Get onboarding right

03 June, 2019

Help new hires adapt quickly and perform better with an effective onboarding system

Recently, I was checking with some people about their first day at work. For most of them, their first day was relatively lack lustre. Lots of forms to be filled. Pages and pages of materials to read. And in one instance, their reporting manager had forgotten about the person’s start date and was out of town. I am sure that many of you would have similar stories.

We all know the importance of “first impressions”. Effective onboarding (or the lack thereof) plays a pivotal role here. Research shows that organisations with a systematic onboarding process enjoy 50 percent greater retention and 62 percent higher productivity among new hires. Employees are brought up to speed 50 percent faster, which means they start achieving their goals that much sooner. Not surprisingly, by increasing engagement and performance, thoughtful onboarding also creates happier, more loyal team members.

So, this week, my message focuses on how we can improve our onboarding process? In what ways can we accelerate integration to boost productivity and retention?

The administrative side of onboarding includes paperwork, compliance training, tech support and office orientation. Like many companies, we do this well. The trickier, longer-term aspect of onboarding involves integrating newcomers into their role, their team and the organisational culture – which typically takes between 6-12 months. In their Harvard Business Review piece, Onboarding Isn’t Enough, Mark Byford, Michael Watkins and Lena Triantogiannis highlight the importance of this process:

According to a global survey of 588 senior executives who had recently transitioned into new roles, organizational culture and politics, not lack of competence or managerial skill, were the primary reasons for failure. Almost 70% of respondents pointed to a lack of understanding about norms and practices-and poor cultural fit was close behind. When asked what would reduce failure rates, they emphasized constructive feedback and help with navigating internal networks and gaining insight into organizational and team dynamics.

Of course, onboarding challenges aren’t limited to external hires. Internal hires from different units or geographies also face similar problems. Even within the same company’s culture, there are distinct sub-groups – switching between these can be difficult. As for who should take the lead, managers are best placed to drive onboarding. Not only do they have the fullest understanding of their new team member’s goals and requirements, but also the greatest stake in their success.

Here are six recommendations on how you can ensure more effective onboarding:

1. Value learning over doing 

In 7 Ways to Set Up a New Hire for Success, Michael Watkins notes that onboarding is one of the toughest job transitions. Even an experienced professional doesn’t really “get” how things operate at their new workplace:

New employees have to learn a lot and may be feeling quite vulnerable, even when they seem outwardly confident. Some might respond by playing it safe and sticking too much to what they already know; others may overcompensate, behaving like they have “the answer,” rather than asking questions and figuring out how to add value.

New employees have to learn a lot and may be feeling quite vulnerable, even when they seem outwardly confident. That’s even more likely to be the case when people have relocated for their jobs, so also face change in their personal lives, or if they’re moving up a seniority level, so must adjust to a new managerial role. 

Some might respond by playing it safe and sticking too much to what they already know; others may overcompensate, behaving like they have “the answer,” rather than asking questions and figuring out how to add value. 

So, be proactive and empathise. To curb these counterproductive behaviours, reassure your new team members that you understand the challenges that come with transition. Explain that they aren’t expected to start delivering right off the bat; the initial phase is meant for learning the ropes and absorbing company culture.

2. Make them part of the team

Some managers believe that newcomers will automatically be integrated into the team: “They’re all adults, they’ll figure it out!” But the problem is, they don’t always figure it out. An existing team can take on clique-ish behaviour around an “outsider”, while confusion around the new employee’s role could cause bad blood and power plays. Things like these could prevent the newcomer from doing their job properly, and they often end up leaving.

As a manager, you must make formal introductions, explaining why the person has been hired and what their precise role will be. Create an environment of support by making it clear that you expect the entire team to get the new member up to speed. Helping forge strong relationships with colleagues is integral to effective integration.

3. Teach language and culture

In the Harvard Business Review article, To Retain New Hires, Spend More Time Onboarding Them, Ron Carucci explains that organisational induction needs to go deeper than functional aspects like ID cards and office layout:

It’s also important to teach them your workplace “language.” There’s almost always a litany of cryptic acronyms that company’s use for key processes or roles – decoding them can be one of the most distressing challenges for new hires. The more a new hire has to awkwardly ask, “Sorry, I’m new…what does SSRP stand for?” the more they feel like an outsider. Simple tools, like glossaries of terms, go a long way.

Carucci also recommends scheduling conversations at key intervals (3 months, 6 months, and so on) in which you communicate the company’s journey, values and culture. Plus, you could create opportunities for the newcomer to interact with people who are known for their values-driven behaviour – this helps to bring alive the company culture, beyond jargon and buzzwords.

4. Set clear expectations

Even if the job was discussed at the recruitment stage, you must provide clear guidance once the new hire actually joins the team. What are their goals, and what strategies should they use to achieve them? How will success be measured? How is their work connected to the overall vision of the company? What are their decision-making rights and boundaries? Once you’ve defined what “good” looks like, weekly check-ins can help to keep things on track and address any obstacles that pop up.

5. Set up quick wins

It may surprise you to know that 60 percent of companies fail to set short-term goals for new hires. This is a big mistake, given that a lack of early success can damage confidence and leave the newcomer floundering. It also increases defensive behaviours such as constantly talking about old accomplishments (“In my last job, I…”), which can be very off-putting for the rest of the team.

So, sit down and identify some quick wins they can score to make an impact and start building credibility. Set tasks at 3, 6 and 9 month intervals – the first year of employment is the most vulnerable period. This process will also give you a clearer sense of the individual’s capabilities and skill gaps.

6. Leverage digital

In Technology Can Save Onboarding from Itself, Keith Ferrazzi highlights the potential benefits of employing digital interventions during onboarding. Such tools make it easy for managers to keep track of the various steps in the process, as well as to collect data on critical indicators such as engagement and ramp to productivity. Along with being a timesaver for managers, digital onboarding offers other advantages as well:

These platforms are also helping to assure managers and HR alike that new hires are hitting all the necessary benchmarks, while providing a much more consistent onboarding experience – especially for teams working in remote locations. It also helps to increase transparency, while streamlining communication between managers and new employees.

Along with onboarding-specific tools, think about getting more creative with social media. For example, could it be helpful to have a group for new hires to connect with existing team members right after they accept the job offer? This would allow them to get a head start on creating a support network even before their start date.

I’m sure that many of you have experienced the challenges of onboarding, either as managers or as newcomers. Do share your thoughts on what we could do to create a more effective system overall.


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