Expecting new employees in your agency? Time to remember the onboarding basics

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If the Biden administration’s 2022 budget request holds, many agencies would gain net new employees. That means good practices in onboarding new people will be more important than ever. Bob Tobias says there aren’t really any revolutionary ideas for welcoming new people, just good intentionality about doing it right. He’s a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University and joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss the latest.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Bob, I know this has been kind of a pet peeve of yours, agencies that don’t take the time and attention to something that can really launch a career if they do it right.

Bob Tobias: Well, I think so, Tom. I mean, agencies, I think have an opportunity to reset their onboarding process to welcome applicants into a job that fulfills their expectations, and into a workplace that really develops their talents and skills, and provides work life balance and too many an opportunity for significant telework, rather than a process that includes signing the appropriate papers and being ushered into a cubicle and say, go to work.

Tom Temin: Yes, in fact, I had personal experience with this many, many, many decades ago, actually, in a new job where that was not the case. And it was kind of toxic in the beginning. And you wonder sometimes after three or four days, whether you even want to stay. And so you don’t want people to come in. And after two days, get that sort of gut feeling — yikes, this was a mistake.

Bob Tobias: A little buyers regret.

Tom Temin: Right. So what are some of the best practices that people need to just be reminded of as you put it, intentionality.

Bob Tobias: So we know from our parents, that first impressions count. So agencies, I think, can have opportunity to make a meaningful first impression, and hopefully, they’re going to take it. So I think that onboarding on include linking a job that fits the employee’s qualifications. I think a new employee ought to understand the agency mission, and how their job advances that mission. It’s an opportunity to make a new person feel part of a community that’s accomplishing the agency mission. And giving people the skill training right out of the box to achieve work goals, I think it would be a great start.

Tom Temin: And that means when you have someone new coming in — very often, I think there’s a tendency on the people that are already there to just assume they’re going to be productive immediately, because we’re all so busy, get to work, so you can fill in the gap that we feel here — but really, it takes serious time to get someone up to the productive stage.

Bob Tobias: It does, it takes time. And giving someone a mentor to help them a climatized to the workplace, it takes time to provide positive feedback and support, and negative feedback when someone falls off the rails. And the whole goal, of course, is to make a connection with a new employee, where that employee says, wow I love being here and I’m not thinking about leaving is you did after four days.

Tom Temin: And is this only for the managers to do or can the line employees that will be colleagues but not reports of the new person — can they be enlisted to help in this process?

Bob Tobias: Yes, if it’s a conscious choice. I mean, if I’m a supervisor, and I’m taking on responsibility and accountability for welcoming a new employee, it might be something that is part of my team to welcome a new employee, but it won’t happen unless, as you suggest Tom, it’s intentional.

Tom Temin: And in a good work environment in the first place, people would naturally want to welcome the new person and make them feel part of the team and show them around. I mean, a lot of people take pride in being the one to show the ropes to someone, even if they’re not their supervisor.

Bob Tobias: That’s exactly right. And so I as a supervisor need to identify that person and encourage that behavior.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bob Tobias. He’s a professor in the key Executive Leadership Program at American University. And I’m just wondering, given your background with federal unions, can the bargaining unit as a bargaining unit have some role in making people feel like yeah, I’m glad to be here?

Bob Tobias: Yes, I think so. And again, that only happens if there is a collaborative labor management relationship. And that can be one of the primary benefits of a collaborative labor management relationship where both the union that represents employees and the managers collaborate to create this welcoming environment to new employees.

Tom Temin: And what about the issue of training supervisors to have this type of culture as part of their toolkit?

Bob Tobias: I think that’s an important part of this entire effort. If a supervisor is only being a technical expert and not really leading a team, then they’re not going to have the time nor the interest to do what it is we’re just discussing. So these first line supervisors particularly have to be exposed to leadership development opportunities, and training right away when they’re first selected, and emphasizing that I have to give up some of my technical expertise and empower others to perform the tasks that I previously performed.

Tom Temin: And that’s kind of a failing sometimes on the government’s part is to just assume that because you’ve promoted someone that they’re ready for management.

Bob Tobias: Well, there’s been a lot of research about why leaders fail in the federal government. And always the primary reason is they do not stop being experts and start being leaders.

Tom Temin: Sure. And then there’s, of course, the whole remote question, and the government is still not back in the offices. And if you can decipher the guidance coming from the White House, it’s going to be maybe September, October, till people get back. But there’s also this expectation that many people will begin work remotely, because they don’t want to move to Washington, and they’re really experts, and they live somewhere far away. So people aren’t always going to be in all the time now. How do you accommodate that wrinkle in making people feel welcome and onboarded properly?

Bob Tobias: I think it’s part of the overall problem of how do I manage remote teams. And if I’m not managing remote teams, well, I’m not going to manage new employees well. So I think it’s part and parcel of this new hybrid workplace, sometimes in-sometimes out, and some always out.

Tom Temin: Bob Tobias is a professor in the key Executive Leadership Program at American University, as always good to have you on.

Bob Tobias: Thank you very much, Tom.

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