Successful employee onboarding should focus on culture

Main illustration: Molly Mendoza

Onboarding new employees is a hard process to do well. You might think of onboarding as something you just have to check off your list, but it’s easy to forget that things which are second nature to you are totally new and unknown to someone who has just started.

I joined Intercom a few months ago as an engineering manager and onboarding for the first time in a while made me realize some things I hadn’t before.

One area that’s especially fraught with challenges is your company culture. Neglecting to onboard a new hire into your company culture poses a huge risk of misalignment. You should invest in good and detailed onboarding focused on culture for all of your new employees, and more specifically, for your managers.

If you value your culture and want it to evolve in a controlled and predictable manner, you need to make sure you teach it to your new employees and don’t just expect them to absorb it by osmosis.

The disadvantages of the usual onboarding process

Most of us have probably been onboarded before. It’s usually a one or two day interlude before we get to our “real” work. It’s focused on meeting a bunch of people, setting up our computer, walking through benefits and occasionally meeting an executive who talks about the vision and mission of the company. It’s fast, cheap and short. Current employees don’t “waste” their time and new employees can focus on having lots of impact immediately.

Neglecting to onboard a new hire into your company culture poses a huge risk of misalignment.

While these steps are important and necessary, this type of onboarding is generic and shallow and leaves huge gaps. It doesn’t explain the network of values that subconsciously drive almost every decision. It doesn’t teach new hires the unspoken rules and expectations around the office. It doesn’t help people find their feet in a new and different environment. In short, it doesn’t educate people on the company culture.

If individual contributors are onboarded without building an understanding of the culture, their only possible savior is a great manager who will spend hours with them guiding them in their new role. Leaving this to the luck of the draw is never a good idea.

If managers are onboarded without building an understanding of the culture, they will probably act according to their previous experience and pass that down to their teams. Over time, ineffectually onboarded individual contributors and managers will slowly erode the culture that everyone is so proud of until nothing remains and it won’t be their fault.

Personalization, not generalization

The best onboarding is crafted for the position and adjusted to the person. It’s focused on details, not just broad understanding. In my previous company we built a drip campaign in Hubspot aimed at new hires. It would send them different emails over their first few weeks based on their clicks. The drip campaign could be crafted to deliver essential information at a useful time. If you clicked on a link about learning opportunities, a few days later you would receive a follow up email with more details. Don’t overwhelm your new employees with too much information too early. Guiding them and filtering this information will help ease the learning curve.

Don’t overwhelm your new employees with too much information too early.

The simplest way to achieve personalized onboarding is to reach out to new hires and ask for their expectations. It’s the perfect time to hear about what they already know and where they expect more guidance. Before my first day at intercom I had two calls, a lunch and couple of email exchanges with my future manager, just about my onboarding. The first question my manager asked on our first call was, “Kuba, what are your ideas regarding your onboarding?” It boosted my confidence that my manager would help me be successful in my role. If you plan personal onboarding for your new employees, you will better set them up to succeed.

Don’t finish onboarding on the first day

On the first day, you should put pressure on high-level values, the company mission and meeting the leadership team. Getting to quickly grasp the purpose and key motivations of the company is a useful early win for new hires. It gives them the feeling that they made progress right off the bat and made a good decision choosing your company. The first impression of your office, the people operations team and the place where they’ll be working are important, but onboarding should not stop there.

If you stop your structured onboarding at the end of the first day, your new hires will develop their own understanding of how to operate in their new role. This can lead to misalignment between how your new employees understand and operate, and your expectations of their contributions. Having this misalignment from day 1 is a sure way for them to fail.

Guide your new employees for weeks through your culture

Something that absolutely struck me with its simplicity and practicality during Intercom’s onboarding was having a Trello board filled with detailed cards crafted for my role. We use a template and adapt it for each new hire to fit their needs. It’s well structured and arranged by week so that there is a clear path to completion. Every time I felt overwhelmed, I could dive back into the Trello board to see how much progress I’d already made, but also understand what was ahead of me. There were many new words every day, but the Trello board was my guide that said, “You don’t need to bother with that yet, we will cover it in two weeks. Right now, focus on this.” Managers should invest time preparing a well structured onboarding guide for any new employees, so that they know what they need to learn but also so they feel like they are making progress and contributing.

Don’t expect new managers to start managing without understanding the culture.

Don’t teach and manage somebody who doesn’t feel the culture yet

Don’t expect new hires to immediately start working at full speed and don’t expect new managers to start managing without understanding the culture. Let new employees try out other teams, maybe even departments, in order to see how they are different. Give them time and opportunities to develop relationships with people across the company. This feeling of progression, starting from small wins and goals that get bigger and more impactful as they go, builds their confidence and cultural knowledge. It lets them build their network early and without pressure, not on the fly when they need to deliver results.

I temporarily worked on three different teams and had 8 weeks of engineering, filled with meetings and conversations, before I eventually started managing people. Often, the worry is that new employees won’t feel productive during their onboarding, but over those 8 weeks, I felt impactful through my involvement on each team. Day after day I felt more confident that I would be able to have a meaningful and positive impact on my future team.

Long term dividends

You shouldn’t be afraid of investing in the proper onboarding, especially if you appreciate your culture, are proud of your mission and values, and want to stay aligned even during fast growth. Shortening onboarding seems like a quick win, but it’s actually a long term loss. Invest in a thorough onboarding process for your new hires, and it will pay dividends for years.