Many federal laws stipulate a minimum numbers of employees before you have to follow them. (Shutterstock illustration)

Dilemma of the Month: Why Onboarding Is Critical for New Hires

Back Q&A Feb 14, 2020 By Suzanne Lucas

I’m a small-business owner with fewer than a dozen full-time employees. I cannot afford to have a full-time human relations person, but I know I need guidance, including for onboarding new hires. What can I do?

The fact that you are asking this question puts you ahead of many of your fellow small-business owners. So many think that they can do HR on their own and then find out the hard way that they are doing it wrong.

Many federal laws stipulate a minimum numbers of employees before you have to follow them. For instance, the Family Medical Leave Act does not cover an employer with fewer than 50 employees. Depending on the type of business you run, there may be other regulations you’re subject to as well, such as Occupational Safety and Health Act regulations, and if you do transportation, there’s another set of rules for that. In other words, the laws you’re subject to can change as you hire and fire, and you may not be aware of what you’re subject to and when.

The first thing you need is an employment attorney on retainer. Some businesses balk at the expense of another attorney, but it’s much cheaper to have a consultation with an employment attorney today than hire one tomorrow to fight a lawsuit.

Step two is having the employment attorney write a handbook for you. You can choose most of the policies (how much vacation, call-out procedures, etc.), but the attorney will get it into the proper legal perspective. In California, for example, you have to pay out unused vacation time if the employee leaves; you’ll want that spelled out clearly in your handbook.

Now that all the legal mumbo jumbo is out of the way, we need to talk about people.

Onboarding is an essential part of running any business. When new employees join your company, you want them to feel a part of the team and know what is going on from the first day. But don’t panic about creating an “onboarding program,” just follow these steps. 

Provide any paperwork to the new hire along with their offer letter. This gives them the time to review it and make decisions without stress. If you have multiple insurance plans to choose from (as a small business you may not), they can review it with their spouse before they start work.

Get any necessary equipment ordered and ready for their first day. Laptop? Phone? Geiger counter? Whatever they need should be prepared and ready. If you want to order custom equipment the employee has requested, you can wait until they show up, but it’s often best to have it ready for their first day.

On the employee’s first day, review any paperwork and fill out and verify the I-9 information. This is their identification that shows they are legal to work in the U.S. This shouldn’t take too long, but make sure you answer any questions they may have.

Introduce the new employee to everyone. Since you have fewer than 12 people working there, this is easy (if they all work in the office). This works best if you’ve sent out information about the new hire before their first day. Then your current employees are expecting them. Let everyone tell the new hire what their responsibilities are and how the positions will interact.

Buy the new employee lunch. This isn’t required, of course, but it’s a great way to welcome the new hire. With a small office, taking everyone to lunch is also a great way to treat your staff.

Give clear instructions on what the person is to do and who will be responsible for training; clear communication is vital. Even the most seasoned professional needs training in how your business operates. They may know the industry and everything about that type of job, but they don’t know where you keep your office supplies, how to log on to your system and who your clients are. So be upfront and tell them.

Supervise and provide feedback as necessary, especially during the early period after the new hire starts in the position.

That’s what onboarding looks like. You don’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t need to involve PowerPoint slides. The point of it is to make someone feel welcome and help him get up to speed. That’s often easier in a small business because everyone knows everyone else.

As for the other aspects of HR, you can handle things like employee relations with the support of your attorney. As you grow a little bigger, you may wish to hire an HR consultant to help with that type of thing, but it’s probably not necessary at this point. When in doubt, ask your attorney or the Society for Human Resource Management, a group you can join and access its information. It will be worth it. 

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