New employee onboarding: The good, the bad and the ugly

Now over two weeks into a new year, a new job and a new profession, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “new.”

Often times “new” is seen as a good thing. In many cases it comes after a conscious choice to move one’s life in a positive direction. It comes with some measure of excitement. It puts the bow on the axiom “shiny and new.”

But “new” is much more nuanced than that. In some cases it’s born out of necessity. It comes with some amount of anxiety. It’s the inspiration for the holy grail of insider Internet insults — “You’re such a n00b!” (here’s a little context on the cut-down for all you non-gamers out there).

This duality, in part, is what make both sides of the already challenging process of onboarding that much more volatile for new employees and managers, alike. Having gone through that process 10 times in the span of about 15 years, I’m left with a few thoughts: 1) I’ve definitely experienced employee onboarding done right and wrong, 2) I’m very thankful to have joined a company in GroundFloor Media that puts such a high priority on employee retention and 3) if employee retention is a house, good onboarding — the sort GFM practices — is a crucial part of the foundation.

All of that said, here are a few tips about how to achieve onboarding balance for those on both sides of the process from a guy who has been on both sides — a lot.

To employees…

Be ambitious, but don’t overstep
Don’t always wait to be told to do something. Presumably, you have good instincts for this job; that’s why they hired you. Putting them to use not only displays your level of ambition to your new team, it illuminates something you do well without making anyone dig to find out. That said, don’t forget: You are new. You can’t possibly grasp the ins and outs of every complicated project or workplace personality right off the bat. So if you have twinges of doubt about an action, trust those too.

Listen and ask questions
When I say listen, I don’t just mean be attentive when you’re being assigned a task. I mean tune in to your surroundings. What sort of jokes do people tell? How much good-natured ribbing is exchanged? Do you have things in common with these people? Think about onboarding as assimilating into a culture, not just joining a workplace. One of the best ways to do that is by making the people around you feel valued and validated. Believe it or not, you can accomplish this by asking your new co-workers questions. Not only will it improve your knowledge base as a new employee, it will make your team members feel as though you value their opinions. It also has the power to make said team members feel validated, as they may come to realize and appreciate their own areas of expertise.

Be prepared while remaining time-conscious
You prepared for the interview that landed you this gig. Why not come with that same level of preparation for your first days, weeks and months on the job? Come to work read-up on the latest industry-relevant news. Do background on a client before your first meeting. You impressed the right people in the interview, now impress the whole team early on in your tenure. But don’t take this initiative at the expense of your personal sanity. It may seem like you’re being productive and setting the right tone by working 12-hour days, but that pace probably isn’t sustainable.

To managers…

Be involved, but don’t be afraid to delegate
You certainly want to make sure your new employee gets off on the right foot, but your undivided attention is not something he or she is going to have long-term. So why start off that way? Delegating a good deal of the onboarding responsibilities to your team not only serves to quicker acclimate your new employee to a typical day, it shows the level of trust you put in the people who work for you.

Offer praise without patronizing
Remember the earlier reference to instincts? Well, if you did your job in the hiring process, your new employee has them. As such, you better believe he or she has an idea about when you’re being genuine. So while you certainly want to make it know that your new employee is doing things of value early on, make sure to avoid going overboard.

Have a check-list, but don’t reject spontaneity
You have to have a check-list when it comes to onboarding (believe it or not, a lot of companies don’t). But it’s also valuable to be willing to stray from it should a learning opportunity arise. Yes, you may be in the middle of teaching your new employee how to use a vital part of your workplace infrastructure as part of Section 4 in the onboarding guide, but if the day all of a sudden takes a turn to a situation that demands the skills addressed in Section 9, throw your new guy or gal into the fire and observe the response. You may be pleasantly surprised to find out he or she already has the skills you were going to waste your time addressing in Section 9.

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