Bringing Them Onboard

Too often, employers ignore the importance of onboarding and orientation programs, focusing on technical information such as benefits when it's more important to focus on culture and mission. It's a critical, but often overlooked, link to productivity and retention, experts say.

Monday, April 9, 2012
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Some employees recall their first days at a new job with affection, some with condescension. And while most HR leaders would agree that what happens during those first days can make or break the overall employment experience, a recent study suggests that one in three employers lack an orientation program for new hires.

In response to the question posed by Accountemps: "Does your company conduct a formal orientation for new hires?", 34 percent responded, "No."

Surprisingly, the study showed that smaller organizations were more likely to have orientation programs than large organizations (67 percent compared to 52 percent).

Peanut Butter & Co. in New York is one of those smaller organizations.

Lee Zalben, founder and CEO, says he is not surprised by these findings.

"I found that, at the larger companies, it was mostly paperwork and essentially being told what not to do," he says, noting he has worked for both large and small companies before starting his own company, which began as a restaurant and has expanded to include food-product sales to about 15,000 stores in the United States and Canada.

It was the restaurant experience that highlighted the importance of onboarding, Zalben says.

"When someone joins a restaurant they sort of go through an implicit onboarding process where they work with someone very, very closely," he says. "As we grew into a food company in an office setting, all of a sudden I had almost 10 employees who all kind of understood what the company was about and what my expectations were, but we had never really sat down and talked about those things."

A key benefit of onboarding is making expectations explicit, he says.

Since starting a formal onboarding process about two years ago, Zalben says that "people seem to have a clear sense as to what their role in the company is and what their place in the company is and how they can add value."

"I also think people have a better sense of what their co-workers are doing and just a little bit better sense of mission," he says.

One might argue that, during economic downturns -- when hiring is either slowed or non-existent -- companies have little need for orientation programs.

However, that situation is changing, says Josh Warborg, district president at Robert Half International in the Seattle area. (Accountemps is one of Robert Half's professional-staffing divisions.)

"Right now, as the job market is improving and as unemployment rates are going down, I think it's a wake-up call for some of the large organizations that have either cut or overlooked these programs in a more budget-tight environment," he says.

Companies without orientation programs, he says, "often leave a new hire confused and potentially concerned about the company's commitment to their success.

"In an improving job market that is something that is not smart to overlook," Warborg says.

Making the Business Case

Given the high costs of recruitment and training, the business case for orientation should be fairly simple to determine.

"It is very expensive to bring a new hire on," Warborg says. Companies that don't take the time to effectively orient those new hires risk losing them, adding significantly to their recruitment costs.

Lilith Christiansen, vice president of Kaiser Associates Inc. in Washington, and co-author of Successful Onboarding, agrees.

"From our client work as well as research on the topic, we definitely feel like onboarding is a great opportunity for an organization to create more value for the enterprise by investing up-front in the first year of a new hire's entry into the organization," says Christiansen, who recently did a webinar for HRE on the subject.

An effective onboarding program, she says, may not only result in lower overall attrition, but also in the loss of fewer potential key contributors.

Still, despite the ease of pointing to real value in orientation and onboarding, companies may simply not know where to begin.

Successful initiatives must start at the top, says Warborg.

"The CEO or COO of the company needs to take responsibility for overseeing that a program is developed," he says. "In some organizations that might also be the senior human resource professional."

The development of a formalized plan should then drive implementation throughout the organization, he says.

Developing an Onboarding Program

Even in organizations that say they don't have formal orientation or onboarding programs, there are activities taking place, Christiansen says.

"The fact of the matter is that folks are getting onboarded all the time, [it's] just that there is no central organization engineering that experience for the new hires," she says.

The first step in formalizing the process is "conducting a diagnostic and taking stock of what they have in place today," she says.

That includes conducting interviews or surveys of new hires over the past year to inquire about their experiences and take stock of what has worked well and what areas of opportunity for improvement may exist, Christiansen says.

"Cut the data to look at things like geography, specific business units, attrition rates and tenure," she says.

Then, take the information gathered and use it to develop a business case for senior leadership. That is a critical step, she says, in attaining buy-in from senior leaders.

You have to show how a formal program will impact specific organizational benefits. "It becomes an investment in the organization much more broadly and in a systemic way, rather than just being seen as a talent program," she says.

The next step is to establish a roadmap that identifies the key program areas and an implementation plan to move forward. "We recommend that organizations pilot different aspects of the program to test and see how it works," she says.

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Zalben agrees. "The most important thing is to just start. Start small and, once you have something, invite others to participate in honing and refining it," he says.

Understanding the Mission

Continual evaluation and modification of onboarding programs is important, says DeLisa Alexander, executive vice president and chief people officer at Red Hat, an open-source software company based in Raleigh, N.C.

A few years ago, Red Hat re-evaluated its onboarding program because there was a feeling it had grown somewhat stale, she says.

"It had begun to get a little bit dry with a lot of focus on benefits, compliance -- things that they needed to know, but that were very boring."

Instead, she says, the onboarding process should be primarily focused on enculturation and understanding the business.

"We stripped out a lot of the information that would be considered drier, more nuts and bolts, and we provide that information now on a USB key that is sent in a nice little package before they start," Alexander says.

Having a clear idea of the purpose not only helps to determine content for onboarding programs and also helps to avoid mission creep, she says, as there will be plenty of requests over time to include additional information within the orientation program.

"We are very clear about what we're trying to achieve so we look at it through the lens of, 'Is this going to enhance the experience we're trying to achieve or detract from it?' If the answer is detract, a different method of delivering the information is considered," she says.

Christiansen recommends a "four pillars" approach to onboarding programs:

* Interpersonal network development -- helping new hires establish relationships with people internal and external to the organization who can help them succeed in their role.

* Culture -- helping new hires get an introduction to the values of the organization.

* Strategy immersion and direction -- providing instructive insight around the broader strategies of the organization and how the employee's role impacts the organization's success.

* Early success -- providing new hires with the right type of assignments, remediation and insulation around the work that they do that helps them gain early successes.

The most effective onboarding programs, she says, have a degree of customization involved so that different populations of new hires may receive different types of onboarding and support, i.e., new college graduates versus executive hires, or workers engaged in sales versus manufacturing.

As the economy begins to show some slow signs of recovery, it is a good time to begin the progress of formalizing what may currently be an informal process. The ability to start employees off on the right foot and ensure they understand the company's culture, mission and how they fit is a critical first step in boosting retention and productivity, experts say.

Red Hat is passionate about the importance of employee orientation and onboarding, Alexander says.

"When a new Red Hatter comes in and goes from the recruiting process to the reality of being part of the team," she says, "it is critical to us that they have an experience that really meets their expectations when joining a company like Red Hat that is mission-based."

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