From the Chairman: Overboard on on-boarding

Apr 11, 2013

Several things happen when a new person joins your firm. Don’t scare them away. This term seems to have come into popular usage among HR folks lately, referring to how a firm brings a person into the fold – bringing them “on board,” so to speak. Sounds too much like water-boarding to me – may be fine at Gitmo but it turns me off in the context of architecture, engineering and planning firms. Various things happen during a new person’s first experiences upon joining your firm and I want to describe some processes that I have found successful and important. We do, however, need a better term to describe this process. I’m open to any and all suggestions, so please feel free to send me your ideas. I’ll post them in a future article. I’m hoping that somewhere in what I talk about below, a brilliant, warmer and more embracing term will occur to you… or me. I also hope that these ideas will help you bring new people into your firm in a way that engages them deeply and effectively in the work you do with each other for your clients. I’ve learned the importance of first impressions over the years, usually in painful ways, when I would catch wind of the feedback my wonderful new hire had just given to a colleague, usually prefaced with, “Can you believe what happened to me on my first day…?” A new employee is particularly impressionable. They’ve made a big move. While starting a new job doesn’t make the top 10 list of life’s most stressful events (after all, it’s competing with a spouse’s death, divorce or a jail term), I suspect it might reach number 11. Everyone beginning a new job has doubts and fears. Will they like me? Will I like them? Will I be able to perform up to their expectations? Is the culture as fun and exciting as it seemed or is there some toxicity lurking inside once I’ve walked through the door? The first question their friends ask them is, “So how’s the new job?” Their answer can steer additional potential hires to your door… or away from it. And it will most definitely determine their relative success as part of your firm. So here are some ideas to make this process successful: •Enrollment. Every new employee must complete various documents – insurance enrollment, government forms, and various other firm specific documents. This is, at best, a tedious process. At worst, if it’s the first thing a new employee does on their first day with a new firm, and the HR person is delayed on another matter, causing this fresh, impressionable new professional to cool his or her jets in the lobby, they will be sitting there feeling awkward as people they don’t know pass by busily pursuing their business. You’ve made a terrible first impression at a time when your goal should be the opposite. How about sending the forms to the person’s home, asking them to fill out as much as they can before they arrive to start work, offering to meet with them sometime during the day to answer any questions they may have? A good strategy is for the HR person to take the new employee to lunch, welcome him or her to the firm, complete the forms with them, give them a briefing on what’s going on in the office, and welcome them inside. •The first hour. I became particularly aware of the impression made in the first hour of a new employee’s experience one morning after passing through our reception area a couple of times and noticing that a young person that I didn’t recognize had been sitting there for quite a while. I stopped to introduce myself and found that he was waiting to meet with someone in the office to start his first day. I tracked my colleague down and learned that the reason he had left the new employee sitting in the reception area was because we hadn’t figured out where he was going to sit and didn’t have a computer terminal ready for him. No training had been arranged and our HR person was out of the office at a meeting. That started a revolution in our office. I promised myself this would never happen again. From then on, any new person was greeted in the lobby punctually at the appointed time by the person he or she would be working with, given a tour of the office to orient to where everything was, be introduced to a “buddy,” someone who would always be available to help make connections in the office and throughout the firm, given whatever training was needed to be sure that the person could “hit the ground running,” and was made to feel wanted, needed and supported. •The first day. Realizing that you want to make your new employee’s experience with the firm feel like a career, to be shared with like-minded professionals, and not just a job, have a few colleagues in the office take the person out for a coffee or a beer after work to see how the day has gone and what else they may need to be able to work most effectively. •The first week/the first month: At the end of the first week and the first month, formally check in with your new employee to see how they are doing, what they enjoyed, whether they have what they need to work effectively and whether their talents are being applied in the work they’re doing. These are steps that will make that wonderful new person that you spent so much time and energy recruiting be successful and develop the referrals you need to keep excellent candidates knocking on your door. See why the term “on-boarding” isn’t cutting it for me? Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with ZweigWhite and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310) Issue # 1003 Originally published 4/15/2013. Copyright© 2013, ZweigWhite. All rights reserved.

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