The 5 Firsts: A Simple System to Retain Top Talent
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The 5 Firsts: A Simple System to Retain Top Talent

First impressions are lasting. Front-line hourly employees are not. Before they've been on the job just six months, more than 50 percent are gone. Some were probably not a good fit for the job in the first place, but some productive, dependable, hard-to-replace employees bolt, too.

So what happens between the new hire's enthusiastic acceptance of a job offer and the day they leave?

In a nutshell, we find that unit-level managers spend their days doing mostly two things: putting out fires and dealing with difficult employees and the problems they create. This leaves the dependable, self-directed people to fend for themselves--because they can. It's the "squeaky wheel" syndrome and there's only so much "oil" to go around. I recently heard about a highly valued employee who said to her manager: "If I act up and create as many problems as Carrie, will you pay more attention and spend more time with me?" This universal problem can be remedied with a simple system that leverages the power of first impressions to on-board, engage, create, and retain great employees--even when you find yourself firefighting full-time.

The system requires just five simple interactions with each new hire at specific, critical junctures. This small investment of time has proven to reap long-term rewards in terms of reducing costly employee turnover and helping you build the kind of front line that will help you build your bottom line.

1) First hour on the job. This is the most important time you will ever spend with your new hire. There will never be another time when that employee is as receptive, willing to listen, and wanting to understand your expectations--as well as to live up to them. This meeting sets the tone for the entire relationship this person will have with you and the organization, so it pays to get it right.

The first hour is not the time for completing paperwork or going over rules and regulations. It is the time to build a relationship, establish expectations, and make a great first impression. Start by making the person feel welcome and comfortable. Explain why their job is important, and how their job performance will affect customers and co-workers alike. Encourage your new hire to ask questions, then give them the answers they need to feel they'll fit in. Take the time to share a little of your own work history and the company's history so the new person feels like part of the team. Most important, set expectations by explaining why you hired them and why you think they'll be a superstar performer. You might say: "As your manager, let me tell you what's most important to me...". List the traits you value most in the person who does this particular job: e.g., strict adherence to corporate values, customer service, teamwork, honesty, reliability, etc.

2) End of first day. New hires report for duty excited, nervous, anxious, and eager to please. What happens during the first day will determine whether they leave excited, proud, and happy or disappointed, confused, and frustrated. Your new employee is reeling from a day filled with the unfamiliar--a new environment, new people, and new responsibilities. This is why it's important to spend the last 15 minutes of that the new hire's first day debriefing, answering questions, and ensuring they leave with a positive impression. Once home, the employee will inevitably be asked: "How was your day?" Your goal is for the answer to be: "Super! It's a great place to work."

Visit with your new employee for 10 or 15 minutes before they leave, to get their feedback on how the day went, address any problems that may have cropped up, and reinforce their decision to join your team. Reinforce the positives and defuse any negatives.

3) End of first week. The goals of this meeting are, once again, to reinforce the person's decision to join the company, as well as to conduct market research, get the newcomer's feedback, and ask for job applicant referrals.

Ask why they left their last job and why they took the job with your organization. The answers will tell you a lot you can use about this employee's motivators. (This informal market research also helps reinforce in their minds that they made the right "buying decision.")

Ask if your new hire has noticed anything that doesn't quite make sense or could be improved. Newcomers bring a fresh perspective that is unique. And ask for new employee referrals. Find out if there's anyone they've worked with before who would be a good fit in your group.

4) First paycheck. This conversation is about giving the new hire specific information about their performance so far. Tying this conversation to the presentation of the first paycheck underlines the importance of your feedback and strengthens the employee's relationship with you, the job, and the company.

More than 95 percent of the time, this will be a pleasure because most will try their best to be everything you expect. Even if they aren't "perfect," you will still have a good feel for whether or not they have the attitude and capacities to be a successful member of your team, and it will be a positive conversation. This conversation will be more difficult with the less-than-5 percent who just don't seem to be working out, but it is by far easier to have this talk after two weeks than after two months or two years of unsatisfactory performance.

5)End of first 30 days. This is a stop-loss strategy, when you evaluate how you and your team have performed in bringing the new employee up to speed, as well as a time to reevaluate this person's overall performance. In essence, if the new hire is not up to snuff, ask yourself if you and your team are at fault, or if the employee doesn't meet standards. In either case, remedial action is needed. For a complimentary copy of the 30-Day Checklist, email with "30-Day Checklist" in the subject line.

(The complete system, with step-by-step instructions and easy-to-use checklists, is in the author's newest book, The Five Firsts: A Simple System to On-board, Engage, and Retain Top Talent. To read an excerpt and buy copies, visit the Books section of The Hiring Store at

First impressions really are lasting, but too many employers still hold to the old-school view that it is up to their employees to impress them--and there's certainly some validity to that. But it would be to your advantage if it were a reciprocal agreement. Get out in front of the curve and take these five first opportunities to impress every new employee with the time, respect, acknowledgement, and appreciation that will keep them motivated, productive, and on your team.

Mel Kleiman is a consultant, author, and Certified Speaking Professional on strategies for hiring and retaining the best hourly employees. He is the president of Humetrics, a developer of systems, training processes, and tools for recruiting, selecting, and retaining the best hourly employees. His books include the best-selling Hire Tough, Manage Easy and 267 Hire Tough Interview Questions. Reach him at 800-218-0930 or

Published: October 4th, 2010

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