Onboard Matters: How To Get It Right

My elder son started an internship today at a company that makes stuff taste good. He’s a sciencey kid, very much like his mother, and will tell you the chemical name of the thing that makes something taste like cherry before he’ll tell you that it tastes like cherry.

He came home from Day 1 full of positivity. His colleagues in the lab in which he’ll be working for the next two months took him out to lunch. They gave him a swag bag with, among other thing, a T-shirt, branded fidget spinner that doubles as a bottle opener and a protein shake bottle thingy mabobber. His desk was decorated with a hand-made “No Trespassing: Interns Only” sign.

More than that, he came away from his first eight hours on the job knowing who does what and where he’ll fit in during the summer.

That, my friends, is good onboarding and that, my friends, is increasingly rare.

A 2021 study of more than 700 U.S. employees who started a job during the pandemic found that:

  • 71% finished onboarding unsure of who they should “build relationships with.”
  • 62% didn’t have a “clear idea of the organization’s culture.”
  • More than half weren’t clear on “how to be productive in their role.”

Ouch.

Too often in our litigious culture, onboarding amounts to filling out copious amounts of paperwork that obligate new hires to do things like not steal or sell company secrets and watching poorly acted videos on how not to sexually harass your colleagues.

Then, these extremely bright people whom the company has spent months recruiting and wooing are tossed into the fray and told, “Go. Do stuff.”

Sometimes it’s not even that. At my soon-to-be previous employer, my “onboarding” consisted of an email waiting for me in my brand-new inbox with a handful of links to training videos on how to use systems that weren’t integral to my job. There were passing introductions to some of my new colleagues (the CEO of our small 20-person team was WFH that day. And the next), but there was no structure that helped me get a lay of the land quicker than I could do on my own. It kinda made me miss the sexual harassment videos with Drunk Billy putting Pepe le Pew moves on CFO Jan at the company Christmas party.

There was no swag bag of company-logoed products (a missed opportunity to turn your new employees into walking billboards), no “welcome-to-the-company” lunch, no anything. I spent my first lunch sitting alone at my desk with heated-up leftovers while perusing the latest Morning Brew. There was no real beginning or end to any onboarding process because the process didn’t exist.

So what should onboarding be? Is it really just a lunch and a bag of crap? Absolutely not. Onboarding is not a one-day thing. Most of the time, it’s not even a one-week thing. And it’s not just filling out direct deposit forms and picking out health insurance.

What good onboarding should focus on is a mix of training, observation of those in different parts of the company and lots and lots of communication between the leader and the new hire. That some of that communication should happen over tacos is just good form.

The new hire should have a couple of easy-to-accomplish projects teed up for her so she can get a couple early W’s. Stellar companies find a mentor right from the get-go for hires for whom they expect big things.

What managers (not leaders) miss is that this investment of time isn’t solely for the benefit of the new hire. Employees who join an organization and don’t feel supported, who aren’t matched up with resources, who don’t know who does what, when, how and why are more likely to ditch their job quicker. And we all should know by now the true expense of searching for a new new hire.

Good onboarding isn’t hard. It comes down to intentionality.

The way I phrased it when I attempted to change the process at my employer was to frame it this way: Pretend you are the Alabama football program and the new hire is the five-star high school quarterback whom you want to come lead your team.

You know how those programs make those recruits feel? Go. Do that.

John Agliata is a marketing professional with more than 30 years of communications experience. Reach him at johnagliata@gmail.com or (352) 226-5852.


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