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Right after graduate school I began working at a maximum security prison. The pay was good, the work was exciting, and they offered student loan forgiveness programs.

I was assigned a work mentor who would help with my onboarding process. The first stop was the armory where I was issued a Kevlar vest “to protect my vital organs in the event of a stabbing assault” the officer casually remarked.

Next, I was given a personal alarm device that looked like an old garage door opener. “Press this button if you feel you are in danger” they told me. What they didn’t mention was how easy it was to accidentally sit on your alarm, and then proceed to be humiliated by both inmates and guards for the next year if you were unlucky enough to set it off unintentionally. I will not admit whether I did this or not.

I noticed that my new colleagues seemed extremely busy and the workload was steady and fast-paced. One day during my first week, they handed me a dense orientation handbook which contained all the information about the recent lawsuit with the prison system.

They directed me toward a concrete windowless “office” with a drain in the floor and mops in the corner, that had been converted from what appeared to be an old inmate bathroom. I proceeded to read dense legal jargon while trying to stay awake for the next 8 hours…”Welcome to work,” I mused.

Okay, so admittedly I don’t think it was quite that bad and they did several things well. But most organizations and teams don’t invest nearly enough time and resources into a strong employee onboarding process, and they pay a huge price for not prioritizing it.

You’ve heard the old adage, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” It is true not only with people, but also with organizations.

According to an article published in Harvard Business Review in 2018, “organizations with a standardized onboarding process experience 62% greater new hire productivity, along with 50% greater new hire retention.”

That is absolutely huge.

After all, some of the greatest cost to organizations in time and money is employee turnover and the hiring process. Ever tried replacing a rockstar employee, or spent weeks doing interviews without getting any qualified candidates?

The costs add up quickly. Consider the time and salary of every leader on the hiring panel or the extra work that still needs to get done by the remaining team members when there are staffing shortages. It is a huge drain on the organization. And losing newer employees means that the organization got a very small return on investment.

If you don’t have a really strong or structured onboarding process for new employees, consider creating one right away.

Turn information into action

Here are some things you can do to build a strong onboarding process for your team:

  1. Shorten the time from the job offer to the first day of work. My former CEO used to pull his hair out when it would take us four months to hire someone. Often, we would lose people after a job offer was made because we took too long actually getting the person in the door. How many people do you know that can go several months with no income or wait months to start work? Do whatever you have to do to look at your onboarding timeline and reduce wasted time at every point in the process.
  2. Keep in contact by phone and email before they start work. Nothing sends a better message than contacting the person weekly asking if they have questions and expressing excitement that they are joining the team. If you really want to make a great impression, use the phone instead of an impersonal email. Give them the contact information so that they can easily reach you if needed.
  3. Show the new employee you were expecting them. You never want the new employee to feel like you forgot they were starting. This makes a terrible first impression that is difficult to ever recover from. It makes it look like you either didn’t care enough, didn’t need them much, or the workplace is too chaotic and disorganized to plan for new employees. I’ve seen managers over the years not prioritize this by saying, “Gee, it’s been really busy, let’s see if we can find you an office or if we have any computers left.” You won’t get or keep rockstars with that impression.
  4. Have all necessary equipment and resources ready for them before they start. This item is actually listed on Gallup’s core 12 practices for the best organizations. Ever tried to do a job without the right resources or equipment? It’s extremely frustrating and demoralizing. Our program support team is incredible about getting laptops, phones, and printers on or before the first day people start so that they have everything they need to work right away.
  5. Have your best people train the new people. Whatever you do, always designate your best people to train the new people. Pick team members who are friendly and patient, good teachers, and produce the best results. In our program, we assign a peer mentor to every new team member to assist with any technical questions about the work and they review the work product for several months to ensure it meets the unit standards.
  6. The supervisor should hold one-on-one meetings every week with new employees. Holding weekly individual meetings with new people allows you to smooth out any potential glitches right away, answer questions, or recognize areas of important feedback you may need for course correction. It also sends a very clear message that people are the priority in your organization.
  7. Set clear expectations at the beginning. Things are so much easier when you set clear expectations from the get go. Make it crystal clear what deliverables you need from the new team member and what they must do to be successful. Help them prioritize and clarify what is supremely important for them to do. It’s also important to ask what they want or need from their supervisor or workplace to succeed. Never leave them wondering what you want them to do. This will create anxious employees who are constantly wondering if they are actually measuring up.
  8. Help foster community and social connections. This is also a Gallup core 12 item of the healthiest organizations. When people have great friendships at work, they are much more likely to stay. Be intentional about connecting them with other people from the beginning. Set up lunches, give them a mentor, take group walks on a break, etc.
  9. Don’t drown them in work on the first day, scale up. It makes sense that new employees won’t be as efficient as the veterans who’ve been at the job for years. Start their work at a reasonable level and scale up. Make it clear what the expected workload will be and identify a target date that they will be at full capacity. Have ongoing conversations each week about how they are managing the workload to avoid any surprises.
  10. Document your onboarding process. It’s ideal to have your process documented so you don’t rely on memory, and update it yearly.

Lastly, your onboarding process is only helpful if you have good hiring practices.

For more on that topic, ready my article 10 Best Practices for Hiring and Keeping a Great Team.

Have a great weekend!








Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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