All Articles Leadership Inspiration To maximize engagement, get them started right

To maximize engagement, get them started right

6 min read


A new employee’s first day(s) at the office can 1) confirm their feeling that they’ve made the right choice coming to work for you, or 2) make them wonder if they’ve made a terrible mistake.

Needless to say, your chance of keeping the new person beyond the first few months goes up when their earliest days with the organization correspond to experience No. 1. So do the odds that the new hire will become fully engaged with your mission.

So what exactly goes into a good first day or three?

New hires need two big things from the onboarding process:

  • To feel as comfortable as possible, as soon as possible, and
  • To make progress in decoding the complex mix of values, procedures, customs, habits and jargon that makes up an organization’s culture.

The right space

Part of the “feeling comfortable” piece, of course, is a new hire’s impression that the employer has prepared an attractive, well-equipped work space for him or her.

In Dave Eggers’s recent novel, “The Circle,” about a cult-like and ultimately sinister tech company in Silicon Valley, the opposite experience is described in depressing detail. New hire Mae has just left a job with dismal working conditions. She most hated the cheap, dirty burlap that lined the walls of the depressing cubicles.

So now Mae is on a tour of the ultra-modern campus of The Circle, walking past airy, glass-fronted individual offices, some with architectural exposed beams, decorated tastefully with such things as bonsai trees. Her guide leads her to … her cubicle … lined with … burlap. Burlap! And that’s not all that is wrong.

“Mae sat, noting that the back of (her) chair was half-broken, that the chair would not move, its wheels seeming stuck, all of them. A computer had been placed on the desk, but it was an ancient model she hadn’t seen anywhere else in the building. Mae was baffled, and found her mood sinking into … the abyss.”

Fortunately, this all turns out to have been an elaborate initiation prank by a co-worker Mae had known at college, and she is soon installed in her real and non-depressing work space.

Only a rare employer would be so witless as to really and truly put a new employee in a dreary space like Mae’s phony cubicle. But it’s not so rare for new hires to have to wait for various things like a computer hookup, a company cell phone, or even a box of pens. Having to deal with unnecessary obstacles like these can only deter or delay newbies’ reaching a comfort level.

Cultural introductions

Enough about the physical side. How about the culture?

The thing to remember about culture is that it’s subtly pervasive. Once you’ve been in an organizational culture for a while, you tend to forget both how strange it may have seemed to you at first, and ignore how thoroughly it conditions everything you do at work.

A new employee is, as it were, hit in the face with all that strangeness. And even if this is agreeable, even delightful, the new person needs help figuring it out.

Obviously the figuring-out is an ongoing process, and nobody will complete it in the first day or two. But the employer has a responsibility to help the newbie minimize that strangeness as soon as possible.

It may be as simple as providing a guide to commonly used acronyms within the organization; hearing incomprehensible strings of letters whiz over one’s head contributes to a feeling of alienation. Or it may involve providing answers to simple but important questions like, “Why does everybody here keep talking about ‘line of sight’?”

A good first day

With these principles in mind, how can you and your front-line managers apply them to make sure new hires’ first days go well? Here are five suggestions from Linda Dulye, an employee-engagement consultant:

Be there. It’s surprising that a boss would be absent when new employees report for their first day. But sometimes they are. In a way it’s understandable; managers have many responsibilities, some of them outside the office, with customers, vendors or other key people. But for new employees, the boss’s absence sends a message that they’re just not all that important.

Remind the newbie why he/she is special. The new person was hired because he/she had particular characteristics and abilities that your organization values. Get the front-line manager to reiterate those special qualities to the person; it’ll provide a major confidence boost, especially at a time when at least some new hires may be wondering whether they’re going to be able to cut it in a new and challenging environment.

Broaden the newbie’s view. The new hire’s team or department is just one part of the organization. The manager can help the person get a clearer view of the entire business by introducing him or her to managers of other key departments for quick talks about the challenges these people face and how the new person’s job may affect/be affected by that department’s work.

Give them a “buddy.” New hires are going to have a ton of questions about how things work in their new workplace, and the boss isn’t going to be able to stick with them for eight hours. Assigning a “buddy” – a co-worker who’s responsible for the new employee’s care and feeding – helps the person get comfortable and start assimilating the culture.

Set up a check-in schedule. The manager will want to hold frequent progress checks with the new employee over the first few weeks on the job. The manager should huddle with the person in the first couple of days to create the check-in schedule. But note: The manager should be aware of opportunities for impromptu check-ins if the manager sees the new person struggling with something.

Building commitment

Not every new hire is going to work out, no matter how attentive you are to their needs. And sometimes, even if they stay, they won’t become as committed to the organization’s mission as you had hoped.

But if you have a well-thought-out onboarding process, and your front-line managers understand how to implement it, you stand a much better chance of keeping and engaging those recruits you worked so hard to find, woo and hire.

Dave Clemens is a senior writer for Rapid Learning Institute and writes The HR Café Blog. His work has appeared in The Associated Press, World Press Review, and in several human resources, employment law, and business newsletters. You can connect with Clemens via Twitter @TheHRCafe.