Everyone's First Day Sucks
The first day at a new job is typically colored by a mix of excitement, dread, and first-day jitters. You've chosen to work at a company based on a few hours of interviews, some web research, and, if you are lucky, a tour of the facilities. You *think* this is going to be a good place to work, but honestly, you don't know. It's like deciding to marry someone after the first date—a lot of commitment based on very little information.
And how those first few hours and days go will more than likely color the rest of your time working there. If the onboarding process is flawless, starting from the moment you walk in the door, you'll love your new company and trust that they know what they are doing. However, when was the last time you heard about someone having a flawless first day, let alone a flawless first week? (I'm guessing it was never.) That's because most companies really, really suck at onboarding and their ineptitude (or lack of consideration) wastes priceless new-hire goodwill that they never get back. Most companies take an excited, invigorated new employee and turn them into a cynical, demoralized old-timer by lunch on day one.
The Typical First Day
I think we've all had (or seen) a typical new-hire experience. Sally Newgal arrives ten minutes early for her first day at Big Corp., bright eyed and excited to begin her new adventure. Unfortunately, no one told the receptionist that she was starting that day, so he scheduled a dentist appointment and there's no one working the front desk to greet Sally. She sits for a while in the lobby, watching a stream of disinterested employees file past, not a single one greeting her or offering to help her find where she's supposed to go. Finally, after about 20 minutes of this, her new supervisor wanders out to the lobby and says, "Sally?! We were expecting you 10 minutes ago! Not the best start on your first day."
From there, things go downhill. Sally gets to her desk, but IT wasn't told she was starting, and she doesn't have a working login, so she has to sit in her cubicle, staring at her phone until HR comes to collect her. They make her sit through five separate onboarding videos in a room by herself and then fill out 15 different forms, most of which she doesn't understand, but no one is around to explain them. By lunchtime, she's bored stiff and starving, but has no idea where to go for lunch or when she's expected back at her desk to do the next part of her training (or even what that training is.) Her business cards aren't in yet, and there's no nameplate on her cubicle, so people keep wandering up and looking in at her, but not introducing themselves. She's starting to feel like a zoo animal, and is seriously second-guessing leaving her last job to come work at this den of disorganization and unfriendliness.
When she gets back from lunch, there isn't anyone scheduled to train her, and her login STILL doesn't work, so she just sits in her cube, lonely and frustrated, posting "SO BORED" memes on social media and texting her friends from her old job. At home that night, she vents to her roommates about what a waste today was, how no one at Big Corp. knows what the heck they are doing, and that she has the sneaking suspicion she should go ahead and put her resume back out there rather than staying in this job for too long—she can just leave Big Corp. of her resume if she gets a different new job in less than a month.
A Different Experience
It doesn't have to be like that. With intentional planning and development, the onboarding process at your company can be completely different. It can go from being the dreaded first day to the start of a strong, loyal relationship between your new employees and your organization. No one needs to wander around, lost and hungry, without any of the tools they need to do their work, wasting hours on mindless paperwork. The goal you should set is to have every one of your new employees doing meaningful training or work by noon the first day. You want to maintain their excitement, not lose it in the bureaucratic shuffle of sexual harassment training and health insurance forms.
And if it seems intimidating to develop entirely new onboarding, let me assure you that it doesn't have to be. Taking it one step at a time and establishing checklists and ownership for the tasks turns this into a business process like any other, but instead of manufacturing a widget, you are producing a happier, more engaged employee. In my mind, onboarding begins the minute you offer someone a job. When you call a candidate to let them know you are sending their offer letter, you flip the switch that sets the whole machine in motion.
The Offer Itself
The offer letter is the perfect time to begin getting someone used to how you do business. The letter should be clear, mistake-free (now is NOT the time to misspell someone's name), and concise. Any and all information they need about compensation and benefits should be included. I recommend including a detailed summary of benefits, including per-pay period costs for insurance premiums, along with any other details that are necessary for them to make an informed decision about their total annual compensation, and compare it to what they are making now, or other offers they are entertaining. The offer letter should also clearly state how someone can accept—do they call, email back, sign electronically and return, etc.—and the date by which that acceptance is required.
I also think that any offer letter needs to be preceded by a warm phone call from the person they have interacted with most during the hiring process. This should just be an opportunity to express the organization's excitement about them coming on board and a heads-up that the offer letter is incoming. This is NOT the time to fire off comp details and immediately ask for a decision. No one likes to be put on the spot, and it turns what should be a congratulatory call into a negotiation where one party has about half the information they need.
Once a candidate has accepted your offer, you should welcome them to the organization, formally. I suggest an emailed welcome letter that includes details about their arrival on the first day, the dress code, and some basic information about the area around the facility where they will be working—restaurants for lunch, gas stations, grocery stores, dry cleaners, etc.—that will make them feel more comfortable on their first day. Include information about parking, security procedures (if needed) and if there are any quirks to traffic (say, a school nearby that makes morning arrivals a little tricky during the school year).
I also think all new hires should be mailed some kind of company swag pack before starting. Take a few pieces of marketing collateral (stress balls, koozies, notepads, whatever), put them into a box with some tissue, include a handwritten note from their new supervisor welcoming them to the team, and mail it to their home to arrive before they start. This gesture gives them—and anyone they live with—an extra connection to your organization before their first day.
Internally, start the wheels in motion to get them set up on all IT and HR systems. Have a checklist for their position that lists out each and every login, password and piece of paperwork they have to fill out and do as much of it in advance as you can. Get business cards printed and nameplates made for offices/cubes/desks. Send as much HR paperwork as you can to them electronically before they start, so their first day is not just filling out forms, and they can bring any questions they have on their first day, if not before.
Planning the First Week
The first week should be fully scheduled and they should receive a copy of that schedule as soon as they arrive on their first day. Sit down with their supervisor and with any other departments that need to spend time with them and work out a daily schedule of interactions that will get them onboarded quickly and into meaningful work or training by noon the first day. Be sure to build in extra time for questions or hiccups (there are always hiccups, especially with IT) and have a contingency plan in place for the (likely) event of someone being sick or out on an emergency. (At Legion, I had two sales training classes in a row—a total of 12 brand-new people—who had to be trained by substitutes because my sales manager got sick and had to be out an entire week. Twice. In four months. Contingency planning saved our bacon.)
Side note: NEVER start a new hire when the person most involved in their training has scheduled time off, or will be crashing a huge deadline. Time your start dates so the primary trainer is available, has time to train, and will be able to make a new hire feel welcome and not like they are imposing.
As part of this schedule, make sure that at least the first two days, lunch is taken care of. A new hire should have lunch with their supervisor(s) the first day, and with members of their team the second. After that, they should feel comfortable enough to venture out on their own. Also, be sure to include the lunch schedule in their welcome letter, so they don't show up on the first day with a packed lunch that will then go to waste.
The First Day
On someone's first day, everyone should be on high alert. You should assign everyone specific duties—who is greeting the new hire, who is giving them the tour, who is doing the HR paperwork, etc.—and make sure your IT team is standing by in case of technical difficulties. Any part of the process that you can control should be worked out well in advance, and contingency plans should be in place for unanticipated issues.
Nice touches to consider are also having some sort of welcome message by your front desk/reception area, having their desk set up nicely with all the supplies they'll need (pens, highlighters, etc.), and giving them a little gift to make the day easier. One of my favorite tricks is to have them fill out a bio in advance and asking a couple questions about their favorite snack and non-alcoholic drink, and then having those two things waiting for them when they arrive. Who doesn't love having a snack to keep at their desk for a long afternoon?
During the day, if things get off schedule, make sure everyone downstream knows so they can adjust seamlessly to the changes. And if you are ahead of schedule, have some optional activities you can add in. You want your organization to seem like a well-oiled machine on these first days, so your new person internalizes the professionalism you project and begins to represent the company the same way.
Lastly, make sure you've let people know someone new is starting, and that they have that person's photo and name, so they ca welcome them. There is nothing better than feeling like everyone you will be working with is excited to see you, and has taken the time to get to know your name. Sending the bio answers around in advance is also a great idea, so people know what they have in common and can start conversations more easily. The more bonded a new person feels, the "stickier" they'll be in the long run.
This Takes Effort
If establishing this sort of onboarding seems like a lot of work, that's because it is. Sitting down and developing a strong process for getting new hires integrated into your organization is not the sort of thing you can do in an hour-long meeting. And it requires constant refinement. After every new hire, a debrief with all the involved parties will help you decide what's working and what isn't, and where you need to pay more attention. I also recommend a 30-day stay interview between a new hire and your HR department where they ask about onboarding and what could be done better/differently/etc. Those comments can then also be used to make a better first impression.
Frankly, in this labor market, screwing up someone's first day isn't going to cut it. You owe it to anyone who chooses to come work for you to make their first days in your organization a pleasure, not a dumpster fire. People have options, and the best candidates aren't going to stick around someplace poorly-run.