Whenever former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, had to let someone go, he didn’t immediately hire a replacement. He wanted to see how long he could go without a new employee in that position. Welch is a business icon, but eventually even he had to fill positions as people left and the company grew. As a business owner or manager, few tasks will impact your company more than hiring and onboarding the right employees. And yet hiring is often overlooked or delegated to others down the org chart.
How you add a new member to your IT team will set the stage for that person’s success within your group. How you onboard a new hire can leave a positive or poor first impression. I’ve spent a number of years hiring and onboarding IT employees and have learned a few tips to follow and a few traps to avoid. This week I’d like to talk about some of the best practices you can follow when adding a new employee to your team. Many of these tips will apply to teams outside of IT, but my focus will be on adding IT staff.
The First Day
Nearly 20 years, I joined a technology company. On my first day, my manager took me to my office where I had a desk and computer waiting for me. What I didn’t have was a chair. I asked our group’s admin how I should go about requesting a chair. She told me to email an alias and a chair would magically appear at my desk within two or three days. I don’t believe this was the first impression the company intended to leave with me. I eventually borrowed a chair from the conference room.
There’s no excuse for not having everything ready for your employee so she can begin work on the first day. If you’re not ready (no office, no computer) don’t bring them in. Postpone their first day on the job until you’re ready. In direct terms that means:
- The employee’s office or desk is ready
- The employee has a laptop that’s ready to go
- The employee’s email/Slack/phone is ready to go
- The hiring manager is ready to greet the employee and make introductions
HR should have handled all the paperwork. I know a lot of benefits and HR tasks are handled online today, but the goal here is to have all that done beforehand. Nobody wants to spend his or her first day on the job filling out 30 forms.
My most productive first days on the job were those where I got to know my new team. This can take place over lunch or casual group activity, but it’s important for the new hire to make connections within the group as soon as possible. Years from now, your employees will remember their first day on the job. With the right preparation on your part, you can make it a positive one.
If you’re not ready (no office, no computer) don’t bring them in. Postpone their first day on the job until you’re ready.
Assign a Mentor
You’ll find that some employees naturally integrate into your team. Others will need a little more time, and this is where a mentor can really help. The challenging part is finding a personality match between the mentor and the new hire. In my experience, personality matters more than skills, and I avoid assigning manager or lead as mentor. You’d also be wise to meet with the mentor beforehand to set expectations. My first mentor at my first real job took me to a Seattle Supersonics game. We hit it off well, and I knew I could take any question or issue to him.
I recommend meeting with the mentor a few weeks in advance to set expectations. Many new employees will hesitate to bring up issues because they just spent a week or month convincing you they have what it takes to do the job. The mentor should be approachable and willing to answer even the simplest questions without acting in a condescending manner.
I once had a new technician approach me about a month into his job to ask about travel reimbursement. I instructed him to put all travel related expenses on his company Amex card. He had no idea what I was talking about, and I realized I’d forgotten to submit his application for a company card. Had I assigned a mentor to this employee, I believe we would have caught the issue earlier than we did.
I’m not a fan of recurring meetings, but I make an exception for new employees because I’ve found they need more of my attention than I anticipate. For an employee for which this is their first job in IT, I’d considering meeting each week for the first couple of months. I allow the employee to set the agenda in these meetings. But I looked for opportunities to share the following:
- The company vision, values and culture
- Where our team fit into that vision
- Performance expectations
- Success stories
For the first few meetings, I simply listen and answer questions. It’s easy for new employees to feel overwhelmed, and I didn’t want to add to their information overload. IT attracts talent with exacting standards and has its fair share of introverts. Don’t assume that the team will step in to answer all questions. I initially considered the one-on-one an opportunity to coach employees, but I found them to be much more productive when sat back and listened without intervening.
A few months ago, I spoke with a technician who had been in the job for about six months. I asked how he was enjoying the job, and he said he was learning a lot, but had one big concern “How do I know what success looks like in job?” he asked. He and his team built workstations. Some technicians were able to build four or five a day while others built one or two. He told me that he’d leave work each Friday wondering if his manager was happy with his work. This is an example of poor management. Nobody should go six months on the job and not understand what success in their position looks like. I scheduled a time to meet with this manager to rectify the oversight.
This is an example of poor management. Nobody should go six months on the job and not understand what success in their position looks like.
Give The New Employee Time to Grow
Don’t jump to conclusions about a new employee after a week. Or two or three weeks. I’ve made this mistake before. During the interview, the employee tries her best to show you she’s the ideal fit for the position. This is their time to brag about their talents and personality traits that will make them a success. A few years ago, I hired a wireless expert who came highly recommended and with years of networking experience. I sent him to a couple of tradeshows, expecting him to know the ins and outs of building a temporary networks for large tradeshows and conventions.
During the post-event followup, I realized he had never worked on events of this size and scale. His experience was setting up company networks. He was familiar with the gear and skills needed for one job, yet I expected he’d show up on day one ready to build out a network that supports 50,000 attendees. I had unrealistic expectations. I had to step back and reevaluate what I was asking him to accomplish.
During his annual review, this employee shared with me that he nearly quit after the first event. He felt overwhelmed and didn’t know if he’d succeed in the position. He was skilled and smart, and turned out to be one of my best employees. And yet, I nearly lost him because I had tossed him into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver. He needed time to grow into the job. I learned a good lesson with him, and was fortunate he stuck with me.
Over the years of interviewing, hiring and mentoring new employees across a number of technical disciplines, I’ve learned to have a plan yet maintain flexibility. Some new hires will join your team, and it will be their first real job. Others might join after decades of experience. Your ability as a manager to feel out these situations and customize your onboarding process will pay dividends. Listen to each new employee with an ear to understanding their fears or apprehension about the position. Even the most confident employees have blind spots. They just don’t see them on day one.
One benefit of hiring for an IT position is that many employees are already primed to assist each other. IT teams tend to share information and ideas. It’s a lot more fun to work at a company that rewards teamwork and collaboration than one where employees are pitted against each other. I once worked for a company that stack ranked each employee against his or her peers. Ranking determined raises and bonuses. This environment discouraged teamwork. I don’t ever want to work in that environment again.
I recently read a book by the founders of 37 Signals. They advised to hire slowly, but get rid of the bad apple quickly. I’ve probably hired over 100 people in my career, and I’ve never regretted waiting till I found a good fit for the position. One you do find the right fit, make an investment to bring them into the fold in the right manner. No doubt, they will remember how you treated them on day one.