Every employee goes through a relationship with organizations. First there’s attraction, of having an interest in joining an organization – sometimes you become aware of them first and reach out, or they find you and reach out. Then there’s recruitment and hiring, of going through a process to determine whether you’re a good fit, whether you qualify, and all that. If you’re accepted, then there’s onboarding, of navigating that new relationship and finding out whether it’s gonna work out. If it does work out, you’ll eventually upgrade from new hire to tenured employee, and you’ll remain in that stage until you separate, or exit.
In this episode and the next few episodes, I’m going to cover that relationship, that journey, that…employee life cycle. I’ll start with the part of the relationship that, as a manager, you have more control over: onboarding. Some analyses have suggested that 33% of new hires look for a new job within their first 6 months, and 25% of new hires, one-quarter, won’t make it to their one-year anniversary. Those analyses probably included some form of high-turnover industries like restaurants and call centers, but even then those numbers aren’t promising when considering that the average cost to hire one employee is about $4,200, and that it can take employees 8 months to 2 years to become fully productive in their roles. All of those stats indicate that successful onboarding is important to help employees have a stronger relationship with an organization, which could lead to lower turnover, higher cost savings, and better team dynamics.
In this episode I’ll be going over five topics. This’ll be a little different compared to past episodes because I view onboarding through the lens of five separate, yet overlapping, stages. So I’ll be covering the mystery of those five stages, which are orientation, clarification, adjustment, calibration, and connection.
Orientation is the onboarding stage that lasts about a week for new hires, roughly 5-7 days. This stage centers around awareness and checking off boxes. Things like meeting their manager and immediate team members, walking around the office or sending out an email for introductions, getting a rundown on how things are done, shadowing others, filling out paperwork for HR, making sure all supplies and equipment are present and operational. Larger organizations, especially those with high turnover or rapid growth, have more formalized orientations, and they often become less structured with smaller organizations. Either way, a lot happens in a very short period of time for new hires, being bombarded left and right with all this new stuff. This can be a flurry of excitement for some people, but it can also be overwhelming for others, especially if it’s not managed well.
To ensure a relatively seamless transition into being a new employee, you as a manager should get everything in order before the start date arrives. Remember, first impressions count for a lot, and how prepared you are for a new hire offers them a glimpse into how thoughtful, organized, or accountable you are as a manager. HR often takes care of benefits and salary paperwork, but if you work in a smaller organization that doesn’t have HR, make sure that paperwork is in order on day one. And make sure a workstation is set up and fully functional if the new hire is working onsite, or that supplies will reach the employee in time if they’re remote and need certain equipment.
Walk new hires around the office to get them acquainted with others, or at least have them write up an introductory email so others can be aware of the new hire and a little bit about them. Have lunch with the new hire, preferably with other team members to make the event more welcoming and socially oriented rather than all about work. Give them an onboarding schedule—one that you planned—and have them review and follow that. Give or send them the organization’s culture deck, and have a one-on-one meeting or lunch later on that reviews your organization’s history, mission, and values.
These aren’t the only things you can do during a new hire’s first week, but I believe they’re among the most important things that you should do. It’s all about socializing them in an organized, structured way, while treating them like the unique person that they are. And a lot of these recommendations still apply even for an employee who made a lateral change within the organization, like moving from another team or department into yours. They may not be new to the organization, which cuts out some steps, but they’re new to the job role and being part of your team.
The main takeaway from this first stage is that new hires should feel special during their first week, and that their presence is something that’s celebrated and wanted, rather than them feeling like they’re just a person who filled a job role. This doesn’t mean you have to go all-out for a new hire, especially if it doesn’t jive with your team’s culture or if your team or department has an especially high turnover rate, but showing some sense of acknowledgement and celebration can go a long way for employees to feel less overwhelmed and also feel like they made the right choice in joining your organization.
Clarification starts after orientation and ends about a month after an employee’s start date. In this stage, the buzz from the first week is wearing off. This is when the manager-employee relationship is most important, with you, the manager, guiding those new hires away from uncertainty and toward understanding and confidence in their roles.
This second stage is named after the need for you to clarify things for the new hire. The first stage involves constantly throwing things at them, almost to the point that they’re drowning in information. Now that they’ve got their head above water and are getting a feeling for where they fit in the organization and their team, they need guidance, they need clarification on the information that was likely overwhelming just a few days prior.
Have daily check-ins, even just a quick question of “Anything I can answer or help with?” Make sure they follow the onboarding plan you gave them in the previous stage. Inform them more fully of what’s expected of them, what their nitty gritty job responsibilities are, and who they can reach out to for more information or additional clarification. You’ll want to have an ongoing dialogue with them, being available as often as you can, giving feedback to help them feel confident in both themselves and their ability to find information on their own.
The main takeaway from this second stage is that new hires need guidance, or in this case, the guidance that clarification can offer. There’s that phrase that if you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day, but if you teach them how to fish, you feed them for life. Similar thing here. You start by giving them a fish every day while at the same time slowly teaching them how to fish until, by the end of their first month, they’re able to reliably feed themselves.
Adjustment starts after clarification and ends about 3 months after an employee’s start date. This is when employees start truly settling into their roles. With that kind of settling comes a period of adjustment. What does or doesn’t work well for certain tasks, how best to interact with their manager, how to best collaborate with coworkers.
With all those different pieces slowly settling into place, your role as a manager is to help make sure those pieces don’t collide and create friction. Continue giving the new hire timely and relevant feedback on their job contributions, make sure they fully understand how their performance is measured, and where they can find information to do their best job.
At the same time, this stage is more networked, like a web. The previous stage of clarification was a bit more isolated, focused more on the relationship between new hire and manager and how the manager can guide the new hire. In this stage, that scope of influence, understanding, and communication needs to expand. Like a little bit of feedback of yours to the new hire should start being informed by other team members and their interactions with the new hire.
And with this increased networking or webbing, you need to explore whether the new hire is feeling like they’re fitting in. Remember I mentioned that this stage is like a piece, a puzzle piece, settling into place. Another way to think about that settling is fitting. Or in this case, fitting in. In their role, in the team, in the organization overall, new hires should feel like they’re fitting in. If not, that can create conflict, whether that conflict is between new hires and their role, their teammates, and so on.
Not all of the responsibility falls on the new hire’s shoulders. Sometimes you need to coach other team members who aren’t getting along with the new hire, whether interpersonally or functionally. Or it could be that the new hire has found a way to be very efficient in a specific task, but there’s backlash from other team members, other teams, or maybe even other managers because “that’s not how we do things here.” So it’s not the case that the new hire always has to fit into a predetermined mold within an organization – sometimes others need to shift and move around a bit to accommodate for a better fit from other people. That’s adjustment – not just an individual responsibility, but oftentimes the work of many people.
The main takeaway from this third stage is that a new hire’s adjustment is a group effort that should be facilitated by you, their manager. Things rarely fall into place perfectly without any nudging or small tweaks here and there. So it’s your responsibility to keep a high touch-point line of communication with your new hire to make those adjustments as painless as possible.
This is where things get interesting. In a survey we conducted of HR professionals, more than half of respondents indicated that employees shouldn’t be considered new hires after working with an organization for more than 3 months, and about 30% indicated the same for 6 months. What’s even more interesting is that, in the same survey, over one-third of respondents indicated that onboarding for new hires should last one month or less, with an additional third thinking it shouldn’t last longer than 3 months. This falls in line with other data suggesting that most companies spend less than two months onboarding new hires.
This is a huge problem to me. For more than half of HR representatives, I really shouldn’t use the term “new hire” for the final two onboarding stages. And for about two-thirds of HR representatives, the final two stages aren’t really onboarding stages at all, but just…I don’t know, retention efforts for tenured employees. I don’t wanna get too far off-track here, but all of this suggests that new employees are systematically getting short-changed, not receiving the attention they deserve to strengthen their autonomy or their working relationships. And with the average employee not being fully productive until at least 8 months into their role, this means most onboarding strategies fall well short of where they should be, leaving new employees under-developed. Overall, I believe employees should be considered new hires until their first full year, and that onboarding efforts should last that long as well.
So to get back into onboarding stages, we’re on the fourth one of calibration. This stage starts after adjustment and ends about 6 months after an employee’s start date. Calibration is very similar in meaning to adjustment, but I view calibration as more fine-tuned. Adjustment is a high-level change, making adjustments here and there to know how best to interact with certain coworkers, who to reach out to with specific questions, things like that. Calibration, on the other hand, is more in the weeds, of making smaller yet more informed changes in how you think, approach topics, or do your job.
Calibration is also often an adjustment against some kind of standard. Remember in the previous stage I mentioned the importance of new hires understanding how their performance is measured. With calibration, this takes it a step further of emphasizing how they’re performing, whether they’re hitting goals, and how to change, or calibrate, to better fulfill those goals. Calibration is also about alignment, of more fully aligning a new hire’s perceptions and expectations with that of their manager and team.
So this stage is all about fine-tuning. Fine-tuning performance, fine-tuning how new hires interact and collaborate with their team members and manager, and even fine-tuning their perceptions of how their job fits into the overall organizational structure and workflow. The second stage, clarification, emphasized one-on-ones between new hire and manager. Those are still important here at a monthly instead of weekly or maybe daily level, but what’s also important is branching out that feedback to the team. Get more in-depth feedback from the new hire about team interactions, and get the same feedback from other team members about the new hire. You yourself need to help guide calibration, and the more in-depth feedback you get from a variety of sources, the better your calibrations can be to help new hires fully thrive.
The main takeaway from this fourth stage is that new hires often start to be thought of less as a new hire and more as a tenured employee during this period of 3-6 months after start date. I think this is dangerous, because this time period is exactly when fine-tuned calibration is needed to reduce or stamp out certain perceptions and habits, as well as refine and strengthen other perceptions and habits, all of which may not have taken root or become visible up until this point in the new hire’s tenure.
This is arguably the most unique onboarding stage. One reason is because it’s the longest – it goes from the end of calibration to the first year anniversary, so it’s about 6 months long. Another reason is that not as much really happens in this stage, at least compared to the others. Finally, the name itself is a bit odd. We had a stage to orient new hires into their teams and the company, another stage to clarify their roles and responsibilities, another to make adjustments after settling in, and finally calibrating social and performance aspects of the job. Yet this last stage is called…connection. Wasn’t that the whole point of every other stage, to connect with something, whether it be the organization, their manager, their job, or their team?
Well, yeah. Connectedness is largely the point, and with these final 6 months of a new hire’s first year, this is when connections that took root during the first 6 months can grow even stronger. Remember that we define employee engagement as the strength of the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their places of work. Keeping that connection strong is what allows for better work, stronger teams, and deeper beliefs of pride or belongingness with the organization.
There’s really nothing different in this stage, compared to the previous stages. But why I think this stage is important to consider and maintain, even if only at a philosophical level, is that it serves as an acknowledgement that even though you may have done everything perfectly during the new hire’s first six months, that momentum needs to keep going. The monthly one-on-ones between you and the new hire should keep happening, hopefully to the point that they persist even after the new hire has their one-year anniversary. You should continue offering ever more fine-tuned guidance on their roles and responsibilities. You should continue developing a deep understanding of how the new hire works and interacts with your other team members.
All of this doesn’t just benefit the new hire. In fact, in some ways I’d suggest this final stage is more about you, the manager. By maintaining the momentum of how much learning and development the new hire went through during their first 6 months, you as their manager can continue keeping a thumb on the pulse of more nuanced and specific growth and development, both at an individual level and for your team overall.
The main takeaway from this fifth and final stage of onboarding is that you can be an even better manager to your new hires, and team, if you establish habits that carry on through an employee’s entire tenure at your company. Those habits start with the first year of an employee’s journey.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed the mystery of onboarding through the lens of five stages. New hires are first oriented to your team and organizational culture, then they need clarification from their manager and adjust accordingly. Then after initial adjustments are made, guidance is more fine-tuned in the form of calibration, ending with an emphasis on connection. One thing I didn’t mention earlier is that these are all rough stages. Some new hires will go through them all really quickly, some will take longer, and others will be almost exactly on target. This also depends a lot on the job role and function, as well as the employee’s general level of experience in that kind of role. I wanted to say all that because I’m not suggesting these are hard and fast rules of developmental stages. Instead they provide a loose marker of growth for you to track against.
If you’re interested in learning more about onboarding, I’d encourage you to check out three e-books. The first is titled Recruiting and Onboarding Trends. It includes a lot of the stats I discussed in this episode, and it also covers our research on recruitment, which I didn’t cover at all. The second e-book is titled 50 Easy, Creative New Hire Orientation Ideas. That one is pretty self-explanatory, but you should definitely check it out for inspiration when you have your next new hire start. Finally, the third e-book is titled New Employee Onboarding Checklists. This one has a lot of ideas and worksheets for things you can do and should consider for a new hire’s first day, week, month, and so on.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss the tenure curve.