September 19, 2012 by clexit in Management

What to do with the new employee

One of the most embarrassing and difficult moments in any job is the first day, and it’s usually more embarrassing for the employer than it is for the new hire. We’re terrible at it! But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here is a guide for handling it with style and making sure your new talent hits the ground running, and feels positive, and starts contributing right away, and goes home to their girlfriend or husband and says “I love this job!”

The advice here is based on my practical experience of working in a big (more than 2000 employees) corporation as a head of a front-end development division. It should be useful for entrepreneurs, team leaders and heads of IT departments.

Get yourself a corporate handbook

Have you seen Valve’s employee handbook? It may be kind of huge but it’s still awesome. Your book doesn’t have to be as awesome. You may not have enough time or your designers may be too busy. But there is no excuse for not having any sort of handbook. One that looks a bit boring is better than one that doesn’t exist.

Design is not a big problem since you already have a brand book (you do have one, don’t you?), so use it if your designers are a bit flooded with work, and if you don’t have a brand book just create a plain text document. You can always add some styling later.

I know time is a problem, but get over it. Everyone is busy nowadays. You found time to look through CVs and portfolios, and time for interviews, didn’t you? Well, this is just a continuation of the process. Plus, it will be a resource for every new employee.

An employee handbook will make your life easier. It will mean you don’t have to remember every single thing you must tell the confused new person on the first day. It will mean their heads don’t explode with too much random information they feel they must remember. It means you can skip loads of minor, boring things because you can say “read the handbook for all the boring, minor but also kind of important things, please”. Then they can study it at their own pace and learn where the HR department is, how to book a vacation, what to do if there’s a fire or if they’re sick.

A handbook is also a good way to demonstrate your corporate culture. That’s why you shouldn’t show it to your PR department. You may have to show it to the HR department but only give them the last chapter of the book for their formal bureaucratic information. Under no circumstances let them write the whole book because it will be way too formal and will not reflect your department’s culture.

You should write the book in your own way, formal or informal, with a standard format or styled as a comic book: whatever. Your team should have a lot of input so the new hire gets an accurate and inspirational feeling for what they’re getting themselves into.

What to put in the handbook

  1. Introduce the company and its projects
  2. Introduce your department
  3. The employee’s role
  4. Places to eat, corporate programs
  5. Workflow and after-work activities
  6. Coding standards, development environment, links on documentation
  7. Essential information from HR department (vacations, sick-lists, etc.)
  8. Index

Start by introducing your company, its history, why it’s unique, its strong points, its ambitions. Keep it short and punchy. Describe a few recent projects you’re proud of. Don’t forget some links in case your new teammate wants to learn more.

After that, describe the position of your department (or division) in the company. Things to say here include:

  • Why the company needs your department
  • Connections with other departments/branches/companies
  • Why your department is important to the company
  • Cool projects you are working on
  • What technologies do you use

The next step is to describe your new hire’s role:

  • Why do you need someone with this speciality?
  • Why is this position important? Be frank and accurate here, you don’t want to sound like a PR.
  • What do teammates expect from them?

Show them that they are not an anonymous drone but an important part of a happening team. (You will then have to make this true.)

Now describe other essential things, like places to eat near the office, or the opening hours of the company café, gyms or other amenities, and any corporate perks like foreign language courses or health insurance or whatever you have, and how to take advantage of these.

Some informal description of your standard workflow would be nice, and don’t forget to mention after-work activities, like if your team likes to play volleyball in the park or go to restaurants once a month or so. (No, this is not weird. Good teams do this.)

Include a few lines about your coding standards, frameworks and the technologies you use, and list links to a corporate repository of resources and documentation.

Finish the handbook with references with bosses’ phone numbers, intranet resources, vacation policies, corporate programmes (just a list this time) and any other information that may be helpful for them. Don’t forget a nice index: it should be easy to use the handbook.

Print it and keep a digital version in the intranet. Give two or three people the job of keeping the document totally up-to-date. Find people who like doing that sort of thing and give them recognition as “the handbook guardians”.

What to do on the horrible scary day

Here’s a little secret for people who work in a big company with a lot of bureaucracy: there is probably no system in place to welcome and induct your new hire. No corporate fairy godmother will appear out of the sky to do it for you. You have to be ready.

Preparation for the new hire should start the minute they signed a contract, or even earlier. Order the computer. Get them a desk and put pens and a light or whatever on it. Get them a decent chair. Write to your system administrators for LDAP access, VCS access, set up development servers and environment and so on. Everything must be ready, and you will have to make sure it is. Do not embarrass yourself and them.

Prepare tasks for their first, useless hour

— What should I do?
— Hm, I’ll get back to you on that…

is a disaster! Have some tasks ready and make sure they have the resources to do them. For instance, show them where to find coding standards and project documentation (the links will be in your handbook). These tasks should be real but not the sort that will bring the company down if they get them wrong. They should be simple but not embarrassingly simple. New people want to get busy but they also need a little time to get familiar with all the news sights and sounds and faces.

Know your stuff, and be patient

New employees usually ask a hell of a lot of questions. This is good. If they don’t it means either that they think they know everything, which is bad, or they’re too scared to ask anything, which is also bad. So, know your stuff and patiently explain everything even if it’s for the third time. Your new teammate is confused and nervous. They will get over it.

I don’t have to add that if you don’t know the answers to anything they may think you suck at being a boss, do I?

Introduce

Everyone in your immediate team should already know the new peer since they should have been part of the hiring process (I’m not going to focus on this because it’s the topic for another article), but there will be plenty of people they don’t know in other departments, so do that old-fashioned thing: introduce them.

Start with people your new hire will work most with. Think up a few things to say about each of them. Have one or two easy questions to ask to get a little conversation going and to put both parties at ease. You don’t have to be some amazing meeter and greeter, but a little preparation helps.

Note: Don’t exhaust the new hire on the first day with relentless socializing. If they’re an introvert they’ll need some time at their new desk to regroup. Break up the day into manageable chunks.

Later, write an email to the wider group briefly describing the new person’s background, their strengths, hobbies and position in the company. The tone should be: hey, look at the talent we attracted! Don’t be too stiff here, it shouldn’t be official at all, otherwise you could just have forwarded a CV. Just write something like:

“Hey guys!

Meet our new front-end dev George. He worked at Google on Gmail for a few years and has his own pet project “Sparrowr.”
George knows everything about HTML5 and can do some really cool things with node.js.
He also mentioned that he would love to join our football team, so Max, you know what to do.
George will join Project A team and will do his best to make Project A UI fast and awesome.

Cheers,
S”

Describe the workflow

They need to know how your company works. Just the main idea. You can save the most tedious parts for the handbook (make them as diagrams or even comic strips), but tell them about things like:

  • Who decides what feature should be implemented next
  • What your common workflow looks like (e.g. new branch → dev → Q&A → bug fixing → Q&A → production)
  • Who is responsible for deployments
  • How do you measure feature success
  • How your developers can suggest improvements for projects
  • How other departments affect yours and vice versa

The exact list of questions depends on a position, but the main point is that your new teammate shouldn’t be in a fog. How are they supposed to improve things in your company if they don’t know how it works? New people sometimes have a lot to say. Their ideas may be a bit dumb at first but your job is to make them speak up because their ideas will get better.

Connect

Let’s make this assumption about your company: people work there. Not machines, androids or HAL9000. People, human beings, those interesting and complicated social animals, and since we are social, socialization is key, even for people who say it is not (they lie).

Extraverts, introverts, whatever. The basic needs are the same: we need people to share our interests and feelings with, people who will admire us and whom we can admire. One of your essential goals should be to connect the new peer with other teammates.

You can do it in two fields:

  • Hobbies and interests
  • Professional interests

Learn about the new employee’s hobbies and interests and mention them to your people who have the same interests. Film, sport, knitting, lepidoptery, whatever. They may become friends and that’s good. Not because of some creepy notion of “teamwork”, but because it’s your job to ensure a pleasant, inspiring environment for your team. They should love their job and if they don’t, you’re doing something wrong.

More connection opportunities lie in professional stuff. Introduce the new hire to everyone working on a project and organize a meeting. Let your team talk and ensure the new teammate is talking and expressing his thoughts and feelings. They will be shy and anxious at the start but if you make them talk it will break the ice and make the new hire one of the team more quickly.

Have lunch

It’s very important for you as boss to connect with the new employee. There should be a free flow of communication. Everything is new for them and since a lot of developers are introverts and since they are not going to tell you everything anyway because you’re the boss, building an easy and friendly relationship should be a priority. Having lunch (on your tab) is an underrated, enjoyable way to increase bandwidth.

Once again, be sincere. Don’t try to fake it and look like you are friendly if you are actually a more authoritative person with a tyrannical management style. People are really good at detecting fakeness. If you are a great actor that’s another story.

The idea is, spend different sorts of time with your new employee. This helps everybody feel comfortable, you included.

Also, this lunch is a chance for you to get important information. The most important things that you want to know are:

  • What was their first impression of the company?
  • What was their first impression of the team?
  • Is everything fine with his or her working environment?

Start their development, and yours

Every new hire represents an opportunity for both them and your company to improve, so start right away. Remember these two areas:

  • Their self-improvement through knowledge, new skills and practice
  • Your company and project improvement

The two main reasons people work are money and opportunities to get better (we can also say “opportunities to make themselves and their lives better”).

Show them your most interesting technology, tools and projects and show that there are no tedious tasks in the company. Tell them about big and complicated projects you have and show the achievements of your team. Say that your developers are always ready to help so the new peer won’t feel overloaded before they start.

Organize quick meetings for your team to share new experiences, tricks and learned browser bugs and other important, interesting and useful information, and always have someone discovering cutting-edge stuff, making not-power-point presentations and constantly, generally, making a buzz.

Try to find your new peer’s goals and show how you can help them with that. The goals may not be only in a professional field, but also health, hobbies, education (foreign languages, special interest groups, education), family and so on.

In terms of your company improvement, begin exploring how they can make your projects better. Always be open enough for them to make suggestions and give them opportunities to implement them. This openness will not only make your teammate’s job more interesting, but will also encourage the spirit of exploration (call it R&D if you like) which is essential for any company that plans to last for longer than a few months.

Final advice

Don’t try to implement everything written here without thinking first about your company and how open and democratic it is. Maybe your management style needs updating along with the employee handbook.

Also, watch for and reflect on the reaction of the new hire. This allows you to adjust your approach, and prevents them getting overloaded.

Remember that your goal is not to follow the guideline, but to make sure you found the right person and that they are going to stay with you and work happily ever after.