From New Hire To Superstar: The Principles of Effective Onboarding

Teamwork! Makes the dream work!

Unless you screw up onboarding.

In which case…

Teamwork! Makes your business unravel, enrages your clients, and sends you to bankruptcy court!

Ok, that may be a bit extreme. But it’s fair to say that if you don’t have a system to properly onboard new team members, you’re not setting them or you up for success. When you’re just starting out, it’s normal to be “building the plane in the air.” But over time, any business that wants sustainability needs to create a reproducible system to train new team members.

And in this article, I’m going to lay out exactly how to build that system.

Choose The Right Person

At the risk of belaboring an obvious point, it’s hard to succeed without picking a solid candidate. A good interview process will vet potential team members for culture/ values fit, and for professional skills.

The best way to do this is to create questions around the behaviors you want to see, then ask about specific times in the past where they were in situations to demonstrate said behaviors. What we don’t want are “hypotheticals” where we ask how the candidate thinks they may respond in a given situation. We want to ask about specific times in the past, as this is a more reliable predictor of future behavior.

Additionally, if it’s at all possible to “stress test” candidates, you’ll gather more useful data about how they handle pressure. This can be anything from having them complete a discrete project, or having them join the team on a temporary basis.

Finally, for the love of all that’s holy, check their references. They’ll likely offer up people that are fans of their work, but you can still ask questions to get to the heart of the matter. For example, “On a scale of 1-10, how would Mrs. Rossini’s co-workers describe her dependability?”

Recruiting and interviewing is a big topic, and I could write a whole article on it. Happily, Keeler already did.

For more on hiring best practices, check out BFU’s Ultimate Hiring Guide HERE.

Create a Checklist

Now that you’ve found a good fit for your organization, let’s address the onboarding itself.

Culture Onboarding – No matter the size of your business, you’ll want to cover the behavioral norms; “the way we do things around here.” For small businesses, this is generally best handled by the founder. You can cover the history of your business, review the values in detail, and share the vision and long term plan for the organization.

This is also a great opportunity to display your caring for your new team members. A good culture onboarding is a two-way street; get to know what makes them tick, what their long term goals are, how best to give them appreciation and praise, etc.

Job Specific Skills Onboarding – The bulk of your onboarding is going to be training your new team members on the specific skills necessary to do the job. In order to determine what you’ll need to cover, identify the specific responsibilities of the position and the various systems they’ll need to master.

As a crude best practice outline, new hires should:

  • Learn the System – Read the written standard operating procedures. Discuss the SOP with the training manager. Clarify the WHY behind the system and the preferred outcome.
  • Watch the System – Observe a team member executing the task in real-time.
  • Review the System – Ask the training manager any follow-up questions.
  • Co-Facilitate the System – Execute the task in real-time with the training manager or another team member standing by to jump in and help if required.
  • Execute the System – The new hire is now ready to fly solo, and the training manager provides extra oversight and feedback until the new hire feels sufficiently confident.

It’s also worth noting, “amateurs practice till they get it right, pros practice till they can’t get it wrong.” The onboarding is just the beginning of a series of trainings that will never end.

For more about creating effective trainings for your team, check out this article HERE.

Human Resources Onboarding – HR onboarding isn’t sexy, but it’s important. Make checklist of all the necessary human resource requirements. Some examples include:

  • Filling out tax paperwork
  • Providing copies of professional certifications and insurance (if necessary)
  • Explain how pay and benefits work
  • Getting a cancelled check to set up direct deposit
  • Review the employee handbook
  • Sign any necessary legal paperwork
  • Train on any job-specific digital platforms, including but not limited to company email, intraweb, booking software, customer relationship management software, etc.

Turn Your Checklist Into a Schedule

Now that you know your onboarding buckets (culture, list of job-specific tasks, HR stuff, etc.), we can go ahead and create a schedule.

Depending on the role, most small businesses will have anywhere from 10 to 80 hours of training (some of which will be shadowing). This may be done over a period of two days, or over four weeks. Regardless of what capacity you have, your next step will be to take your checklist and turn it into a schedule.

By looking at this holistically, you can appropriately divvy up your time. If you have 10 hours, your checklist may look something like this:

⃞ Culture Onboarding – 1.5 hours
⃞ Job Specific Task #1 – 2 hours
⃞ Job Specific Task #2 – 1.5 hours
⃞ Job Specific Task #3 – 1.5 hours
⃞ Job Specific Task #4 – 1 hour
⃞ Job Specific Task #5 – .5 hour
⃞ General Q&A – 1 hour
⃞ HR Onboarding – 1 hour

Once you’ve decided how long to spend on each checklist item, you can convert it into an onboarding schedule for your new hire.

While smaller organizations do lots of shadowing out of necessity, dedicated training sessions with a supervisor or training manager will be important. They not only fast track your new hires development, they make it clear “how to win.”

Long time readers of BFU will know we’re adherents of Self-Determination Theory. SDT, an evidence-based psychological model of human motivation, defines three core psychological needs; autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

While most humans want to have some autonomy in their work experience, most people crave structure in the beginning of a new job. For new team members, creating feelings of competence and relatedness are paramount. In regards to competence, new hires want to feel like they’re doing good work and are afraid of feeling stupid or unworthy of the job. In regards to relatedness, new hires want to feel like they belong, and will be afraid of feeling like an outsider.

Having a schedule of exactly what to do and when to do it will provide badly-needed structure. Crafting effective trainings on standard operating procedures will also help new hires feel competent.

Lastly, finding dedicated ways to socially integrate your new hires will help them feel like they belong. There are all sorts of ways to approach this, from dedicated “getting to know you” time at a team meeting, to facilitating a department-wide lunch, to setting up some sort of speed-dating activity. Regardless of how you do it, don’t underestimate the value of building social cohesion.

For more on using SDT and creating conditions for motivation, check out this article HERE.

Finally, as you build out your schedule, there will be many similarities to effective onboarding of clients. At the very least, consider how you can make them feel special and personally cared for during onboarding. They’ll only ever have one first day, so do your best to make it an enjoyable, special, and memorable day that sets the tone for their time on your team.

For more about effectively onboarding new clients, check out this article HERE.

Build In Feedback Loops

Any good system needs built-in auditing processes. No matter how hard you work to create the perfect onboarding system, there will always be room for improvement. By making a point to ask for feedback in the beginning, middle, and end of the onboarding, you’ll slowly learn how to improve your system.

Great questions include:

  • What could we have covered more thoroughly in your onboarding?
  • What could we have spent less time on in your onboarding?
  • What else would you add to make future onboardings more effective?

To systemize this, consider adding an “Onboarding Debrief Interview” at the end of the official onboarding period.

And as a bonus, new team members are a fantastic opportunity to get fresh perspective on your organization as a whole. Around three to six months in, new team members will become “part of the machine.” But there’s a brief window to get their thoughts while they still see the inner workings with fresh eyes.

Be sure to ask your new hires for global feedback on how they see your organization.

Want help structuring your requests for feedback? Check out this article HERE and/or BFU’s podcast with feedback expert Rachelle Periera HERE.


As always, hit us up with thoughts and questions below. And happy, happy onboarding!

PS I’m on Instagram now because 2018. And… I’m loving it. Follow my ass for unicorn business shenanigans at @mfisherfitness.