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Work Buddies Can Help New Employees Transition into Job, Organizational Culture

Two men in safety vests laughing at an outdoor table.

​Are you looking to create a sense of belonging and guidance for new employees as they learn to navigate their way around your organization? Implementing a "buddy program" is one strategy to consider.

[Jump to tips for setting up a buddy program.]

An initiative at the New York University (NYU) Wasserman Center for Career Development offers new hires a specific point of contact to ease the new employees' transition up to the first 12 months on the job, said Diana Mendez, associate director of the NYU Breakthrough Leadership Scholars Program.

The buddy is someone on staff "who knows what it's like to be in the organization, who the key people are, what the unwritten rules are and what success means in the office," Mendez explained. It's also someone who can answer questions the new staffer may feel uncomfortable asking the boss, she added.

The hope is that sharing knowledge will lead to faster upward mobility for new hires, she said, by equipping them with the tools and know-how they need to become savvy about career opportunities.

NYU started its program as a six-month pilot in 2020, and today it's part of the formal onboarding process for all new hires at the Wasserman Center. And it's not limited to members of Generation Z, said Brielle Picone, assistant director at the center.

"We believe that regardless of generation, it is crucial to provide opportunities for staff to form meaningful connections with others," Picone said.

Microsoft had an informal buddy program as part of its onboarding prior to piloting a six-month program with 600 participants in 2018. The following year, it implemented its formal program. Research conducted during the pilot program found that a buddy helped new employees in three ways:

  • Those with a work buddy had a better understanding of their role or how their work contributed to their team's success.
  • Those with a work buddy became more productive.
  • Those with a work buddy reported higher job satisfaction than new employees without a buddy.

"We found the more the onboarding buddy met with the new hire [in the first 90 days], the greater the new hire's perception of their own speed to productivity," Microsoft employees Dawn Klinghoffer, Candice Young and Dave Haspas wrote in a 2019 article for Harvard Business Review. Since the article was published, Klinghoffer has become vice president of HR business insights, Young is now director/principal Xbox researcher, and Haspas is currently director of people analytics.

According to Microsoft's findings:

  • 56 percent of new hires who met with their onboarding buddy at least once in their first 90 days said the buddy helped them to quickly become productive in their role.
  • 73 percent of new hires who met two to three times with their buddy in their first 90 days said they were more productive.
  • 86 percent of new hires who met four to eight times with their buddy in their first 90 days said they were more productive.
  • 97 percent of new hires who met with their buddy more than eight times in their first 90 days said they were more productive.

Creating a Buddy Program 

There was a conscious decision in creating Wasserman's program to use a diversity, equity and inclusion lens by pairing new employees with buddies from different backgrounds, as well as those outside shared work teams or departments, Mendez said.

"We wanted diverse identities to work together for a common goal, and generational diversity was definitely something that we wanted to normalize in the office," she said. Pairing people from different departments also encourages the new staffers to develop work relationships beyond their immediate office, she noted.

Restricting the relationship to the new hires' department could result in new employees getting overly attached to their buddies and becoming uncomfortable branching out on their own, she added.

Microsoft takes a different approach, according to the Harvard Business Review article. It found pairing people who report to the same manager more beneficial because the buddy is more familiar with the new employee's role and responsibilities.

"We've found that when matching buddies with new hires, buddies should have deep knowledge about the new hire's role and nature of the work, as well as a strong job performance history," said Joe Whittinghill, corporate vice president of talent, learning and insights at Microsoft. "Having experience with the type of work the new hire will be doing helps our buddy share specific role-related sources; share best practices, tips [and] tricks; and help answer specific questions related to a new hire's role and team."

The following tips and lessons were learned from the NYU and Microsoft programs:

Leadership buy-in is key. As with any initiative, do your research before proposing a program and tie it to a specific business purpose or outcome.

Involve external stakeholders. "Our steering committee partnered with the NYU HR department to create a professional development session for both [buddies] and [employees] at the end of the program," Mendez said. "This partnership truly legitimized the program," by showing one of its goals was to provide leadership development to staff. This prompted staff members to volunteer as buddies.

Keep a buddy's tenure in mind. The buddy should be someone who has been at the organization for a while—a year minimum, Mendez said, although two years or more is preferable. "The [buddy] has to serve as an expert and guide to the culture, structure, regulations and unspoken rules of the office."

Consider the buddy's workload. The work may need to be reprioritized—or some of it reassigned altogether—so the buddy has time to work with the new employee, according to Microsoft. If an employee who was chosen as a buddy is working on a tight deadline or key deliverable, consider selecting a different teammate to step in.

Use surveys to help determine goals and the pairing of buddies. A new employee might indicate a preference to be paired with someone who specializes in an area the new employee is interested in learning more about, Picone explained. Buddies might also have goals in mind for the new hires. At the Wasserman Center, for example, the buddy might indicate that a goal for the new hire is to learn more about external partnerships or the different divisions within student affairs at NYU.

Keep generational trends in mind. For employers building a program based on the trends and preferences of Generation Z members, Mendez recommended implementing a pairing system that takes into account how that generation prefers to learn and socialize.

"Since Gen Z workers prefer working from home, make sure that you incorporate hybrid programming and also that you don't schedule anything outside of work hours, as the Gen Z workforce is big on creating boundaries around their work and personal lives," she advised. "Make sure that you tap into the concept of creating a meaningful work environment," with the buddies contributing to this environment.

Provide structure. A proper structure is important; otherwise, the buddy and new employee "don't know their roles and they are left to figure out their outcomes on their own," Mendez said. A set of Buddy Guidelines for managers can be found on the university's HR departmental website.

However, it's important to allow the buddy and new employee to have flexibility, Picone said. "[They] can choose how they want and where they want to meet, whether they decide to meet virtually or in person for a structured meeting, or to get coffee or lunch together."

Microsoft provides buddies with specific resources, such as checklists, timelines, and suggested conversations or talking points to make sure they are on track, Whittinghill said. Prior to the new employee's start date, the company also provides managers with a tentative schedule that guides them through best practices and a meeting agenda. The Microsoft buddy is responsible for welcoming the new employee and, working together, deciding the best format and frequency for their meetings.

Send timely reminders. Microsoft sends automated reminders to the new employee, the new employee's manager and the buddy "to encourage consistent engagement, particularly during the first 90 days of employment," Klinghoffer, Young and Haspas noted in their article.

Openness is key. "The mentors have to be willing to be open and honest about the realities of the office," Mendez said, "as well as give their time to build the relationship around the needs of the [employee]."

Collect quantitative and qualitative data to assess intended outcomes. Providing this to leadership will help in the program's continuation and in assessing the intended outcomes, Mendez said.

Let the program evolve, based on your organization and the responses you receive from buddies and the employees with whom they're paired. The original program at the Wasserman Center was six months long but was retooled to three months when turnover impacted the number of available mentors, Mendez said.


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