better onboarding

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most onboarding programs — the process of bringing a new employee into a company — absolutely suck lead paint. Here are some stats backing that up. It’s always amazing to me that people look at terrible “employee engagement” numbers — 15% globally, son!— and don’t realize how it’s tied to crap onboarding.

If you come into an organization and you have no idea of your role, the mission, your manager’s deliverables, the culture, etc. in the beginning … eventually, why would you care anymore?

The short answer to that question is “They pay you and can fire you, so you have to care.”

True, true.

Is that the best answer to that question? No.

It’s actually not that hard to improve onboarding programs, such as changing the tasks a new hire can do on Day 1 or revolving the whole process around stories or making sure there’s a clear revenue tie for the “decision-makers,” but mostly we don’t think about these things. Work is very much task-to-task, KPI-to-KPI, and project-to-project.

In short: should be obvious that bad onboarding eventually leads to disengaged employees and crappier work being turned in. No one has time to care, though. More crappy work needs to get assigned and delivered.

What if we had a path through some of this mess, though?

Step 1 of the path: Freshman year of college

Wait, what?

No, bear with me.

From an article on the importance of “moments,” especially in marketing/branding:

It turns out that 40% of our memories are in the first six weeks of freshman year because that’s when all the new stuff is happening. It’s a new place with new friends and the chance to go out and have a party at night and not have to report in to mom and dad at the end of the evening. But junior year is kind of a black hole of memories. Nobody remembers anything from junior year.

Personally, that one doesn’t apply to me — I remember junior year well — but I get the rest of it. It makes sense. Probably makes sense to you. And yes, I can remember the first 3-4 days of college super clearly.

Honestly, I can probably remember those days — and they were 19 or so years ago — more clearly than some stuff last week.

Same deal with vacations: you take eight days. What stands out? Maybe 1-2 days, or 4-5 moments. Not the whole 8 days, right? Not usually.

What all this means: moments matter, but moments are usually tied to broader context.

Step 2: A personal story

When I was getting separated/divorced, I had the same dream probably five or six times in 20-25 days.

Here’s the layout of the dream:

My dog is currently (not in the dream, in current real life) about 2-3. That breed lives to be about 10. So let’s say my dog is alive for another 8 years.

This dream probably happens about 6-7 years from now.

In the dream, I’m walking this older version of my dog, and my ex rolls up with her new person/husband/whatever … and a baby.

Now at the time this was all happening, I’m 35-36, I don’t have kids, most of my friends do, every time I log onto Facebook that’s all I see, etc.

I also had just read this New Yorker article about how you’re biologically meaningless if you hit 40 and don’t have a kid.

So I got all this life shit going on and I keep having this dream. It was a fucked-up time, you know?

I told a few people and didn’t get much back in the way of guidance aside from “WHOA, OK.”

(People are pretty limited at giving good advice in tougher times.)

Finally one of my friends says this to me:

“Well that moment could theoretically happen. It’s not a reach at all. So who are YOU going to be in that moment?”

That one line — “Who are YOU going to be in that moment?” — changed a ton of thinking for me.

The power of moments — now back to work

Here’s what John Deere does in India with first-day hires:

There’s a group at John Deere in India, where they face a really competitive labor market for engineers. On the first day, a new employee is met by a friend they had been corresponding with who shows up with a favorite beverage, and they walk to their cubicle. It’s already set up. In fact, the first email is from the CEO of John Deere, who talks about the legacy that we have, 175 years of innovation. The fact that we’re making products that make people food and give people shelter, so we’re doing important things for the world. He welcomes people to their first day. On the desk is a model of the first file that John Deere ever patented. It was a plow that you could pull behind your oxen or your horses that didn’t get caught up in root systems when you were plowing a field.

OK. Read that once or twice. Now pause.

What is a first day typically like?

What I’ve experienced or heard from people:

  • Quick greetings
  • Maybe they give you a notepad or a Starbucks card
  • Meet some colleagues
  • Walk around and stand in the doorways of various middle manager offices
  • IT set-up
  • Lunch with boss
  • A couple of low-context email “projects”
  • Fiddle around
  • “See you on Day 2, you’ll be slammed in no time!”

OK. Read that once or twice. Now pause again.

Do you see the difference between Deere and the typical?

You should. But if you don’t, here are the differences:

  • Meaning
  • Context
  • Connection to the brand
  • The idea of why this all matters
  • Moments you’ll remember

Most people strive in their life to maximize awesome, big moments (births, weddings, first steps, graduations) and minimize — within reason — shitty moments like funerals, breakups, etc.

I’m not even a massively motivated person in general (just kidding!) and I was totally motivated by “Who will you be in that moment?” because I knew I couldn’t live a moment like that and not be the best self I could be. I actually joined a gym and started doing a bunch of other shit a few days after that conversation. You know where I had that conversation? A bar.

Moments mean something to people.

Incorporate them into how you bring them into a company.

Ted Bauer

Originally from New York City, Ted Bauer currently lives in Fort Worth, Texas. He's a writer and editor for RecruitingDaily who focuses on leadership, management, HR, recruiting, marketing, and the future of work. His popular blog, The Context of Things, has a simple premise -- how to improve work. Ted has a Bachelors in Psychology from Georgetown and a Masters in Organizational Development from the University of Minnesota. In addition to various blogging and ghost-writing gigs, he's also worked for brands such as McKesson, PBS, ESPN, and more. You can follow Ted on Twitter @tedbauer2003, connect with him on LinkedIn, or reach him on email at [email protected]