Onboarding in Tough Economic Times: Build Engagement and Promote Retention

Mar 5, 2009

Even when times are really tough, most organizations are still recruiting. And, given the times, the people they are recruiting are critical to product design, service delivery, and ultimately profitability.

Keeping these people engaged from day one is the challenge. Other employees are not upbeat; many are feeling overworked and under-appreciated; and everyone has a fear of what tomorrow may bring. So how can you be positive and create an atmosphere that will build commitment and engagement?

Employees who have gone through some sort of onboarding process — one that is more than the usual paper-processing bureaucracy — report feeling better connected to corporate strategy and to the company culture. This translates into engagement and a feeling of belonging.

There at least three things that orientation or assimilation programs can do for you.

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 that management is in control and has a strategy for success.

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.

Third, they help new employees get up to speed more quickly. Given downsizing and the changes that have taken place in many organizations, helping new employees know what’s what and who’s who will make a significant difference on their time to productivity. Some new hires take as long as a year to reach full productivity, especially if their jobs depend upon interacting with many other employees or upon 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.

Here are some tips on designing an onboarding experience that will engage new employees and get them productive faster:

Tip #1: Address potential concerns upfront
Develop a program that has substance and that addresses the serious issues effectively. Some of the new employees may be wondering if they have made the right decision, or whether management has a clear vision for emerging from this downturn. The content might include briefings on the vision and strategy of the organization as well as on its values and fiscal goals. An overview of the finances by the CFO and a greeting from some senior-level executive should be encouraged.

Tip #2: Stretch your program out
After an intensive one to two 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 he would not normally have any contact with. For example, an executive could be given an 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. They also signals that your organization is here to stay and cares about the future.

Tip #3: Take advantage of the intranet
Every employee needs to get used to using the corporate intranet and become familiar with how to get things done using these tools. A portion of many onboarding programs are now developed as e-learning modules and can be offered to the employee and their family before they even start. New employees can get their spouse involved in choosing benefits and in learning about the firm and its history. The more spouses are part of the work life, the less chance that someone will leave on a whim. Usually when a spouse feels connected to the workplace as well, decisions will not be made hastily but only after some conversation and discussion. Topics that can be covered best in e-learning modules include the history of the firm, organization structure, and of course, the benefits offered. Some onboarding programs have as much as 40% of the total content delivered over the Internet.

Tip #4: Educate managers deeply about the need to provide meaningful discussion and reflective work experiences.
Many recent 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 teambuilding 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.

Tip #5: Assign mentors or coaches to each new employee for the first 90 days of employment.
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 economic and strategic decisions — 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.

Some of these programs might also be used to encourage current employees to stay and making them open to everyone might be a good option to consider. In tough times people need support, reassurance, and honest answers. The more you can provide this right at the start of the employment experience, the stronger your organization’s culture will be and the better its retention of key people.

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