As the CEO of a business that has been profitable since our first year, is growing around 20 percent annually, and delivers more than 15 million calls and texts every month, I believe that our workplace culture is our biggest competitive advantage and that our employees are our most valuable resources. Yet a pivotal exit interview brought to my attention that we were falling short when bringing new employees onto the team. The problem wasn’t that we weren’t prepared in advance, that we didn’t welcome the new face, or that we failed to introduce them to their first assignments. Surprisingly, we learned that our strong company culture and family-like atmosphere were actually creating challenges for new employees.
We’ve all been the new person among a group that has known each other for years. Inside jokes and old stories lead to those awkward laughs when you don’t really get it. Nobody likes being in that position. Yet, I realized this is exactly how new hires can feel when they step into our company. Some of us at Call-Em-All have worked together for close to 20 years, and we take pride in describing each other as family. How could we make a person more comfortable and productive in a team like this?
Onboarding obviously requires more than just helping a person get up to speed doing the work they are hired to do. We realized we needed to start focusing on relationships and company history.
First, nail the basics of onboarding
The onboarding process makes our first impression on new employees. It goes without saying that there should be a pre-arrival checklist to set up required tools like a desk, computer, and email. On Day One, little things matter, like welcoming them upon arrival, presenting them with their gear, and having an organized HR packet.
— Mehdi Alaoui (@MehdiiAlaouii) September 23, 2016
The Next Level: Onboarding to Company Culture
As we move past these basics, a great onboarding program will spend extra time focusing on building relationships and imparting company history.
Part 1: Relationships
Having friends at work has a huge impact on an employee’s success. Friends might be a little too much to expect from onboarding, but we can at least break down barriers by encouraging many interactions with new coworkers. Doing this right will take more than a day. At our company, our formal onboarding process spans four weeks, with daily assignments the first week and weekly assignments thereafter.
Here are few ideas we’ve implemented.
1 // Onboarding buddies
The buddy is the go-to for pretty much anything that might come up for the new hire. The buddy (not boss) should check in on the new hire several times each day, and is required to review their daily list with them at the end of each day. This mentor-like relationship gives the new hire an easy outlet for questions and allows a team member to assume a small leadership role.
2 // Forced interactions
Our onboarding is loaded with tasks that require the new hire to ask questions of team members. On one day, they must find a person in another department who has a company credit card. The two of them then go to lunch together, buy a pot, and plant the new hire’s own piece of the company jade plant. (Yes, we have a company plant.) Other forced interactions include asking about our values, key terminology, and important moments in company history.
3 // Shared work
The first few weeks on the job are the perfect time to move around and understand what different people do. Engineers may do a one-on-one code review with a peer. Support staff may listen in on service calls. But we especially encourage cross-departmental sharing: engineers who observe our support team become more empathetic and have a better view of the big picture, while support staff who ask engineers to explain a current project have a better understanding of how we do what we do.
Part 2: Company History
Sharing company history will help indoctrinate your new staff into your values and vision. While we can’t change the fact that someone wasn’t part of our history, we can share it with them and help them understand how it has shaped us. How did we get where we are? Why did we make certain decisions? While it might be tempting to explain company history in a document, we find personal storytelling to be a better method. Not only is it more interesting, but it fosters those personal relationships we just talked about. Here are a few history-sharing ideas.
1 // Lunch with a founder
Who better to explain the history of the company than the people who started it? At a lunch that we make time for with every new hire, we explain the origins of our company and our prior experience. We talk about the early days and how we came to develop our Manifesto (basically, our values) and our Formula (how we work). Tenured employees have even been known to crash these lunches because they always learn something new.
2 // Great moments in history
Every company has legends. It could be how you signed your first big client, or that time you decided to make a Harlem Shake video. Our daily onboarding agendas include tasks that require new hires to seek out key moments, like finding someone in the company who went on the training trip we took to Zingermann’s and getting them to tell about how we developed our long-term vision. These stories enforce our values, give examples of how we work, and are opportunities for a shared laugh. All of these are good things, and they are more impactful when shared person to person.
3 // Lingo dictionary
We’ve produced a document that explains some of the acronyms and unique terminology you’ll hear around our office. However, we don’t give this document to new hires right away. Instead, we assign key terms and require new hires to ask coworkers to explain them. After the first week, we challenge our new hires to identify new terms or even inside jokes and seek explanation. Hopefully, they will have already been in the habit of doing this.
You’ve worked hard to create your unique company culture and you’ve no doubt worked hard to find just the right person to invite onto your team. Now that they are hired, you’re certainly eager to have them start contributing. But don’t drop the ball with short-sighted onboarding. Instead, set new hires up for long-term success by nailing the onboarding process, helping them build relationships, and teaching them your history and why your culture is a differentiator. If you can do this well, you’ll find that your onboarding process will not only build successful new hires, but it will help strengthen and improve the company you’ve worked so hard to build.
Brad Herrmann is the founder and president of Call-Em-All, a Texas-based messaging service. Brad started Call-Em-All in 2005, and today the company delivers more than 15 million calls and texts while developing a more meaningful experience for customers, inspiring employees to come to work happy, and modeling values-driven leadership.