For large numbers of Harvard Business School MBA graduates, the first post-degree position is not merely a return to the workforce, but a deliberate pivot toward a new ambition. “Many MBAs are switchers,” notes Kristin Brennan, HBS Career Coach. “They’ve used their education to go from one functional area to another. That can be exciting, but as new hires they’re navigating a new set of norms, expectations, and signals of what’s valued in their new organizations.”

Brennan would know. In addition to coaching HBS students, she is the Executive Director of Career Exploration and Development at Bowdoin College, and a former talent acquisition and management professional. Through her observations from both sides – the hired and the hiring – she’s detected a paradox that can frustrate all parties. “It’s costly to get new hires,” she says. “Yet for all that we’ve invested in recruiting new people, few of us put as much effort in onboarding those new hires.”

As the growing momentum behind diversity – in race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and more – adds new dimensions to our workforces, it can also add new tensions: by definition, altering the “norm” means that defining and fostering normative behaviors becomes more complex.

To reduce tensions and increase mutual satisfaction in the workplace, Brennan suggests a variety of policies and perspectives that can make onboarding more successful:

In-person relationships are important

In a post-pandemic world, a vast majority of jobs have become hybrid, if not entirely remote. This can pose a threat to office culture and a sense of belonging, especially for newcomers looking to connect. “Lean into in-person time upfront as much as you can,” says Brennan. “Starting a new job remotely can be very disorienting. It doesn’t feel real until you meet some people, particularly when you have one-off hires.”

It’s not just a matter of bringing new hires into the office. It’s important to have other staff there to socialize and onboard them too, especially more senior staff who may be more reluctant to return to the office but are in the best position to show newcomers the ropes. “I would double down on having them meet in person week one, creating relationships as fast as possible. Young people need time in the office with tenured staff.”

Reveal the “hidden codes”

In any social situation, unspoken expectations may be as, or more, powerful than those overtly expressed. “I’ve seen people have a very public failure they weren’t even aware of as a failure,” says Brennan. From minor observations of protocol to significant functional requirements, the very things insiders take for granted can become landmines for the uninitiated. Brennan suggests that employers look beyond their formal policies to “inventory the expectations that have not been officially codified” and that, once identified, can be shared with newcomers.

Look to the “stars”

Learn from the success stories, the star players who are regularly recognized by both their peers and superiors for their performance. What do they do that’s special or exceptional? Can their “secrets” be surfaced and shared? Brennan also believes that these same stars, by virtue of their own mastery of the corporate culture, can be an excellent resource for uncovering hidden codes.

Actually have an onboarding plan

The most obvious answer should not be overlooked. Brennan believes companies should complement formal orientation sessions with important, yet informal, conversations. “Set up meetings with the people new hires should talk to, and explain why,” she says. “For example, ‘This is Sue from finance; she’ll show you how to submit purchase orders.’ Spread these out over the first few months so that no one is overwhelmed.” Brennan also favors introducing new recruits to peer coaches “who act as a cultural interpreter” to the organization. “This person is not a mentor, not someone with greater power. This should be a low-stakes relationship among equals.”

Normalize feedback fast

Structured reviews are a standard part of most organizations. “But if you wait six months or a year to give your first feedback, it’s too late,” Brennan insists. “The first time is a kind of hurdle – leap it early to make it feel normal.” She recommends initiating feedback early in the new arrival’s tenure to defuse potential tension. “Be transparent in what you’re doing, and be prepared to share both the good and the bad.”

An opportunity for the organization to distinguish itself

After all the recruiting expense, investing more time, money and effort into onboarding may seem unnecessarily costly – that’s one reason more organizations don’t do more in an employee’s first few months.

“But those who make the effort,” Brennan believes, “distinguish themselves – you can create a positive first impression that lasts a long time.” Even before fresh recruits arrive, employers can set themselves apart by demonstrating a sincere interest in the candidate’s well-being. “You can ask if they have a spouse who needs help acclimating, or resources for job hunting,” she says. “Maybe you can introduce them to colleagues who can talk to them about housing options, or local recreation. The idea is to make people feel welcome.”

Finally, Brennan observes, your new hires also represent a new learning opportunity – for the organization itself. “They bring a fresh perspective you may need,” she says. “Think of new people as teachers who see things you may not see.”