8 Ways to Successfully Onboard Young Workers

Sep 4, 2012
8 Min Read

There has been no lack of frustration in the workplace when it comes to onboarding young workers.

Managers find themselves irked that some of these new employees seem to think nothing of showing up late for work, texting friends during meetings or “dropping in” on the CEO to chat about upcoming vacation plans.

Alexia Vernon has heard many of the stories, and as a member of the Millenial generation herself understands how some young professionals can take such wrong turns in the workplace.

But she believes much of the pain of bringing young workers up to speed could be alleviated if managers understood the role they needed to play in successfully training and developing this generation.

She has written a new book, “90 Days, 90 Ways: Onboard Young Professionals to Peak Performance” (ASTD, $29.95), that seeks to educate employers about how to best deal with young employees so that it cuts down on manager frustration and improves worker success.

Among her suggestions for managers:

  1. Be aware. The Society for Human Resource Development finds that 44% of managers of young workers report that some workplace intergenerational conflict exists in their organizations.  Vernon says that while many companies are recognizing that changes need to be made as more young workers enter the workplace, more managers still need to craft better onboarding strategies.
  2. Be straightforward. Within the first week of work, you need to visit with young workers about what’s expected of them. While you may believe they already should know such things as not to wear ratty jeans and an “Elmo for President” t-shirt to a client presentation, such assumptions can come back to haunt you . Take the time to outline issues such as appropriate dress, social media policies, appropriate behavior outside of work, performance expectations and the right workplace attitude. “This is the time for these workers to see if they’re really a good fit for your company or not,” Vernon says. “Don’t make the mistake of trying to sugarcoat your culture. That doesn’t help anyone.”
  3. Make it count. Many of the young workers taking on entry-level positions are highly educated and accepting positions that may not appear to offer them much challenge. That’s why it’s critical that employers clearly tell these young people how their jobs matter to the success of the company.  Otherwise, these employees can become quickly disengaged and less productive, she says.
  4. Focus on new habits. Positive psychology states that it takes about 90 days to establish a new habit. “Onboarding is inherently about developing new habits,” she says. That means for 90 days you should continually reinforce the habits that are critical to job success. Also, keep in mind that during that time you need to address a wide variety of issues, even taking on the slightly parental role of counseling young workers not to pull “all nighters” because they won’t be able to perform at peak levels the next day. Or, you may need to explain the chain of command to them or they’re likely drop in on the CEO to discuss the latest developments on “The Bachelorette.” (To be fair, the CEO did say she had an open-door policy….)
  5. Teach them to communicate. “I’d say this is the No. 1best investment,” Vernon says. “Many young workers don’t have good communication skills because of a lack of practice. They’ve had less face-to-face time as they developed relationships, and they will need help.” She says they’ll often need training in how to best articulate their ideas, how to slow down and not rush through interactions and that it’s OK not to know the answer and remain quiet.
  6. Provide feedback. Vernon says new workers need input from managers beyond semiannual or quarterly reviews. To reinforce desired behaviors and curb undesirable ones, managers need to give them continual feedback on their performance in their first 90 days. “Either you fix the problems now or you’re going to have to deal with them later,” Vernon says.  “And if they can’t be fixed, it’s best to know that early on.”
  7. Learn to listen. Young workers have grown up being encouraged to give their own feedback when providing solutions. Don’t shut yourself off to such input or resent it. You don’t always have to have all the right answers, and young people often bring a fresh perspective – and technological savvy – to solving problems. Make sure you reinforce your openness to their ideas during their early months.
  8. Admit your role in a failure. Vernon says young workers are a “reflection” of the manager, and if the manager doesn’t like what he or she sees, then “identify your role in what you’re seeing.” In other words, while it can be easy to blame the young worker for problems, continual issues with young employees may signal that you need to adjust your management style, she says.

Vernon says managers must take a greater sense of personal responsibility for successfully onboarding young workers. These young employees will not only become leaders of companies in the future, but also leaders who will deal with world problems. Your onboarding, she says, could be the key to how well they take on such tasks.

What are challenges you've faced when onboarding young workers?