All Aboard! The Fast Track to Productivity and Engagement
Onboarding, assimilation, induction, orientation, integration, new-hire transitions, new-recruit training. Whatever term you use, it’s about getting employees in new roles up to speed to deliver rapid results and achieve long-term success.
As organizations have realized that driving employee engagement to achieve business goals begins on — even before — day one, effective onboarding has become a top priority. However, our conversations in the last few weeks with nearly 100 HR and business leaders in the U.S and U.K. indicate that onboarding strategies can be difficult to execute.
Orientation: Making Memorable First Impressions
Orientation programs welcome new recruits, deliver critical information, and help prevent the disastrous first days that, according to one study, drive 4% of new hires out the door, never to return. Organizations recognize the need to put their best foot forward and essentially “re-recruit” new hires. As a result, they are revamping their new employee orientation best practices to address the following issues:
Although everyone seems to agree that orientation should be energizing and exciting, it’s also the time for delivering a lot of critical information (not to mention completing piles of paperwork). To prevent boredom and help employees absorb and retain information, organizations are turning to a combination of print materials, online tools, executive presentations, slick videos, informal get-togethers, and more-formal meetings. A key concern we’ve heard: Identifying the right people to facilitate informative and engaging orientation events.
We’ve heard widespread concern about providing consistent experiences for new hires across locations, employee levels, and business units. One major retailer based in California, for example, has invested in large, colorful learning maps and other props to efficiently deliver a consistent message throughout its network of stores. Other organizations leverage technology to reach multiple locations with the same information.
As studies show that engaged employees feel a part of something important, more organizations now focus on creating an emotional connection with their mission and values during orientation. Some share company history or compelling stories of lives touched by products or services. Others encourage new hires to experience their products or reinforce their brand in all orientation materials. Still others go a step further to ensure smooth assimilation by focusing on the cultural dos and don’ts. Steve Kowalski, Director of Learning and Development at California-based Genentech, explains that orientation includes tips for new hires to help minimize the “antibody response,” where the organization’s unique culture drives out well-intentioned new hires (just as the human body sometimes rejects transplanted organs).
Beyond First Impressions: Onboarding for Alignment and Retention
Whereas orientation is typically an event, most organizations view onboarding as a more strategic process with multiple components designed to delineate expectations and help new hires become productive members of the workforce. One New York-based leader we spoke with explained, “Orientation tends to be about ‘the organization.’ Onboarding extends to ‘you and your job’ — and how you can be successful.”
The process can last for months, as Devray Kirkland, Manager of Learning and Development at Ohio-based Limited Brands, describes: “We provide specific details and structure to ensure that the associates’ first 90 days will be meaningful. We also give a construct for the associates to follow from day 91 on. That way we can continue to help them thrive and develop.”
Effective onboarding also:
Zeroes in on the new hire’s job. Lorraine Jacomelli, Learning and Development Advisor for Global Marketing and Supply at GlaxoSmithKline in London, stresses that effective onboarding goes beyond the general information addressed in orientation. It aligns new hires’ day-to-day priorities by establishing a dialogue between the new employees and their managers. Moreover, she believes that, when done right, onboarding can lay the foundation for continuous re-alignment: “Although work priorities are laid out and discussed clearly and early, business strategy can transform, and with it the work priorities transform. That is why we stress constant communication, especially as things change.”
Requires manager involvement. Many of the HR leaders we spoke to are concerned that their “reach” is limited. They realize that no online system or HR program can provide the specificity of information that new hires need to achieve rapid results. Managers need to fill the void, and HR constantly searches for easier, more effective ways to help managers make the critical connections with new employees. Although most provide the managers of new hires with guidelines, checklists, and timelines, they worry that many well-intentioned but busy managers don’t take the time to use the tools supplied to establish clear expectations and make sure new team members are adjusting and on track.
Covers all levels of new hires. One London-based financial services executive raised a concern shared by others that organizations tend to focus attention on recent college graduates, assuming that more-senior new hires will “get it.” Yet a number of recent studies have underscored how ill-prepared most managers are at transitioning into new roles. Despite years of experience in the workplace, they still need clear direction and support in order to succeed in new roles.
Best Practices for a Smooth Ride
Two additional themes for ensuring successful onboarding surfaced in our conversations:
Don’t Overlook Relationships
One executive summed up a pitfall experienced by many organizations: “We focus too much on content, not enough on relationships.” As new methods emerge for delivering massive amounts of information, organizations forget that emotional connection with the organization and manager is best achieved through personal interaction. Both Jacomelli and Kirkland describe how they encourage managers to continue to connect, supplementing face-to-face interactions with emails, voice mails, and handwritten notes that build strong partnerships with new hires.
Other approaches for building relationships include:
- Creating a “buddy” or “mentor” program for new hires. Jacomelli emphasizes the importance of matching personalities. Others stress the need to establish mentor “criteria” and provide mentors with training and guidelines.
- Identifying key individuals who will have an impact on the employee’s success and setting up face-to-face meetings with them.
- Facilitating networking beyond the business. Kowalski points to a Genentech program that highlights the employee special-interest groups that exist. Quarterly events enable new hires to learn about groups of employees who may have similar interests.
Track Onboarding Activities and Drive Accountability
Although most organizations fail to follow up with new hires beyond the occasional “How are things going?” in the hallway, more are trying to measure the impact of their onboarding efforts. According to Kowalski, Genentech’s new hires complete a survey at the end of 90 days, and the results are shared with business leaders as part of a corporate-wide goal that impacts bonus compensation. Kirkland agrees on the importance of linking onboarding to managers’ performance measures, and says Limited Brands is moving in that direction. The organization also plans to increase senior leadership involvement to reinforce desired behaviors.
The Journey Continues
Which onboarding approach will work for your organization? It depends. Although the leaders we spoke to share many of the same challenges, their practices reflect their unique business goals, industry, organizational structure, culture, and workforce. Your onboarding program needs to fit your organization.
And don’t be content with merely managing first impressions. The leaders we talked to underscore the need to go beyond orientation. Most concur that new hires need clarity of expectations, support, personal connections, and the right tools to shorten their learning curve, deliver results, and stay engaged for the long term.
In today’s keenly competitive marketplace, the ability to bring employees to full productivity quickly and keep them long-term will be a significant competitive advantage.”
— Rich Galbreath, Profiting Through Employee Orientation, a SHRM White Paper, March 2002