Sometimes, you only realize how good something is because, in the past, you've seen it go horribly wrong. That was the case for me with two very different experiences of onboarding.
I was reminded of them both recently when I read "Onboarding: Getting New Hires off to a Flying Start," by Christian Harpelund, Morten Højberg and Kasper Ulf Nielsen.
This new book explores various approaches to welcoming new hires – and it took me back to two wildly contrasting onboarding experiences of my own.
The first went wrong from the moment I accepted the job. It happened via a phone call, so I thanked the person on the other end for the opportunity, and said yes. They said goodbye.
And then I remember standing there, the phone still in my hand, feeling more than a little confused. This was a job I wanted, and I was keen to tell my family the good news. But had I really got it?
If I had, surely I'd know things like: when I'd be starting; who I'd be working with; what I'd be doing on my first day; and what I'd need to do to prepare? But there I stood, knowing none of that at all.
Eventually, nearly a week later, a letter arrived. It was fairly generic, and some of the details were wrong. But at least I now had proof of my new post. I knew my start date, and I had a number to call to sort out some administrative tasks.
As it turned out, admin was pretty much all I did before Day One. The only contact I had beyond the main office was the visit I organized myself to the building where I'd be working. During this, I bumped into a few members of my new team, and got a cursory tour of part of the premises.
But somehow I pieced together just enough information to get me to the right place at the right time on my first day. I did my best to get on with my job, but it wasn't easy. My line manager was too busy to help me much. I wasn't given any targets, and it was up to me to guess what I needed to do to improve.
I also had to do a fair bit of guesswork about the company culture. It did seem to have some agreed values (at least, there were signs on the walls saying so), and there was a mission statement on the website. But nobody bothered to explain what any of it meant in practice.
So, with a distinct lack of information, few opportunities to contribute, and no way of knowing when I'd be fully inducted into the team, my onboarding never really started – and, I suppose, never really stopped!
I suggested several things that I might do to help, within my team and the wider organization, but my ideas fell on deaf ears. A year later, after securing a job elsewhere, I handed in my resignation.
My manager thanked me for doing everything I'd been asked, and wished me well. I'm not sure many of the other people there even noticed I'd gone.
Flash forward a few years. This time, the good news came in an email, and the message was the same – I'd got the job I'd applied for. Luckily, everything else about the onboarding process was very, very different this time.
For starters, the email was warm, accurate, and full of the information I needed. It was written to me directly, with positive words about my interview, and a friendly welcome to the company.
The next steps were all spelled out, including a starting date and time, my manager's name and contact details, and a first-week plan. I was invited to ask anything else I wanted. I was also given some useful materials to read before I started, along with a few simple tasks designed to introduce me to my team.
Day One was friendly but also functional. There was a breakfast event to mark the occasion and to introduce me to people from across the business.
Then I had a checklist of tasks to work through, to set me up with all the equipment and systems I'd need for my job. There was a lot to get my head around, but plenty of people keen to help.
Over the next few days, the way this organization worked became clear – as much through chats over coffee as from formal one-on-ones. And not just its business functions, but also its culture, which everyone seemed extremely eager to talk about.
When the CEO organized a meeting with me and another new starter, a couple of weeks in, he was just the latest in a long line of people wanting to check that I was OK. He too was passionate about explaining the company's history, as well as its vision for the future.
And he was very keen to know what I had to offer. Because, unlike my earlier onboarding nightmare, this process involved expectations on both sides. The company had a clear plan for getting me started, and I had everything I needed to do my job, and to do it well.
But it wasn't just about the targets I'd agreed with my manager. Here, it was clear that I was expected to demonstrate why I'd been hired, and to quickly bring something new to the team.
It felt like a mark of respect, and a real show of confidence. No wonder I worked harder than ever – and no wonder I loved it. Three months in, I'd passed my probationary period, and this news was shared company-wide. I was now officially on board – although I'd felt like that since the first email arrived. It wasn't a job I'd be leaving in a hurry.
In "Onboarding," Christian Harpelund and his co-writers explain how to get this process right in any kind of organization. It involves everyone doing their bit: managers, colleagues, executives, even board members – not just the HR lead and the new hire themselves.
There will always be a list of administrative tasks to tick off before someone can start in their new role. But it's even more important to welcome them into the company culture, and to get them contributing to it from Day One.
In coronavirus lockdown – and beyond – many aspects of onboarding will have to be done differently. But there's no reason why the process can't still be a success.
As I learned first-hand, practical details are important, but it's the way you make people feel, and the values you demonstrate during onboarding, that really count.
Now more than ever, I hope that organizations follow the value-led approach explored in "Onboarding." That way, starters will be much more likely to thrive, and to stay. And their employers will gain engaged and productive workers – when they need them most.
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