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How to Make Sure Your New Employees Stay Your Employees: Onboarding 101

We’ve been talking about getting your team ready for the fall for the past few articles. Today I want to talk about your onboarding process. We get so excited that someone will actually be there to get things off our plates, that far too often we miss the boat on setting up our new hires for success. In this economy, not spending the time and energy properly onboarding someone might very well mean they reconsider their decision to work for you. But even if they stay, they’re not going to be as productive without a proper onboarding process. If you’ve hired new folks in the last 6 months or plan to in the future, keep reading.

Last week during our Institute group call, someone – we’ll call them Susan – was talking about their not-so-great experience at their current institution. In fact, even though Susan hadn’t been hired that long ago, she just accepted a new position elsewhere. Susan specifically mentioned that had she gone through an onboarding process, things might have turned out differently. The funny part – and not so much funny “ha-ha” – is that Susan actually mentioned this to someone at the institution and their reply was, “You did go through our onboarding process.” Womp-womp.

This story is a good introduction to our topic because it illustrates two important points. First, you need to set up an onboarding process for your new team members to help them acclimate to their role, your department, and the institution. Second, that process needs to be about what THEY need, not what you think you should give them. Clearly whoever onboarded Susan thought she had what she needed to be successful, but they never asked her what she needed and turns out, she didn’t get it. So much so, that she didn’t even think they’d done anything to acclimate her to campus. You don’t want your new hires to feel this way.

When someone starts working for your team, you want that person to become invested in the institution and your team, right? The more you can set them up for success, the better able they’ll be to contribute to your team AND the more likely they’ll be to stay on that team. I mean think of that whole hiring process. Do you really want to go through that again? Do you really want you and the rest of your team to have to do their work until you get someone new, if you can even find someone as good? Do you want students to lose that support in the meantime?

Now that may seem a bit dramatic. I mean what are the chances someone is going to turn around and leave right away? Yes, most people will give you more than a few weeks, and even a few months to hope that you get your BLEEP together and help them understand what they need to do. What I’m really trying to get you to realize is that our current modus operandi in Higher Ed of putting out fires instead of planning for long term success doesn’t work when we onboard new staff members. All too often, the fire is either “oh no Pat’s leaving” or begging for more help and finally getting the approval to hire. Then you push and push the process along until you get that new person. But once their start date is set, you breathe a sigh of relief and think about how you can get back to focusing on all the work you couldn’t because you were helping fill that gap.

Unfortunately, moving on to other fires before you’ve got a team member set up for success means you’re just setting up more fires down the line. Since I think it’s too far of a stretch to ask you to refocus most of your time on long term planning and success instead of putting out fires, let’s just work with how most of you are operating right now. You need to treat onboarding like another fire you need to put out. You need to tell yourself, if this doesn’t go right this person won’t be able to do everything you need them to do. It’s just as urgent, if not more so, than the student issue or new project someone dropped in your lap. Why is it so urgent? Because if that person doesn’t get what they need to be successful from you, at a certain point they’re going to think “maybe this isn’t the place for me.” And the good news for them is there are tons folks hiring right now.

Now I’m sure most of you do have some sort of plan to welcome the new Pat or Susan. You do all technical stuff like make sure they get an email address, phone number, business cards, some binders or manuals about things they need to know, maybe even a welcome basket or lunch on the first day. You might even have a solid week of meetings and training set up for them. Yes, those are definitely good. But what happens after lunch? What happens on day two? What happens on week two?

At one of my previous institutions, HR had an onboarding day that new employees were supposed to attend. They did them in batches so it didn’t always happen on a new hire’s first day, but it covered all the HR things they needed to know. So, things like their benefits, important policies, etc. But some supervisors outright told HR their new person was too busy for that and wasn’t going to attend. How is that attitude helpful to the new employee? It’s not, it’s ONLY helpful for that supervisor who feels so overwhelmed that they want that person to do all of the things now, so THEY can feel less stressed. You need to put yourself in the shoes of your new hire and what they need to be successful. Short term, sure “hey you, get to work” makes it seem easier on you and the team members who have been there. But long term, it’s a losing strategy.

But even if your HR Department does a great job explaining HR things to your new people and you let them attend, that doesn’t help them adapt to their specific job. The only person who can do that is you, their supervisor. You know what they need to be doing. And let me qualify that with if the person has a specialized role, you may not know those details, but you do know the outcomes you need from that person. You know what resources they could use. You know which strategic partners they need. And you know the culture.

Let’s break down what you need to consider when creating a solid onboarding plan. If you’ve read previous articles, you know that a strong team is an engaged team. Likewise, your best and most productive employees are going to be engaged ones. So back to the Q12 we go. If you’re not familiar with the Q12, that’s Gallup’s engagement survey. I’ve done articles about the Q12, so feel free to check those out. But in a nutshell, Gallup looked at the data and narrowed down the most important engagement factors to twelve elements, thus the Q12. In our onboarding discussion, I want to focus on…

Q01. I know what is expected of me at work.

Q02. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.

Q03. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

Q04. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.

Q05. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.

Q10. I have a best friend at work.

Q11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.

The very first question is Q1. I know what is expected of me at work. Your new employee is going to have very little idea what’s expected of them. Yes, of course, they read the job description and got a feel for it during the interview – hopefully. But how they need to go about implementing those duties in your particular department at your specific institution is going to need to be explained. And as you’re explaining them, you need to be very clear on your expectations of those duties. I’ve written articles about setting clear expectations in the past, so go back and check those out if you missed them. Clear expectations from day one will save everyone a ton of time, energy, and frustration. You want your new folks to start out on the right foot and the same page.

The second thing we want to consider is Q2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right. This goes hand in hand with Q1. Your new team member needs to not only know what’s expected of them regarding their duties, but they also need the resources to do those things right. If you’re withholding information they need to be successful, that’s a barrier to their success and your team’s productivity. Now this can happen for many reasons. Maybe you never had a proper onboarding process, so you didn’t think it was important. Maybe you were so busy, you didn’t plan ahead. Or maybe now that they’re here, you feel too busy to make time to explain things to them. It doesn’t matter why. Just know that it’s going to impact their success and engagement.

To set them up for success, you need to take that job description and figure out what they need to know and what resources they need to put that knowledge into action. Then you need to establish a timeline of how you’re going to get them up to full speed. It may be tempting to make the timeline, “Okay, we need to you start doing all these things now,” but again, that’s valuing your need to not do those things over their need to understand their position and do it successfully.

Now some people might very well want to just jump in on certain things, but that’s going to vary from person to person. Make a plan that offers a good deal of support, and then adjust as necessary. It often makes sense to have your new person shadow whoever’s currently handling X, until they get a good sense for how to do it. Have new folks attend meetings with you, but let them know their job at this point is just to take it all in. Are you busy? Yes. Are your team members busy? Yes. But quite frankly, none of you are going to suddenly get everything done and stop being busy if you just throw everything on the new person’s plate. Again, treat this with the urgency you would a student issue or a directive from the campus president.

No matter how you structure this support, you also need to think about Q4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work. Now of course, “recognition or praise” implies positive reinforcement. This is absolutely important. People need to know they’re on the right track, especially as they start out. But in general, we’re talking about getting feedback. If your new people don’t get any feedback on how they’re doing, they’re not going to know whether they’re on the right track. They may think they’re doing great and get surprised when weeks later – or even worse at their annual review – you tell them they aren’t living up to your expectations. Or they may just spend their energy constantly worrying they’re not living up to your expectations. Either way that’s a lot of time and energy they aren’t putting into doing the things you, your team, and your students need. And just as a reminder, this can happen to your not so new employees as well if they’re not getting frequent feedback, so you want to be sure you’ve created a system as a supervisor where you’re giving consistent feedback to everyone on your team.

Now at this point you may be thinking, “Sure, Anne. I get that I’ll need to explain somethings, but I’ve hired someone with loads of experience. They’ll obviously know how to do their job.” Well, they certainly did at in their past positions, but the people they’re supposed to connect with, the processes they’re supposed to use, and the culture of THIS position and at THIS institution are going to vary. Of course, folks with loads of experience can eventually figure things out themselves. In fact, even people new to the profession can eventually figure things out for the most part. The question really is, if you want someone contributing at full capacity as quickly as possible, why would you leave it to chance? Eventually, could be two months or two years. In addition to taking longer to adapt to their new position, they’re going to be wasting a huge amount of time and energy figuring things out instead of just doing. What’s the point of making them do this when you already know the information?

I want to go back to this idea balancing the needs of you and the team vs. the needs of the new employee. Again, I’m talking about being so relieved that someone new is here to release the pressure on everyone else that you throw them into the fire without considering what they need to properly get up to speed. Let’s dig into Q5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person. You checking in with them and seeing what they need to be successful is not just about being nice. This is something that Gallup’s research has shown to increase employee engagement.

I absolutely understand the desire to give this person all the work right away so you and your team can be less stressed. I mean the reason we want to do this is so that we can protect our exhausted and overworked team members, right? It’s because you care about your team and hopefully even yourself as people. Well, it doesn’t really make sense to stress out the new person just because they’re new. It’s easy to think about this in terms of “well we’re exhausted, this person is new so they’ve got lots of energy and aren’t stressed at all.” Um, not if you hired someone who was working Higher Ed.

Why do most people leave their jobs? Because it’s just gotten to be too BLEEPING much at their old job. Just because they were professional enough not to tell you they want out of their old job because it’s too stressful, unorganized, or whatever, doesn’t mean they are any less stressed than your current team. In fact, one of the things that might be weighing most on their mind is, “Oh God, I hope this job isn’t as stressful/awful as my last position.” Don’t give them a reason to immediately regret their decision. Care about them as much as your current team members. If for no other reason, because they ARE your team member now.

I’m going to skip around a bit and jump to Q11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress. Consider your new person as being new for at least six months. Ideally, you’re not going to wait until six months in to check in with any of your team member(s), but at the very least make sure you do that. You want to make sure they’re headed in the right direction and becoming the team member you anticipated. You want to make sure you’re taking the time to find out if there’s anything they still need from you to fully adapt to the role and the team. And if there are areas you feel need improvement, you need to make sure you’re again, giving them (Q2)the materials and equipment they need to be successful. As a bonus, if you do it right, checking in often give you credit for Q5, as well.

Let’s go back to Q10. I have a best friend at work. We’ve talked about how this seems like one of the weirder survey questions in the Q12 in past articles, so I don’t want to get into that here. But I do want to focus on it as we think about onboarding. You want your new team member(s) to get connected around campus with all the folks they need to know to make them successful. Yes, most of these connections are going to directly tie into their job function, but there may be other people you want to introduce them to just so they feel like they belong there as quickly as possible. Now there are folks who are very comfortable going out and meeting people themselves – yes, I’m talking about the WOOs – but that’s not most people. Other people will do it if it’s necessary, but it can be stressful to just go around introducing themselves to people. In fact, some people may put it off longer than would be ideal because it’s just not in their Strengths Zone. If you can ease those connections, you’re going to improve that person’s chance of success.

So, introduce your new folks to people around campus. It will help them do their job more successfully, but perhaps just as importantly, one of those introductions might also become their best friend at work. Speaking for myself, I’ve stayed at many a job longer than maybe was good for me because of those best friends. Of course, you want your people staying for more reasons than they like seeing Brenda or Frank, but engagement consists of a number of factors. The more you have the higher your new team member(s) engagement will be.

That’s really what this is all about. Getting people off to the best start with a high level of engagement. Don’t depend on your new hire’s own motivation and excitement about the new position to push them through. They won’t last long on their own momentum, especially if they’re suddenly overwhelmed with too much to do and confused about how to do it. Give them reasons to continue to be excited. Give them reasons to decide they made the right decision as quickly as possible. It’s much easier to start out on the right foot rather than trying to fix things later.

That being said, if you’ve hired new folks in the last six months – or even year, and you realize you didn’t do the best job onboarding them, it’s not too late. Connect with those folks now. Check in and find out how they’re doing. Let them know where they’re succeeding and where they might need work. If necessary, apologize to that person for neglecting them. Let them know you want them to succeed and you’re sorry you allowed your busy schedule to distract you from giving them the support they needed to be successful. Come up with a plan together to get them the information, introductions, or resources they need.

One thing I want to clarify, is that it’s always a good idea for you to proactively make a plan before the new person starts. After all you know what they need to be doing. But once they get there, this should be adaptable depending on the needs of the new person. They might not need any support in some areas, but more support or resources than you thought in other areas. As you’re having these discussions, don’t just leave it at “do you have any questions?” or “do you need any help getting started?” Why? Because most people are so anxious to prove they deserve the job, they’re going try to do things themselves even if that takes more energy and wastes time. Set up the expectation that they should work with others to make sure they have a firm foundation for success. Once they let you or whoever they’re working with know that they’ve got it, you can let them run with things.

Now, you may have noticed that these are broad strokes. I haven’t told you do ____ during week one, do ____ for week two, etc. That’s because each position, team, and person are different. But do think about this process in terms of a six-month timeline - week one, week two, week three, etc. You want to start out heavy on the information and check ins. Have a schedule set with any current staff or campus partners that the person might need to meet or get some training from. Don’t jam pack it so much that the individual has no time to process or practice what they’ve covered, but don’t leave it to your new employee to seek out the people and information they need.

During the first six months, you want to remember this person is “new” and check in on them as such. Hopefully you’re meeting with all your team members on an individual basis. However often that is, meet with your new people more frequently. Some people may not need so many check-in points, but it’s better to assume they do and cut back if necessary than be annoyed you have to set aside more time with them.

During this time, you also want to get to know this person, especially their talents. Q3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day. If you’re not already using a strengths-based approach with your team, I recommend you start. Have them take the CliftonStrengths assessment. Discuss their results with them and how they can use them to be more productive in their new role. The more quickly they can find ways to maximize their Strengths in their role, the more engaged and productive they’ll be. When someone starts a new job, they’re going to start new habits on how to get things done. Those habits are driven by their talents. You want to help coach them to establish productive habits from the start. That’s going to be way easier than coaching them to change their habits later.

Just like you want your new team member(s) to be engaged in their work, you need to be engaged in your new hire’s success by creating an onboarding process that puts their needs front and center. Don’t get distracted by meetings, projects, or “getting more of your work done.” This IS your work. If you’ve been doing part or all of this person’s job, then you can’t really say you’re too busy. After all, you were literally just doing all of that work too. But even if that’s not the case because this is a new position or the previous person was replaced quickly, if there was a crisis or a student issue that popped up, you’d make time for that, right? We make time for the things that are important to us. This should be important to you, because the success of your team and your new hire depend on it. When you do take the time and energy, you’ll be rewarded with a highly engaged and productive team member. That’s a win for you, your team, and your students.

Now last week I mentioned that we were doing two small team workshops this July. If you have a small team, you can register your team for one of these sessions for just $125 per person. You and your team will participate in our half-day (3.5 hour) introductory Strengths workshop. We’ll put your team in their own breakout rooms for discussions and the team building exercises, so you still get that private training feeling. If anyone on your team haven’t taken the CliftonStrengths assessment, you’ll be able to purchase codes to take it, as well. The workshops will be on July 14th and 27th. For more information and to register go to

So remember to make a plan for your new hires that goes beyond the first few days and factors in all the engagement elements we discussed today. If they’ve already started, check in with them ASAP to see where they still need assistance. And until next time, stay strong.

PS - If you found this article helpful, please leave a comment and share with other supervisors!

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