Over the years, I’ve seen way too many engineers get off to a bad start during their onboarding process. And even though the evidence is very much anecdotal, I think it is fair to say that the onboarding phase is one of the riskiest parts of an employee’s lifecycle at a company. Get it wrong, and you risk losing your hard earned recruitment or have them create a mess in your team that you’ll spend months cleaning up afterwards. Get it right, and you’ll soon have a highly productive, motivated and loyal employee that boosts both the efficiency and morale of your team.
In my experience, onboarding can go wrong for two reasons. Either too little support, which makes the employee lose motivation and look for opportunities elsewhere. Or, you as a manager are too late in giving constructive feedback and correct unwanted behavior, creating a toxic situation later on. To be fair though, in the latter case you probably recruited the wrong person to begin with, since I’ve rarely seen cases where this was possible to correct. In such situations, it is crucial as a manager to take the hard but necessary decision to let such a person go as early as possible. Not a fun place to be in, but since I’ve never seen recruitment success rates beyond 80% (at least not at scale), it is most likely something you will be exposed to sooner rather than later so you’d better learn to spot such situations and handle them in the best possible way.
One very common mistake, that I’ve made on more than one occasion myself, is to think that the onboarding phase starts when your new recruit does her first day at the office. I think one of the keys to a successful onboarding experience is the realization that the process starts already during the recruitment process.
At this stage, you need to ensure that you give an accurate picture of your tech stack, the role, the team and the company to set reasonable expectations and avoid negative surprises for your recruit later on. No point in selling your tech stack as a new and shiny Tesla if it’s more like an old and rusty Volvo, as you’ll set things up for a very negative experience as soon as your recruit does her first
git clone. Additionally, you’ll likely attract the wrong type of personality for your needs which you’ll regret later on.
From the candidate’s point of view, a recruitment process can be perceived as a very rapid affair. One day, you’re being contacted by a recruiter and persuaded into a meeting “just to hear more” and before you know it, you’re putting your signature on a contract and have landed a new job.
Once the contract is signed, it is not uncommon for your recruit to have second thoughts or be persuaded (by social pressure and/or compensation) by their current employer to not leave after all. While this is of course not something that you, as the new manager, can fully control, the impact is multiplied by radio silence from your side.
To mitigate this, make it a habit to always follow up with your new recruit as soon as possible after the contract is signed to check that their resignation has been followed through and to give her some moral boost by reinforcing that they made the right decision by telling how happy you are that she has decided to join your team and what a bright and exciting future you’ll have.
Another nice touch is to cc the new recruit in the company-wide email communication that is (hopefully) sent to inform about the new employee. If you have a decent company culture, this should yield at least a few encouraging replies to the new employee to further reinforce the decision.
Also make sure to give the hire a few status updates along the way around how things are going in your team and what is happening in the company. This will further strengthen the relationship and initiate the process of making the employee feel part of your company even before she has started.
Once the employee-to-be is a little bit more than half-way through her notice period, it’s a good time to meet up for an informal lunch or coffee. Take this opportunity to fill her in on what is going on in your part of the organization, describe projects that she will likely participate in and answer any questions she might have. This can also be a good time to provide some tips, suggest areas to read up on as well as some mentorship on how to approach the first couple of weeks/months in the organization.
Finally, a few days before the first day at the office, make sure to send a welcome email with details around when to show up and the schedule for the first couple of days.
Phew. That’s a lot of work, and your employee has not even started yet (a topic in itself, I’ll write about that some other time). But it pays off and increases the odds of a smoother ride once the new hire starts for real. And since the vast majority of companies out there are surprisingly bad in this area, even small and simple things can really make your company stand out.