Onboarding 2 min

First Impressions and Onboarding: Shaping Expectations

March 30, 2017

As the HR pro, you have an accurate picture of your organization’s mission, values, goals, and culture. But your new hires don’t have this information. What they do have is a series of first impressions that shape their expectations for their experience at your organization. Effective employee onboarding practices will actively and accurately set these expectations and then consistently fill them; not just during the first day, but for several months afterward.

First impressions make a lasting impact on how a person thinks about something, whether it’s a person, activity, or organization. When a team of neuroscience researchers led by Daniela Schiller explored which parts of the brain are involved in forming first impressions, they found two sections that cooperate. First, there’s the amygdala, one of the few parts of the brain that gets information from all of your senses. It uses this sensory information to control motivation and fear. This leads you to have very a different experience when you smell chocolate chip cookies compared to when you’re out walking at night and hear footsteps behind you.

These primal responses work with a second area of the brain called the posterior cingulate cortex, which assesses the value of objects and choices. In seconds, if not sooner, our brains rank new people and experiences on a scale that runs from valuable and rewarding to physically or socially dangerous. It’s the reason we have to be taught that everyone is special: our brain is most interested in reading these first impressions and finding out how special they are to us.

Your new hires will come with favorable impressions of your organization (otherwise, they probably wouldn’t have accepted the job). But signing a contract doesn’t set impressions in stone. Your new candidates are still having first impressions and using them to form expectations: what their workday looks like, how strict/flexible management is, which members of their new team are bubbly, grouchy, stoic, or stern.  


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Impressions don’t change. But they do get completed over time as people have repeated experiences, and that’s especially true with people and organizations. So the most effective onboarding techniques start with continued and appropriate contact from the time a candidate accepts the position, continue with a great first day that sets realistic expectations, and then cement a great work experience by consistently meeting those expectations.

Setting Cultural Expectations

Managing expectations doesn’t just involve the candidate or the new hire. You also need to manage expectations on the team your new hire is joining, because they are all going to form their own first impressions of their new teammate.

So when a new hire accepts, do your homework. Along with filling out their preliminary forms, ask them questions that shed some light on their personality. At BambooHR, every employee gets a first-day email for every new hire, with answers to questions that include their hometown, favorite vacation spot, even the craziest thing that that person has ever done. (For the lady in the stock image for this piece, that’s clearly eating french fries with a fork.) With this knowledge, a team can find things in common before meeting in person, so their first impressions aren’t solely built on small physical cues or awkward break-the-ice conversations.

Hopefully you’ve already introduced your clients to your organization’s mission and values during the recruiting process. On their first day, spend some time elaborating on your mission and your values and help each new hire see how they connect to the bigger picture. It also helps if you can put a face on these values by introducing new hires to the founders of your organization, whether in person or with a biographical presentation.

By the time your new hires get halfway through their first day, they should have a solid connection to your organization. At that point, we recommend treating your new hires to lunch with their team members.

Think about it: do you want your new hires’ first day to include driving around a possibly unfamiliar location trying to find a restaurant, then sitting alone and wolfing down lunch so they can find their way back on time, so their new coworkers don’t think they’re slackers?

Or do you want their first lunch to be a fun, relaxing time where they enjoy good food from a recommended restaurant and really get to know the people they will be working with?


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Setting Expectations for Responsibilities

You’ll also want to set expectations for work responsibilities. Your new hires may have extensive experience in their field, but they don’t have experience with your organization’s specific processes. Without training, your new hires are left with impressions that turn into assumptions, which may or may not be correct.

It’s important to break each position down into the most basic steps and record them, especially the processes that have become second nature to your experienced team members. Then walk your new hires through the steps one at a time, so there’s no confusion. You can also set performance benchmarks to triple check that they’re meeting your expectations.

And to help them meet these benchmarks, you can assign a dedicated mentor—an experienced employee that has been there before and knows the hidden pitfalls and helpful hints to help new hires succeed.

Completing a Great Impression

First impressions are just the first step. Even if you set up all the right expectations in the first couple of weeks, you still need to make sure that your performance matches those expectations. And the best way to know how you’re doing is to set up regular one-on-one meetings between employees and their managers. These meetings help build strong relationships and then use that trust to discover and resolve issues before they grow out of hand.

Creating a consistent experience from recruiting through onboarding takes more than making great first impressions with a stellar intro presentation. With a new employee onboarding checklist to solidify their expectations of your company as a great place to work, they become invested in your organization, leading to better retention rates and all the financial and cultural benefits that result.

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Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson expertly decodes all things HR, drawing on a decade of technical writing in the business organization industry to provide editorial support to internal and external learning programs at BambooHR. His writing explores the different motivations that shape the employee experience and the psychology of human resources.