The Perfect Introduction: Getting Onboarding Right

No matter how much you love your new hire, he'll sour on you and struggle to produce if he's not welcomed aboard effectively. Follow these tips to stay happy together

Written by Annette Bourdeau

Imagine Debra Horsfield’s shock when one of her former employers, after spending seven months wooing her away from a rival, killed the romance completely as soon as she came on board. “The manager wasn’t even there the first week,” Horsfield recalls, still incredulous. “I had no office and no computer.”

It was especially jarring for Horsfield, an HR professional, to see this employer make all the mistakes she warns her own clients against. Without a proper onboarding plan, you can lose what made your firm appealing to a new hire, says Horsfield, who’s now a Toronto-based senior consultant at HR consultancy Towers Watson. “You want to make sure the honeymoon lasts.”

Although it’s hard to grasp why companies would devote a lot of time and money to courting a new hire only to drop the ball once the new employee starts, Horsfield’s horror story is not uncommon. “My experience with onboarding [at other firms] has been €˜Here’s a desk—we hope your phone works,'” says Janet Logan, vice-president of client solutions at Fusion Learning Inc., a Toronto-based sales training firm that has a thorough onboarding program. “You feel alone and left out.”

Contrast this with the big send-off that many firms give to departing staff. “It amazes me how much time and resources some companies spend throwing going-away parties for employees who resign or retire,” says Sharlyn Lauby, president of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based HR firm ITM Group Inc. “Then they do so little for the person who is coming to work for them. A good onboarding program should let an employee know the company is thrilled to have them and will make sure they have the tools to be successful.”

Failing to help new employees feel at home in your firm and get up to speed can be costly. Don’t assume that alienated new hires will simply stick it out. “People will only beat their heads against the wall for so long,” says Lauby.

A study by The Wynhurst Group LLC, an Arlington, Va.-based HR consultancy, shows how quickly things can go sour, concluding that 22% of all staff turnover occurs within the first 45 days of employment. The same study shows what a difference a structured onboarding program can make: new hires who participated in such a program were 58% more likely to remain with the employer after three years.

So why do many businesses blow it? “A lot of companies assume €˜We’ve made a great hire; they’re going to do great,'” says Gayle Hadfield, principal at Vancouver-based HR consultancy Hadfield HR.

But all new employees need help in finding their way in the unfamiliar environment of your company. “Even the best, smartest, rock-star talent needs time to become 100% productive,” warns Lauby.

Here’s how to avoid watching all the time and effort you have spent on recruiting walk out the door:

Give new hires the view from the top: Even a brief overview of your company’s key objectives will go a long way toward helping newbies figure out how they fit into the big picture. Hadfield likens putting new hires into a room with the CEO to “hearing the direction from the captain of the ship.”

Rick Endrulat, president of Virtual Causeway Inc., a Waterloo, Ont.-based sales consultancy, sets aside time to talk with new employees about his firm’s history, strategy, long-term goals and how each hire’s role affects the overall organization: “It gets them engaged with the company.”

Connect new employees to each other: Birchwood Automotive Group has achieved an annual staff turnover rate of 30%, well below the 100% that Richard Neill, the firm’s vice-president of HR, says is typical of auto sales floors. One element in the Winnipeg-based auto retail network’s onboarding plan is to group new employees together for their initial session to learn about employee benefits. This gives them a chance to meet other newbies and connect with people in other departments.

And, says Towers Watson’s Horsfield, one of her clients encourages new staff to network by introducing them to each other and holding quarterly lunches for recent hires.

Assign buddies to newbies: Cynthia Sundberg, vice-president of corporate development at Virtual Causeway, has launched an informal mentorship program that pairs new employees with a sensei, often a team leader, who can show them the ropes and help them navigate the company culture. The pairing lasts as long as each person remains with the company, although the new hire is usually self-sufficient after three months. “They can ask the sensei questions that they’re too embarrassed to ask their manager,” says Sundberg, such as about the dress code and where to get lunch nearby, as well as more substantive matters such as how the company runs.

Set clear expectations: “In the first week, we talk about the performance-review process so new employees know early on how we measure success,” says Sundberg.

At Fusion, Logan even clarifies expectations for the onboarding process itself by setting monthly goals with new hires for their first three months to ensure they understand how everything works: “People want to contribute fast, but you have to have a period of time when your goal is learning. I always say, €˜Walk before you run.'”

Break learning into bite-sized bits: “Overwhelming new hires with information doesn’t help them retain it,” says Lauby. “Spread out information and training so employees get what they need when they need it.”

Logan has created a detailed onboarding spreadsheet that clarifies when a new hire should learn what. She has split her list of 200 onboarding-related tasks into groups and spelled out what to cover the first day, first week, second week, at the end of the first month and so on.

Give newbies the tools they need to find their own way: Once a manager at Fusion has tailored the firm’s onboarding spreadsheet for a new hire, the manager hands it over to the newbie to work through at his own pace. “It provides really clear guidelines,” says Logan. “The document becomes their compass.”

Gather feedback to improve your onboarding: Birchwood holds lunches for recent hires on their 90th day with the firm to see if they’re still excited about the company and how well they’re acclimating, and to thank them for working for Birchwood. Neill asks the 90-day veterans if they’re having issues with any business tools or processes. At one lunch, he learned that not all new hires were being exposed right away to the firm’s intranet, so he edited the orientation booklet in order to clarify the log-in information. “Sometimes those little details fall through the cracks,” says Neill.

ITM Group’s Lauby recommends asking, “What do you wish you would have known when you were hired?” at the 90-day point. “Companies should put a mechanism in place to gather information directly from employees about their new-hire experience.”

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com