Follow this onboarding checklist to set your team up for success

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Priska Neely checks in with her reporters in a weekly Zoom call.

In the midst of a period of mass employee exodus at a former workplace, I remember sipping a cocktail at what was likely the third farewell happy hour of that particular month. Glancing around the bar, watching co-workers smile, swap stories and eat bacon-wrapped dates and the like, I thought: Why do we wait until people leave to do things like this?

I leaned over to one of the top managers and said, “What if we did things like this for the people that were still working here?”

I don’t remember the response, but it didn’t lead to much change while I was there. 

This was one of the many experiences that informed the philosophy I have now that I am a manager. I bring that spirit of departure week — the gushing all-staff emails, video messages and happy hours — to my system for onboarding new employees. 

Little did I know that my journey into management would begin during a pandemic and I would be hiring people in other states that I wouldn’t meet for months. Yet and still, I developed a system — fueled mostly by doing the opposite of what’s ever been done for me — that has made my three direct reports feel appreciated and at ease. I knew I needed to be extra intentional about onboarding, finally implementing all of the points I’d been storing for years in a Google doc called Notes to my future manager self.

Partly at the urging of jealous friends starting new jobs without this support, and the encouragement of a peer manager who has used my approach and found it useful, I have decided to share my thoughts with THE GREATER PUBLIC. 

These are the things that I always craved as a new employee, and they are even more essential in the times of distance and remote work. It’s a lot of work for managers, but the intentionality in the beginning means less work and fewer headaches down the line.

Before the first day

Tell everyone about this new person! 

This may sound really basic, but send out an all-staff email and CC the new hire with their personal email. That way, their soon-to-be coworkers can email them and say hi. Also, and this is key, attach a photo in the email. That way, people will recognize them on future video conferences (and in future hallways). In this email, also be sure to talk about where they’re coming from and what they’ve already accomplished. People are not newborn babies when they enter a new workplace. Make it clear what they are bringing to the team.

Forward that email around again on their start date (people forget things) and post about it on Slack and Twitter. Let the public know you’re excited!

Demystify the start

Starting a new job is nerve-wracking. Starting a new job in the midst of a global health crisis is even more harrowing. In one of my (few) positive onboarding experiences, a manager shared a Google doc the day before my start date outlining what to expect in the first two weeks — a welcome lunch, staff meetings, 1-1s with editors and top managers. This really eased my nerves because I had a sense of what would go down, but it also gave me a sense that there was intentionality in making sure that I was properly introduced to the entire team.

For my hires, I’ve taken to sending this out the Friday before a Monday start date. It includes information about start time for the first day and where and when they should pick up equipment. You have to be deliberate about all of this stuff if you can’t just meet them at the office. To be clear, this also means that, as a manager, you actually have to set up all of those meetings, but trust me, it pays off!

Set them up for success

Some newsrooms and shows have a culture that’s all about sinking or swimming, but I argue that being deliberate can improve what journalists produce and what audiences consume. It can also prevent feelings of imposter syndrome, like those detailed by writer and producer Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong in this Twitter thread. This is also key when it comes to goals of diversity, inclusivity and retention. As I’ve written before, if newsrooms want to hire and retain employees who have been historically marginalized, it is essential to consider their full humanity.

In order to create systems to support others, you have to do the work to define your processes. This may mean creating documents defining all of the internal jargon, turning them on to resources like NPR Training or Transom, or signing them up for editing or reporting workshops. Do it from the beginning to set them up to do their best work. That way, it doesn’t feel punitive later. Don’t assume that someone knows how your operation works just because they’ve done something similar. 

On Day One

Activate all of the rituals reserved for farewells

All of the swag

It is here, my dear friends, that we make the employee feel special; when they are on the way in, rather than out the door. Since I run a multistate journalism collaborative where my reporters will likely never meet all of their colleagues in person, I created a welcome video using VidHug, where everyone in the newsroom (or at least everyone I could get to respond to my emails) says hi, introduces themselves and gives a recommendation for a restaurant or activity to try in their state when traveling is a thing again.

On the first day, I send that in an email to the new hire with a gift card for a food delivery service, in lieu of taking them out to lunch on their first day.

Also, send them all of the swag.

Set clear expectations

I prepared a number of documents to share with my new employees on day one. The first is called “Where to Start,” and it’s also included in that day one email with the lunch gift card and welcome video. Right at the top, it says, “First days remotely are super weird, so here’s a to-do list to get you started!” It includes a link to that calendar of activities that I previously sent (links are hard to keep track of in the beginning, so help them out), a checklist of onboarding tasks (all the HR, equipment and enrollment stuff), an invite to the Slack workspace, frequently used sites to bookmark and more.

Since I’m an editor and had reporters moving and taking on new coverage areas as part of a new collaboration, I also included a list of organizations that might be good for informational meetings and one story assignment to get the ball rolling. This is all about setting them up for success. 

Lay a foundation for trust and vulnerability 

One of the most important links on that “Where to Start” document is the Employee Expectations doc. Here, I pasted the mission of the organization, my personal mission as a manager, the job description and an outline of what I hope they will accomplish in the first month, three months and six months. 

And then, there’s the How I Like to be Supervised doc. I modeled this after a form that a friend in the world of academia shared that has prompts that can cut straight through the pleasantries and cut straight to the nitty-gritty of being colleagues.

Some of the prompts:

  • I expect that this role will affect my life goals in this way … 
  • My top three priorities in life are … 
  • What do you usually do when you need help? What do you usually do when you’re angry or stressed?
  • The best way to approach me with a problem is … 
  • I like to communicate via (rank 1-4): phone call, Slack, email, text

I had my employees fill this out on day one, and we discussed it over Zoom on day two. Allot at least 90 minutes for this conversation and turn off your notifications. Is it kind of intense? Yes. It also shows them that you care about their humanity and want to understand how to manage and support them as an individual. It’s also made it easier to give feedback and to check in as things progress.

It’s especially important to ask the question about future life goals. While no one wants to think about an employee’s next job on the first day of the job, I believe it’s best to know what they want and see how you can help them get there. What skills do they want to learn? What do they expect from you? It’s best to know from the beginning. 

End of Week One 

Give them a buddy

By the end of week one, make sure they have a buddy. Someone who is not you and ideally slightly outside of their direct workflow to whom they can direct any “dumb questions” in those beginning stages. 

Pave the way for bonding

One of the proudest moments in my first six months as a manager is when someone described a Zoom social I had as “pretty fun.” I’ll take it! Zoom is hella awkward. But there are some things that you can do to make it less so when bringing in a new team member. At the end of the first week, I scheduled a meet-and-greet — only 30 minutes, around lunchtime — to introduce the newbie. It’s important to have an activity planned so it’s not so awkward being in the spotlight. 

  1. Play music at the top of social meetings. I somehow always default to Trombone Shorty and it makes everyone happy. (You can share your audio without sharing your screen for optimal sound.) 
  2. Use the game-based learning platform Kahoot (something I learned about from my tween nephew) to make a trivia game. Entice people to attend the Zoom party by offering a prize for the winner of said trivia game.
  3. Provide structured icebreakers. Two truths and a lie is a fun way to introduce new people! I also like “new pandemic hobbies” or “favorite meal to cook” as prompts. 

I’ll never forget when one of the reporters Slacked me on her very first day and said, “Thank you for all the thought you’ve put into the Onboarding process! I’ve never had something so helpful and thorough for getting started in a new position.” 

It’s a Slack message I will treasure forever. I’ve learned that what I did for her and the others was unusual, but it shouldn’t be.

Priska Neely is managing editor of the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among WWNO in New Orleans; Mississippi Public Broadcasting; WBHM in Birmingham, Ala.; and NPR.

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