By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

If you are in the people management business, chances are you might be onboarding some new graduates right now. With the best of intentions, we all have had the experience of bringing on new people and forgetting to plan for their arrival. Older, more seasoned employees are better able to navigate through these uncertain waters. (It still doesn’t make it a great strategy.) But for brand-new employees this lack of structured onboarding can have devastating impacts. Why? They don’t know what they don’t know. They shouldn’t know how to show up and be successful in these roles or within your organization. Everything that happens during this time is teaching them how to behave and expectations for what a successful professional looks and acts like, not to mention delivering clear messages about whether they belong in your organization. So, be intentional. Be thoughtful. And think about what you would want if you were in their shoes.

The first few days and weeks of any new position are a critical learning opportunity. Take the time before they arrive to put together a strategic onboarding plan. This should include expectations for work and behavior, the key people they should meet during the first few weeks and a plan for those conversations, and a detailed outline of how they will spend their very first days and weeks. There is nothing worse for a new employee than to show up on day one and be told, “We’ll give you some time to get settled.” Do you know how long that process takes? About five minutes. Then what are they supposed to do?

Here are some key components to a successful onboarding plan, with note that any such plan should be tailored to your organization, expectations, norms, and culture:

  • Set regular check-in meetings. Ideally, for the first week, these should be daily, and then taper off from there. But in that first week there should be consistent communication between you and the employee about their experience, their needs and challenges, and what they are learning.
  • Create intentional connections with their new colleagues. Set up informational meetings with people across the organization to help the new employee get to know their new co-workers and to learn the organization. These can be as simple as fifteen-minute coffee chats.
  • Set and communicate clear expectations for the work and for professionalism. One of the worst things you can do is to make assumptions that this person knows what to do and how to do it well. Why should they? They’ve never worked for you before. There is no reason to make their professional success a mystery they need to solve.
  • Help your new employee set goals. Think about the first month, first three months, and first six months. What will they be working on? How and when will their performance be measured? How does their work connect to the vision and mission of the organization? One of the keys to employee engagement is having clear direction and goals. There is no reason for any of your employees to wonder what they should be doing and why.
  • Identify some short-term work projects. Have a project ready for them to work on during their first few weeks. This will give them something productive to do with their time and help them to learn how to do work well for you. It will also give you an opportunity to have explicit conversations about the work, their process, and your expectations.

Remember that every one of these conversations is a teaching and coaching opportunity for you, demonstrating through concrete actions what it looks like to set professional goals, to be a competent professional, and to show up with you and with others. These sorts of “life lessons” are as important as the work itself, and not to be missed.

Finally, don’t forget that your new employee is experiencing a new set of emotions during this time. They’re in a new place, with new people, many of whom likely aren’t in their peer group. This role might be their dream job, or it might be the job they were able to get. They may not share your enthusiasm and excitement for the work that you are doing, and that’s OK. They may not see how this role fits into their long-term career plans.

Be an intentional and supportive manager. Your employee should not be expected to share everything with you, but you can certainly talk about the challenges of work just as much as you talk about the tasks and deadlines. Talk about how your role fits into your long-term career plan, and how you have figured that out. Talk about strategies you have learned to manage work-life balance and for managing your time effectively.

If you don’t feel comfortable having these conversations, or if your employee doesn’t feel comfortable with it, offer to connect them with someone who can serve as a confidential mentor and sounding board. Not every employee will want it. Not everyone wants to share everything about their lives at work. And that’s OK. As a manager, your job is not to force them into these conversations, but to think about how you are creating an organization that supports and uplifts all your employees. You need to remember that your employees are whole people, with lives and families and backgrounds and challenges that come with them to work, every day. To pretend otherwise does them, the organization, and the work a great disservice.

For more information on supporting new professionals, check out Year One, our resource for new professionals and their managers.