Brian David Hall

Agency Optimization

The Cost of Bad Onboarding

31 December 2018

Creating an efficient and enjoyable onboarding experience in your agency is probably pretty far down on your TODO list. It’s not the most exciting task, and it’s hard - as the founder or owner, you were literally never onboarded. How are you supposed to know what it’s like, or what it should be like?

Furthermore, your first few hires probably worked so closely with you on a day-to-day basis that there was no need for a formal onboarding. But as your agency grows, the strength of your onboarding plan can make or break you. If you don’t have one yet, you’re wasting time and energy, and possibly losing out on good talent.

Bad (or no) onboarding wastes time

It’s your newest hire’s first day on the job. She’s bound to have a lot of questions. Guess you better clear your calendar so you can spend a couple hours to show her around. But does she have access to all the tools she’ll need? Better plan on looping in … somebody with admin credentials … 🤔

The outcomes of this approach will be:

  • You lose a day of productive work
  • Your new hire gets some, but not all, of the context and access she needs to be productive
  • You squander the opportunity to connect deeply with your newest team member. Instead, you stumble through password creation and meander distractely from topic to topic

Tomorrow you’ll be a day behind on your task list, and your new hire will still need somebody to make her an Admin on Trello.

Bad onboarding hurts morale

Losing a day of productive work is bad enough, but the worst part of ad hoc onboarding has to be answering the same questions. Over and over.

It’s not your new hire’s fault that he has so many questions, and it’s not your fault that you have deja vu when he asks them. And it’s not his fault that he worries that asking too many questions will annoy you or make you think he’s an idiot. So it’s not his fault when he later makes questionable decisions based on partial information.

It’s nobody’s fault, but nobody will be happy about it.

Bad onboarding costs you good people

The ideal experience for a new, high performing team member is to get up to speed with team culture and expectations, get all necessary access, hit the ground running, quickly demonstrate value, and begin getting feedback.

Being hamstrung by trivialities like account credentials and permissions, obscurity around who owns what, or a lack of clarity regarding team priorities - this is extremely frustrating for a high performer. String him along at your own risk.

One of my former students recently joined a software startup. After three weeks, he was stuck writing docs because, despite repeated requests, he still hadn’t received access to the GitHub repositories he was expected to contribute to. He came to me concerned that this was a subtle way of telling him the company had changed their mind and didn’t want him on the team. He was already looking for another job.

I reassured him that most likely the company had no onboarding checklist, nor a single employee in charge of setting up new hires - everyone’s busy, and everyone thinks someone else will take care of it. It took three more weeks, but he finally managed to start pushing code. I doubt his company even knows how close they came to losing him.

If you hire people and leave them to fend for themselves, highly motivated workers will get frustrated and look elsewhere. But unmotivated workers who are happy to sit on their hands and ride the clock? They’ll stick around.

What to do about it

If your current onboarding program is “no onboarding program,” you can make drastic improvements just by investing a couple hours.

  • Write a welcome letter. In a friendly, conversational tone, welcome your next hire (and everyone after them) to the team. Share a bit about your team culture. Link to your Mission, Vision, and Values if they’re documented elsewhere. Link to a company directory with suggestions for people and roles to connect with during the first week.
  • Make a (public) checklist. You won’t remember everything, but something is much, much better than nothing here. List the tools, accounts, and resources that each team member needs in order to get work done. Note who has the authority to set up these accounts. When you bring someone new onto the team, duplicate this checklist and let them own it. They’ll know what they need, and who can get it for them.

As a final item on the checklist, have them book a face to face meeting with you. You can talk about culture, set some goals, and set them on their way. And then get back to work ;)


Photo by Fredrick Kearney Jr on Unsplash