What Not to Do When Onboarding a New Employee #SHRM18


I had the pleasure of seeing Amy Hirsh Robinson, principal at Interchange Group, give a presentation called “The First 90 Days Will Make or Break Your New Hire” at the 2018 SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition, and it was an eye-opening experience. I chose to go to this presentation for a couple of reasons.

One reason I was drawn to this session is because I’ve recently stumbled into being an HR department of one at my small but growing company, and I know that improving the onboarding experience we offer will be critical to our success. Also, since I’ve recruited and hired three new employees in the past 90 days, I wanted to know exactly how badly I’ve been failing them.

Amy validated my beliefs about the importance of starting new employees off on the right foot while giving some great guidance on how to fold new hires into our company. She also verified that I have, in fact, not been doing an awesome job of onboarding our newest team members. All of this conjured up some painfully awkward memories of onboarding experiences that I’ve experienced — both as a new hire and as a team member tasked with introducing a new hire to our organization.

Read on for what not to do when onboarding a new team member.

Don’t Forget

Amy concluded her presentation with a “10 Pitfalls To Avoid” slide and one of the first listed pitfalls reminded me of one of my first jobs. It was at a hospital. I was still in college, and my work experience prior to starting the position mostly included working retail. I was really excited to be starting something new and radically different that didn’t involve counting change or stocking shelves.

My first day included an orientation to the hospital. It was the kind of standard onboarding experience that so many employees have come to know and loathe. We sat in a classroom and watched training videos, were told about policies and compliance and reviewed the employee handbook. While this experience was fairly dreadful, it does not rise to the level of things to absolutely avoid at all costs. That experience came on my second day of work.

The second-day orientation was the on the unit I’d be working on. It was in a building a few miles away from the main hospital, so much of the information I’d been given the first day about where to find things turned out to be irrelevant to the location where I would be working. Some elements of the dress code and other policies were different. And my ID badge hadn’t been activated, so I had to call to get into the locked unit.

The person answering the phone had no idea who I was, and put me on hold to find a manager. A few moments later, they hung up. I called back and spoke with someone else. After identifying myself and telling them who I was told to meet with, they put me on hold again. They came back to the phone to tell me to have a seat in the waiting room and someone would be with me soon.

After a few more minutes, someone came to the door and greeted me. She apologized for keeping me waiting and explained that the person I was told to meet with had unexpectedly been terminated the day before—and with the chaos of that person’s departure, they forgot to plan for my orientation.

I moved to a conference room with stack of dusty old binders filled with archaic training manuals. I was handed a multiple choice test and told to find the answers to the test questions in the manuals and bring my supervisor the test when I was finished. When I turned in my test, the supervisor put it in a box with a bunch of other completed tests that I’m sure had never been reviewed and told me to come back tomorrow to “get started.”

“Starting a new Hire when their supervisor is absent” was the pitfall Amy mentioned that brought up this memory. “Please make sure your manager is not to be away when their employee starts,” she said. I think this should apply to a manager who’s out on vacation, sick or just never coming back.

Don’t Postpone

My first days at my first hospital job wouldn’t be the last time I started a job where my new employer wasn’t prepared. After a few years in health care, I decided to change careers and went to business school for a degree in accounting. My next onboarding life lesson comes from my first accounting-related job.

While I was still in school, I started a part-time job at a small construction company. Their existing accountant doubled as the HR department. Unlike the hospital, they didn’t have a formal orientation process, and my new supervisor was very polite when she told me on my first day that she’d have to meet with me later to start my orientation.

She pointed me to a desk that still held items left over from the last person who occupied it. My first task was cleaning it and setting up a desktop computer that I found on the floor in the corner of the office.

The first of the 10 pitfalls Amy covered was “Not having a clean and ready workstation on day 1.” The room reacted with shock and laughter as she read this from her slide. “It happens all the time,” she said, making me feel slightly better about my not-so-unique experience.  

I never met with my supervisor to go over anything that day. Instead, I sat quietly reading the employee handbook and exploring files on the shared office drive.

Don’t Assume

It wouldn’t be fair to bash former employers without pointing out where I have gone wrong in onboarding employees. When I found myself hiring new employees and managing their onboarding experiences for the first time, I did make an effort to be prepared. I made an agenda and planned out what I’d introduce them to and talk to them about through their first few days.

I tried to tailor our orientation experience to work over video conferencing, one of the primary means of communication at our company. I sent calendar invites to their newly created company email addresses. (Because I work with a remote team, I still haven’t actually met these new employees in person.)

We have a BYOD (bring your own device) policy and offer an allowance for employees to purchase their own computers for work, but employees don’t always choose to purchase a new machine right away; some choose to use their existing computer. This has generally worked well for us since we use Google Suite for email and documents, and all of the SaaS apps that power our company can be accessed through a web browser.

I had one employee starting on a Monday and one on Tuesday. The employee starting on Monday had already used his allowance to purchase a new laptop. I felt like he’d pick up on the most of the items I needed to show him quickly, since I’d seen that he’d already started working in Basecamp, our project-management software.

When he didn’t show for our video conference, I messaged him to discover he didn’t get my calendar invite because he was trying to use Microsoft Outlook on his new PC and was having trouble syncing with his Gmail and Google calendar. He was unaware of the scheduled meeting and just dove in and started working without any instruction. While I appreciated him being proactive and taking initiative, I shouldn’t have assumed he’d know to find my invite on his calendar or in his email and connect with me.

My other employee chose to continue using her existing PC for work. Before we met the next day, I made sure to check to make sure she was aware of the meeting, and she was. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to connect to the video conference. After troubleshooting over the phone, we determined she was using an outdated browser. We finally managed to update her PC and get started — much later than planned.

With both of these employees, I shouldn’t have assumed they would know how to use the tools they’d need to connect. Going forward, I know to give clear instructions for how we’ll meet for orientation, and to help new hires prepare in advance of our first meeting. While this experience may have been frustrating and embarrassing for me, I have to put myself in the shoes of the new employees and realize that I didn’t put them in a great position, either. I certainly could have helped to make a better first impression for our company.

In Amy’s session, she compared an employee’s first impression of a job to a duck hatching from an egg and assuming that the first being it sees must be its mother. Those first experiences at work will shape how an employee thinks about an employer, and we have to make sure that we’re not just setting employees up for success at their job, but also making a positive impression that they’ll remember throughout their careers.


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