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Onboarding Program Killers: 15 Common Errors to Avoid

by Nov 17, 2008, 6:00 am ET

Onboarding programs rank high on the list of HR programs that get little respect or attention. When managed well, onboarding programs can have a dramatic and measurable impact on employee productivity, retention, employment brand, service/product quality, workplace safety, and future hiring success.

Unfortunately, most onboarding programs are poorly designed and even more poorly executed. After years of researching and advising firms on developing best-practice programs, I have found that there are 15 key factors that can literally kill any chances of onboarding programs demonstrating a positive impact.

The Root of the Problem

Most corporate onboarding programs are designed from the HR administrator’s perspective. The goal and focus is to ease the administrative burden on HR and to drive compliance activities, not to ensure that new hires can reach expected levels of productivity in the shortest time frame possible.

As a result, most programs have boiled onboarding activities down to all but the bare bones of administration. Every new hire, transfer, or merged/acquired employee gets the same information, on the same timeline, via the same channel.

Doing so has made administering onboarding easy, cheap, generic, consistent, and utterly useless. The result is that most onboarding programs frustrate new hires and hiring managers.

While the concept behind onboarding is truly simple, delivering world-class onboarding is anything but easy and generic. If your current approach demonstrates any of the 15 onboarding program killers described below, you’re missing the mark and need to start over:

  1. The wrong definition and limited goals. The first and most impactful error is to define the program as orientation as opposed to onboarding. The term orientation has for years been applied to the narrower range of corporate activities related to “sign up’s” and providing basic information. The goals of traditional orientation are relatively narrow: to get new hires on the payroll, signed up for benefits, and to provide a brief overview of the company’s culture, products, and values. Onboarding, however, has a much broader perspective and goal: to decrease the time it takes for a new hire to reach the minimum expected productivity level on the job. Onboarding (also known as assimilation) lasts longer, occurs at several organizational levels, is metric-driven, and has a greater business impact.
  2. Overloading new hires. The most common program killer is overloading new hires on the first day with a volume of information and questions that result in sensory overload. Because new hires are apprehensive, putting them under this kind of pressure makes it unlikely that they will ask tough questions, make good decisions, or remember a majority of the information they are provided with. The best programs limit the amount of information provided and the number of forms and sign-ups required so that they encompass less than two hours on the first day.
  3. Failing to extend the timeframe. Viewing onboarding as something that happens only on the first day of employment is a major program killer. The best programs start before the employee’s first day (pre-boarding) and continues for up to six to 12 months. By stretching out the process, you help to ensure that the new hire is not overwhelmed on their first day.
  4. Not offering onboarding at multiple organizational levels. Failing to provide information at each organizational level guarantees that the new hire will spend a great deal of time operating blind. The five organizational “levels” of onboarding include:
    Corporate level. Covering signups and corporate-wide values.
    Location level. Covering information and issues related to the country/region and the plant/facility where the new hire will be working.
    Departmental level. This level covers things related to the department the new hire is joining.
    Team/Job level. Covers things related to this person’s work team and job.
    Individual level. Covers things at the team level that relate to the unique and diverse needs of this individual.
  5. Unidirectional information. Most programs focus entirely on providing the information that the corporation wants the new hire to possess through presentations and videos. Unfortunately, this unidirectional approach lacks interaction and it can make the new hire feel like little more than a “hard drive” for receiving information. In addition, it restricts the firm’s ability to understand the new hire’s needs/concerns. The best programs directly ask new hires about their concerns, who they wish to meet, what they wish to learn, and how to best motivate and manage them. They also ask new hires for referrals and they gather feedback from them on how to improve both the recruiting and the onboarding processes.
  6. No metrics or accountability. Most orientation and onboarding programs are not designed and run like standard business processes. Few have any objective results metrics that make a specific individual accountable for producing measurable business impacts. The best programs include metrics that cover time to productivity, new hire retention/termination rates, new hire error rates, new-hire referrals, and program ROI. Hiring managers also need to be held accountable by including their onboarding success rates in their performance appraisals and their bonus formula.
  7. Ignoring diverse needs. Although nearly every corporation makes a special effort to hire diverse individuals, few onboarding programs provide alternative approaches to meet the needs of diverse hires. This is critical because diverse individuals, by definition, have different needs and ways of processing information. As a result, there must be variations in the onboarding process (either different information or the same information presented in a different way). By varying the information to meet individual needs you can dramatically reduce diversity frustration and eventually diversity turnover.
  8. A face-to-face approach. Although this is gradually changing, a majority of onboarding activities are still provided in a live meeting. Not only is this time-consuming and expensive, it also limits the new-hire’s ability to access this information later on, when they might actually need it. For “remote workers,” not having online access can dramatically slow time to productivity. A superior approach focuses on providing most, if not all of the necessary onboarding information online where it is more easily accessed and searched before and after they start their new job. Online information can include the standard information provided to new hires as well as interactive forums for asking questions, buzzword and acronym dictionaries, as well as photos and bios of team members. In truly global corporations, the need for online information is even more critical.
  9. A lack of integration. The very best onboarding programs make a special effort to integrate and coordinate what are traditionally independent activities. The program needs a process that integrates and coordinates benefits enrollment, payroll registration, technology set-up, security registration, business supply delivery, office assignments, new hire training, and “local” onboarding activities at the departmental level.
  10. Failing to make the manager’s expectations clear. Information should be provided on corporate success measures, departmental plans, strategies and goals, how this individual’s performance will be assessed, their bonus and promotion criteria, and specifically, what is expected from them during their first week and month on-the-job.
  11. Their manager is not present. The most common fault that occurs at “departmental level” onboarding (and the one with the most negative impact) is not having the employee’s direct manager present on the first day. With the manager absent, often the new hire feels unimportant and frustrated. Invariably, in the absence of the manager, new hires are shown their cubical, given “a manual” to read, and told to be patient until their manager returns. The best programs do not allow a new hire to start without their manager present and a plan of action for the first month of the new hire’s employment.
  12. No compelling business case. Support for great onboarding programs is unfortunately very cyclical. Programs typically receive a great deal of support when competition for talent is high but they are often cut back or eliminated during tough economic times or whenever the program’s manager moves on. If you want to avoid this painful cycle, it is essential that the onboarding program be covered by a formal “business case.”
  13. Run by benefits. Generally, benefits people have a narrow and tactical view of both HR and onboarding. Their view of the process is focused on “sign-ups” and having everything done quickly the first day. In order to be strategic, the program must be “owned” by hiring managers and run by recruiting or employment brand managers.
  14. Failing to reinforce the employment brand. Colleagues and friends will contact the new hire during their first week, and if the onboarding program doesn’t provide a great “new hire experience,” they might provide limited or even negative information.
  15. Delays in offering onboarding. Organizations frequently postpone most onboarding components until a large group of new hires can participate in a single session. Any delay can negatively impact new-hire productivity and provide an opportunity to make mistakes that will later be difficult to erase. As a result, effective programs offer online onboarding or do not delay onboarding beyond the first week after the employee is hired.

Weaknesses and Problems in Program Administration

There are several common omissions or failures related to the administration of the onboarding program that, although not program killers, can negatively impact the results:

  • No written plan. Most onboarding programs have no formal written plan that is integrated with the overall business plan, the HR plan, and the recruiting plan.
  • Owned by HR. Rather than being owned by HR, the onboarding program design should make it clear that onboarding problems and processes are “owned” by hiring managers. Managers must realize that they suffer the most when poor onboarding takes place.
  • Jobs are not prioritized. Because there is never enough budget, world-class onboarding programs rarely excel unless they prioritize and focus their talent, time, and resources toward onboarding individuals in mission-critical jobs, critical business units, and in jobs with a significant revenue impact.
  • No continuous improvement component. Few onboarding programs have a component that allows them to continually improve. In direct contrast, the very best have a formal process for continuously assessing and improving processes and output results by assessing each on-boarding success and failure. Exceptional programs periodically use “mystery shoppers” to identify system problems.
  • No best practice sharing. The onboarding program must have a formal design component for the rapid identification, sharing between business units, and the adoption of best practices related to onboarding.
  • No data-based decision-making. Major onboarding program design and resource decisions must be made based primarily on data, rather than emotion or historical practice.

Final Thoughts

It’s a critical mistake to build a high-impact process based solely on intuition. A superior approach requires that you examine the “root causes” that drive success and failure. Part of that process includes identifying “critical success factors” which cause programs to succeed and “program killers” that can doom an otherwise well-designed program.

If you want to raise your game, it’s critical that you periodically assess your program design to ensure that it is rich with critical success factors and that it steers clear of program killers.

Editor’s note: Those interested in learning more about leveraging onboarding and orientation to improve new-hire productivity can read Dr. Sullivan’s new book, entitled The Onboarding & Orientation Toolkit, available at www.drjohnsullivan.com.

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.

  • David Lee

    Here are two more mistakes to add to the above list:

    #16. Not Bothering To Ask New Hires for Feedback – All the companies I’ve researched who do a great job with onboarding make sure they solicit employee feedback re: their orientation program, their new hire experience, etc. Examples include: Ritz Carlton does it after 21 days, Northeast Delta Dental – 90 days, Designer Blinds, 90 days.

    Ideally, the new employee’s manager would check in on an ongoing basis.

    #17. Thinking New Employees Don’t Notice Slipshod Orientation Programs and Onboarding Processes – They do, and if affects both their level of engagement and their impression of their new employer–an impression that will affect all future interactions. As a senior level manager said to me: “Just as you’re evaluating them, they’re evaluating you.” (if you want more on this, ERE.net has some of my articles that go into this in more depth).

  • Surinder Rehill

    The onboarding should be bottom up instead of top down letting a new hire to feel comfortable in her/his new adopted role, fellow peers/team members and the office enviornment.

    Depending on the position, most onboarding programs don’t take off because of the information overloading for the whole company on the first day. Go in steps and it will successful.

  • Walter Vanstone

    #18 Hiring Manager Onboarding Training- More often than not, hiring manager show up for onboarding with unclear objectives or lack of information for the new employee. Hiring managers should be aware of the negative impact that they have on new employees; show the new hires how they play an important role in the success of their new organization’s goals. Moreover, providing training to hiring manager will reinforce their accountability thus a successful onboarding process.

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