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Onboarding can overwhelm new hires: Turn the firehose of information into a babbling brook

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February 9, 2023
By Todd Humber

Amy Davies, CEO of First 30.

Starting a new job can be overwhelming. And that’s one of the biggest reasons why new hires can be setup to fail, according to Amy Davies, CEO of First 30, a company specializing in onboarding and orientation.

“People are nervous when they start a new job,” she said. “One of the things managers do, and not on purpose, is overwhelm new employees in the first few days and weeks with a lot of meetings.”

There is so much stimulus coming at workers, between meeting new colleagues and learning the ropes, that their brain essentially turns into a sieve, said Davies. And the first impression is formed very quickly.

“Companies will fumble their way through that orientation and onboarding experience and think, ‘Oh, they’ll get over it and we’ll make it up to them.’ But, cognitively, we can’t get over these first impressions,” she said. Her suggestion? Turn off the firehose.


“It shouldn’t be an avalanche of information, it should be a babbling brook,” she said. “It’s hard to meet all these new people and absorb all this information when you might be feeling nervous and overwhelmed at the same time.”

On the flip side, sometimes managers don’t do enough to help orient new staff. They assume HR is taking care of things, or that the new hire’s colleagues are coaching them along organically.

“That doesn’t always work just as well as we might hope,” said Davies, saying that HR and colleagues may not be providing all the tools and resources the manager expects.

Day one

Davies said the first day on the job should not be a full day. The worker can arrive at 10 a.m. to give their manager time to get everything in order for a smooth start. And they should be let go around 3 p.m.

That does two critical things: It buys the manager some time, which is helpful because the new hire is going to be drain and quite reliant on them in the first few days. The second thing is it avoids the long gaps where the worker has nothing to do.

“That makes an employee lose faith in the organization because they’re thinking, ‘What am I here for? Why doesn’t anyone have a plan for me?’ They’re also feeling insecure, and that could hurt their confidence a little bit,” said Davies.

Keeping the hire busy

It is inevitable that any new worker will run out of things to do in the early days. A good tactic to adopt to combat that is the buddy system.

“We love and have had great experiences with buddy programs, where they’ll have someone who isn’t necessarily on their team. It’s not their manager, it’s a peer. And we recommend maybe a well-connected peer in the organization who’s been there for a year or more,” said Davies.

That orientation can start before day one, she said, because the period of silence between an accepted job offer and the start date can be unsettling.

“They can connect with them, before they start, and answer any of the questions they have that they might not want to ask their manager,” she said. “It’s someone who can be a friend for the first few weeks, fill some of those gaps the manager might have and make sure they have a complete day ahead of them.”

Warning signs

One of the big red flags that a new hire might not be happy is silence.

“We’re all going to be different in how we handle new experiences and a new job. But if you have someone that’s almost a little too quiet, and not asking questions, that could be a warning sign,” said Davies.

While it might be annoying for a manager, a gung-ho hire who comes in with all these ideas and changes they want to make is actually a positive thing, said Davies.

“That’s someone that is excited about being in the organization. If that employee goes quiet? That is a big red flag for an employer,” she said.

Something else to watch for is absences and issues with tardiness.

“If they are absent, or late, maybe with a very vague explanation? In those first few weeks, it could mean they are still interviewing with other companies.”

Davies would also be worried if employees weren’t doing mandatory training and not completing tasks, assuming they were clearly explained with good instructions — “that might be a sign they’re disengaged.”

Course corrections

If managers see a new hire struggling, the worst thing to do is become accusatory and put them on the spot, she said.

“My advice would be to sit down and have a really nice, casually framed conversation and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going so far? I noticed that you haven’t had a chance to do this. Is there any way I can help you get these things done?’” she said.

If the worker seems unhappy, then the manager can share some experiences they had when they joined the company.

“Don’t make it sound like everything is perfect all the time, because that’s really not setting them up to share anything with you that might be bothering them,” said Davies. “You want to build a rapport and create an environment of trust so that they feel confident that they don’t have to tell you everything is perfect.”

Regular check-ins are a good thing for every new hire because it can help management identify and overcome what may be going wrong, she said.

New tactics and technology

Onboarding programs have come a long way in recent years, and a lot of that is driven by technology, she said.

If the orientation program is automated, and repeatable, employees can go back to it at any time — “that creates that babbling brook of information.”

Simply putting it on a Sharepoint drive, though, is not good enough in her opinion, because people forget where to find things. And blanketing hires with email after email with attachments is also not helpful.

“When they go to file expenses for the first time, for example, it’s nice to have that user or task-based training — like a video of the top common tasks an employee will have to complete,” said Davies. “It guides them through each of those tasks.”

That can be a big help because it doesn’t force the worker to go to their manager, hat in hand, and say “I know you taught me how to do this, but I forgot,” she said.

“It’s such a huge benefit to the organization because they feel confident that they’re empowered with that information and they can do it on their own without asking for help,” said Davies.

Recovering from a bad first impression

If things get off to a rocky start, it doesn’t mean there is no hope to salvage the hire.

“One thing you want to make sure you do is definitely do not normalize the dysfunction,” she said. “Whether that is equipment arriving late or a manager not being present because they have to be away unexpectedly, you want to address that head on, apologize and have a plan of action for them to overcome it.”

Mistakes can and do happen. If you do a great job recovering from that, the new hire will have more faith in you as a manager and more faith in the business overall, she said.

Investing in programs

Onboarding programs require an investment of money and time to be effective, she said.

“They don’t make it part of someone’s job,” said Davies. “And that’s even at companies that are onboarding 10 or more employees every month.”

The cost of turnover is tremendous, with estimates pegging it in the range of 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the person’s salary.

“We have a labour shortage in Canada, so it’s making it much more difficult to find employees once we lose them,” she said. “We really need to start thinking critically about our commitment to these programs.”

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