Onboarding in 2019: The Key to Success is Being ‘Highly Complex Yet Pleasantly Simple’

How long is onboarding? How do you measure if it’s working? What are some of the biggest problems out there with onboarding?

We posed these and other questions to Cory Kruse, president of the RPO company Orion Novotus, below.

Question: The importance of onboarding seems to ebb and flow. What’s your take on where we are right now? How important is onboarding today?

Cory Kruse: A lot of the focus on onboarding is driven by the economy or the candidate market, but some of it is driven by other factors within companies — the budget, timing, and where they are at that stage in the life of the company. However, I wouldn’t say there’s a grand adoption or a big wave of folks focusing a lot of time on their onboarding programs.

Most of all, onboarding is a strategic task. It’s something that should be built into your human capital management strategy. And onboarding should start well before the time a job offer is accepted. It should be woven into the entire candidate experience so that at the point a candidate accepts the job, the decision they make has been based on an inspiring candidate experience, a picture that has been painted to that candidate on just what they are taking ownership over, and, that they have a high level of confidence about the decision they’re making.

Q: What’s the right time frame? Some companies talk about 30 days of onboarding, some talk about 60, and others say 90. Is it better to have more, or less?

CK: A lot of it depends on the complexity of the position getting hired and that role within the organization. And, it depends on the desired outcome of that position from Day 1 on. However, we’re seeing data coming out that this is reinforced by the behaviors we’re seeing across our candidate and client ecosystem.

Today, people are still looking for jobs 120 days after they accept a new job. That tells me we not only have to ensure that we’re properly onboarding and assimilating new hires, but that the level of engagement needs to be very high too. Even as early as the 90- or 120-day mark, we’re having stay interviews with these folks. We ask, “What do you like?” What don’t you like? What’s changed? Has this role met your expectations?” These are the kind of conversations that sometimes get swept under the rug. But stay interviews early on are critical.

Q: How do you measure if your onboarding is working? Is there an ROI so that you can get something measurable and say,OK, when we do it well it’s worth this to us. When we don’t do it well, it costs us this amount.”

CK: Probably the quickest way to measure that would be starting with a baseline. Where are we at in turnover? And when do the leavers leave? Is it in the first 60 days? 90 days? Or are they leaving within the first 30 days? It’s all about understanding when they are leaving, and then, what are the events that took place or did not take place during that time.

Exit interviews are also important because you need to be getting as much data as you can. Just why are your new hires leaving? You need to formulate your plan based on the information that you collected.

Q: What’s your company onboarding process like? Is it 30 days? Is it longer? Are there things that you have changed as the hiring market has changed?

CK: Our business has evolved over the years, especially when you look at recruitment process outsourcing and what we do. At the end of the day, our clients pay us to ensure that we are hiring the right people for them and that we play a big part in facilitating that hire.

As an outsource partner, the modern recruiter who we hire needs to be equipped with business acumen … being analytical, being a very critical thinker, and living in our customers’ operational reality. So there’s this component of what our recruiters and our managers need to be equipped with beyond just being able to go out and recruit.

We have extended our onboarding process to include the must haves, the cultural type things — like, “Here’s how we work, here’s how we communicate, here are the tools that we use” — and then assimilating that into our environment and measuring it over a period of time. I tell all of our new hires that our environment is “highly complex yet pleasantly simple.” And highly complex is about understanding the environment, the technology that we use or that our clients use, how they work, and how we work into that.

The “pleasantly simple” part is that once you embrace it and fall into it, you’ve got the onboarding reinforcement and support around you. We have learning aids online and we’ve got stuff pushed out. We do management development, specific skills development, and things like that. So, we never stop onboarding.

Q: How much feedback do you get from new hires about their onboarding? Do you do a debrief at some point to find out how do they think it’s going and thoughts they have for how to improve it even more?

CK: We do it through a process of weekly one-on-ones on, through mentorship, and then through 30-60-90-120 day reviews. And of course, we do full performance reviews on a six-month basis. We collect all that information and we also have avenues for open feedback to managers, including 360 feedback. We also do other things. We’ll survey on very basic stuff that we could we do better, things that would allow us to tweak our process.

We ensure that we’ve maximized the time we’re spending on onboarding, that our new team members feel like there’s a human element in it, and that they’re working for people that really care about them. And it’s pretty consistent. Everybody in our organization is very aligned when it comes to our desired onboarding outcome and what needs to take place.

Q: What do you consider to be the onboarding period? Is it from the day they get hired to 90 days later, or, is it 90 days after they start working? 

CK: There’s always been a time frame on the onboarding period. So, your onboarding period will be 90 days … and then we’re off to the races and I’ll leave you alone. That’s historically what a traditional onboarding program spanned. But onboarding and engagement go hand. That should be something that is very consistent and should coincide with good management practices of engaging with your team members.

The timeframe is ongoing. Like I said, it’s always be onboarding, always be giving feedback, both good and bad, and always be asking for feedback. These are the basic blocking and tackling things that get left out a lot of the time because everyone thinks the onboarding period is officially over.

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Q: Are there generational differences in how you onboard people, or is it kind of one size fits all with some little tweaks depending on where they fall on the generational scale?

CK: I think it’s all across the map, and it very much lends itself to the environment and the culture. For example, if I’m hiring a very senior-level tenured recruiter with 15 to 20 years experience, they’re a hired gun and we’ve got a specific engagement for them. In that case, the onboarding process will probably look a lot different than when we hire somebody who just graduated from the University of Texas. We also integrate into the onboarding period things like social events and other activities of that nature that would lend itself more to a millennial or Gen Z hire.

You’ve got to tweak it and mold your onboarding to all of that. But again, it’s very much about what role the new hire is in, and then, what the desired outcome or expectation is for them both short and long term.

Q: Are there things that you see that pop up all the time where companies go wrong with their onboarding, places where you can say, “We see this problem a lot. You should probably do this instead.”

CK: One of the biggest things we see, and I think this is a product of the economy, is that companies are growing at a very fast rate. Technology is moving very quickly. Whether it’s bringing up a manufacturing line really in a hurry, or bringing to market a specific technology, instant gratification is expected.

With so much growth in companies, we’re seeing people moving into supervisory or leadership positions who may not be equipped or have enough experience yet. So in effect, they’re being onboarded as well their team is being onboarded. And the common thread that we hear is, “I left because my manager kind of left me to my own devices. I wasn’t engaged, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t get a lot of direction or leadership and I didn’t think they cared about me.”

Q: It sounds like you find out that companies have onboarding issues when they’re talking about retention problems.

CK: Yes, it’s, one of the indicators. When I’m working with clients, I ask a simple question: Tell me about your interview process. Who’s involved? What methodology do you use? How do you assess who makes the decisions?” And that is a huge indicator of the state of their onboarding program.

Q: Has onboarding taken on greater importance because hiring is tougher in today’s labor market? Or does the focus on it just run in natural cycles and may not be a big deal a few years from now?

CK: Onboarding should absolutely be a strategic initiative in any economy.

If you’re in a tough economy, you’re going to want to ensure that your folks are highly engaged and that they’re going to stay with you because people are typically asked to do more with less in tough economies.

In the economy we’re in right now, you have a huge squeeze. People aren’t necessarily harder to find. In fact, they’re actually easier to find because everybody’s kind of out there and you’ve got a lot of different tools and information available. Candidates are getting bombarded by calls from recruiters, and they’re getting text messages served up to them when they’re at home with their family. Plus, there’s a big focus on employment branding going on.

We’re seeing a lot of different ways that candidates get served up opportunities. And we have to make sure that we’re maximizing the dollars we’ve spent to go out and acquire that talent when they come aboard.

It’s not the “Crock-Pot syndrome” where you just put it in and let it slow cook over time. You’re going to have to tend to your team members and make sure that there is alignment in what you sold them at the beginning. It’s about making sure that you’re walking the walk.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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