Your Onboarding Program Needs a Pair of Fresh Eyes

May 14, 2008
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Do you know the impact your onboarding program has on your new employees, moment-of-truth by moment-of-truth?

Do you know what it’s like to experience your company as an employee on the first day of work? The first week? What about the week prior to that first day?

What about when your new employees meet their supervisor and their teammates? Are you managing that experience in a way that produces an excited, engaged employee? Or for new employees at your company, is it more like buyer’s remorse?

I had a humbling reminder last week of how difficult it can be to think of all the little details that shape a new employee’s experience and their subsequent perception of their employer. It reminded me how difficult, and perhaps impossible, it is to think of all the little things that affect a new employee’s thoughts and feelings because we are not a new employee.

Borrow From Customer Service, Website-Usability Pros

Employers would be wise to borrow from the fields of customer service and website usability design.

Companies known for creating customer-centric experiences get that way by finding out from their customers what it’s like to do business with them, from the first moment of truth to the last. They design their customer experience from the customer’s perspective and needs, not from their own operational convenience.

Experts in the Web usability field, like Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug (author of Don’t Make Me Think), recommend that website developers watch novice users navigating their website, without giving them any instructions or guidance. By doing this, they can witness directly the choices, and mistakes, novice users make when navigating the website. This allows the developer to redesign the website, and the user experience, from the user’s perspective, not the tech-savvy developer’s.

What is obvious and user-friendly from the developer’s perspective might be confusing and overwhelming to the first-time visitor. Thus, they need to “borrow” the novice user’s eyes. Only by getting this real-time feedback are developers able to step outside their expert’s perspective and enter the world of the first-time user.

Get a Pair of Fresh Eyes

You can apply this principle to your onboarding process by borrowing from Chip Conley, CEO of Joie De Vivre Hospitality and author of Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow. At Joie De Vivre’s hotels, “Fresh Eyes” are an integral part of the onboarding process.

At each property, managers encourage new employees to share their perceptions about ways the hotel can improve both its customer experience and new employee experience. Conley and his team know that because their new employees have Fresh Eyes, they can see things that those who have been immersed in the environment cannot.

Doing this achieves two important objectives for the Joie De Vivre:

  • It provides Joie De Vivre with useful information about how to improve both their guest experience and their new employee experience.
  • It communicates to new employees from the outset: “You matter; your input matters” and “We respect you.” These are obviously important messages you want to send, since they increase employee engagement.

I Teach This Stuff and Still?

OK, back to my humbling experience?

Here’s what happened. Last week I conducted a public seminar that was hosted by a client.

As I enter their driveway, I see, as if for the first time, its two buildings set back from the road, each having their own expansive parking lot on opposite ends of each building.

As I take in this sight, this time through the eyes of a seminar participant who had never been there before, I think: “Oh, no. When I sent out email confirmations and directions, I just gave the address. I forgot that there were two buildings. I hope the seminar participants don’t get confused.”

Since I had only conducted seminars in the building on the left, the building on the right didn’t exist in my mind when I sent out the program confirmation.

Seeing it Through Their Eyes

Now, as I look at the scene laid out before me through the eyes of a seminar participant who had never been here before, I can imagine the confusion they will feel and perhaps even a bit of annoyance because if they choose the wrong parking lot, it will be a hike to the correct building.

Also, if they arrive at the last minute, this extra bit of time finding the right one could mean the awkwardness of arriving late.

What Will They Think?

When they realize an important piece of information was left out of the directions, I could imagine them thinking, and rightly so, “That wasn’t too bright.”

My oversight would likely create a mildly negative moment of truth early on in the “Attending the David Lee Seminar Experience.” To use the terms I’ve written about previously, my oversight would likely create, in some of the participants, an unwanted Emotional Take Away: the feelings of confusion and frustration.

It would also likely create an unwanted Perceptual Take Away: “That wasn’t too bright” and perhaps for the most unforgiving of seminar attendees: “He’s not terribly bright.”

You obviously don’t want your onboarding process to trigger credibility-damaging or respect-diminishing Perceptual Take Aways, especially if you want to attract and retain high-caliber people.

Being Hyper-Alert Isn’t Enough

While my oversight wasn’t earth-shattering and everybody found their way and enjoyed the program, the takeaway message from this little example shouldn’t be: “They got over it, so what’s the big deal?”

Instead, I hope it is: “Even if you’re hyper-alert about creating positive experiences for customers or new employees, because you’re so familiar with your environment and operations, it’s easy to forget what it’s like for those who are not.”

See Your Onboarding Program Through Their Eyes

That’s why I believe you must involve new employees in your efforts to improve your orientation and onboarding process, and in a specific way.

This means getting their feedback after the orientation program and then after certain milestones during the onboarding process, such as Days 1, 7, 30, 60, 90, 120, and 180. Because it’s easy for people to forget little details of an experience that were meaningful at the moment, you need to get feedback while the experiences are fresh in your new employees’ minds.

Specifics May Fade but the Cumulative Effect Sticks

The fact that your new hires will forget the millions of moment-by-moment details of their onboarding experience, if too much time elapses before you ask for their feedback, does not mean those moments of truth didn’t matter. While the specifics might disappear from memory, the cumulative Emotional and Perceptual Takeaways created by these “little” moments of truth do not.

To paraphrase Diana Oreck, vice president of Ritz Carlton’s Global Learning & Leadership Center:

People might not remember what you said or what you did, but they always remember what they felt.

Engagement and Retention Issues

Use a modified Fresh Eyes approach with all employees. Find out from their perspective how you’re doing with the many important Employee-Employer Moments of Truth that influence employee engagement and retention.

These include:

  • “Getting feedback from my supervisor experience.”
  • “Management institutes a change that affects our day-to-day work experience.”
  • “We’re asked for our feedback in an employee satisfaction survey experience.”
  • “My boss and I have a difference of opinion experience.”
  • “The performance review experience.”

How your organization handles these and the many other critical Employee-Employer Moments of Truth will determine what your employees think and feel about you as an employer (e.g., the Emotional and Perceptual Takeaways you’ve created), and therefore whether they will stay or leave. And if they do stay, how hard they’ll work.

Given that Gallup’s research revealed that 55% of employees are in the ROAD Warrior category (Retired on Active Duty), finding out if you’re mishandling any key moments of truth should be on every management team’s agenda.

Thus, if you’re really serious about doing a great job with employee engagement, retention, and motivation, do this with all of your employees, not just your new hires.

Let’s Put This into Action

  1. Meet with new hires at days 1, 7, 30, 60, 90, 120, and 180. Ask them for their insights and input about what you’re doing well and what can be improved upon.
  2. Make sure every orientation program includes an explicit message that you want, no, you need, their input. Let them know that you realize your ability to attract and retain great employees like them means you must constantly pay attention to, and improve upon, the onboarding experience you deliver.
  3. Coach your supervisors to do the same.
  4. Make different communication methods available so it’s comfortable for those who are reluctant to speak up. Whether because of cultural norms, shyness, or a manager who doesn’t make it comfortable for them to do so, some employees are reluctant to give negative feedback. While I believe face-to-face, real-time conversation provides the most rich, actionable information, not everyone is comfortable doing this. Therefore, you will want to augment this with alternative modes, such as anonymous surveys, suggestion boxes, or an “input hotline.” Of course, to keep employees wanting to give input, you must let employees know what has been done with their input. Communicate what changes were made or if not, why not.
  5. If you haven’t read any of my previous articles that discuss the various moments of truth and the concept of emotional and perceptual takeaways, you might want to read those next. The white paper Starting New Employees Off Right is the most thorough, but there are several shorter reads, such as 13 Questions to Maximize Your Onboarding Efforts. These will help you ask better questions.
  6. If you’re interested in creating a work experience that leads to a strong employer brand, high employee engagement, and high levels of retention, expand your “Fresh Eyes” approach to include all of your employees. Since an employer’s culture has a huge impact on the success of their onboarding process, address the whole work-experience context. Whether you use one the many survey tools available or conduct a series of interviews, assess the key drivers and moments of truth that affect employee engagement and satisfaction.
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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