Do Your New Employees Experience “Sink or Swim”?

March 19, 2013 15:05 by Dana Peters

A family friend recently started a new job for a large global company here in Milwaukee. Her first two weeks of formal orientation at headquarters were meticulously planned with a solid blend of learning experiences, open discussions, social opportunities, and knowledge exchanges. She was completely jazzed and inspired.

Arriving for the first day in her department she was motivated, full of ideas, and ready to dig in only to discover her boss was out of the office for the week on vacation. Even more troubling, none of her fellow team members knew she was reporting for work that morning, some of them were not even aware the position had been filled.

To top off the warm welcome, she learned her work space was still being used as the snack counter and coffee stand. No computer, phone or office supplies, and the desk chair was in the corner with a broken wheel. The team lead gave her some busy work, sent her on a long lunch, and dismissed her early for the day. She felt like she was just another task to be dealt with on his list, a real inconvenience.

Talking with her several weeks later, she summarized weeks 3 through 9 as the “sink or swim” phase of her new job.

Sadly, we have found “sink or swim” to be an unplanned and unintentional stop on many employee onboarding program roadmaps.

What is it?

The “sink or swim” phase happens when the appropriate amount of support, direction, and resources are not available to a new employee at a given time.

When does it happen?

Commonly “sink or swim” occurs during the first few weeks after formal training has taken place, when the new hire is on the job and reporting to their assigned supervisor. Occasionally, “sink or swim” happens later, when the new hire has the basics of the job down and is handling their routine duties well but struggling with more complex tasks or unusual circumstances.

Why does it happen?

  • The onboarding program is not designed to take the employee the distance, from new hire to full functioning.
  • The onboarding “roadmap” is not well communicated. All stakeholders involved are not completely up to speed with the process or aware of their roles and responsibilities.
  • The stakeholders are aware of the process and their roles and responsibilities, but they have not made it a priority or have not been given adequate tools, training, and support to be successful.

Strategies to help eliminate the “sink or swim” phase

  • A well designed, communicated, and structured onboarding plan, taking the new employee from day 1 to full functioning.
  • Involve the supervisory, management, and leadership team (all stakeholders) in the program planning. Creating ownership with those directly managing the new hires sets the expectations early for their role, responsibilities, and involvement in the entire process. Accountability needs to happen.
  • Access to tools customized for each position. The manager’s tools include: time lines, talking points, sample action plans, checklists, suggested goals, and feedback tools. The new hire’s tools include: job checklists, online learning programs, job aids, career development plans, and listing of resources for help.
  • Clear communication with the new employee about: their role, their responsibilities, time lines, and objectives. Well timed meetings to touch base on goals, mile stones, and provide feedback.
  • Assign mentors. Mentors help the new employee learn the ropes, offer advice, help with social acclimation, and answer questions that the new employee might be hesitant to ask a supervisor.
  • Team integration, with specific steps to help new hires develop relationships with their teammates.
  • An assessment process for continual program improvement based on formal feedback gathered from new hires.

What strategies has your organization implemented to avoid the “sink or swim” phase?

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Learning | Onboarding | Training

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