My Two Essential Questions When Onboarding a New Hire

By: Josh

I was hired into an organization a few years ago that espoused a culture of leadership excellence and prioritization of leader development. I was thrilled to join this new team. When I attended my first meeting as a new hire, though, I was quickly and significantly let down. No one introduced themselves to me, shook my hand, asked me my name, or even talked to me after the meeting. There was no formal welcome or orientation process. I was frustrated. What was going on? Is this real? What have I gotten myself into?

That was the start of an extremely disappointing onboarding process, which set the tone for my time in that organization as a new member. I did not feel valued, cared for, or welcome in those opening months. After that meeting, I vowed to never let anyone feel like that when they were joining a team I was leading. 

Not Just a Checklist

Onboarding new hires is crucial for organizational success and growth. It is much more important than what so many organizations and leaders pour into it, unfortunately, and I imagine many of you can relate with the experience I shared above.

The onboarding process sets the precedent for new hires’ future experiences in the organization. It prepares them for success in their new role, reduces the time it takes for them to feel comfortable in their job and within their new groups, and socializes them to the organization’s cultural norms. Research shows that onboarding done well can improve retention by 82% and that employees who report having a positive onboarding experience are 69% more likely to stay with the company for three or more years.

Onboarding matters. It has tangible and long-term impacts on people, processes, and organizational results.

Unfortunately, though, too many leaders view new hire onboarding as nothing more than a checklist – a cold and impersonal process to simply get new members the bare essentials they need so they can start working.

But onboarding can – and should – be so much more than setting up accounts, filling out paperwork, issuing equipment, and checking off a to-do list. It’s our first and most important opportunity to connect with new members, make them feel welcome and valued, get them aligned to who we are, and begin a strong relationship for the future of your collaboration together. It should be a person-centric event, not a process-focused one.

Leaders should be thoughtful and intentional in how they structure an onboarding process for their organization. I have found a variety of ways in which I particularly enjoy connecting with and welcoming new members on my team. I emphasize getting to know them, work to learn about their history, family, and what they spend their time and resources on first – showing them that first and foremost, I care about them.

But there are two basic questions I enjoy asking when onboarding new members. I value these questions most to achieve the person-centric goals I emphasize in onboarding. I believe these questions are essential to helping me connect with my new teammates, engage them, and know how to best work with them moving forward.

My questions are, “why do you work?” and “how do you like to receive appreciation?”

Why Do You Work?

It’s not, “why do you want this job?” The question, rather, targets the heart of their motives for pursuing work at a much more personal and enduring level. This question addresses the core of what drives a person to spend their time, energy, and resources in a job and not simply what the immediate circumstances are that led them to seek this particular job.

“Why do you work” helps me to know their core motives – the most important and basic things that drive them, give them energy, and provide purpose. Their answer could be monetary based, status driven, to fulfill some personal calling to serve in some way, or a variety of other things; there is no right answer. Knowing the “why” around their work helps me know how to motivate, communicate, and engage that person moving forward based on what their core drivers are. I can communicate perspective (the why) more specifically around what is important to them. I can reward them in ways that are meaningful to them. I can help them feel fulfilled in the ways that resonate most with them. This knowledge enables me to lead and connect with them more thoughtfully.

How Do You Like to Receive Appreciation?

Expressing appreciation (or gratitude) is an important leader behavior. It benefits the receiver, the giver, and the organization as a whole. It’s a form of positive feedback, showing someone the impact of their work. It helps people feel seen, valued, and like they belong. It also contributes to creating a more enjoyable place to work.

But there are myriad ways that leaders can express appreciation to others. Which way is best?

Do they prefer gifts? Public recognition? A personal gesture like a hand-written note? Wouldn’t it be best to know the person’s desired way to receive appreciation to ensure it has the greatest impact? And what is wrong with asking them, so we know for sure?

With this question and this approach, I can tailor my expressions of appreciation to match their preferences as much as feasible, leading to the greatest effect possible. A monetary bonus or public recognition may not land well or have the desired impact if the person is more interested in a personalized, heartfelt thank you.

Knowing how your people like to receive appreciation will help you connect, engage, and reward them more successfully. Ultimately, this leads to improved satisfaction, retention, commitment, and results from your teammates.

These Can Be Versatile Tools

I explore these questions within the context of onboarding new hires, which is an ideal window to first gather this insight. However, you can use these questions in many different scenarios.

Are you joining a team as the new manager or leader…meaning you are the new hire? Use these questions to get to know your team, determine the best ways to work with them, and begin to build a bond with each person.

Do you have an employee who recently seems less engaged, energized, or committed to the team or their job? Use these questions to start emphatic conversations to better understand their situation and what is going on.

Or are you pushing an employee into a challenging stretch assignment that they are nervous or feel not fully equipped for? Use these questions to spark a conversation to offer some broad perspective, help them see a bigger picture (bigger why), and feel comfortable that there is opportunity as well as safety in this pursuit.

In the end, these are just two simple questions to help you know your people better and use that information to lead, connect with, and pour into them more thoughtfully.

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