Chris Murchison

Elevate your onboarding for better engagement

October 10, 2019

By: Chris Marcell Murchison

Last year I facilitated a conversation with a group of business executives about onboarding. We began with stories about positive experiences, but as we went around the table something interesting happened. Negative examples quickly surfaced, and with surprising energy. Our negative experiences were far more memorable than the positive ones. Clearly, they had left an indelible mark on each of us.

As a CEO in our group remarked, “We spend so much energy recruiting talent, why don’t we make the same investment in their onboarding?”

Sink or swim?

After the thrill of being offered the job, new employees are often dropped into their roles with immediate deliverables and pressure to produce. This plunge can be a thrilling challenge and dopamine rush for some, but many find it stressful. In fact, the anxiety can drive 17% of new hires to leave their jobs within 3 months of their start date, citing non-existent or insufficient onboarding as the top reason. The fiscal impact of such early attrition is significant; between 100% and 300% of the employee’s salary which is quite a poor return on investment.

The human cost of poor onboarding is also significant. Low confidence, impostor syndrome, and a lack of belonging are common consequences, resulting in decreased productivity, creativity, and commitment.

In spite of all this evidence, almost a quarter of companies don’t have a formal onboarding program!

A better beginning

A well-planned onboarding experience brings out the best in new hires, reinforces an organization’s purpose and values, and enacts important cultural practices and rituals. A win, win, win!

Research shows that thoughtful onboarding programs have a proven ROI:

  • New employees who go through a structured onboarding program are 58% more likely to be with the organization after three years.
  • Organizations with a standard onboarding process experience 50% greater new hire retention.
  • Organizations with a standard onboarding process experience 50% greater new hire productivity and employees whose companies have longer onboarding programs gain full proficiency 34% faster than those in the shortest programs.
  • Manager satisfaction increases by 20% when their direct reports have formal onboarding training.
What to do?

Rapid growth, busyness, and lack of funding are poor excuses for not paying attention to this important moment. What can organizations do right now to elevate their onboarding practices? Re-think the purpose and meaning of onboarding and experiment with some new approaches to transform the experience.

1. Remember, there is only one first day.

A colleague once shared a story of a Vice President courted and eventually lured from a competitor. It was a clear win for this organization. However, when she showed up on her first day she was taken to her new office where she sat for several hours. Her manager was traveling, and her new colleagues were not even aware of her arrival. It was a bad beginning and did not get much better. She left after only three months on the job. After winning her, the organization quickly lost her, and this could have easily been avoided.

There is only one first day – make it matter.

There is only one first day, first week, and first month for a new employee. The experience of these moments sets the tone of your relationship. Make them matter.

Try this. Be an exceptional host and make the first day a positively memorable one. Within the first few weeks, ask new employees how the expectations they had match up against their lived experience in the organization. Where there is mis-alignment leverage that as an opportunity to rethink your onboarding strategy.

2. Emphasize people and performance over paperwork.

Every onboarding process requires some paperwork. However, during a recent onboarding experience, I was buried in so many demands and documents that my enthusiasm fell under the weight of it all. The process was soul sucking – burdensome, unnecessarily urgent, full of legalese, and communicated in a cold manner.

New hire paperwork doesn’t have to induce such horror! There is latent beauty and elegance in the way documents are formatted, presented, and experienced.

Try this. Redesign onboarding paperwork from the perspective of the new hire. Design to delight rather than defaulting to impersonal and administrative boxes to check. Brand the process, make it intuitive and easy to navigate, and even fun to complete.

3. Tailor onboarding to the individual.

Onboarding should not be “one-size-fits-all.” New employee’s needs will vary based on the level and type of new role.

Individuals also vary in how they learn, how they manage transitions, and how they enter into new environments. What works for one person might be totally ineffective for another. A common misalignment here is between introverted and extraverted employees. An extraverted manager might blindly craft an onboarding experience that they would prefer, which will completely overwhelm a more introverted colleague.

Try this. Before a new hire begins ask them how they prefer to learn and what support they need to successfully transition into their new role and your organization. Then customize their schedule to support those needs and amplify their success.

4. Focus more on the employee, than the organization.

The default assumption for most onboarding programs is that they must orient new hires to the organization’s identity, its mission and values, history, structure and strategy, and more. Leaders and department heads are marched in and new hires presented to, sometimes for hours on end. While these presentations can be beautifully crafted, they are often a one-way communication.

Use onboarding to focus on the employee, more than the organization.

Research conducted in India with an organization called WyPro turns this assumption on its head. The study showed that when a new hire’s identity is emphasized over the organization’s, employee engagement and retention increased by 250%.

Try this. Identify a place in your onboarding process where you can elevate the new hire’s experience and help them reflect on this career transition. What excites them about this new opportunity? What challenges do they anticipate? What do they hope to learn and contribute? Who do they want to become? This could be achieved through an assessment tool, reflective exercises, generative conversations with their new manager or an assigned buddy or mentor, and more.

5. Leverage connection; build belonging.

Set your new hires up for success by meaningfully connecting them to their manager, their new team, an assigned buddy or mentor, and others they will work with throughout the organization. These connections should be made immediately, particularly with the new employee’s manager. If the manager cannot be on-site, delay the start date! This relationship is so crucial that you should not proceed without this important connection.

Try this. Introduce new hires to colleagues who might share similar hobbies or backgrounds, people that might become new friends. Doing this welcomes the whole person to your organization and supports engagement and belonging.

6. Catalyze individual and organizational learning.

Transitions between jobs are big deals, and these moments are huge opportunities for dynamic learning. At the start of a new career chapter, we’re often most open for reflection and learning. Capitalize on this by creating space in onboarding to help new hires articulate what they bring to the organization and what they hope to learn. Incorporate this into development planning and manager support.

New hires bring a beginner’s mind to your existing procedures, practices, systems, and culture. Mine their early observations to improve organization learning and effectiveness.

Try this. Check-in with new hires at the end of 30 days. Ask what they are learning and what would support their continued learning? Ask for their feedback on the organization culture and the systems and process they’ve encountered. Organize and feed these reflections to management for process improvement.

7. View onboarding as an organization ritual.

How can your onboarding be legendary – the kind of experience that becomes a part of your organization’s oral history? Rituals can achieve this.

Onboarding is a living artifact.

Onboarding is a living artifact that you can positively influence. Infusing onboarding with thoughtful and creative rituals will elevate it from a check-list to a deeply meaningful experience that reverberates throughout your organization; amplifying and strengthening your values and culture.

Try this. Ask yourself what experience you want employees to carry with them into your organization that would positively steward your culture. Create routines that will deliver this experience.

Onboarding Pays Off

We all deserve better beginnings. My former boss, Pat Christen, once said, “We give disproportionate weight to what happens to us at the start of relationships. If you pay a lot of attention to those early days of engagement, you get a lot of leverage and mileage out of the way people end up feeling about themselves and about the environment they’re working in…” I could not agree more.

Your onboarding practice is a microcosm of your organization’s culture. How you treat those entering your organization signals what is important. Are you sending the signals you want? Pay attention to your beginnings and they will pay back in spades.

The blog was originally published on LinkedIn