.

This is magnified at companies that need to hire on a consistent basis. I work at a content marketing agency where revenue is directly tied new hires, as we can only take on customers if we have humans to do the work for them. For our company to grow, we have to be in a state of “always hiring.” Which means we’re also almost always in a state of onboarding.

The challenge my company faces: we need employees to produce a minimum volume of high-quality content as quickly as possible for us to remain profitable. That’s not easy!

What I’ve learned in this fast-paced hiring environment is that there is an executive-level recipe for success – a fundamental structure that supports both hiring and onboarding. And it starts at the very top.

Trust your hiring team

Onboarding new employees is among the least sexy yet most necessary parts of operating a business, and it’s up to more than HR or People Ops to do it right. It’s a team effort and everyone involved needs to be given clear expectations, so there’s no confusion about what they need to do to make each new teammate successful.

Whether you’re a manager or the CEO, it’s on you to lead the charge and not leave it to HR to wave the teamwork flag. If you’re going to invest money in hiring more people, then it falls to you – leadership – to support the people who are executing, both behind the scenes and in front of the rest of the company.

This means placing your trust in the managers you hired and helped train to go forth and hire the right people. It also means giving HR the tools they need to hire quickly and efficiently. Finally, your support means that when your team inevitably fails, you coach them through it, so they can fix their mistakes and hire better the next time.

What it doesn’t mean: taking the reins when things don’t go exactly they way you envisioned (and likely didn’t communicate) and subverting your own team’s efforts. The good that does is exactly nothing. If you’re the kind of leader who is so in the weeds that you can’t get your hands out of every pot, then the failures of your team are on you.

Make onboarding a whole-company priority

With twenty percent of employee turnover occurring in the first 45 days, the question is: who’s to blame?

Is it that 20% of applicants are faking their skills and personality in interviews? Are 20% of hiring teams bad at their jobs? Do 20% of companies not know what they need?

The answer is likely a combination of all three, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The buck stops with you. It’s your job to align on new roles, write accurate job descriptions, and create onboarding plans that help new hires succeed.

Effective leaders will leave the majority of onboarding to HR and the new hire’s direct manager,  having documented company values (or communicated them verbally for smaller companies) such that HR and management are empowered with the information they need to onboard new hires independently. Effective leaders will also create a culture where onboarding is valued and made a priority.

Easier said than done, but also necessary, because onboarding is the foundation of your new employee’s success (or failure,) so it cannot be undervalued. You need buy-in from the entire team.

I know what you’re thinking: But I never even went through onboarding at my company, and I figured it out. Or worse, I believe that throwing people into the deep end and seeing who can swim is the best way to find out who’s going to succeed at my company.

It’s true, many people do succeed in the face of adversity, and the sink or swim method is a thing that companies try for some reason. I myself have experienced poor or non-existent onboarding at four of the six startups I’ve worked for, and indeed, I found my way just fine – eventually.

The trouble is, it’s inefficient, costly to the company, and it produces inconsistent performance: you never know who is going to sink and who is going to swim. Also, it’s just plain bad business practice: why would you spend money on a new resource and not invest time in making them actionable as quickly as possible? Document the onboarding process, solicit feedback, and make sure the whole team supports it.

The “No Plan” Plan Isn’t a Plan (a.k.a Have a Plan)

Day one at the second startup I worked for, my boss, the president and also the person who hired me – wasn’t even there. Neither was the CEO.

Instead of allocating a person to help me learn the ropes, (or writing down the process,) I was left to my own devices. So I wasted a lot of time trying to figure things out on my own. When I couldn’t, I asked around. This led to me bothering the wrong people, which required them to figure out who I should talk to. It basically disrupted multiple people’s workflows just to determine where the login info was for our CMS.

Sadly, this wasn’t an anomaly – the first three startups I worked for provided similarly lacking onboarding experiences: I arrived to find a computer in a box, the founders said hello, and the rest was up to me. A few half-hearted intros to a team of introverted developers in a silent, open office didn’t do much to make me feel welcome. Luckily for them, I am outgoing, confident, and proactive. It didn’t take me long to get acclimated. But that’s precisely the problem: they were lucky. Companies should be able to rely on onboarding to predict how long it will take for employees to be actionable, so they can maintain production and, ultimately, profits.

Recognize that onboardin is, indeed, a process, and document it the same way you would any other mission-critical process. The side benefit is that – by writing it down – you can refine and improve the process over time.

Don’t assign a complex project in the first two weeks

Some will say dropping people in the deep end is ultimately helpful because it exposes them quickly. Part of that is true: you do get to know people and systems quickly. But it can put an unnecessary strain on relationships, as you’re asking new hires to make decisions and deeply collaborate with people before they’ve had a chance to build trust among their team. You can also overwhelm them, which can cause poor decision-making and potentially lead you, their manager, to make to an inaccurate evaluation of their abilities.

One example of this that I experienced: launching a major marketing campaign during my second week at one company. It was a data report that contained graphs and data analysis, making significant claims about the industry in which we operated. As Director of Content, I was presented with an almost finished asset that I had to edit deeply, not just for copy but also for marketing strategy. I was collaborating with the data team, lead designer, (who was also a co-founder,) and editing my new team of writers with whom I hadn’t even built trust yet.

While the piece was visually beautiful and well-written, it lacked any kind of marketing strategy, beyond an unattainably high goal for new leads. The problem was, as I learned that week, the company itself was hesitant about marketing in general…to the point of being suspicious of most tactics.

So there I was, brand new, working with a team I barely knew, on a project with aggressive goals that weren’t supported tactically by the person who had set them, and I didn’t even have access to our MailChimp account yet.

The result: my second week was tense, at times hostile, and we didn’t hit our goals – not even close. The result for the company: they lost money on that project and on my salary that week. Had they delayed the release, I might have had the time to calibrate with my team and offer suggestions that could have made the campaign more successful.

Invest in Your Team’s Success

The term “bad hire” is often used more as a bandaid for companies who don’t want to fess up to their own mistakes: a job description that doesn’t accurately describe the job they really need done, misalignment among leadership and the CEO on the company’s staffing needs, or insufficient (or non-existent) onboarding.

A more accurate term for “bad hire,” is “good hire gone bad.” These people, full of talent and drive, are squandered almost immediately. Try as they might to overcome the shortcomings of their poor onboarding experience, many talented people are falsely labeled as inefficient, aloof, just plain bad at their job, all because they weren’t set up for success by the company that hired them.  

Don’t be that company. Invest in onboarding, and regardless of the investment you make up-front, you’ll save money (and your reputation) over time. Most importantly, you’ll maintain a reputation that attracts new talent, rather than drives them away. Just as angry customers tend to be louder than happy ones, so too are disgruntled employees. That makes onboarding among the most important things for your company to get right.