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Boss’s Tip of the Week #29: First Days on the Job: How To Lay the Groundwork for Success

The Boss's Survival GuideHere is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Too many managers work diligently through the recruitment and interviewing process only to ignore preparing for an employee’s first day. The attitude seems to be, “She’s hired, she’ll show up, what’s to do?”

There’s nothing to do if you don’t mind employees being frustrated, unproductive, or even literally lost. But if your goal is to have energetic, focused employees who are making a contribution, then you can make that much more likely with a thorough orientation program – beginning before a new employee even shows up for work:

Get things started even before the first day. The most common image there is of the first day at work is – wow! –paperwork. Wouldn’t that really get you excited about your new job?  We didn’t think so. Take a tip from many cruise lines and take care of a lot in advance:

• Send paperwork in advance. Most forms, which capture emergency contact information, tax withholdings, and so on, can be filled out any time. Let employees arrive the first day with the forms completed. (Note: In some states, you may have to pay employees for the time spent filling out the forms, even if they do it at home. Even so, it may be worth it to help give them a running start.)
• Make access easier. Help the new hire get their security badge or parking permit before the first day. It’s more welcoming and makes it easier for the hire to be fully productive.
• Set up a work area. Having nowhere to work, or getting a workstation that has no supplies or is still full of someone else’s junk, isn’t what employees signed up for. Personal space is important. Having a clean, functional, well-stocked work station ready when an employee walks through the door is the best thing you can do to help him feel he belongs. Don’t stop with a working telephone, a comfortable chair, and a few paper clips. Be sure to organize paper files and delete unneeded files from the computer. (One secretary spent much of her first day trying to make sense of letters to God left on the hard drive by her predecessor.)
• Let existing staff know that the new employee is coming. New employees will begin wondering immediately whether they can really make a contribution if their position is so unimportant that no one even knows they’re starting. Take time to let your existing staff know:

• That you’ve made a hire
• When the person starts
• The nature of the person’s job duties (especially if the job is new or has been changed since the previous person left)
• Something about the person’s qualifications (don’t share personal information, but give people an idea of what you think this person can contribute)

It’s best to make this announcement in person, so that you can convey your enthusiasm and answer any questions. Remind people the day before that the new employee is starting.
Don’t get too hung up on the calendar. You’ve agreed on a start date for your new hire. Now don’t get tunnel vision about that date. Suppose your annual planning meeting falls before that date? Give the new hire the chance to attend the meeting. Just be sure that hires for non-exempt jobs get paid for that time.
Arrange your schedule around the new hire. The worst thing you can do on an employee’s first day is not be there. The next worst thing is to be so busy that you can’t take any time with the person. New employees deserve at least some of your undivided attention on the first day. If something comes up that you absolutely must be out, call to arrange an alternate start date.

Offer a thorough orientation. There’s nothing haphazard about boot camp. The process of turning a new recruit into a Marine is a deliberate, consistent process that’s been proven effective for decades. But the Marines spend more time on the right way to make a bed than many companies spend on the entire orientation process. What a wasted opportunity.

A good orientation program should cover three key areas: the organization, the product (or service), and operations. Within each of those areas are specific issues to address.

• Introduce the new employee yourself. Take time to introduce the new employee to as many co-workers as possible. Don’t delegate this task to someone else who has “more time.”
• Review expectations. You’ve spent a lot of time writing a job description and thinking about the expectations you have for new employees. Now don’t forget to share them!
• Don’t go it alone. You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, I’d love to orient my new employees, but I don’t have the time.” Well, who said you’ve got to do it all yourself? You might want to do the goals and strategies sections yourself, but assign other sections to seasoned employees and/or teams. (In fact, asking employees who are about to complete their first year to give a portion of the orientation to you is a great way to test how much they know.)
• Schedule the orientation. Once you’ve developed the program and assigned “teachers,” don’t just hope that the plan gets implemented. Assign dates for each part of the program and determine who should teach that part of the program. Work all your new hires into the schedule.
• Don’t rush. People can only absorb just so much information at a time, so it doesn’t make sense to try to tell people everything in 48 hours. Orientation works best when you allot several hours each week for the first month. That frees up most hours for employees to focus on their jobs.
• Give employees the schedule. On an employee’s first day, give him the dates and times for each part of the orientation. Make it his responsibility to follow through, and hold other employees accountable for meeting their commitments as scheduled.
• Be consistent. Once your orientation program is developed, use it for every new hire. Don’t cheat and decide that some employees are smart enough to get along without it, or that because of a pressing deadline you’ll do the orientation “later.”
• Take advantage of support materials. If you’re in a large organization, your HR department may have materials (such as videos) to help in the orientation process. If not, use product brochures, catalogs, annual reports, and other material to supplement your information.
• Assign a buddy. As your new employees’ manager, you’re their number one source of information, and that’s great when it comes to sharing overall department goals. But because you’re the boss, new employees won’t come to you about many things, either because they don’t want to look stupid or because they think you’re too busy. Assigning a buddy gives them another resource.
Choose employees who have been around at least a year. If you can, select people who are outside the employee’s immediate work group. Logic might tell you to choose someone in the work group, since those people are closest to the work, but new employees will interact with those people anyway. Having a buddy further removed will expose him to other parts of the company and gives him someone to talk to about his co-workers (“What’s the best way to approach Henry? Does he prefer email or should I talk to him in the coffee room?”).
Buddies are also information resources. They can answer everything from “Is there anywhere nearby where I can drop off my dry cleaning?” to “What’s the best way to present ideas?” Most of the buddy time should be informal and spontaneous, but give them structured time, too. Buy them lunch once a month for the first six months so they can get away from the office and talk.
And don’t put any limits on what they can talk about, including you. Current employees are the best source of insight on how to work with your quirks. (Yes, you do have some.) Don’t ask buddies to share what they hear from new employees; nothing will undermine the buddy system faster. (The only exception should be situations you really need to know about, such as threats by a new employee.)

Real Life Example

The work station assigned to the new employee had been empty for a few months, and no one had thought to look through it. As the new employee got assignments, information, and back-up material, she looked for somewhere to put it. The file drawers in her work station were full. When she asked about it, she was told to “make room.” So she did; she threw out most of what was in the files. Only weeks later, when someone came looking, did it become apparent that she’d thrown out work samples, invoices, and contracts. Oops.

Boss’s Tip of the Week #29: First Days on the Job: How To Lay the Groundwork for Success
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