New Hire Onboarding Without An HR Department: Avoiding the Landmines

new hire training program

With experts Tony Deblawue (@HR4Change) Tony Deblawue and Mohit Garg (@MohGar )Mohit Garg
If you’re the founder of a fast-growing startup challenged with how to effectively onboard your rapidly growing team, you’ll want to keep reading. I had the opportunity to speak with employee onboarding experts Tony Deblauwe, HR Architect and award-winning author of Tangling with Tyrants: Managing the Balance of Power at Work, and our own Mohit Garg, Co-Founder of Mindtickle. Through the conversation, I got plenty of actionable advice about how to onboard new hires in a start-up when you don’t have the luxury of a human resources (HR) department.
New hire onboarding - Mindtickle
Tony, what’s your take on the onboarding problem that start-ups face?
Tony:Research shows a predictive curve: one in 25 employees resign because they had a poor new hire experience. This creates the kind of turnover problem that can be a nightmare for start-ups when early hires have a very significant impact on the business. There is also pressure on the founders; they need the new hire to start tomorrow and hit the ground running, but all the new hire knows about the business is based on a few conversations with the founder. This can lead to the true environment of the company not matching the expectations of the new hire – the amazing picture painted in their conversation is crushed by the reality of the company environment. Everyone is so busy that they find onboarding unmanageable; the team is often ill-prepared to help the person with their role.
Mohit, what do you think? Isn’t this where HR usually would be helpful in addressing some of the early onboarding challenges that new hires face?
Mohit:An HR department does not imply good onboarding. For a start-up organization, every single addition to the team is a significant percentage of the total workforce. Having gone through the process of expansion in team size, I would argue that most startups would have a very high-touch intimate recruitment and onboarding process for the first 10, 20 even 50 employees, and I totally agree with that approach.
But at one point, you have to ask yourself whether your approach to employee development and onboarding is going to scale. When you are an early start-up, the environment is very intimate – you are hiring for effectiveness. With a large organization, you are hiring for scale. This is the curve that we need to speak about. Hiring 1 person a month is very different than 5 – 10 new hires a month. When you get to the 5 – 10 per month zone, founders don’t have time and the process breaks down. I would argue that it is possible to achieve scale without compromising effectiveness, and we will hopefully talk about those ideas and opportunities today. But this isn’t an HR vs No HR question in my opinion.
Tony, what is the right approach for growing start-ups to set the right tone?
Tony: It is very important for start-ups to roll out the red carpet and say: “hey, we have a landing platform to help you get started.” This is particularly important in a fast growing environment when a founder is serving many different masters. For instance, you need to hire quickly but employees are watching how they are being treated and you need to make sure that you are doing everything to help your busy employees not make mistakes. Striking a balance between personal touch and leveraging technology with blended learning is the way to go in order to foster employees who will have a longer lifecycle and greater sense of satisfaction.
Mohit, how can start-ups use technology with the personal touch that Tony mentioned?
Mohit:Leaders can create effective onboarding in less time by codifying the key messages in video formats, and engaging their team in the content production process.  It is about putting into place a system that enables founders to deal with a higher volume of hires but is not overly corporate. It has to communicate the excitement and passion that is driving the organization. The good news is that you can make your own rules on the tone, voice, and messaging; after all there is no rule book on guidelines and standards to comply with (caveat: do use basic common sense). If you cannot take the liberty of communicating the culture and vision of your own startup in your unique style, when would you do that?
From a personal touch standpoint, you can create social forums and discussion boards and let the entire team participate in the assimilation of a new hire. This also allows the leaders to focus on important things like strategy and vision with a personal touch while ensuring that employees are supported for success.
And here is my obligatory plug – gamify the onboarding process. Trust me – it will be a lot of fun!
Mohit, do you have an example you can share from your Mindtickle experience?
Mohit:Sure. One of our clients, a fast growing, mobile ad network, realized the challenge I mentioned earlier when they got to 100+ employees and they continued to stick with a very high touch onboarding process for the new hires. They soon realized that they weren’t having onboarding sessions for several weeks when the founders were gone on overseas business trips. Using Mindtickle, they were able to flip the training process and codify the key messages and orientation information for the new hires. This freed up energy for leaders to deliver the strategic content in intimate coffee chats, allowing for a meaningful exchange of ideas. Now the Co-founders spend more quality time with their new hires after they have gone through the online onboarding experience.
Mohit, what about onboarding for geographically distributed start-up teams? For instance, some teams are based in multiple locations.
Mohit: When companies expand across the globe, two corporate cultures can develop and this can be a disaster. Sometimes satellite offices can have as few as 2-3 employees at a remote location, and they never get visited by the leadership team. A person joining such a team can very easily feel undervalued and marginalized. This is where online social forums and a consistent online onboarding experience can really help. It does help promote a “one-firm” culture.
Tony, what are must-have elements for building an excellent onboarding experience as a start-up?
Tony:I have three points to ensure that you start on a strong foundation. First, offer a pre-hire onboarding program. It is important to invest in your new hire early – they don’t know that you are in chaos! Use pre-hire onboarding to set expectations and help your new employee hit the ground running. Pre-onboarding is the phase between a new hire’s offer acceptance and her joining. Online presentations and links can prepare your new hire while rolling out the red carpet to make them feel valued. This reduces churn and has the potential to help shrink the length of your onboarding program, while engaging at a fraction of the cost.
Second, nail the beginning of an onboarding experience. Create an online learning experience that addresses your business practices and don’t forget to include your new hire’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Find your secret sauce that delivers an online experience overlaid with a personal touch. Your journey can be tapped into a variety of different mediums like presentations, PDF files, and videos. Mix it up to deliver the best experience.
Finally, assign team members to check-in and mentor. There needs to be fairly high touch of personal reaching out. Committing to a simple mentorship program that assigns team members to check in on your new hire is a time-efficient way for you to inject intimacy into your new hire orientation program.
Tony, do you have any closing thoughts on new hire onboarding for start-ups?
Tony: Google’s onboarding experience certainly highlights the fact that high-performing employees are won less through financial compensation than experiential reward, but you don’t need to build a rollercoaster in your parking lot to benefit from that aspect. Also, some enterprises go to the extreme, relying far too heavily on online tools for new hire onboarding. The most important thing is to have a plan in place to facilitate your new hire’s experience and you’ll start with a great foundation.
Mohit, do you have any closing thoughts on new hire onboarding for start-ups?
Mohit: I agree with Tony. You don’t need to invest in Disneyland-level creative team building to implement engaging onboarding programs. You can leverage technology to make your new hire feel like they have received high touch onboarding in your limited time by delivering blending learning in your onboarding experience. Push the record button on the webcam and just talk to them as you would if they were in the same room. Blended learning combines internet based learning with face-to-face learning in order to create a personalized and engaging learning experience that also happens to better suit your wallet.
Thank you Tony and Mohit for your helpful insight on building a successful new hire onboarding program for start-ups!
If your staff turnover is making your head spin, or if you’re interested in achieving Googleplex-grade staff retention, we’d love to hear from you! Let us know your thoughts on onboarding for start-ups in the comments.