The One Key to Employee Onboarding Success


If you read the general literature (for example: here, here, or here) on the best practices for new employees to be successful after joining a company, you will see many things mentioned that all supposedly help. From first-day team lunches to setting up their email and workstations, they all seem to state that those are important for success.

While those might be important, they are not the most important and is definitely not the one key thing that makes people successful.

My favorite thing to say is that: “Some things are way more important all things being equal”

You could certainly do without a lot of those things and still have successful onboarding happen, but in every single case I have seen failures, it was always because the one key thing was either not done or even if it was done, it was done incorrectly or partially.

I have found that the most important thing for onboarding success is to

“Always set clear expectations first-day first thing when a new employee joins by your organization’s leader”

New employees who join an organization start with a clean slate, they have no prejudices or other notions that they have picked up yet. They simply don’t know what to expect or what their job and role will be. Having an onboarding meeting first-day first meeting sets the stage in so many ways.

The employee simply walks into this meeting really unsure of what is expected out of them, how they are supposed to act, what are the unspoken rules and what the shared set of beliefs that make up this organization. Usually, they expect to learn this gradually over a period of time usually anywhere from 6 months to over a year. The problem is that learning a new expectation (after sufficient time is passed), leads to employee resentment and often times dissatisfaction and pushback. If it is fully orthogonal to the person’s viewpoint or philosophies, it might even lead to them leaving the organization. Losing new people after say 6 months or a year is a big setback and makes it difficult to scale organizations.

Accelerating this whole timeline by making the first meeting on their first day about organizational expectations completely changes the dynamics. A new employee gets to know the job expectations, and company culture (a set of shared beliefs on what is considered important) and there is much easier acceptance and understanding. It is true that there could be surprises learning about their role if they didn’t expect it (and if there is a surprise, then your hiring process is broken), but it is way better to get those (nasty or pleasant) surprises out of the way on day one. If they do turn around and say to you that this role is not for them, yes it is a problem but a better problem than them saying it 6 months later.

Finally, what is most effective is a senior leader communicating these expectations to the new hire. In most organizations, an HR person will run the first meeting and might also be the most available. However, when a senior leader does the same it completely changes what signals are being conveyed.

I learned this the hard way during our initial growth phase at FileCloud, when there were several problems hiring and more importantly retaining people. I created and implemented an onboarding process where I (as CEO) would meet with every new hire first-day first thing in the morning. I did this 100s of times for a span of 3-4 years and it helped a lot make us a lot more open and performance-oriented (subjectively) as well as having some of the highest employee satisfaction survey results (objectively).

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