8 Things You Should Do During Your First One-on-One with a Student Employee

First impressions are critical. 

This is especially true when it comes to setting the tone for how you’ll manage your staff. It’s the ultimate Goldilocks game: Too much structure, and creativity may be stifled. Too little structure, and staff may struggle to find direction. Too much authority, and staff may feel apprehensive to approach you. Too little, and they could take advantage of your leniency.

You get the picture; it’s a tricky balance! And it all starts with a meaningful, first one-on-one supervisory meeting.

By using the tips below during your one-on-one, you should be able to establish mutual responsibility for a thriving semester alongside your staff members.

1. Select a mutually beneficial location

Your office space may be ideal for taking notes, pulling up documents for reference, and creating a private conversation space. However, a closed-door environment might feel intimidating to a new staff member.

Instead, allow them to pick the location the first-time around. They may feel perfectly fine in your office, or they might prefer a coffee shop or outdoor meeting space where you can tote your laptop along for notes and reference points. 

By giving the employee ownership over setting the initial meeting tone, you’ll have the opportunity to guide a more comfortable conversation.

2. Start by getting to know them

Try to avoid getting down to business right off the bat. Ask about their summer travels or hobbies, what activities or clubs they plan to be involved in on campus, and how they make time for their passions outside of work and school. 

This’ll demonstrate your continued investment in them as a person versus as just a student employee. Also, since knowing your staff members personally helps you coach them professionally, your first one-on-one can be an insightful connection point. 

3. Review the format

Let your staff members know what to expect. For some individuals, the concept of a one-on-one may be brand new. Set clear expectations for what the meeting will look like that day and in the future, including how often they’ll happen and what your intended goals for the meet-ups will be.

It might be helpful to let them know that your meeting together will feel less like a visit to the principal’s office and more like a catch-up with a trusted teacher.

4. Brainstorm your expectations of each other

Ideally, you would have already spent some time talking with your staff as a whole about their expectations for the year. This could have included expectations related to communication, timeliness, and teamwork.

But in your one-on-one, it’s important to discuss individualized expectations. That way, you can best support and develop each student employee.

For example: How do they like to receive feedback and affirmation? What’s the best way to reach them outside of work? Do they have an assumption or vision for how the supervisor/supervisee relationship will pan out?

Some students, especially first-time employees, might not know the answers to these questions yet. In that case, consider having them take the Languages of Appreciation Assessment, or ask them to tell you a story that paints a picture of their needs. You might even give them examples of a variety of expectations other students set for you as a point of reference.

This conversation should go both ways too. So be sure to discuss your own needs and expectations.

5. Set goals

Introduce a three-pronged approach to goals. Ask your student staff member to reflect on one personal, one professional, and one big-picture goal that they’d like to set. For example, they might say:

  • I would like to get eight hours of sleep each night.
  • I’d like to co-program with a fellow staff member twice a semester.
  • I’d like to be the kind of RA who always celebrates others’ successes.

You should pull these goals out at each one-on-one that follows and ask your student how they are working toward them, as well as how you might help them succeed. Be sure they know that it’s okay to re-evaluate their goals at any time, too, as much can change as the semester rolls on. 

And embrace the stumbling blocks with them! Your students should know that they do not need to be perfect in the pursuit of these goals. Rather, they should work alongside you to progress at a smooth and comfortable rate.

6. Cover the action items

Although the bulk of your first one-on-one should be focused on laying a foundation for the semester ahead, it’s helpful to outline next steps so that your staff member will leave with a clear call-to-action. 

If there is a looming deadline, be sure to review it and make sure they’re on track. If they were unclear on what they wanted their goals to be, send them away with an assignment for journaling out some thoughts. Or, if they mentioned there was something they didn’t understand in training, equip them with a resource to review. As a result, you’ll already have a jumping-off point for your next meeting.

7. Gauge how they’re feeling

The start of a new academic year can be overwhelming, exciting, and everything in between. So, check in on your student’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Connect them with campus resources like the counseling center or academic advisors even if they don’t directly mention, or show signs of, a struggle. Make it clear that you are on their team and invested in their well-being all year round. This level of care will increase the quality of your communication and, thus, your relationship.

8. Wrap up with questions

I always like to end my one-on-ones with this question: “Is there anything I missed or that you were hoping I’d cover?” 

This affords my student staff members the opportunity to ask questions or bring up a topic that wasn’t on my agenda. As important as it is to set intentions for your time together, it’s even more important to be flexible as there is an ever-changing nature to our work in student affairs.

While this isn’t an all-encompassing formula for how to navigate your first student one-on-ones of the semester, these steps are tried and true guideposts for a successful transition. 

Make them your own by adding in your unique, supervisory flare. After all, what’s most important is for your staff to see an authentic version of the leader you aspire to be. When you’re authentically you, your staff will be inspired to show up as their whole selves too. 

What else do you include in your first one-on-ones with student staff? Share your ideas with us on Twitter @themoderncampus.

Chelsea Jordan

About the author: Chelsea Jordan (she/her) is a student affairs jack-of-all-trades with a passion for women's leadership. She currently serves as the Associate Director for Campus Life at Tufts University, and if she could have dinner with anyone tomorrow, it would be with the woman who inspires her most: Brené Brown. Learn how we can help get your students involved.