One of the things that set my best internships apart is something that most of my jobs since then have failed to do. And considering it’s an exercise that costs zero dollars, relatively little time, and has the potential to radically improve the way that organizations do onboarding, that’s a real shame.
I was spending a semester in a small historic art museum, splitting time between giving school children tours and being hidden away in the library. The setup was simple: Armed with a list of questions, a pep talk on professional curiosity, and a crash course on the calendar system, my supervisor sent me out to conduct 15-minute informational interviews with someone in each department.
What I learned not only helped me work better with the people I met there and understand how each of us impacted the organization’s mission: It also gave me insights that changed my career path. There was Steven, the director of donor acquisitions who told me everything I needed to know about writing the perfect cold pitch. There was Amy, the curator who gave me a clearer description of her job than any Google result before ever had. And I still have a soft spot for Ann, the merchandiser who taught me to think of the business decisions behind every product or service, down to the knickknacks in a museum shop. All of these great interactions, though brief, planted a seed for me—including a growing awareness that I probably didn’t want to battle through a PhD and slim job market to end up in a similar organization.
As it turned out, the interviews helped steer my career in a way that none of my many other internships until then had been able to. And their benefits don’t have to be limited to interns. In fact, there’s a case for managers to use interviews like these for any new hire who arrives on the job. Call them onboarding interviews.
Making interviews part of the onboarding process can help anyone who’s just joined a team, says Franny Oxford, vice president of people and culture at Plume and a specialist in turnaround HR operations.
“Typically, regular onboarding is the equivalent of driver’s ed for that company,” Oxford explains. With all of its organizational charts and rushed introductions, the process isn’t always fun, but it’s necessary to learn the rules of the road.
What onboarding interviews do is give new hires a chance to gain some low-stakes practice behind the wheel to start racking up some small wins and building the relationships they’ll need to be successful. Here’s why managers should start making them routine on their own teams.
What’s an onboarding informational interview, and who does it benefit?
The majority of advice you’ll find online about informational interviews is aimed at job-seekers. But according to Oxford, these interviews can actually happen at three stages in your career: when you’re looking for a job, sure, but also just after you’ve been offered one, or when you’ve started a new position.
You should think of an informational interview as a fact-finding mission, where one person asks another questions to gain a better understanding of a role, industry, or, in the case of onboarding interviews, a company. By offering new hires a structure to reach out to teammates and ask questions, managers can help them gain a clearer picture of their new workplace and role.
“Engagement level is higher, and the ability to self-onboard allows initiative for people to develop the relationships required to get the job done with less siloing,” Oxford says.
Since onboarding at a new company can often feel like you’re being fire-hosed with information, she adds, giving new hires the chance to connect directly with people who can share those pro-tips about how work gets done can help make their transition much easier.
Long-time employees can also benefit, because in talking about their projects and pain points they might discover that the person interviewing them can offer a solution. That was my case when an archivist expressed stress over the translation of a Spanish document over tea—something I could easily help with. Because we worked in different departments tucked in opposite ends of the building, I doubt we’d have realized this, or even spoken, if not for that informational interview. In a win-win, she got the help she needed, and I gained a person who was invested in my success.
That’s why, from a company culture standpoint, these interviews can improve not just workflows, but also community and cohesion in the workplace. This is especially true if someone is part of a marginalized group, who can find a sense of solidarity and support from day one.
As a bonus, Oxford adds, it’s also great practice in networking, since most future jobs are found through connections made at old ones.
How to help your new hires get started with onboarding interviews
Before you send your new hire off on their interviews, Oxford offers a few key tips.
- Look up and around. Go beyond someone’s immediate team to think strategically about who they might benefit from building relationships with, and who the influencers are in your organization. Someone in leadership or who works transversally can benefit from speaking to every department, but not everyone will need to.
- Set up small victories. Once a new hire has had a few days to settle in, line them up for some small wins by having them schedule their own interviews.
- Offer intel. Share any information that can make it easier for people to coordinate with their new colleagues, like giving them a heads up if no one in sales takes internal meetings after lunch.
- Scale scope down. Set a 15-minute limit per interview and try to limit them to two a day; any more can be overwhelming for someone new to a job.
- Define the terms. To spare confusion in early conversations, help out newcomers by creating a glossary with acronyms or terms your organization regularly uses.
- Write up starter q’s. Share a list of questions and define any specific goals so that the interviewer knows how to structure their time and anticipate what sort of follow-up questions to ask.
What new hires should ask on an onboarding interview
Many questions will be standard across companies, but it’s good to try to brainstorm a few that are specific to yours. These could be something more serious or “something kind of silly...since every company has their shared history and some inside jokes,” Oxford says.
Try these to get you started:
- How long have you been here? What’s something you’ve learned since joining?
- How would you describe the company’s mission? How does your work contribute to it?
- What do you enjoy most about your work here?
- What was your experience before this? How is your role here different?
- What’s your biggest priority right now? What challenges are you facing in achieving it?
- What’s one thing that you think other teams might not understand about your role?
What teams can take away from onboarding interviews
Just because an interview ends doesn’t mean the conversation should, too. For those doing the interviewing, that means sending a quick thank you to everyone they spoke with that references something they found interesting from the conversation. But this isn’t a one-way street. Managers also have a lot to gain from following up, since debriefing with new hires offers a pulse check that can help them keep track of any shifting challenges or priorities in their organization.
In those sometimes awkward early days when onboarding can make it feel like your work and ability to contribute is on pause, building interpersonal connections and the feeling that what they did was valuable is a great way to make new hires feel like they’re truly part of the team.