Sincerely, Leaders of Color: Onboarding isn’t just for early career staff

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Sincerely, Leaders of Color: Onboarding isn’t just for early career staff

Here’s how you can help new BIPOC managers and experienced hires succeed.

By Jahna Berry Posted on: 


About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column. This column is proudly sponsored by the Executive Program and the Tow Knight Center at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and our guest writers budget is sponsored by The American Press Institute.

It’s been electrifying for me to see so many brilliant people of color step into powerful leadership roles in the two industries I work in, the nonprofit world and the media world, and it’s made me think more deeply about how to best support those BIPOC leaders and other more experienced hires during their first year of joining a new organization.

As chief operating officer at Mother Jones, it’s my job to hire and support managers. Plus, I’ve experienced this transition personally – I know what it’s like to be a new leader at a new organization, and I also know what it’s like to be promoted from within.

There are a lot of articles that talk about thoughtful onboarding practices (here, Amaris Castillo writes about onboarding challenges during the pandemic), especially for people who are early in their career. But, I’ve seen few that talk about how to support new managers who are BIPOC or experienced hires during their first months on the job. In my experience, they may have a few specific needs.

For example, I’ve found that newly hired senior level workers may get invited to more get-to-know-you meetings, but may experience an overall less robust onboarding process than people early in their careers. Why? In past jobs I’ve had onboarding teams say they didn’t want to insult me by going over something that seems like a “101” issue, like workplace conduct norms or basic workflows they assume I’ve seen before. In other situations, a new hire’s supervisor might assume a more experienced hire or someone promoted from within might not require much guidance. If a new hire is joining a small organization or startup, their boss may not have experience onboarding other supervisors.

Here are some things you may want to consider when you onboard an experienced BIPOC employee or a person of color who is a manager.

Create a formal, modified onboarding plan for internal promotions. This doesn’t have to have all of the bells and whistles of a new employee welcome, but consider creating a framework with goals and details about key transitions, like the one below. This is helpful for BIPOC employees who are further along in their careers or taking on new leadership roles, because they may feel additional pressures, which I will talk about in more detail in a bit.

Collaborate on a flexible 30/60/90 day plan, and ruthlessly prioritize. New BIPOC managers and experienced hires often step into their role after a long search, (it’s not uncommon for senior level management searches to take months or more than a year) so right away there are a lot of urgent tasks. Having a 30/60/90 conversation (or series of talks) will help prioritize, especially if it includes what they are expected to master within the first 30, 60 and 90 days. This framework (especially the 30 day goals) will help them prioritize as they are inevitably hit with competing requests. Expect to revisit this 30/60/90 plan often, because they may need more than one assurance it’s OK to deprioritize something. An ambitious new hire may set up their own 90-day plan, but if their manager helps draft it, then it’s easy for the new hire and manager to refine and update it together as things change.

Instead of shortening or skipping parts of the usual orientation when you onboard an experienced hire, try this: After you send an initial orientation schedule, ask the new hire what parts of the organization or their role they want to prioritize briefings on or they think they need to learn more about.

If the job includes any DEI work, help the new employee establish and communicate boundaries around those tasks. If a BIPOC manager works in a predominantly white department, they may feel unspoken pressure – from front line staff, leadership team, or themselves – to help fix or diagnose pre-existing diversity issues in the organization, whether that is explicitly part of their role or not. If the role is involved in DEI, the new hire and that person’s manager should help define the boundaries of that work and, together, proactively message that to the staff.

For example: sending out an email that explicitly states: “Eric leads the task force tracking diverse experts who appear in our news stories. DEI questions about hiring are owned by the CEO and Human Resources.” My boss is great at this and I try to remember to do it whenever I can.

Consider giving the new hire a business briefing. Does business reporting generate the most sponsorships? Does a project’s funding come from a grant with key deliverables? Explaining the nuances of the core business is a really helpful context for senior level hires, even if that information is not crucial right away. This is especially important for editorial hires and promotions. Help folks who have previously worked in silos gain a more holistic understanding of the organization and its revenue model.

Think about power dynamics during orientation. Orientation buddies are great. Don’t forget to give the new hire more than one go-to person for their questions. If possible, give the new hire at least one orientation buddy who is at their level – not a subordinate or their supervisor – so they can ask frank questions and get candid answers. In an ideal situation, at least one orientation buddy is a BIPOC person at their level within the new hire’s department or similar department. Some organizations might be too small or have too few employees to accomplish this, and that’s okay. If you do everything else on this list, that will still be great onboarding.

Ask thoughtful questions about tech needs. Set aside a block of time at the beginning, and perhaps a month after their first day, so the new hire can get answers to a batch of tech questions all at once. It’s my experience that seasoned hires who are BIPOC are often so focused on supporting their new team, they often backburner their own personal tech needs, which may make their jobs harder. For example, I’ve seen experienced hires delay requesting job-specific hardware, ordering ergonomics gear needed for working from home, or seeking training for hard-to-understand systems that they use on a regular basis.

Consider making a user manual about your work style or exchanging one with each other. I have not tried this yet, but I am obsessed with the examples I’ve seen on blogs like this one and this one. At the very least, make sure you have one one-on-one dedicated to this discussion.

Give them the insider’s tour of the org chart about a month in. This is a great opportunity to answer questions they may be pondering after their first few weeks whiz by. Discuss any people, teams, or projects they need to prioritize.

If their predecessor is available, ask them to have a coffee meeting with the new hire about six months after they start their new job. This is a terrific idea I saw from Race Forward’s Maria Smith Dautruche.

Consider offering management training designed for BIPOC managers during the first year on the job. There are some great training programs tailored to support leaders of color like Maynard 200 and Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Diversity in Media. I’ve found that getting management training during the first year at a new job often inspires me to try things in my new role and to shed old management habits that don’t work. Also these programs offer a community for BIPOC leaders, which is helpful because their roles can feel isolating at times. If this kind of training isn’t an option, look at more general training programs that have a DEI lens, like The Management Center, which specializes in training nonprofit leaders. Offer to connect your new hire to a peer who is BIPOC who does similar work at another organization.


Keep an eye on their workload. New BIPOC employees who are more experienced or who are supervisors often project confidence, yet have the same instincts and feelings as other new employees. They want to make a good impression. They hope that people will like them. They might be perfectionists. They could be battling imposter syndrome. BIPOC experienced hires may not have spaces at work where they can be vulnerable about this, especially in the early days at a new job. If you are the new hire’s manager, factor in how these very human impulses may play into dynamics at work, including how many projects they voluntarily take on.

Jahna Berry
Chief Operating Officer, Mother Jones