Make Day One Great

Everyone’s heard the old sayings about the importance of a first impression. But I think most people associate that with either dating or making friends or even with customers if they are thinking about business settings.

But there is another key place where the first impression can really set the tone and make a huge difference: a new employee’s first day.

When I was in college and in between jobs I saw there was an opening at a small restaurant within walking distance of my apartment so I decided to drop by and put in an application. I figured since I had lots of waiter experience already it should be a pretty easy job to get and sure enough, I got called in for an interview the next day.

The interview was pretty casual and I was offered the position to start the next day. The person interviewing me told me to wear black pants and black shoes but didn’t mention anything else. I could see the staff wore logoed polo shirts so I figured that would be part of my day one intro. That was the first of many bad assumptions on my part!

I turned up the next day, five minutes before my scheduled time, to be greeted by the owner who I had yet to meet.  The first thing he said to me was “You’re late” to which I naturally was confused since I was early. But maybe I had the time wrong? I didn’t – but he clarified that he expected everyone to be 15 minutes early to every shift. Hmmm. While I was processing that, the next thing he asked was why I came out of uniform.

I said I was told black pants and shoes and as he could see I was dressed accordingly. “But where is your shirt?” he asked.

I told him no one said anything about a shirt and his response was “If you didn’t think to ask then I’m not sure you’re going to fit in here” and five minutes in I was starting to wonder myself.

But before I could do anything else he said “I don’t have time to train you today so you’re going to just have to bus tables and maybe help with dishes” which was not what I signed up for but I wasn’t quite ready to bail yet.

One of the waitresses there saw most of what went down in my first few minutes of this new job and came over to tell me the owner was often like that but didn’t mean it, was generally a nice guy and it was a pretty good place to work. I should have left then but this convinced me not to be too hasty.

Over the next three hours, I got reprimanded again for not busing tables correctly, stopping to chat with some customers (who asked me something first!), and for not having the menu already committed to memory.

I had already resolved this was going to be my last day, but I wanted to stick it out to the end of the shift so I could at least get paid for the four hours I was wasting on this trainwreck of a situation.

But then I got yelled at the last time and that was it. My big crime? This was the kind of restaurant that would bring chips and salsa to the table for customers while they waited for their food and drink.

All afternoon I had been clearing tables and of course throwing the uneaten salsa and chips that had been out at customer tables and touched by customer’s mouths and hands in the garbage. But this time as I was doing that the owner came in and asked me what I thought I was doing? I was utterly confused – I had no idea what I was doing wrong.

Turns out, I was supposed to be putting the uneaten food back in the bulk salsa and bulk chips bins and not “wasting good food”. Yikes. I had no response except to say “really…”? I was too stunned to say anything else. Except, of course, put down the tray I was holding and walked out the door.

This obviously is a pretty extreme example of a bad first impression for a new employee. It was a bad situation overall and the restaurant closed less than six months after my experience there. I also heard the owner walked out on a ton of unpaid payroll, rent, vendor bills, and other obligations but I don’t know that for a fact.

I do know though that there is a great lesson there and not just about how not to run a restaurant – although that place was a case study in how to do everything wrong.

I will be the first to admit in the early days I didn’t do the best job of this either, although I was never anything like the owner above. But a new employee’s first day could have been a bit chaotic in the old days compared to now.

Even back then though it didn’t need to have been, I just should have done a little more planning. And making a good impression goes a long way towards building a great culture and ensuring everyone is making the most of the experience.

I will run through some bullet points here that I think every business owner, from the very first hire and onward, would benefit from doing when they bring in someone new:

  •  Make sure you have time set aside to welcome and introduce yourself to your new employee or the person who is doing it has done so. Leaving them standing for minutes or hours waiting for someone to show them around or help them get started is a bad first impression but happens a lot. So block some of your own time for the start of their first day.
  • Start with a tour of the space if they are working in office or on location, introductions to other employees, especially whoever will be their main point of contact or supervisor
  • Explain about breaks, time off, keeping food at the office, where people go for lunch, and whatever else people would want to know to get comfortable in a new environment
  • Let them do something easy to start, like new hire paperwork and taking time to get to know the business a bit better
  • Provide an outline for what they should expect their first week, what they should expect to learn, and their schedule
  • Make sure they have whatever they need to do the job from the start including uniform, computer, office set up, whatever applies to their position
  • Don’t overload them their first day or expect a lot of output right at the start – let them settle in a bit to your way of doing things and their role. Sometimes we like people to start on a Wednesday or Thursday so they have a weekend break before a full week kicks in of all new information
  • Don’t tolerate any kind of hazing, pranking, or harassment of the new people from current employees or all your other efforts to integrate them will be ruined·         Overall try to make sure their introduction sets the tone for them to be able to succeed – they understand what you want them to do, they have the resources to learn and accomplish those things and they have someone to ask questions when they need help and that person has the time to respond to those questions.

If you do this right people quickly learn what you want and become productive and cheerful and the kind of rock star employees you hope to have. But get this wrong and it’s easy to have high turnover, low morale, and low productivity all of which hurts the business much more than you might realize.

It’s one of those things that it’s easy to overlook. As a business owner, you have so many things already competing for your attention taking time out to make sure your newest employee has a great start just seems like it might not take priority. You probably hired them because you were already behind and overwhelmed and it would be great if they could just show up and get immediately to work with no lag time. But that isn’t going to happen.

And if you don’t take a little time to get them started right they may end up causing that much more work by screwing something up they weren’t trained on or shouldn’t have been doing but no one caught them in time. Slow down, make a little time, get them off on the right foot and it will pay huge long-term dividends.

I dodged a bullet by not ending up working at the restaurant. You can learn from me and dodge your own headaches by not making a great first impression when you bring on each new employee! 

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