Setting up New Employees to Fail

Some readers of my rambling are IT managers, some are lower level IT staff, some stumble upon them from Google or elsewhere. Just about all of you have, or will, at some point, be involved in the hiring and onboarding of a new employee whether it is as their manager, their colleague, or their underling. This also applies outside IT to an extent.

There are several things that are critical to the success of any new employee that must be communicated or handled early in the onboarding process. Sometimes these are handled all by one or two people, sometimes they are handled by multiple people, across multiple teams. Some of them are obvious, some of them are less so.

  1. “HR Junk” – All of the necessary HR items. Your tax forms. Your non-disclosures. Your direct deposits. Your benefits enrollments. The associated education of how employees submit time off requests (and broadly what that process looks like), how they file benefits claims if needed, how they see open positions and submit resumes (their own or their friends/family) for consideration. How to report abuses, and who to ask questions about organizational concerns.
  2. Job basics. If an employee needs to be getting themselves set up, they need to know what the hardware and software requirements are. Do they need to request a phone and extension? Do they need to request licensing for a piece of software? Ideally this is all handled behind the scenes before day one, but I’ve worked at small (30 people) companies and medium (300 people) companies where this wasn’t always the case.
  3. Management. If an employee has questions, who do they ask for help? If there are multiple people, who do they ask for what, or in what order?
  4. Getting work. Even if an employee is supposed to be self-driven, they still need to get that work assigned or picked up somehow. The employee needs to know how that process works, and how they’re expected to do it.

Far too often, one or more of these items is either not handled at all, or is handled poorly. I firmly believe that there is a point where there is too much formalization of training, and not enough space given for ad-hoc Q&A “I don’t understand” type discussion. But there is also the other extreme, where the onboarding process is not nearly formal enough, where everything is handled by the employee asking questions or the manager thinking about something and realizing they need to educate on it. The worst part of this is that many new employees are in a situation where they don’t know what they don’t know, so they don’t think to ask questions because they didn’t consider it to be a problem. Even experienced employees may not consider that they need access to organization-specific things if they weren’t aware of them. I need a ticket system, a documentation resource, a code repository, and an HR portal. Oh, there are two repositories? There are two ticketing systems? When do I use them, and what do I use each one for? Do I have access to both?

Another risk is the situation where onboarding processes are done by multiple people. This risk is managed by the managers having a defined process, or at least some intercommunication. When they are all very hands-off in their approach, you have a recipe for disaster. Recently I reached out to my two managers and asked what was going on, because I was very much in the dark about my situation. Both of them responded in surprise – they thought I was slammed in one way or another. Then it became a cluster of rushed direction changes in order to make this resource productive.

This lends back to the idea that everything should either be a process, or have a process. It doesn’t need to be complex, it does need to be flexible. Checklists are usually fine, with a couple of well-educated resources who can answer any questions. If you’re hiring for a new position, check over the checklists and make sure everything is listed that needs to be touched during the first couple of weeks. Even if you’re hiring for existing positions, it’s worth a moment to check that nothing significant has changed since your last person was brought into that position.

And as with just about everything else, the key to solving anything is communication. If you’re a new employee and you’re confused about something, ask. If you’re not sure who to ask, ask the person who sits next to you, or at least ask them who you should ask. If you’re a manager, talk to your employees — not just the new ones, but set aside extra time for them. Talk with them and learn where they’re at, what they need, figure out what they haven’t learned because they didn’t realize they needed to know it. If there are going to be issues or delays, let them know. If there is a training schedule, outline it for them. Set (realistic) expectations and then meet them as best you can.

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