The Foolproof Way to Onboard Every New Employee

by Jeff Hyman, Founder of Recruit Rockstars

This winter, I worked with a client who hired a new VP of sales and threw him into things far too quickly. In the first week, my client put him in front of a potential customer before the new guy was familiar with the products or understood the subtleties of the role. He didn’t know the competition and wasn’t from the industry. Most importantly, he didn’t understand the context surrounding this prospective customer; he didn’t know what had already transpired. He did his best, but it was clear that he wasn’t prepared to face the market.


My client regretted the decision to move prematurely, and apologized to both the new hire and to the prospective client. He said he was so excited about the new employee that he couldn’t wait to involve him in the discussion. Fortunately, the client appreciated his candor and the deal was saved.


But it might not have been.


Don’t risk it. It’s common for an executive to throw a new Rockstar into the deep end, believing that she can swim. Be careful about throwing a new employee into the water too soon, though. There are risks.

Misconceptions of Hiring Managers

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “We don’t have time to onboard. We’ve got to get them producing.”
  • “They’ll figure it out as they go. We’re really small. How hard could it be?”
  • “We only hire Rockstars who are super smart, so they’ll figure it out.”
  • “They filled out all the paperwork, so they’re onboarded.”


The moral of this chapter is as goes the first thirty days, so goes the employer/employee relationship.

The Crucial First Month

The first three to six months are when new hires are particularly susceptible to turnover, according to a Society for Human Resource Management study. Companies lose 17 percent of their new hires within the first three months. In fact, 4 percent of new employees don’t return for a second day of work!


This can be prevented, however. According to a 2014 study by Bamboo HR, 23 percent of people who left within the first three months said they wouldn’t have left if they’d just received clear guidance on their job responsibilities. Twenty-one percent said they wanted more effective training and 17 percent said friendlier co-worker interaction would have made the difference.


The key is to remember a few things: one, even Rockstars need to be oriented, and two, during the crucial first few months, you’re still selling. The new employee doesn’t have much invested during the first month, so they’re watching to see two things: first, if you have your act together as an organization and second, how committed you are to their long-term success.


They want to see if you are invested in them and if you follow through on the commitments made during the interview process. The employer/employee bond was damaged irreparably a couple of decades ago. And now that employees no longer count on lifetime employment, they no longer offer lifetime loyalty. As soon as you start showing that you don’t have your act together or that you’re not committed to their long-term success, they will not hesitate to jump ship. This begins by properly onboarding each new Rockstar.

The Importance of Onboarding

While it’s true that Rockstars ramp up more rapidly, they still need to be oriented to the business. It’s shortsighted to bypass training they need at this point because you’ve invested so much time in the recruiting process. Remember that if this new hire leaves after a week or a month, you’ve already released your backup candidate. You’ll have to start the whole process over by finding 150 new viable candidates to refill your pipeline. I’ve been there. In a word, it sucks.


Successful onboarding isn’t rocket science. It’s a period when your new employee needs to be taught the things they’ll need to know to be successful. It’s not just, “Here’s the bathroom. Here’s your website login. Get started.” You need to teach them not only how to perform but also about the company’s values. Bad habits can form quickly if your expectations about behavior and performance are not articulated.


Go slow to go fast. Every hour you invest in onboarding pays off down the road. Of course, if you can onboard several people at once, it’s a great leverage of time. I work with my clients to have all new employees start on the first Monday of each month, or every other Monday.


So, what needs to be covered during onboarding? Whether formally or informally, there are vital areas. The more forethought, documentation, and rehearsal you can put into these, the better they scale and can be re-used with new hires (updated on occasion).

The Role Itself

Be sure that your new Rockstar is clear on the role they’ve accepted. Go over the role (yes, again), the responsibilities, and the priorities. Point by point. Invest the time to ensure they are crystal clear. Flesh out all the things you discussed during the recruiting process. If one of the responsibilities is to build a process that ensures fewer bugs in the software, talk about what that means and what the goal is. Provide a target and timeframe.


Also, talk about constraints. Does the employee have a budget? Can they make hires—whether employees or consultants? Who will approve those hires, and how?


If you fail to prioritize for your new Rockstar, they’ll use their best judgment. But that isn’t yet informed by the realities of your business situation. Tell them the things you want them to focus on during the first week, first month, and first quarter. Equally importantly, tell them why. Get their buy-in to the plan of attack.


How are you going to communicate? Each company—and each manager—has a rhythm. The new hire needs to know how to communicate up, down, and sideways. They also need to be aware of expectations about attending standing meetings, providing weekly reports, give you a heads-up on bad news, and the like. Whatever your communication preferences are, set them now. The onus is on you, and the best hiring managers start good habits from day one.


It’s also important to ask the new hire how they prefer to communicate. Some people are better in person, others on the phone, or in writing. Some prefer groups, others individual conversations. If you know their preferences, you can adjust accordingly

The Business

Make sure they understand the company’s mission, vision, history, priorities, and the main initiatives the business is focused on. Educate every single employee—regardless of role or level—on the financials. How much money the business makes, your margins, variable costs, fixed costs, how you make a profit, cash in the bank, etc. There’s no reason anyone in the company, from CEO to receptionist, shouldn’t understand the basic financials of the business.


Company meetings are a great time to make sure everyone has this information. Done properly, it shouldn’t take more than an hour. You’d be shocked by how few employers help their people know the numbers.

The Team

Who does what? What are the key functions? Who are the leaders of those functions? What’s important to them? What are the key responsibilities?


What’s expected of the new hire, in terms of values and DNA? What is not tolerated? How do we function as a company? What does bad behavior look like? Provide recent examples—no names necessary—of Rockstars who were shown the door for violating the culture, regardless of their outstanding performance.


Who is our competition? How many others are there? What’s the market share? On what basis do they compete? Who tries to be the low-cost provider? Who tries to be a high-service company? How do we differentiate ourselves?

Sales and Marketing

What are our key messages? Who are our target customers? How do we acquire customer leads and convert those leads? Advertising? Email? Referrals? How do we keep customers? What are the customers’ concerns, objections, and fears? Everyone in the company is a salesperson. They can’t sell if they don’t understand the key messages.

The Product

Teach your new Rockstar about the products you sell. Pricing, features, benefits, functionality. I was fortunate years ago to serve as the first Vice President of Marketing for Dyson, the large consumer products maker. One of our culture rites of passage was that, during their first week, every new employee was required to take apart a Dyson vacuum and reassemble it—to understand how it works from the inside out. If your product is software, provide hands-on demos. If it’s an intangible service, teach them how the experience works. Reinforce this knowledge constantly, particularly around new-product launches.

Career Aspirations

In addition to training on matters relating to the business, the onboarding period is also the time to understand your new hires’ aspirations. I tell my employees they’ve hopped on our company train and that my job as their manager is to keep them on our train for as long as possible. That said, I’ll acknowledge that it’s probably not going to be the last train they ride and that’s okay.

Tell them that whether they stay two years, five years, or ten years, you want to maximize that time and make sure they learn and grow and see it as beneficial to their career. To do that, you need to understand their career aspirations. Find out where they want to grow. Do they want to improve at leading people? Do they want to work internationally? Start their own company one day? You can’t own their career, but you can help them by providing opportunities consistent with what they want to do long term.


There are countless ways to deliver the onboarding training. You get to pick and choose the most effective method based on the topic and how many people you’re training at the same time.


How you teach your new employee these things will vary. Common topics such as product knowledge can be done in an interactive group setting, while expectations of a particular role will be an individual conversation. Ask questions. Allow new hires to come to their own conclusions. Use quizzes to reinforce the material.


Individual training will cover career aspirations, roles, and responsibilities. Videos are effective if they’re interesting. For larger companies, share a video of the CEO speaking about the company’s key initiatives and mission. Before the start date, give the new hire some pre-reading; it can be case studies of customers, timelines of new projects, or industry reports. Anything you might give to a prospective or current customer (sales brochure, product data, sales contract, instructions on how to use a product) should be provided to a new hire so they can read and understand them, too.


Be clear with your new hire as to when you expect them to be up to speed. Let them know it doesn’t need to be within the first day or week or month. But within three months, they should be at least 80 percent ramped. During the first month, they’re crawling while they observe, attend meetings, and start to make contributions as they put the pieces together. Within the first quarter, they’re walking, starting to deliver on some individual assignments. After a quarter, they should be up and running.

You don’t want someone to depart whom you didn’t even know was unhappy. Getting feedback early and often is key. You are also assessing them. How’s their performance? The work itself? Their pace, quality, decision making, judgment? How are their values? Is their DNA what you thought it was?


Still unsure if onboarding is time well spent? According to a recent study by the Aberdeen Group, 66 percent of companies with an onboarding program report a higher rate of successful assimilation of new hires into the company culture and a faster time to productivity. Go slow to go fast.

Early Warning Signs

From day one, I’m looking for three things: skill, will, and DNA. Within a month, you should be able to confirm whether the competencies you identified in the interview process are there, whether they truly want to do the work, and if the DNA you identified is as it seemed. If you’ve done a good job interviewing and hiring, you should have an 80 or 90 percent success rate. And congratulate yourself, because you’re nearly twice as effective as the national average.


But if you see early warning signs, it’s time to redouble your efforts to save the relationship. You’ve invested so much time and expense. Determine if the person is a Rockstar but just has issues that can be addressed. If it’s a skill issue, are the competencies there? Can he do the job? Often, you can train the person and enhance his skills, or reassign him to a different position.

If will is the problem, you’ll have to figure out what the issue is; why don’t they want to do the work? You can see if something is de-motivating them, or if they’re just in the wrong seat on the bus.

DNA is the toughest disconnect to resolve. When you have a DNA mismatch, it’s nearly impossible to turn things around. Don’t wait to have the discussion with them. Outline examples of behaviors that aren’t aligning with the company’s. Convey that you’re concerned you made a hiring mistake, and discuss whether the situation can change. Fast.

What to Do When You’ve Made a Bad Hire

Commit to exiting your underperformers and your mis-hires. Be clear on the difference between the two—an underperformer may or may not have the DNA; they may or may not be a culture fit. A mis-hire is someone who doesn’t share the DNA of the company, so even if they are performing, they need to go.


Most executives will look the other way when someone is performing, yet doesn’t share the DNA. That’s a huge problem because the person’s bad behavior becomes cancerous to the rest of the company. It spreads.


In most cases, you should be able to decide within the first thirty days whether you’ve made a hiring mistake. It’s not in anyone’s best interest to defer the decision to let someone go. The solution is to use a diagnostic assessment and then make the decision. If the decision is to part ways, own it. If the decision is to try to make it work, own that, too.

The diagnostic has several questions:

  • Do they have the will? Do they have the desire to do the job?
  • Do they have the skill?
  • Have you provided direct feedback?
  • Do you see the trajectory changing?
  • Are other employees telling you the person is in over their head?
  • Are you spending a disproportionate amount of your time on that person?
  • Is there a different role in the company where they might excel?

How to Let Someone Go

You’ve made a hiring mistake. Own it. Don’t blame the candidate.


You’re actually doing the person a favor. If you’ve genuinely made a hiring mistake, what good is it to keep the person around, under the illusion that they’re doing well? It’s actually cruel and selfish to avoid the conversation. It’s far better to have the discussion early on when the employee might still have other job opportunities they could reactivate. Offer to make introductions on their behalf. You may not be able to provide a positive reference because they haven’t been there long enough, but imagine if you do keep them on for a year or two. Now, that would be cruel.


The key is to convince yourself that you’re doing both parties a favor. You need to believe that you’re freeing them up to find a home that’s a better fit. Upon their exit, do not throw the person under the bus; do not badmouth them to your other employees. Everyone’s going to be watching you. Be courteous, humane, and gracious.


I’ve found that more often than not, the employee actually feels relieved. They probably knew they were flailing and will agree with you that it was a mis-hire. If they didn’t know they were flailing, then you have failed as a manager. No one should ever be surprised when they are let go. That means you must have multiple conversations before the one where you actually release them. They might not agree with you or like what they’re hearing, but you need to point out to them how their behavior is different from your expectations. Be gracious but be clear that this isn’t going to work.


Before you have the final discussion, speak with your HR partner or your company’s employment attorney. You need to let someone go by the book, particularly if they’re in a protected class. Document the discussions you’ve had along the way. I usually email that to the employee, saying something like, “I wanted to summarize what we discussed today when we got together.” And then recap the conversation, noting the behavior that needs to change and offering to help the person do that. These emails will form a defensible paper trail that a lawyer might later ask to see.

Here's how to part ways with a mis-hire:

  • When you’ve done everything previously mentioned and the time has come, be kind, respectful, and humane.
  • Be brief and know what you’re going to say. This should be a five-minute meeting. Once you tell them of your decision, they’re not listening to much else.
  • It’s always in person, unless absolutely unavoidable. Even if that means you are flying across the country to part ways with a sales rep, do it. You owe that to them, and they are far less likely to feel mistreated if you have this conversation in person.
  • Be firm; this isn’t a debate or a discussion. Say you’ve made the decision to part ways because of the reasons you’ve discussed.
  • You’re the hiring manager; you should be the firing manager. Do not delegate this to HR.
  • Be sure to do it in a private place to preserve their dignity and minimize the disruption. It should not be in a glass fishbowl conference room, in full view of others.
  • After it’s done, notify the rest of your team. Don’t provide details. Say something like, “So-and-so is going to be leaving us. His last day is Friday. We wish him nothing but the best in his endeavors. If you have any questions about work and coverage, let me know. In the meantime, we’ve already begun a recruiting process to fill the position promptly.” Most of the time, your team will already know why that person is leaving. Many will ask what took you so long. That should be a good reminder that your gut is usually right when it comes to firing (but not when it comes to hiring). When you smell smoke, there is usually a fire.

Weekly 1:1 Check-Ins

The weekly 1:1 is a vital part of the employee experience, and even Rockstars need them. Particularly as the person is getting ramped up, here are some questions to ask:

  • “How are you feeling in your new job? Are you feeling confident or shaky? Are you nervous?”
  • “What are you enjoying the most?”
  • “What’s the piece you’re most excited about?”
  • “Is it what you expected?” This is important. If they say no, you’ve got a potential early departure. Say: “Let’s work together to figure out how to make it more of what you expected” or “Let’s agree that we made a mistake and see if there’s another role in the company that could be up your alley.”
  • “Has anything surprised you?”
  • “Do you have everything you need?”
  • “Is there anything that’s unclear?”
  • “What else can I do to make you more successful? Do you need more of my time? Do you need less guidance?”

About the Author

Author Profile pic

Jeff Hyman launched his recruiting career at Heidrick & Struggles and Spencer Stuart, the preeminent global executive search firms. 

Today, he’s CEO of Chicago-based Recruit Rockstars. Along the way, Jeff has created four companies, backed by $50 million in venture capital. 

Based on his 25 years in recruiting, he authored the bestselling book Recruit Rockstars.

Jeff also hosts the five-star Recruit Rockstars Podcast and is featured frequently by CNBC, Inc, Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg. 

He holds degrees from Kellogg School of Management and The Wharton School. 

Get Your Free Copy of Our Bestselling Book
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.