Why your employee onboarding should take a year

Doing it right means setting up this crucial relationship for success

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

A year? Yes, I can say with confidence that it’s true. To onboard a new employee effectively — in a way that gets the most out of them, integrates them into the rest of the team, and makes them happy at work — should take about a year. It’s not as hard as it sounds. And it’s worth it.

I don’t want you to think that this approach is easy, but it’s definitely doable. I’ve used it with dozens of people and several different companies–evolving many times over more than 10 years–and I’ve seen the dramatic effects it can have. For one thing, it actually unlocks time, rather than takes it away. Because this onboarding program becomes woven into your day-to-day operations, people start contributing more quickly (rather than being in “learning mode” for weeks or months) and they also learn more quickly. Onboarding becomes flexible and tied to the needs of your organization. It scales along with the growth of your team.

Perhaps most importantly, it builds trust — both your trust in your new team member and the new person’s trust in you, as well as trust between members of your team. And trust is perhaps the most critical part of any organization’s success.

But why does it take a year?

There are many reasons, which we’ll get into, but two stand out:

  • You’ll be showing (not just telling) what’s expected in every aspect of your business. You want every person in your organization to understand what the bar looks like — how the business works, why you do things a certain way, and how people are expected to work together. And you want new employees to be contributing to evolving those practices, based on their unique skills, experience, and insights. So it takes about that long to go through and have someone contribute to your business in a meaningful way in all those areas.
  • High-trust relationships take time. It takes a long time to build high-trust, high-support relationships (and not just at work). It requires commitment from both sides. This is especially important as you build diverse teams, where there are a wider range of viewpoints. Working relationships start from a place of optimism, but trust is difficult to gain, easy to break, and tough to repair once broken. It grows by people putting in the work–learning the best ways to collaborate and slowly overcoming problems that come up. There’s no doubt that any really high-performing team is built on high trust and high support.

6 steps to effective onboarding

As I mentioned, this is a flexible process and doesn’t have to be done in this order. Some steps may be very involved, while others may just be sharing something for an employee to read. Everyone’s needs are different.

Start with a warm welcome

A good welcome kit on their first day (or before) gives people what they need, while showing them that you’re happy they’ve chosen to join your organization. This can include things like company swag, an employee handbook, suggested reading, and a welcome note from their manager. Like the neighbour who brings over a pie fresh from the oven, it reinforces that they’ll enjoy working with their new colleagues.

Give them the tools they need and the connections they want

To begin, you need to give people the tools, systems and access they need, so they can self-navigate through the organization. Most companies think about this in a mechanistic way–an IT problem–but showing people how to use those tools is just as important (eg, this is how we manage calendars, this is how we organize our files).

Companies fall into a trap when they think about how to connect new employees to systems, but not about connecting them to the people they need to do their job. A hallway introduction or a group Zoom doesn’t cut it here–people should have individual 1-on-1s with a robust list of their colleagues. Not only will it make it help new employees understand who-does-what and who they can reach out to, but it shows them how people like to work. More importantly, it gives them social connections that make them feel supported and builds trust within your team.

Share what you believe (and how it shows up in your work)

Many companies are not able to articulate their culture. They’ll point to their mission statement, perhaps some values, and then dive into KPIs. But if a new person doesn’t understand what the organization believes it is doing — and why they believe it, and what led them to believe it– then keeping them aligned on your mission will be very difficult.

In practical terms, this means articulating things like: company language (what do we call things); key internal concepts (like who are we serving?); how our values show up in our work; and how we want to work together. The goal is to create a shared understanding that will align your team on what these things mean and how they show up in practice.

Explain the business

This sounds obvious, but many companies think it’s so obvious that they don’t need to explain it. New people probably understand what type of business they signed up for, but they probably don’t know:

  • How you got here and what shaped you
  • How you’re structured and why it’s that way
  • Exactly how you make money and deliver value (so you can keep doing it)
  • The key problems the business is trying to solve
  • Where you’re going (and how you’ll get there)

In the end, you want people to understand the foundations of your business so that you’re all embracing the same goals.

Get specific about their role(s)

You hired this person to do a particular job and fill a gap on your team, so you want to make sure they have what they need to do it. This applies to a few different dimensions: onboarding them to their team (what projects are they working on and what do they need to know about them?), their level (what do managers need to know about how to lead?), and their role (what are the specialized tools, best practices and rituals for a designer or a data scientist?).

New people will be eager to prove themselves in these areas–they want the trust of their team, they want to show their expertise–so helping them succeed is essential to giving them confidence and putting them on a good path.

Talk about what success looks like (for you and them)

After the previous step, a lot of organizations think they are done–they’ve given people what they need to be independent and it’s up to the employee to sink or swim. But after you’ve invested all of this time and effort into getting the right person and showing them the way, you want to make sure that investment pays off, right?

Having an ongoing conversation about their growth is the best way for you to make the most of your investment. It’s not just about making sure that things don’t go wrong, it’s about making sure that they understand what success looks like for you, and you understand what success looks like from their perspective. Tell them what they’re doing well, what they should stop doing, and what they need to start doing to reach their potential. Ask them to do the same about you. Both of you being aligned on what defines success and what needs to happen next is crucial. Engaging in this process is essential for developing trust and showing you’re serious about supporting them. By doing this work you both become stewards of the ultimate growth and success of your new hire.

Once people are on the trajectory you’re looking for–fully functional, independent, and growing as a contributor–onboarding is done. By this time the employer and employee should have a high-trust relationship that will bear fruit for years to come.

How this program makes organizations stronger

You know the saying “You get out what you put in”? This is a good example of that, as you’ll see your hard work pay off in spades over time.

Employers: Improve retention and effectiveness, lower risk

Perhaps the biggest fear employers have is that they’ll put all this effort into developing a person, and that person will leave after a year or two. But in my experience, it’s putting in this effort that prevents them from leaving. It’s when employees feel like their employer doesn’t invest in them — doesn’t have a plan for them — that they look for better opportunities. So, if implemented properly, this program becomes a competitive advantage.

This approach also makes people more effective at their jobs because it’s easier for them to understand what’s required of them. They see the company’s culture and values and can connect to it more easily. However, it also makes other people on the team more effective too–because if everyone is clear on what you want, it’s easier for them to uphold that bar. It gives people the power to provide quality assurance with less oversight. It makes people more likely to support each other, learn from each other, and help each other grow. Another way of saying this is that you’re making it easier for your teams to be antifragile. They’re learning to adapt in a meaningful way and overcome a broader range of obstacles.

It’s also worth noting that one of the underappreciated risks of new employees is that they can initially cause chaos. If they’re not properly trained on what quality looks like, or best practices for tools, they start working in a different direction. They’re doing things they don’t even realize are creating problems, and then that work often has to be undone. So a good onboarding practice is also about risk mitigation, as it allows people to come in and be grafted onto the business in a way that doesn’t derail the work already happening.

Employees: Gain independence, clarity and support

When you tell someone that their onboarding process is going to take a year (and here’s why, and here’s how we’ll support you), you’re telling them that this may be very different from their past experiences. That’s usually a good thing, especially when they understand that the goal is to make them more successful.

A lot of people want autonomy. And autonomy really comes from understanding where everyone is headed. When you combine that space with the message that we’ll give you what you need to succeed, it deepens the relationship. Especially when they understand that you’re not only going to make it clear what the bar looks like in your organization, but that person is going to help you figure out how we can elevate that bar. Then it becomes a real two-way relationship.

Something I hate is when people just say “Well, this person’s not working out” and they decide it’s easier to get rid of them. That’s often a failure of a company’s system and a clear sign that it hasn’t communicated what it expects or considered the needs of its employees.

The principles of good onboarding

There are some core ideas that I’ve observed in my years of experience that underpin how this system is designed.

Emergence: Timing and pacing matter

One of the biggest problems with most onboarding systems is that there’s a massive amount of information communicated in the first few weeks. This is often called “drinking from the firehose” and, as the metaphor implies, frontloading all of the information means that a lot of water gets wasted.

Instead focus on emergence–teach something when the opportunity presents itself. You can get a lot of leverage by saying “We don’t need to train a person on this until it’s relevant to the work that they’re doing.” This approach gives people both the time to absorb the information (smaller chunking) and the chance to apply it. The medical industry already does this by using the learning model of “See One, Do One, Teach One” (SODOTO). By showing things when they’re contextually relevant, and giving people time to practice, you’ll greatly increase how well someone learns the material.

Of course, this isn’t always possible–you may have hired someone because a team is far behind on a project and they just need to get stuff done in a very specific area. You don’t want onboarding to delay that. In this case you can just lightly touch on what’s immediately relevant and go back to the rest of it (or hire someone who already has deep familiarity with the problem and the working style of your team). In most cases, however, this “going back to it” never happens, and an employee starts off having an immediate impact, but doesn’t develop properly in the long term.

Learn how they learn

Many onboarding systems tend to be broadcast-style: a one-way transmission of either text or (increasingly) video. But a person might be a visual learner. Or a kinesthetic learner. Or an auditory one. These different learning styles can really affect someone’s ability to absorb information and demonstrate competency. That’s why it’s important to use a variety of learning styles and find out which ones work best for a person. As a manager, it’s your job to learn how they learn, so you can better support them.

Teach people about the why

It’s important for people to be able to connect a long-term vision (the “big picture”) with a short-term one, so they understand why they’re trying to solve a particular problem at that moment. It’s also easier to retain information when you know why it’s important or how it should be applied. Without this context, it’s unclear how things relate to each other and what systems and assumptions lead to the information. And if someone doesn’t know why a thing is done a certain way, it’s more difficult for them to support it–or to challenge it, if it doesn’t reflect the principles you want people to follow.

It’s also critical to understand your employee’s “why”. Why do they choose to work with you, rather than some other organization? If they care about making money, great, but if they want to learn and grow, or they’re attracted to your company’s purpose, that’s important to understand. Learning where there’s alignment between their why and your own long-term vision is the engine for motivation and autonomy.

What people misunderstand about onboarding

The biggest thing is that it’s not as scary or intensive as people think. The time commitment can be significant in the beginning, but declines as you progress. By relying on emergence, it’s also designed to be part of the everyday work. In some ways, this approach is an attitude– recognizing that the work is complete when a person is fully integrated into the organization, not because of an arbitrary date on the calendar.

For employers, it’s important to recognize that onboarding is an additive process–the more you do it, the more you benefit from economies of scale. You create a piece of content once, but will use it many times. (It’s important to continue evolving the content, but updating–or building your content with a structure that can scale and grow–is much less work than creating something new.) It’s also important to realize that this process can scale to the size of your company. When you are small, it’s much easier to explain the business and how you work. This can be as simple as a short conversation, rather than a detailed presentation. And if you start building this system when you’re small, and adding to it as you grow, it’s much easier than starting from scratch when you’re big!

New employees sometimes worry that an onboarding approach like this will be overwhelming and stop them from having impact right away. But once it’s clear that this will not interfere with what they were hired to do–that it will in fact support that–the fear goes away. It’s important to emphasize that one of the goals is to make work more fun and satisfying!

Build a strong employee relationship

Over the past year there have been a lot of stories about the “great resignation”. It’s fair to say that many people leave organizations because they don’t feel like their employers really invest in them. Some companies are afraid to make these kinds of investments because people only stay with them for a year or two. I think it’s clear that turnover like that is a symptom of companies not really developing their people.

The fact is that if you really believe in building people-focused teams, it takes time. But what you get are high-trust relationships that are more effective and last longer. That seems worth the time.

Up next: I’ll go into my onboarding system in more detail over multiple posts. I’ll spend time explaining each component and sharing examples, so that you can understand how to implement it in your workplace.

This post is part of a series on The fundamentals of great employee onboarding. Here are the articles in this series:

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Build. Lead. Manage. is here to help people develop their leadership and management craft, systems, and processes.

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Chris Caldwell

Chris Caldwell

I help businesses build, lead, and manage teams.

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