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Employee Onboarding Done Right

Retention of good employees starts on day one. Make sure you set your new hires up for long-term success with a thorough onboarding program that helps them learn your organization’s mission, culture, and values in their first year on the job.

By Kristin Clarke, CAE

You’ve made a great hire. You’re looking forward to your new employee bringing new skills and energy to your team, and you’re confident in her potential to contribute to your organization over the long term. But are you ready to set her up for success?

In a 2014 study by BambooHR, a third of respondents reported that they had left a job within the first six months. Reasons included that they had not received clear guidelines about their job responsibilities (23 percent), that they wanted better training (21 percent), and that the employer did not provide effective onboarding (15 percent). About a third said they had almost no onboarding or none at all.

All of which points to the critical importance of onboarding as a final step in the recruitment process and the first step in employee retention. Natasha Rankin, CAE, is a case in point: When Rankin became the first chief operating officer at the American Counseling Association in May 2015, she faced the challenge of pioneering a new position for herself and her organization.

Step one was defining expectations. “What I found incredibly helpful in onboarding was the willingness of everyone … to share what their expectations were of me and how we would work together,” she says. “It really helped me better understand everyone and then create aligned expectations for my role.”

Onboarding differs from training. While training focuses on how-tos such as mastering an organization’s processes or technology tools, onboarding is a structured introduction into organizational culture, relationships, mission, leadership, and values.

Some organizations onboard via stories, including welcome videos that showcase their history, culture, and mission.

While timetables for formal onboarding vary, consensus is six months to a year. In practice, though, many organizations conduct onboarding activities for 30 to 90 days, then expect staffers to learn by doing. Don’t make that mistake, say hiring professionals.

A study of workplace newcomers published in the Academy of Management Journal concluded that “support of newcomers from coworkers and supervisors declines within the first 90 days of employment” and that this—along with supervisor undermining and inadequate socialization—leads to higher turnover.
 
“The more complex the organization and connections a person has within that organization, the longer the learning period,” says Rankin.

And that means that good onboarding requires patience. “Many businesses just want to ‘get it over with’ so new hires can increase their time to productivity,” according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). “That approach tends to overwhelm employees with a lot of information in a short time. It’s much better to … give hires bite-sized chunks of information over a longer period.”

To that end, the Oregon Society of Certified Public Accountants has two onboarding checklists—one for first-day orientation, another for completion by the manager and employee within 60 days, although the introductory period officially runs 90 days.

“These go into their personnel file, so the supervisor is responsible for making sure they’ve taken time to do this,” says Phyllis Barker, CAE, OSCPA vice president and COO. “It may not be everything in-depth, but it should be covered at least on an introductory level.”

Additional difficulties often cited by employees are an unrealistically short “honeymoon period” followed by a dump of backed-up work, socialization challenges, minimal tolerance for mistakes while learning, and insufficient technology training.
 
“It’s good to remind everyone during onboarding that now isn’t the time to load up someone’s to-do list with everything that has to get done in the next year,” cautions Rankin.
 

Onboarding Steps

The elements of a good onboarding program vary, but the most effective ones have many features in common. These steps can help you enhance the process at your organization:

Start with “preboarding.” Prepare a work space with supplies, a password-ready computer, and a phone with user tips. Tape a list of internal acronyms nearby. Schedule first-week lunch appointments. Add the employee’s email to distribution lists.
 
Buddy up. Fifty-six percent of new hires say an assigned buddy is important to retention, according to BambooHR. In addition to an HR rep and the employee’s supervisor, a buddy “provides a new team member automatically with three people to whom they can turn with a question, which ultimately helps them build connections throughout your organization,” Rankin says.

Customize onboarding formats by position. Annette Homan, chief operating officer at RIMS—the Risk Management Society, says RIMS adjusts its onboarding process based on the worker’s position level and needed network. In addition to binders of past work, Homan shares a portal for paperwork, a picture book of coworkers connected to an organizational chart, and a list of each staffer’s key duties, so people know how they fit into what others do.

Tell your story well. Some organizations onboard via stories, including welcome videos that showcase their history, culture, and mission. Multimedia tools boost employee recall and ensure traditions pass down consistently.

Show your lighter side. Trivia games or “matinee” showings of your YouTube channel communicate information creatively.

 “Onboarding is a hugely under-focused management issue,” according to NACE. “However, [it] is directly tied to the organization’s talent, and if you don’t have great staff in place, things fall apart.”

Kristin Clarke, CAE, is executive director of the Section on Women’s Health-American Physical Therapy Association. Email: [email protected]


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