On Board the Better Orientation Express

A new study finds that expanding the focus during new-employee orientation to workers' individuality -- rather than only the employer's culture -- produces more satisfied and productive workers, a decrease in turnover and an increase in customer satisfaction.

By Larry Keller

For many employers, a new worker's first day on the job looks like this: Go to HR and fill out a myriad of forms. Receive a tutorial on the employer - a glowing appraisal of its qualities and products or services, followed by what is expected from the employee in order to mesh with the corporate culture. Then an introduction to new colleagues and start work.

There is a better way, say the authors of a recent study on new-employee orientation. One that may significantly reduce employee turnover and the expenses incurred with it.

The study, published in the March issue of Administrative Science Quarterly, found a 32-percent reduction in employee turnover among workers whose individual skills and talents were included in the onboarding process as opposed to those hired in a company's traditional way.

"We thought the intervention would make a difference, but did not anticipate that the effects would be as large and meaningful as they were," says Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and one of the study's three authors.

The Gino group's study differs from some in that it tests the benefits of engaging employees at orientation rather than after they've begun working.

The researchers conducted a field experiment in 2011 at Wipro BPO, a business process outsourcing company in India that provides telephone and chat support for global customers, and had substantial employee turnover.

They divided new call agents into an individual identity group, an organizational identity group and a control group. The first group focused on newcomers' unique perspectives and strengths, and how they could bring those to the job. The second group focused on the elements of the company that made them proud to be part of the organization. The third group used Wipro's traditional process, focused mostly on describing the job requirements and the organization.

The two identity groups received the same training as the control group, plus an additional hour-long presentation. So, for example, Wipro newcomers in the individual identity group were asked questions about their individual strengths and shared them with their future co-workers. They also received fleece sweatshirts with their own names, as well as a name badge. The organizational identity group heard from a star employee about the merits of Wipro, and they were asked afterward what they heard about the company that would make them proud to work there. They too received fleece sweatshirts, but embroidered with the company name, plus a badge.

Employees who received the onboarding stressing individual identity were 32 percent less likely to quit in the first six months than workers who received Wipro's traditional hiring approach, and were 21 percent less likely to quit than the group whose orientation focused on organizational identity, the researchers found. The individual identity group also received more positive customer evaluations.

Gino and her colleagues then replicated the Wipro study in a lab experiment in which 175 university students were recruited for a three-hour, paid study conducted over two days. One group's activities included stressing individuality, while another focused on the organization. Students in the individuality group performed better and faster on data-entry tasks and were much more likely to return to the lab on the second day.

The researchers say that when new workers are "processed" to accept an organization's identity, they are expected to minimize their own identities while at work. That can lead to eventual employee burnout.

By focusing some of the orientation on a new employee's individuality, new hires are encouraged to express their perspectives and strengths on the job rather than following a scripted behavior, the researchers say. This increases work engagement and job satisfaction and leads to lower turnover rates, they add.

"I think companies should think more carefully about their onboarding processes and find ways to give their new employees the time to think about their strengths and how they can best apply them to their jobs," Gino says.

For example, the researchers say that a chef who is naturally gregarious could utilize that strength to welcome diners and make them feel welcome.

"I think it's a good idea," says Dick Finnegan, author of Rethinking Retention in Good Times and Bad and CEO of C-Suite Analytics in Orlando, Fla. "It's personal - how can I contribute and what can I offer people around this table?"

But Finnegan thinks the most critical factor in employee retention is maximizing the manager-employee relationship. "The manager is the one constant every minute of every day" in an employee's life, he says. "A jerk boss will trump anything an employer can do." Stay interviews conducted by managers shortly after employees are hired, and tying managers' goals to retention and engagement are critical, he says.

The study results don't surprise David Allen, professor in the department of management at the University of Memphis. "My research suggests that newcomers who feel the organization is caring and supportive of them stick around longer," says Allen, who was not involved in this study.

One potential obstacle, however, is when the new employee is a change agent bringing new skills that a team doesn't have, says Ken Oehler, global engagement practice leader at Aon Hewitt. "That presents its own challenges around the fit. By definition, they're bringing in certain individuals that look different" than their colleagues.

Nobody suggests that employers should discontinue imparting their ethos and expectations to new employees.

"I think it is important for companies to pass on their culture and make sure that new employees are aware of it," Gino says. "But they should give new employees the time to reflect on their 'best selves' so that they can bring those out at work. The main challenge ... is for organizations to do both rather than focusing only on stressing the organizational culture."

"I think the good news is ... it can be pretty easy and inexpensive to make some changes," Allen says. "The one caution that occurred to me is: How much does the work environment support this uniqueness once they're on the job? You could have a negative effect where you set up expectations and they aren't met."

Oehler agrees, saying that companies are at highest risk when the "honeymoon period" ends. That is more apt to occur when the newcomer doesn't mesh with the rest of the team, he adds.

Wipro was convinced as to the merits of the study. After seeing the results, the company revised its orientation process.

Apr 16, 2013
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