Updated: Jan 3, 2022
I’ve come to see that how you start and end a job is almost as important as the years in between. I tried to count and I think I've experienced about 15 first days at a wide range of organizations at this point. Most of them weren't great to be honest. So many of my own onboarding practices have stemmed from these imperfect experiences.
Here's one of my imperfect first days:
On my first day at company X (to protect their identity), I had to navigate a maze of cubicles for a 2-minute meeting with an HR rep who gave me a key to an empty office, told me where to get my ID, and wished me good luck. I spent the next few days figuring out how to get a computer, how to get onto the secure network, and where to print documents. Although it was exhausting to hunt and gather basic operating know-how, the trickiest part of an invisible start was that no one had any idea who I was or why I was there. Everyone I reached out to required an explanation. I had to convince internal colleagues that meeting with me was worth their time.
I wasted so much time and energy getting oriented in this new job. I was like a traveler in a foreign country without a map.
I remember taking a meeting with literally anyone who agreed. At the end of each meeting I asked “who else should I talk to?” It was a very large organization and it took months to finally start meeting with the people who were really useful. I was also extremely frustrated when I learned that the company gym was subsidized for employees, after I’d spent lots of money on a much more expensive health club nearby. I could go on, but you get the point. Although nothing bad happened, per se, I needed more structure and information up front at this new job. It was not a particularly welcoming beginning to say the least but, most importantly, I didn't get the basic information I needed to help me be successful at my new job.
How about a great first day, instead?
The key to setting someone up for a positive start has to do with planning, personalizing the experience, and thinking organizationally. This is hard to do in a startup, when things are often moving at warp speed. But, I promise you, it is so much more work to fix a messy beginning than it is to get it right on day one. Even just a couple of quick “heads ups” to the key people and a few “what do you prefer?” inquiries make a huge difference. Until you have a Head of People or Head of HR, planning an employee’s first day often falls on the CEO and/or the primary manager.
There are some important logistics to consider about what someone functionally needs to start a new job. The hardest part to get right, though, has to do with the people. That is: the people above, below and around the new hire. These people are the ones whose lives are going to change the most as this new person hops aboard. It's important to set everyone up for success.
On a great first day, there are no surprises; everyone feels seen, heard, and valued.
Of course, there’s also the new hire’s first day experience to think about. What would make this person feel great about starting this new job? This is this person’s first chance to look under the hood and see what it’s like to work at your company. Anyone can look good in an interview, but it's the day-to-day work that really matters.
A first day that is well-planned, communicated in advance, demonstrates your company’s ability to support everyone uniquely. It's the first step towards building psychological safety and trust, which is how you begin to build a highly effective team.
onboarding resources for you
I put together a few resources, below, to help you. Feel free to make it your own to fit your company. If I missed anything, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.