“What do I need to do to make sure James gets off to a good start?” my client asked.

Leaders talk a lot about setting people up for success, but most onboarding seems to focus on documentation for HR files, occasionally on formal task training and only rarely on “how things work here.” Employees who aren’t part of a large training group are often left to figure things out on their own.

That’s why I’m always happy when a manager asks me how to get a new employee started. I think to myself, “One less organizational casualty!”

What New Employees Need to Know

So when it came to getting James started, I emphasized to my client how important it is for the new employee to have an end-to-end view of the new position. Isn’t that what you wish someone had explained to you when you started, along with giving you tips about how the office equipment works and which people not to disturb before their third cup of coffee?

Virtually every new employee wants to know more than just what they’re expected to do — although they definitely want to know that too. They also need to know the organization’s purpose and focus, and how their work will fit into its future. Sharing context won’t necessarily make them more skillful or accurate, but it will increase the likelihood that they can think correctly about what they’re doing, make better decisions, and avoid many kinds of errors.

Getting New Employees into the Flow

For my client, I listed the things she should emphasize when explaining James’s new role to him:

  • Why we do this
  • What we are trying to accomplish by doing it
  • A little about the history of the role within the organization’s history
  • The outcomes we are looking for from the role

Covering such things seems pretty obvious when you lay them out this way, but effective onboarding is not intuitive. It’s very easy to fall into the style of cookbook instructions: “Take these three ingredients, measure, and stir.” And it doesn’t help when new employees say things like, “Just tell me how you want me to do it.”

But when we don’t explain whether we expect the mix to turn out fluffy or crispy, it’s a lot tougher for new people to know if they’re on track — and if they’re not, to use their common sense to make adjustments. They may be baking, but they’re doing it blind — and it’s hard for them to know if their execution is extraordinary or mediocre.

Stay in Close Touch for the First Month

The other important thing my client and I discussed was how to actively monitor new employees and not leaving them hanging.

Here’s how to make it work: For the first four weeks, take a few minutes to check in with the new person every couple of days. Ask directly, “What has seemed strange or confusing over the last two days? What came up that was new, and what didn’t make sense?” You’ll quickly get a sense of which aspects of the job confuse them, or where they ran into organizational problems you didn’t anticipate, as well as where there were gaps in your instructions.

After the first week or so, you can even go further: “You took all my instructions on faith and I appreciate that, but I want to know about anything that doesn’t make sense or is troublesome so I can help you handle it smoothly.” Not only will you be able to straighten out executional problems right away, you’ll be strengthening the relationship.

After a few weeks of checking in every few days, you can shift to weekly meetings, but don’t start off weekly in the beginning. If you let a new employee go for a week on their own right from the start, they may forget important details, and any peculiar situations they encounter will seem too small to mention. And if, for some reason, the employee isn’t a good match for the job requirements, you’ll recognize it promptly, because you’ll have had 20 to 30 days of checking in with great frequency — not to micromanage, but to inquire.

Deeper Onboarding Leads to a Better Future

Why do we avoid deeper forms of onboarding? Too often, we feel so desperate about getting a new employee started with tasks immediately that we shortcut the introduction process. Or maybe we don’t think about our own work in context, so we find it difficult to share context with others.

But setting new employees up for success can be very straightforward. It simply requires an investment of time and energy upfront, which will save a world of problems later.