If You’re Serious About Onboarding Success, Remember This Mantra

If you want a successful onboarding process, one that quickly engages new employees and helps them succeed — rather than leaving them with “new hire’s remorse” — there’s a mantra you must remember. More importantly, you need everyone on your management team to remember this mantra. It comes from a lesson that branding guru Scott Bedbury learned at Starbucks.

After joining the java juggernaut, he went on a coffee-hunting expedition with Dave Olsen, Starkbucks’ chief coffee buyer. Bedbury, author of A New Brand World: Eight Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century, probed Olsen for the secret to Starbucks’ branding success. What was, to use anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson’s famous term, the critical “difference that makes a difference”? What mattered the most to the company’s branding success? Was it all about the coffee beans; were they that different? Was it the ambience Starbucks has so assiduously created? Was it the employees they’ve hired? What particular part of their winning combination mattered most? After pondering Bedbury’s question and weighing the variables, Mr. Olsen responded: “Everything matters.” All world-class brand managers know that everything matters. They know that every communication and every interaction with the customer matters. Every decision and every choice matters, because they will either strengthen or weaken a brand. This same principle holds true when it comes to organizational and managerial practices and how they affect employee morale, engagement, and pride. Every decision, every moment of truth in which an employee bumps up against organizational policies, procedures, and processes matters.

Noticing Minor Flaws

The principle “everything matters” is especially true in the first 60 to 90 days of an employee’s tenure with your company, because employees are the most impressionable during this period. When people are in unfamiliar territory, they are more alert for any clues that will help them navigate the terrain. In this state of uncertainty, they are also more likely to leap to conclusions when forming perceptions and opinions. This is because when we feel vulnerable and uncertain, we’re more prone to remove any uncertainty possible. To use a term from cognitive psychology, they are vulnerable to making “premature cognitive commitments.” When we make a premature cognitive commitment, we leap to a conclusion before having enough data to make a truly informed choice. Because new hires are more vigilant for clues, they’re likely to notice even the most minor examples of a poorly designed and executed orientation program and onboarding process. Because they are prone to premature cognitive commitments, they are more likely to see these as indicative of a poorly run organization that doesn’t care about employees. Thus, when it comes to onboarding, everything matters.

Everything You Do Sends a Message About Your Company

Every choice, every action, every communication has potential consequences. Every choice has a consequence in terms of how quickly an employee gets up to speed. Every choice communicates to the employee something about your organization. For instance, poorly organized, “fly by the seat of your pants” orientations communicate something very different about an organization than does a well-organized, professionally delivered program. Recognizing the importance of having new-hire orientation reflect and support the company’s culture of excellence, Eric Wood, president of EnviroSense, requested that his HR team conduct an “orientation makeover.” Because every action carries an implicit message, their new orientation program communicates to employees a message consistent with the company’s culture, mission, and values. “In our business,” says Wood, “high levels of performance and attention to detail are critical and expected of every employee. In order to ask for this level of performance, we want to make sure we show our employees the same commitment.”

Showing You Care Is One of the Strongest Drivers of Employee Engagement

The level of support provided to employees after leaving orientation also communicates an important message. Using a “sink or swim” approach to onboarding communicates a loud “we don’t care about or value you” message, while an onboarding process that provides new hires with a mentor and periodic check-ins sends employees the kind of message that leads to engagement and loyalty. At Community Living Association, a Maine non-profit organization that provides services to individuals with developmental disabilities, employees frequently complained about how awkward it was going into a new home when they were both new to the job and a stranger to their future client. To remedy this, new employees no longer have to “cold call” their new client. Instead, a staff member who already knows the clients makes the introduction. By demonstrating their concern for their new employees’ comfort, management obviously communicates a far different message than if the company had adopted a “that’s just how it is…deal with it” stance.

Is Your Orientation Program All Rules and Red Tape?

Another significant moment of truth that matters greatly is whether your orientation focuses on rules and regulations and neglects the inspirational component of being a new employee. Making orientation primarily about rules and regulations communicates something very different about an organization than an orientation that communicates these messages:

  • “We’re happy you’re here.”
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  • “You’re part of a great organization.”
  • “This is why your job is so important.”

Recently, someone told me how a friend of theirs who had just been hired by a social-services agency quit before finishing the orientation program. He said he was disgusted with the focus of the orientation. From the very beginning, all he heard about was how to protect himself and the agency from lawsuits and government sanctions, and nothing about the agency’s clients and the noble nature of the work he was hired to do. When you communicate ideas like “We’re happy you’re here,” “You’re part of a great organization,” and “This is why your job is so important,” you tap into three of the strongest human motivators: 1) the need for meaning and purpose, 2) the desire to matter, and 3) the desire for esteem. By making sure these human needs are addressed from the outset, your company will engage new employees right from the start.

They’ll Make a Difference

Northeast Delta Dental, awarded the fourth best small company to work for in America by the Great Places To Work Institute, does an especially effective job of immediately tapping into employees’ need to know they matter and will make a difference. At the company’s orientation programs, HR invites senior-level managers to talk with new hires about their specific departments, helping new hires understand the big picture and the important role the new hires will play in contributing to the company’s goals. This links their individual “little pictures” with the big picture. But the HR department at New England Delta Dental doesn’t stop at inviting senior management to talk to new hires. To make sure each speaker’s presentation is as relevant as possible, executives are briefed ahead of time about who will be attending and what department they will be joining. This allows them to tailor their remarks to make them most relevant to this particular audience. Such attention to detail and professionalism matters. It tells new employees: “You’ve just joined a company that does things right. You’ve joined a world class outfit.”

Questions From Connie

It’s easy to get lulled into the misperception that new hires don’t notice or don’t care about the many little fumbled moments of truth during the onboarding process. They’re not complaining, so it doesn’t bother them, right? Wrong. Remember your early days at a new job and how you didn’t want to be perceived as needy, high maintenance, or negative? You learned to do the best you could despite the many ways your new employer made doing your job well — and caring about it — difficult. Although you didn’t complain, your respect for your employer or boss, and your engagement level, dropped. This is why you want to make sure you make it comfortable for new hires to give you feedback. The more you demonstrate that you are interested in continually upgrading the process, and need their input to do so, the more likely you will get honest feedback. Notes Deb Franklin of Designer Blinds, “Rather than wait for the exit interview to find out what’s wrong, we decided to conduct ‘entrance interviews.'”

After analyzing turnover data, Franklin found that the most vulnerable timeframe for new hires was between the second and sixth months. While their onboarding process seemed to be doing things right for the first month, it was this next timeframe that needed serious attention. Hence, the entrance interview was born. As new hires enter this next phase, they meet with HR to discuss how they’re doing and identify any trouble spots. Franklin reports that the company’s entrance interview has played a major role in reducing its turnover by 96 percent. At Northeast Delta Dental, at the 90-day mark, new employees participate in what has now become a company tradition: “20 Questions With Connie.” Connie Roy-Czyzowski, VP of human resources, sits down with each new employee and asks them questions such as:

  1. How is your job?
  2. Is it what you expected when hired?
  3. Any surprises? If yes, what?
  4. Do you have all the work tools you need?
  5. How is your relationship with your manager?
  6. Was the new employee orientation helpful?
  7. What would you do differently?
  8. Do you visit the company’s corporate intranet?
  9. Was it easy to find?
  10. Anything you need that you don’t have access to?

This structured interview at 90 days helps Northeast Delta Dental address issues that are affecting the new employee’s morale and performance, and provides the company with valuable information on how to continually improve its onboarding process.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.