How to bridge the soft skills gap with onboarding

soft skills

What happens when new employees walk through the door on day one? How do you leverage those first days and weeks?

My platinum standard for on-boarding and up-to-speed training is the Marine’s boot camp. For thirteen solid weeks, they provide an all-encompassing 24/7 experience in which they take an ordinary human being and transform that person into a Marine – someone that is now ready to walk into the line of fire, literally.

You don’t, however, need obstacle courses and firing ranges in your workplace. You don’t need to make your newly hired employees do push-ups in the sand in the middle of the night. But ask yourself: What message are you sending about standards and expectations for high priority behaviors from day one?

Understand your onboarding process

First, make sure you know exactly what happens with your new hires in formal orientation, on-boarding, and up-to-speed training. Most employers have only a minimal process for welcoming new employees and getting them on-board and up-to-speed. Obviously, some employers are better at this than others. Typically, employers provide a basic introduction to the mission and history of the organization, they give the basic facts and figures, have new employees meet some of the key players, receive a primer in the policies and paperwork, and maybe some of the rules and traditions.

Have a plan in place going forward

Second, consider the inevitable hand-off once the official orientation program is complete. That’s where so much of the real on-boarding action is going to happen, and that’s exactly where the ball is so often dropped. Don’t drop the ball.

If you want to send the message that certain soft skill behaviors are truly a high priority, then you have to pay more than lip service. How much of your training is dedicated to spelling out performance standards and expectations for those high priority soft skills? How much time is dedicated to championing those behaviors and teaching them?

Here’s a pretty simple rule: It should be about half.

As one savvy leader in retail put it to me: “For every hour we spend teaching a cashier how to operate the register, we spend at least an hour teaching them customer service skills – how to interact with customers and how to solve their problems.”

Of course, it doesn’t have to be half and half. Maybe the best approach is to have a dynamic integrated approach to on-boarding that is designed in every way to send a powerful message about high standards and expectations for employees’ attitudes and behavior in relation to work.

Establish internal processes and best practices

On-boarding and up-to-speed training also needn’t be profound. In one large company that hires a lot of new young engineers, managers, and more experienced engineers were increasingly frustrated with some of the work habits of many of their new young engineers, including their email communication habits. A senior director of engineering told me: “When it came to email, they did a bunch of things that drove everybody crazy: red flag emails indiscriminately, cc too many people, Reply All to the wrong things, fail to change subject lines. But in particular they would send lots of very short email messages from their phones. We developed a list of do’s and don’t’s for email communication and we built in a thirty-minute module in orientation.”

How did that work?

“Problem solved.”

I came across a similar example in an accounting firm. Managers had noticed a growing pattern of “poor meeting manners” among new young staff. This included poor attendance, late arrival, constant distraction, lack of preparation, interruptions, and inappropriate comments, among other things. The solution: The firm began explicitly teaching new hires how to prepare for and conduct themselves in meetings. It was so successful that the firm leadership decided to overhaul everybody’s “meeting manners.” As it turned out, it wasn’t just the new hires whose meeting manners were not so great. After they developed the program, the leadership realized that everybody in the firm could benefit from learning and observing these best practices for meetings. As a result, there was a real change in the entire company culture around meetings.

As a manager, the best thing you can do to bridge the soft skills gap in your organization is to pinpoint exactly which soft skills are lacking, and identify concrete ways to improve them. Once you’ve identified those concrete solutions, spell them out. Incorporate them into your ongoing training and professional development programs, formal or informal, and make these soft skills part of your regular one-on-one performance evaluation discussions. And don’t forget: as with the meetings example above, employees get a sense of exactly how high priority these soft skills are by observing their leaders and managers. You can’t just talk the talk, make sure you’re also walking the walk.


Bruce Tulgan is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Tulgan is a best-selling author of numerous books, including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy, and has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, Twitter @BruceTulgan, or on his visit his website.

See also:
SkillsCamp: how a soft skills school finds talent
Thinkopolis VIII: The most sought after skills in Canada in 2015


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