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Doug Blizzard
How to prevent new stars from flaming out

Getting off to a good start can make a big difference in the long-term success of a new employee.

October 15, 2013
by Doug Blizzard

The first day on the job can create a range of emotions for a new employee: excitement, anticipation, fear. Getting off to a good start can make the difference between an employee being motivated and engaged or just riding out his or her time until something better comes along.

I’m going to illustrate my point by tracking the first day experiences of two new star employees: Jane Regret and Tom Happy. Which of these employees would be working at your firm?

Jane’s first day starts with her arriving early, beaming with excitement. But Jane becomes concerned as she learns the receptionist wasn’t expecting her and doesn’t know whether her boss, Joe Smith, is in. After 10 minutes of calls and pages, the receptionist finally reaches Joe, who apparently forgot Jane was starting that day. 

Jane is sent to HR to fill out paperwork and is told that Joe will meet her later. Jane spends the next two hours in HR signing forms, hearing about benefits, and watching an old company video. HR then escorts Jane to her desk, which really isn’t her desk because the company hasn’t yet figured out where she will sit. HR gives Jane the policy manual to read and sign and a catalog to order supplies and tells her that her computer should arrive in a few days. 

Joe Smith finally pops in between meetings for a quick hello, telling Jane he’ll see her at Fred’s going-away party this afternoon. After going out to lunch by herself, Jane attends the party for Fred, who is moving on after only five years. Joe actually misses the party, so Jane will try to find him on Tuesday. Jane gets home and tells her husband that she may have made a big mistake.

Free shirts and baseball tickets

Now, let’s check in with Tom Happy. One day, Tom’s wife, Linda, is surprised to find a large package from Tom’s new employer on the porch—even though he hasn’t started working there yet. As Linda opens the box, she says to Tom, “Wow, it’s all kinds of company merchandise, shirts, hats, sweatshirts, etc. There is also a copy of the company handbook for you to read. And, look, there are tickets to the local baseball game. How did they know we love baseball? And a note from your boss, Jack Smith: ‘Welcome aboard, can’t wait to start hitting home runs together. See you in a month!’”

Tom arrives early on his first day, and as he approaches the receptionist, he sees his picture on the large TV in the lobby. The TV has a caption that reads, “Today is Tom Happy day! Welcome, Tom.” The receptionist greets Tom and tells him that Jack will be right there. Jack arrives shortly and tells Tom, “I am so glad you are here. We need you to sign some paperwork, but first let’s meet your teammates.” As they approach Tom’s work area he sees streamers, balloons, and a group of people. 

Tom’s teammates have gathered to welcome him with coffee and bagels. They talk about baseball and their kids, and share funny stories. When Tom enters his office, everything is there—supplies, computer, business cards, etc. After a quick visit to HR, Tom and Jack meet for several hours to review Tom’s 90-day plan and success factors. Several co-workers take Tom to lunch, where they share company history and reveal why they like working there. They tell Tom how important his role is to the team and answer his questions about his new job. Tom arrives home beaming and tells Linda how she won’t believe the day he had. Linda replies, “I have an idea. Look what Jack sent us—a bottle of wine with a note that reads, ‘Welcome aboard, Tom and Linda. Let’s raise a toast to a great, new relationship. We’re so glad you two have joined our family.’”

These stories, while extreme, teach us valuable lessons about how we should treat new employees. Think about Tom and Jane. Tom is already motivated and will say positive things about the company to family and friends. Jane is already questioning her decision. She’ll soon be susceptible to being recruited away or making unflattering posts about the firm on social media sites.

Many organizations resemble Jane’s experience. Everyone is doing more with less, so few have time to go that extra mile for new employees. At other companies, “only the strong survive,” so they intentionally do not pamper newbies.  

Feeling unwelcome, having an inaccessible boss, and having an unclear job plan all increase the odds that a new star will leave your firm. And once word gets out about your culture, you’ll have a harder time attracting new stars. You’ll also lose the training costs you’ve sunk into new employees as they leave. Depending on the position, it can take from eight to 28 weeks for a new employee to reach full productivity. 

Best practices for on-boarding

Here are some components of the best on-boarding plans. These activities don’t require a large budget, just time and attention.

  1. Activities that make a new employee feel welcome. First impressions are extremely hard to overcome. Instead of just throwing parties for people who are leaving, celebrate your new stars. 
  2. One-on-one time with a supervisor and other leadership. Don’t rush new employees onto the payroll if you don’t have time to spend with them. Consider having new employees start on a day other than Monday.
  3. Introduction into the formal and informal culture. Consider activities such as CEO meetings with new hires, “skip level” lunches, lunch-and-learns, and a buddy system to help new employees understand expected behaviors.
  4. A carefully chosen mentor or buddy to help new employees navigate your culture, processes, and operations. Make your office a safe place to learn how things really operate.
  5. Just-in-time resources that provide answers for the new employee. Company acronym dictionaries, process diagrams, auto-enrollment into appropriate discussion forums, phone lists, community information for relocations, etc.
  6. Feedback and guidance on job performance. Make sure your new hires are working a clear 90-day plan versus walking around aimlessly, with regrets.

Start employees off right, and watch them soar. Or start them off wrong, and watch them fly away. It’s your choice.

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Doug Blizzard is the director of member development for CAI Inc., a human resource management firm with locations in Raleigh, N.C., and Greensboro, N.C., that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability.