How to get your new hires from zero to 100 in weeks

The art of 'onboarding' is more important than ever so you can quickly assess if you've picked a winner.

The first few months with a new hire can feel like a prolonged first date as you warily check for signs of good chemistry. But how, and how soon, should you know if the newcomer is a good fit? A recent survey by Toronto staffing service the Creative Group found, for example, that advertising and marketing executives give new workers an average of 10 weeks to make a good impression. That’s too long, experts say, and lay the blame on a poorly managed initiation process — “onboarding,” in HR-speak.

While businesses are starting to hire again — a recent poll found three-quarters of Canadian human-resource professionals plan to add staff within the next six months — companies can’t afford to spend months training an employee only to find the relationship won’t last. Amid a tough economy, managers need new hires to be productive quickly. And that requires the boss to be more proactive than just giving recruits quick run-downs on expectations and the company culture, then pointing them to a manual. Five years ago, Chris Keevil, head of Halifax-based marketing firm Colour, would keep new employees for up to two years before deciding whether they were a fit. “We can’t afford to make mistakes like we could then,” he says. “Now, we know before 10 weeks.”

To fairly assess a newcomer within weeks rather than months, it’s critical for the manager to provide the right support, says Roger Chevalier, California-based management consultant and author of A Manager’s Guide to Improving Workplace Performance. “If employees are selected properly, 85% of whether or not they will succeed is based on the environment created by a supervisor,” he says. A study Chevalier conducted with real estate agency Century 21 vividly proved that point. He trained 100 salespeople and monitored their performance as they rotated through different branches, and a pattern quickly emerged: new agents would consistently do better at certain offices. When asked why, they reported that they were given direction, ongoing training and encouragement.

Employers should also ensure that new workers are given challenging enough tasks to showcase their skills and potential. Kevin Dee, chief executive of Ottawa-based staffing agency Eagle Professional Resources, says too many companies start an employee’s probationary period by handing them a thick policy manual and telling them to read up. “You can learn a ton about people if you put them in the right situations,” says Dee. “Show them policy and procedure, but then feed them real work.”

Aside from discovering a person’s capabilities, Dee says the manager needs to gauge whether the new employee fits socially within the corporate culture. After hiring people for his own staff of 70, Dee invites them to one of Eagle’s monthly social events, such as beers after work or a potluck lunch. This helps new hires loosen up, reveals their personalities and lets them interact with the wider staff.

New employees keen to keep their jobs, meanwhile, need to quickly show their value to the team. Stuart Payne, chief executive officer of Saatchi & Saatchi Canada, says he can tell within three to four weeks whether an employee will work out, in part because the advertising agency’s projects are very collaborative. And, with a staff of just 50 people, Payne can quickly see when employees aren’t pulling their weight. “Taking on extra assignments and a positive attitude go a long way,” he says, adding that a good work ethic is key. “You can put up with some quirks and idiosyncrasies if they’re delivering.”

It’s also important for new hires to connect with the right people from their earliest days on the job. The Creative Group suggests becoming chummy with “project leaders,” “key influencers” and “potential mentors.” Chevalier advises managers to link newcomers with exemplary employees; otherwise, they might gravitate to staff who have time on their hands — the ones doing nothing.

“Sometimes, when people are given a manual, the first thing they do is turn to the people next to them and say, ‘How do we really do it?'” he says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if that person was a top performer?”

One manufacturing company Chevalier consulted for took its top performers off the job for a week to show new employees the ropes. Although the firm lost a week’s worth of productivity, it gained long-term effectiveness from the new hires. “So much individual success is not related to the individuals but the environment they go into,” he says. “If managers don’t enforce positive things, it’s a recipe for disaster.”