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  • Writer's picturelindsayannkohler

Onboarding and the power of first impressions

This post originally appeared on scarlettabbot's insights blog on April 30, 2020.

We’ve all seen powerful stats on why getting onboarding right matters to the business. The increases in retention, productivity and performance that a positive onboarding experience can bring are well studied. We also know a lot about how to get onboarding right in a practical sense — creating a memorable first day experience, removing the hassle factor of paperwork and arranging meet and greets.

But there are specific moments along the onboarding journey that can make or break how a new hire views the company and their colleagues. For example, the first impressions they will have of their manager, their eam, their workspace, and their company. And while the official first day is a formative experience, the first impression is often formed during the interview process or even before from what new hires see from what colleagues and the company share on social media.

While we might know that our first impressions often turn out not to reflect the real story, they are still important. Here’s why.

First impressions are an amalgamation of the verbal and non-verbal, the seen and unseen, and the conscious and unconscious observations. We laugh about it in our office when we remind each other to tidy up a bit and be on good behaviour when we have clients or candidates visit, but those things do matter. When I went in for an interview for my first job in San Francisco, I was dressed to the nines. After being greeted by the office manager, I (unconsciously) formed a split-second impression of her based on her traits— all smiles, warmth, a southern accent, and laid-back energy. She is someone I can trust. The same first impression formation was repeated with my future teammates—jeans, casual tops, shoes seemed to be optional. They don’t take themselves too seriously. I ended up wearing jeans on my subsequent first day of work with them.

First impressions can last for months.

Why? Well, we like it when there is consistency between our thoughts, actions and beliefs. So, if our first impression is positive, we’ll continue to like something or someone. If it’s negative, the reverse is true.

It’s hard not to play old tapes.

Remember how first impressions last for months? These impressions can then go on to colour subsequent interactions, painting them in either a positive or negative light. More frequent feedback mechanisms allow people a chance to air specific impressions or issues they are holding on to sooner, which allows for more positive interactions going forward. Checking in often and frequently in that first month will be key to providing a platform for incorrect impressions to be surfaced and then actioned.

Impressions are hard to change (but they can) Let’s say your new hire forms a negative impression of their manager or something in the office, even as trivial as a messy kitchen, was off-putting. Impressions are hard to change, but it can be done. People may be able to override their initial thoughts if sufficiently motivated to do so. For example, if one knows they have to work closely with a difficult colleague or team, they may be more open-minded to look for the good. Implicit first impressions are extremely hard to change, but it can be done when presented with new information if it’s impactful enough. If perhaps the first impression formed is that a colleague seems “distracted”, being made aware of that person’s recent situation, such as a family member’s funeral, could help change the way they are then viewed.

People remember the start and end of an experience more than the “stuff” in the middle. If the first onboarding experience you create is fantastic (and you do a stellar job with offboarding, too), when it does come time for your employee to move on, you can bet they’ll be saying good things about you to future talent and their networks.

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