How the Best Onboarding Programs Work

Oct 3, 2008

In slow times, onboarding takes on new importance. It’s the best way to ensure that those people you have spent so much time attracting and wooing decide to stay with you.

Organizations are devoting more time to the onboarding process and employing more creative and exciting techniques in an effort to get their newly hired employees productive sooner and to lay a foundation that will help retain them.

In fact, employees who have gone through some sort of onboarding process above and beyond the usual process of filling out paperwork and choosing benefit plans report feeling better connected to their colleagues and to the company culture. This translates into a loyalty that keeps employees from turning down offers that tempt by simply offering more dollars.

There are at least three reasons that orientation or assimilation programs are becoming popular.

First of all they help new hires feel that they are part of a larger organization and that they are important. By introducing new employees to senior management and by spending time to build in them an appreciation of the organization’s past and future direction, these programs create a sense of security and comfort.

Second, they help convey the culture of the organization so that decisions get made that are more in line with accepted practices and that help the organization function more smoothly. When senior-level employees explain why decisions were made or how a result came about, they are also conveying the cultural values of the organization. By building roots from the beginning, people flourish and understand better why things are the way they are.

And, third, they expedite getting the new hires up to speed and productive. Some new hires take up to a year to reach full productivity, especially if their jobs depend on interacting with many other employees or in linking work from different parts of the firm. Inexperienced employees, especially college hires, can have long learning curves that can be significantly shortened with good upfront education. This is where an internal social network or some other Internet-based tools can expedite their connections and bring different people with similar needs together.

The best onboarding programs have several characteristics.

First of all, they are fun, not overly formal, and engage employees. Make sure you develop a program that has substance and that addresses serious issues effectively, but do it in a manner that is interactive and fun. Some organizations are using the Internet to facilitate the experience and provide the new employee with the corporate history, the values of the firm, an overview of the strategy and fiscal goals. This is often delivered in a video. Videos can be used to provide an overview of the finances by the CFO, for example, and a greeting from some senior-level executive. Many offer tours of the facilities via video narrated by an employee.

All of these tools and activities set a stage for productive, aligned, and focused work. Don’t assume that employees are just going to “pick up” all the things they need to know to be successful in your firm. What is obvious to you may be very obscure to someone just walking in the door.

Second, good onboarding programs may extend over several months. After an intensive 1 to 2 day session up front to start things off, subsequent activities may extend over several months at periodic intervals. Some programs include rotational assignments; others may include special projects that are designed to expose the new employee to parts of the company they would not normally have any contact with. For example, an executive could be given as assignment to find out something about the manufacturing operations that would require her to actually go to the factory and gather data. This way she sees how other employees work and begins to get a feel for the culture in action. Scheduling events out several months gives you the opportunity to get into topics in an in-depth way that short programs cannot.

The third thing effective onboarding programs are good at is getting the manager to be part of the onboarding process. Surveys show that the relationship with the manager is one of the most significant in an employee’s work life.

Most employee turnover is ultimately caused by that relationship (or lack of it), which makes the ability to assimilate new employees a core competence of managers. An employee’s immediate manager controls all career progression, educational opportunities, and the assignment of projects. So a manager who takes time to discuss issues with a new employee, who shows concern over that person’s assimilation, and who knows what the employee can do and wants to do, will make wiser decisions and build loyalty over time.

The manager should be included as part of the onboarding process. Some firms have the managers attend a session designed to provide the employee with an initial set of goals — perhaps for the first 30 to 60 days. Others include the manager in team-building exercises or have a luncheon where the manager sits with the new employee. At the executive level, the CEO can invite new hires to dinner at his or her home or set up a special quarterly new executive dinner and reception. The key is to make sure the manager has a real role in both the formal process of onboarding as well as in the informal one that happens every day.

And finally the best programs offer coaching and mentoring to new employees right from the start. Again, research shows very clearly that providing a mentor who can offer insights into the corporate culture, who can explain the organizational structure and help the new employee understand why things get done in the way they do, is a major contributor to increased productivity and lower turnover.

These mentors should be individuals who are exemplars of the kind of behavior and results orientation your firm would like all its employees to exhibit. The role of these mentors can be very simple — as simple as going to lunch once a week with the new hire to show them the ropes and transmit some of the tacit culture that is never articulated or often even acknowledged in formal sessions. These mentors are the vehicles to educate the new hire, and they should be trained to serve as listeners who can intervene quietly with a manager if an issue arises. They need to be respected and well-networked in the organization.

Onboarding in tough times becomes an essential tool for building engagement and improving retention.

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