5 Scary Onboarding Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

October 31, 2019 Kristi Park

First, a quick story to set things up: I was in my early twenties (nostalgic, dreamy sigh) and just starting a new job at an e-commerce company. The role was a customer support/sales/marketing hybrid (clearly created as some kind of cruel science experiment) and there was a lot to learn. Like, a lot. 

The problem? Absolutely zero actual training materials. Nary even a Google doc; just methods and processes relayed to me by my new manager, who was deeply frightening despite actually being younger than me. Scary manager aside, this killed my productivity for weeks—and not just mine.  I had to constantly ask for answers to what felt like the world’s dumbest questions, but it was literally my only option. 
I quit after eight months. I had to, because it felt like there was no way to close the gaps that were glaring to me, but didn’t seem like such a big deal to my leadership. I felt incapable of any real growth there.
So, on that note, here are what we consider the worst (and unfortunately most common) onboarding pitfalls that at worst will lead to employee churn and at best leave a new hire feeling like they aren’t being set up for success at your company. 

1. Messy Materials 

We don’t know about you, but we work with a lot of tools and systems. We also have defined processes that are crucial to know in order to collaborate both with your own team and cross-functionally. This means that one of the first things that has to happen when we onboard someone is that they have to complete a number of training exercises. This can be anything from straightforward reading material to videos and quizzes—what really matters is that it’s not a mess that distracts people from the actual learning they’re supposed to be doing.
It may seem insignificant, but having your training materials copy edited and checked for things like broken links is something that every organization should prioritize. Sloppy mistakes like misspelled words, poor grammar, or resources that straight up don’t work give an undesirable first impression of your company and make onboarding (which is often a stressful time anyway) more frustrating than it needs to be. 
In addition to ensuring well-groomed content, you should be thoughtful about how your training materials are organized. Having a central source of truth, not just for new hires but for all employees, means people won’t have to field the same questions over and over. It also helps avoid mistakes made by newer people who may be afraid to ask about something. Make important information accessible and easy to navigate, so that everyone can be more self-sufficient. 

2. Sequence Matters

Think about what people realistically need to know right away and what can wait until they’ve settled into their role a little more. It’s unlikely that people will absorb everything they’re reading/watching/hearing for the first time, so take that into account when you’re defining how much training to assign per day and what should be prioritized. 
Giving new hires a clear and manageable onboarding plan provides structure that will likely be helpful as they build their foundational knowledge of the company and their role. Just sending people a huge collection of information and expecting them to decide how best to navigate and divide it up adds an extra variable to the onboarding process and almost guarantees that important things will be missed.  
When assigning training materials, break information up over several days and be mindful of what new hires need to know up front, versus what can realistically wait. 

3. Feedback Fails

Here’s something that should surprise no one: there are a lot of not-so-great ways to give feedback. Furthermore, even if you do deliver it correctly, it can still present problems. In research done and published by the Harvard Business Review, they found that while positive feedback is instrumental to learning and improving, popular modern techniques such as “radical candor” aren’t necessarily as helpful as some may think. 
“In the brains of the students asked about what they needed to correct, the sympathetic nervous system lit up. This is the “fight or flight” system, which mutes the other parts of the brain and allows us to focus only on the information most necessary to survive. Your brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and narrows its activity. The strong negative emotion produced by criticism “inhibits access to existing neural circuits and invokes cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment.” 
In other words, according to HBR, “focusing on people’s shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it.” So, what you may consider constructive feedback can quickly become discouraging and result in the person on the receiving end being less open to learning. 
The more you know! 

4. Context is King

Imagine starting a new role in an industry you’re not especially familiar with. Revenue operations, for example, is a relatively new field that’s also constantly evolving. Therefore, a good chunk of our onboarding materials at Go Nimbly are focused on giving new hires the industry knowledge they need to solution, provide recommendations, and advise our clients. 
It’s also a good idea to reevaluate onboarding materials every year or so, taking into account any feedback you’ve received about the process from recent hires and adding new information that becomes relevant as your business grows and evolves. 

5. Great Expectations

Clearly communicating expectations is the only way to have them met. On top of that, it can be extremely frustrating to lack clarity around what is expected of you in a new role. One way to prevent this is to define specific success metrics early on and provide examples for people to learn from and emulate.
At Go Nimbly, we use Kiite Playbooks to document workstream stories, which help new consultants understand past work we've done, as well as any challenges or insights that will help them be more successful with their own workstreams. Using Kiite, we're able to consolidate this knowledge in a way that's organized and easily accessible. 
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