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How to onboard new employees

Most people seem to focus on the stages of the recruitment process before the employee starts. This is understandable given how difficult it is to source candidates, and then run the interview process.

However, it’s just as important to consider how new employees are onboarded into the new role. The first few weeks and months are critical to set people up for success, and determining if you actually made the right choice in hiring. There’s a reason most employment contracts have a probation period – this is the time to discover if your hiring process worked.

What does success look like? #

The biggest mistake I’ve seen is that the job specification only describes the characteristics of someone who you would like to do the job, but no criteria for checking if that person is succeeding or failing. It should include a detailed description of what you expect the person to be doing and how you measure that output.

Indeed, how do any of your team know they are achieving what is needed for the business? There may not be quite as direct a correlation as with sales quotas, but there should be some objective criteria for every role which determines whether that person is performing or not.

This is idea behind OKRs – having objective measures which are regularly reviewed. We didn’t actually manage to make them work at Server Density but we still had metrics that we reviewed on a weekly basis to ensure that we were tracking towards our overall objectives, which were then discussed at the monthly board meetings.

For SaaS businesses, the key metrics are well understood. MRR, churn (net MRR churn and customer churn) and NPS are typically the three key numbers relevant for all areas of the business. Then each team might get something more granular e.g. cashflow for finance, funnel metrics for sales, critical out of hours alerts for ops, ticket satisfaction for support, CPA/payback rate for marketing, etc.

At Server Density, our new engineers had a goal of deploying to production by the end of the first day, although our expectation was that it would be a good 3-6 months before they were fully up to speed to work independently on the codebase. These short term vs long term goals really help set expectations.

Operational onboarding #

This is where most onboarding starts and ends. It consists of setting up the mechanics of how the employee will actually get work done: laptop, email, chat tools, etc. This is obviously important, but should really be the easiest aspect of onboarding, and the one that is the most optimised.

That means all the crucial accounts, applications and systems are already set up and the computer the employee requested is ready to go. So much time is wasted with initial setup of laptops, creating email accounts, etc when this can easily be automated and be completed in advance of the first day.

Managerial onboarding #

Everyone has a manager. This is someone who will help you get your job done, remove obstacles, act as a career mentor and hopefully offer proper feedback in one to ones. Getting off to the right start with your manager is often daunting – you don’t know how they work, what they’re like and how best to get what you need from them.

I like the idea of a Managerial Manual which describes exactly this. My favourite example is How to Rands, something I’ve seen implemented by several managers at my company, StackPath, as well.

Cultural onboarding #

As the team grows, the culture will diffuses from “how the founders do things”, so the values and mission of the business need to become more formalised. This was something I wasn’t really aware of when I started Server Density – we were very informal about explaining how we did things and only wrote down our approach when we faced a problem with how something was being done.

The Netflix culture is probably the most famous and it is worth reading about what they mean by the term, but every founder and every company has a different approach to things. If I was starting a new company today, one of the first things I’d do would be to write out the mission and core values I wanted to build out. Values are what you hire against and describe how you operate. The mission is a short statement describing why the business exists through what it aims to achieve long term.

You also have to be careful of “culture fit” meaning “same as me”:

Finding the right people is also not a matter of “culture fit.” What most people really mean when they say someone is a good fit culturally is that he or she is someone they’d like to have a beer with. But people with all sorts of personalities can be great at the job you need done. This misguided hiring strategy can also contribute to a company’s lack of diversity, since very often the people we enjoy hanging out with have backgrounds much like our own.

How to hire, HBR

But you do need to find people who both understand and believe in the mission as well as agree that the values are the right way to achieve it.

Onboarding gimmicks #

In addition to considering all the above, there are some impressive but gimmicky things you can do to make new employees feel welcome. I use the word “gimmick” in the sense that these are good ideas to impress someone on their first day, but aren’t really part of “onboarding” in the same way as the more important things above.

  • Swag – have a parcel of tshirts, hoodies, socks, stickers, etc ready and waiting for them on their desk. All correctly sized, of course.
  • High quality printed version of the company culture deck/values/mission.
  • Handwritten welcome note from their manager / the CEO.
  • Lunch / dinner with the management team / CEO.
  • Announcement introducing the new employee to the whole company.

Isn’t this a lot of work? #

Yes. That’s the point. You can’t achieve anything without a great team, and it is absolutely necessary to spend a significant amount of time on the full end to end process: hiring, onboarding and then ongoing management.

To quote a good First Round Review article on this:

You say you’re too busy. You work at a tiny startup after all. But that’s no excuse, Guthrie says. “You’re not too busy. You just spent all this time, energy and money getting this new person to join. Blowing it is going to cost you even more when you have to start the hiring process again from scratch. Don’t make someone feel like you’re too busy to make them feel good about choosing to work with your company.”

Your goal should always be to make people believe on a gut level that your organization is so amazing that they couldn’t possibly work anywhere else. Building that attitude starts immediately once an offer letter is signed. And if you do it right, when the phone rings and it’s a recruiter on the end of the line offering the next big thing, they’ll say, “Sorry, I’m happy where I am.”