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13 Questions to Maximize Your Onboarding Efforts

by Sep 12, 2007

If you’re serious about upgrading your new-hire orientation program and onboarding process as a whole, here are 13 questions you need to ask. Ask them of yourself, your HR department, your management team, your frontline supervisors, and most important, your new employees.

  1. Do we make our new hires feel welcome? Analyze step by step the first few days on the job that your new employees experience. Do you do things that communicate “We’re glad you’re here” or is it more “All right get to work, we’ve got things to do here?” Ask new hires who’ve been on the job a month or two how welcome they felt the first day, the first week, the first month. Ask them what you did that made them feel welcome and what you could do to create a more welcoming experience. In overhauling a call center orientation program, we had all the team leaders sign a welcome poster and put a sign in the lobby welcoming our new crop of call-center reps. In our evaluations, new hires reported that they never felt so welcomed in any of their other jobs.
  2. Do we inspire pride? The first application of this question requires brutal honesty. Look at how well-run both your orientation program and the onboarding process as a whole are. Are they thorough, organized, compelling, and state of the art, or are they a slipshod, haphazard mess? Most organizations tolerate a level of professionalism and efficacy in their onboarding process they would never tolerate in their overall operations. The other aspect of inspiring pride relates to the next three questions. If you want to inspire your new hires, rather than leave them with buyer’s remorse, make sure your orientation program lets them know they joined a great company. The next three points explain how.
  3. Do we connect them with the big picture? The more new hires understand the mission, vision, goals, and uniqueness of your organization, the more engaged they will be from the outset. If the centerpiece of your orientation program is rules, regulations, and logistical minutiae, you can guarantee they will have second thoughts about their job choice. Orientation programs that don’t emphasize the big picture rob the organization of perhaps the greatest value new hires bring to their new employer: enthusiasm and the desire to make a difference.
  4. Do we show them how much they matter? Engaging employees from the outset requires more than just communicating “This is what we’re about and why we’re a great company.” It must also include “This is how you help make it all happen.” Communicating this is especially important if you want to attract and retain Gen Y employees, who place an extremely high priority on work that matters and being able to make a difference. At the call center I worked in, the original orientation and training focused on the technical side of the call center reps’ jobs for the first couple of weeks. The message? “Your jobs are about processing transactions. In this company, you’re a worker bee.” Mindful that what we emphasize communicates a message to employees about what’s important, we changed the order of topics. Day one was devoted to how important their jobs were and how, to our customers, they were Acme Insurance (obviously not the real name of the company.) Think orientation programs you’ve attended and what difference it would have made for you if you heard how vital your role was from day one, rather than hour after hour of transactional, technical information.
  5. Do we collect and share stories? Great companies communicate their greatness through great stories. Whether it’s Nordstrom’s legendary customer service stories (remember the one about the customer returning the tires?) or Southwest Airline’s legendary customer service and work environment, greatness is communicated not through PowerPoint lectures, charts, and graphs, but through stories that touch the heart and capture the imagination. One of the best things you can do to upgrade your orientation program is collect stories from your employees about experiences they’ve had that embody the unique personality of your company; convey what it’s like to work at your company; illustrate the great things your company does; and demonstrate how employees make a difference. Share these with your new hires. Better still, have the people who told you these stories come in and share them. Doing so accomplishes several useful objectives. First, it creates a more engaging, inspiring orientation programs. Second, it communicates to current employees they are an important part of helping new hires come onboard. Third, it gives frontline employees the chance to be a star and informal leader.
  6. Do we make our orientation program interesting and interactive? Many, if not most, orientation programs are about as interesting as watching cement solidify. Besides being boring, such programs send a disturbing message to your new employees. Such programs say “You just joined a company that doesn’t know how to do things right.” Think of boring orientation programs you’ve attended and what you thought about your new employer. There’s too much information available on how to make learning fun and interactive to excuse old-fashioned, boring data dumps.
  7. Do we make our process employee-centric or employer-centric? Borrow from the playbook of great customer-service companies: design the customer experience from the customer’s perspective. In this case, analyze your onboarding process from the new hire’s perspective. When you’ve been with the same company for awhile, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to not know what’s going on, who to go to for help, and the desire to not be seen as a high-maintenance employee. To design your process from the new hire’s perspective, ask them for their perspective. Smart companies, like Northeast Delta Dental, awarded the Fourth Best Small Company to Work For in the U.S., do this. They continually ask new employees for feedback on how to make their onboarding process more user-friendly and how to more effectively address the needs of their new employees.
  8. Have we broken our orientation program down into bite-sized chunks? Think of times you’ve endured orientation programs that were info-dump ultra-marathons. How much did you retain? How impressed were you with your new employer? You knew that was a stupid, ineffective way to impart information. Your new hires will have the same opinion. As one manager I interviewed wisely noted, “With today’s employees, just as you’re rating them, they’re rating you.” By breaking your orientation program into digestible chunks, you not only communicate, “We’re a company that does things right,” you also communicate, “We care about you and respect you enough to spare you a lousy, nonsensical training experience.”
  9. Are we offloading as much information as we can onto our intranet (or non-digital equivalent if you don’t have an intranet)? Have you ever had someone give you detailed, step-by-step instructions days, weeks, or months before you would actually need them? How helpful was that? By offloading as much information as you can so it’s available in an “as-needed” basis, you are being more efficient and effective. You’re also once again communicating to new hires that you know how to do things right.
  10. Do we make it easy for new hires to get the information they need? Having a comprehensive intranet gives your new hires a greater sense of security that they can find the information they need when they need it. This, combined with a culture that makes it ok to ask for help, reduces the anxiety of being in a new environment, not knowing the ropes, but not wanting to be considered a pain in the neck. Do you have both a comprehensive knowledge base and a friendly, “glad to help you” culture? If you do, your new employees don’t waste valuable time and energy fretting about how they are going to find the information they need.
  11. Do we make it easy for new hires to tell us how they’re doing?and how we’re doing? In companies that have a “suck it up” and “sink or swim” mentality, new hires learn quickly that it’s best to keep their mouths shut. Their employer never hears about what they do that alienates their new hires (until the exit interview, and often not even then). Designer Blinds, an Omaha-based company, reduced turnover from 200% to 8%, in part by instituting what they call the “Entrance Interview.” After analyzing its turnover statistics, it discovered that most of its new hires were leaving between 90 and 180 days into their employee experience. So rather than wait to find out why they were leaving in the exit interview, the company decided to prevent them from leaving in the first place. It did this by instituting the Entrance Interview. These are now held prior to the 90-day “witching hour,” so they could find out what their new hires needed, how they could help them be successful, and so on. At Northeast Delta Dental, at 90 days, new hires get to have their “20 Questions with Connie” meeting. At this meeting, new hires sit down with Connie Roy-Czychowski, VP of HR, and give her feedback on every aspect of the onboarding process and their work experience.
  12. Do we have an effective mentoring program? A good program also lets the person doing the mentoring win, since recognition plays a major role in employee engagement. Mentoring also provides tremendous value to current employees because it gives them a chance to develop coaching, supervisory, and leadership skills. Given that professional development and skill portfolio expansion are especially high priorities for today’s workers, a mentoring program also aids your efforts at retaining and engaging your current employees.
  13. Do we help our managers do their part well? As Gallup’s research has shown, when it comes to employee engagement and performance, it’s all about the boss. More than any other factor influencing employee engagement and performance, an employee’s supervisor plays the most important role. Helping supervisors understand how to create a positive, productive, inspiring work experience is not only the foundation of a high-performance workplace, it’s a “must” if you want an effective onboarding process. If HR simply asks supervisors to help their new hires get started without helping them do it right, they won’t. Make sure your supervisors receive training, support, checklists, and so on, so they cover all the bases. Companies like Bensonwood Homes, a New Hampshire-based company, and Northeast Delta Dental have detailed checklists for supervisors that outline what they should do the first day, first week, etc.

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One Final Point

Business sage Jim Rohn has a simple saying that conveys much wisdom: “It’s not what you know, it’s what you do with what you know that makes a difference in your life.”

My hope is that as you read through these questions, you didn’t simply ask yourself if you knew these factors were important. They’re pretty common sense (yet despite this, rarely done). Ask yourself, your HR department, your management team, your frontline supervisors, and most important, your new hires whether you are actually doing these. Then involve all to make sure you can answer each with a confident “absolutely.”

If your organization is doing a great job at new-hire orientation and/or the onboarding process as a whole, let me know.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Jim Cargill

    David,

    Great article, and great ideas. How timely it is that just this a.m. a question was posted on ERE about onboarding techniques.

    The only thing I would add is this…onboarding is a process that reflects the culture and practices of the general business operation. If there are weaknesses within the on-boarding process, it is likely those weaknesses are reflected elsewhere. If one identifies that they have a poor onboarding process/program, they would do well to look at the rest of the org before making changes. Changes to a problematic onboarding program, without equivalent change to problems in general, will create even greater dissatisfaction among new hires than if there were no changes made.

    Reminds me of the story about the Soul that went to Hell. It was a beautiful place, and the Devil was dressed in a flowing white gown. The Devil asked the Soul, ‘Would you like to stay’, to which the Soul replied, ‘This is a beautiful place, not at all what I expected. Of course I’ll stay.’ Instantaneously, the beautiful place was transformed into one of such suffering and depravity that it defied imagination. The soul cried out, ‘What happened?? This was such a beautiful place…now it’s horrifying!! The Devil replied, ‘At first, I was interviewing you, now you’re staff. Welcome…’

  • David Lee

    Thanks Jim for the kind feedback and your additional observations:

    ‘If one identifies that they have a poor onboarding process/program, they would do well to look at the rest of the org before making changes.’

    Absolutely! Everything that an employer does, every interaction management has with employees communicates something about the employer, how they do business, and how they feel about their employees.

    In the case of your observation, how a company handles onboarding is a reflection of the bigger context – a sloppy, unwelcoming onboarding process speaks of some not-too-impressive attitudes and qualities of the employer and their view of employees. And… as you rightly recommended, management would be wise to look at the larger context to see how such attitudes and norms are being expressed elsewhere in the company.

    Conversely caring about the details, doing it right, showing respect, etc. says something very different… That’s one of the reasons I try to hammer home the slogan ‘Everything Matters’ because everything management says and does communicates a message to employees about them (the Employer) and how they see their workforce. So it pays to be mindful… of everything.

    BTW, loved the allegory :-) How true.

    Thanks again for your input,
    David Lee