Conventional wisdom about onboarding holds that you should give new employees an initial assignment that will offer them an “easy win” when they complete it, so as to build their confidence.

But if that assignment is too simple, it may instead represent a waste of time and the loss of an opportunity, according to onboarding research done by Babson College academics and published in the MIT Sloan Management Review.

Here’s the issue: When coming up with that “easy win” assignment, managers sometimes pick a stand-alone project that the new employee can carry out without much interaction with co-workers and others in the organization. This is understandable, in a sense; one way of making an assignment simple is to minimize the number of steps the newbie must take to complete it, and going around talking to a lot of people certainly multiplies the steps.

Building an internal network
But a project that fails to afford the new employee a broad range of internal contacts is a project that doesn’t help the person get integrated within the organization — which, after all, is the whole purpose of onboarding.

Working from interviews with executives, HR people and new employees in a number of fast-growing tech companies, and also from diaries that they asked new employees to keep, the Babson researchers came to this conclusion:

One of the biggest, most consistent differences between rapid and slow on-boarders was the degree to which their first assignment required them to build relationships with a wide variety of people to get their work done. Newcomers with stand-alone projects tended to remain isolated and failed to build the relationships they needed to succeed in the long term. They also typically felt less connected to the social fabric of the organization, less satisfied with their progress in ‘fitting in’ and were consequently more likely to leave.”

Boxes to check
So when you’re designing a newbie’s first project, the Babson folks recommend, make sure to check one or more of the following boxes:

  • It can’t be completed without assistance from co-workers
  • It involves a cross-functional team that exposes the new person to a broad network of resources
  • It gives the person an opportunity to develop a unique expertise that others must access to complete their own work (the idea here is to help the newbie win a reputation as a “go-to” guy or gal), and
  • Progress on the assignment will be measured not only by asking the person what they’ve accomplished, but also who they’ve talked to.

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