When it comes to onboarding full-time employees, most companies have their processes neatly nailed down.
There’s no doubt the process of onboarding a new employee requires attention and intention. From orienting the new hire to balancing team members’ workloads, functional onboarding is critical.
Even though consultants are different from permanent employees, a smooth on-ramp increases the odds of a successful engagement — and too many hiring managers try to figure this out on the fly.
Read on to discover the nuances, best practices and long-term dividends of a well-designed consultant onboarding experience.
The Consultant Context
It’s reasonable to expect a long-term employee to grow with the company, versus a consultant whose time is project-based and limited from the outset. If a permanent employee is an unmolded block of clay that you’ll shape over time, a consultant is already fully formed and out of the kiln.
The consultant’s existing expertise lends itself to a certain “plug and play” dynamic, but it’s a mistake to assume consultants are somehow exempt from onboarding. Yes, they’re likely already experts in their field and material, but not at your company. They already know how to perform specific tasks, but you need to provide them with the context surrounding those tasks.
There’s still a ramp — a steeper one, even — and you need to get them up to speed. For that to work, both the consultant and the hiring manager must be mutually invested in getting up that ramp quickly and right at the start.
Generally speaking, a new permanent employee is coming to a new role from a current full-time role. The transition from their current job to your company is filled with tidying up loose ends, training their replacement and going through the exit interview process. They may build in a week or two of vacation before their new start date.
If you’re not in contact with them during this time, they probably won’t notice or mind.
Your new consultant, however, is coming from a completely different context. They may not be wrapping up other tasks and projects. More than likely, they’re waiting for their start date with anticipation. If they have to wait two weeks to start their position and don’t hear from you in the meantime, they may begin to question their decision to accept the role.
Clearly communicating to your new consultant what to expect and when keeps them excited and motivated to begin their placement with you. (More on this later.)
Sometimes you’re ready to get started as soon as a consultant accepts your offer. But there are situations, like holidays and company red tape, that may stretch the time between offer acceptance and start date to between two and four weeks.
Regardless of your situation, I recommend you plan to invest at least one week of time in your consultant when they start. This may seem like an unnecessary investment, especially since the consultant isn’t permanent. Consultants are already experts in their areas, so why do they need so much time from you to get started?
While consultants are experts (that’s why you hire them, after all), they still need an introduction and orientation to your company in order to use that expertise in context. A week of your time will pay off in the consultant’s ability to seamlessly integrate their skills into your company. And then they’ll be taking burden off of your shoulders.
Typical consultant onboarding lasts between five and ten business days.
The 2-Phase Consultant Onboard
The good news in consultant onboarding is that the rubric is simple. Every action falls into one of two phases: engage or integrate.
Phase 1: Engage
Timeframe: After offer acceptance, before start date.
One of the most powerful steps in a smooth consultant onboarding process is an immediate and sincere welcome.
A common misstep is to approach the consultant as a completely independent force. I recommend that instead of assuming they’re experts who want to be left alone, you assume every human wants and can use affirmation.
As soon as they accept your offer, contact your new consultant by email or phone and let them know you’re excited for them to start. This simple welcome will seal the deal. The consultant who feels valued prior to their start date is more likely to be engaged from day one.
If you don’t reach out, you may unintentionally create a perception of disinterest. I recently placed a consultant with a client, and I knew the client was pleased with and excited about the consultant. In their minds they were “all systems go,” and no further action was needed. But the consultant was beginning to have doubts.
After three weeks of silence on the client’s part, the consultant started feeling skittish. He reached out to me and explained he hadn’t heard anything from the company. I reintroduced them, and the client reached out to say they were going through a busy time but were excited for him to start. That small gesture went a long way to reaffirm the choice the consultant had made.
“The consultant who feels valued prior to their start date is more likely to be engaged from day one.”
Engagement Best Practices:
Stay in Touch
We encourage hiring managers to set up calls or exchange emails with new consultants, whether to express excitement to work together as mentioned above or to discuss logistics and let them know what to expect. This can also include providing equipment, laying out the structure and frequency of one-on-one meetings, and setting the communication expectation and frequency.
Here’s a template of an email we use to help prompt and frame that conversation:
Phase 2: Integrate
Timeframe: The first work week.
Now the rubber hits the road. The integration phase refers to integrating the consultant into your work culture, team and company processes.
Integration Best Practices:
Connect Your People
This is an excellent time to ensure your people are connected to each other. Send a “welcome to the team” email, but don’t just send it to the consultant. CC the whole team and encourage them to respond. Some should be familiar to the consultant, but many won’t. Introducing the consultant from the beginning fosters relationship building and camaraderie.
Also, make sure your new consultant has all the points of contact they’ll need in advance. Who should they contact in specific instances? What about in the case of an emergency? For example, do they have contact phone numbers in case their internet goes down?
Being sure your consultant has other team members’ direct contact information may seem obvious, but it often gets overlooked. I’ve had consultants lose internet access and not have a way to contact their team. Sharing an org chart or communication flowchart with contact information can sidestep this potential problem.
Set Up Meetings in Advance
If you set up any and all meetings for the assignment in advance, the consultant will be much more prepared when they dive into their training. Let them know what they’ll be learning, the level of engagement and what’s independent versus what’s directed.
Get as detailed as informing them where meetings are managed, the communication norms and your tech stack. Do you have contingency plans if technology refuses to cooperate for a remote meeting? Tell them your fallback options.
In addition to training meetings, we always advise hiring managers to set up more one-on-one checkpoints than they need at first. These can be short, 15-minute check-ins, and you can reduce their frequency as the consultant becomes more integrated.
Set Schedule Expectations
Every company has different policies on employee schedules, and nobody loves to talk about them. But setting clear schedule-related expectations up front can save both you and your new consultant headaches down the road.
Be sure to clearly communicate policies and procedures regarding:
- Working hours.
- Time off policies and notifications.
- Turnaround times.
- One-on-one and team meetings on the calendar.
- Key team members’ availability.
Leverage Your Recruiter
Give feedback early and often. Many times a client will withhold feedback or small red flags from recruiters because they think it’s trivial. For example, a client may feel like the consultant doesn’t reply back on Slack fast enough. If they talk to us about it, we may discover the client never set a communication norm for the consultant.
It’s also helpful to give positive feedback at the outset of an engagement. Communicating what’s working well motivates positive behavior from the get-go, and it’s even more motivating when it’s reinforced by the recruiter. Regardless of whether it’s positive or negative, talking to your recruiter about what you notice can lead to a more functional working relationship.
Include the Consultant in Your Culture
This one may seem obvious, but it’s worth stating. When team members set aside time to talk to the consultant about things other than work, they help build accountability, context and trusting relationships.
“Every company has different policies on employee schedules, and nobody loves to talk about them. But setting clear schedule-related expectations up front can save both you and your new consultant headaches down the road. “
A successful consultant onboarding really boils down to one thing (though it manifests in different ways): thinking of the consultant as a valuable human being with something to add to your team.
When you approach onboarding with engagement and integration as your central tenets, your efforts will not only become more streamlined, they’ll also pay off in the long term in working relationships and partnerships.
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