A strategic onboarding process can help engage employees during their first weeks on the job.
By Stacey Kervin
The U.S. unemployment rate has been hovering around four percent for more than a year now. While this is great news for the economy and for the American workforce, it has created a unique challenge for HR and talent acquisition professionals.
Whether paid hourly or salary, a leadership position or frontline job, it’s more difficult to recruit and hire than it has been in more than a decade. In fact, a 2019 study by Kronos Incorporated and The Human Capital Institute (HCI) found more than half of all organizations (53 percent) are planning to make “major changes” to their talent acquisition strategies to address continued increases in time to hire and cost per hire created by the tight job market.
While organizations are evaluating their recruiting strategies, they should also reconsider their approach to onboarding new employees, which can properly set the stage for long-term success.
“Organizations make significant investments to source and recruit the best candidates, but often leave these same individuals to find their own way around the organization once they start,” says Jenna N. Filipkowski, Ph.D., head of research at HCI. “New hires do so much more than just fill an open headcount. They bring an enthusiasm and desire to be successful which can reinvigorate entire teams. Organizations that capture this excitement can propel their whole workforce forward.”
Onboarding Versus Orientation
Kronos and HCI’s 2018 study New Hire Momentum: Driving the Onboarding Experience finds that 76 percent of HR leaders agree that onboarding practices are underutilized at their organization. Digging deeper, 60 percent believe the primary goal of an onboarding program should be to integrate employees into the organization’s culture. However, culture makes up less than 30 percent of most onboarding activities. “Orientation and training are not the same as onboarding, yet many organizations often treat them interchangeably,” says Filipkowski. “Orientation is about completing paperwork and learning where the breakroom is. Onboarding is bigger, more powerful. It’s about learning the values of the organization, building key relationships with teammates and stakeholders, and understanding goals and expectations so they are positioned to make meaningful contributions right away.”
According to the study, onboarding programs are simply too short. About a third of organizations (37 percent) reported onboarding lasts a few hours to one week, while just 10 percent treat it as a year-long activity.
HR teams still mired in paper-based processes will have the most difficulty implementing an effective onboarding program because they’ll often need new hires to complete important paperwork during their first hours or days on the job. This means the new hire won’t be in the system, may not have access to vital resources like a laptop or email, and will spend more time completing tax documents and handbook waivers instead of getting to know their team. Modern onboarding solutions streamline this process, often handling these activities digitally—and securely—before the new hire’s first day at the office.
It Takes a Village
A common onboarding challenge is time. While some new hires may find themselves with little to do in their first few weeks, the hiring manager is almost always overwhelmed, with little time to properly support their newest team member. In fact, 57 percent of study participants say people managers simply lack the bandwidth to execute a proper onboarding program.
“Successful onboarding programs should be a cross-functional effort,” says Sharlyn Lauby, president of ITM Group and more commonly known as the HR Bartender for her popular blog by the same name. “HR should empower people managers with a systematic process, checklists, and best practices. But it really takes a village to properly onboard a new hire. Assign a new hire buddy, lean on internal stakeholders who the new hire will interact with regularly, and don’t be afraid to allow new hires to drive some activities themselves.”
For this approach to be successful, HR should establish and clearly communicate an onboarding strategy for the entire organization that details the roles and expectations for everyone who may be involved, including what HR will handle, what’s expected of managers, and what pieces other functions will own.
Perhaps one of the most surprising findings from the New Hire Momentum onboarding study was that 55 percent of organizations say they simply don’t measure the effectiveness of their program, regardless of its level of maturity or sophistication.
More HR organizations are shifting to data-driven decision making as they get a bigger seat at the proverbial table to demonstrate the value they deliver to the business. While they may be measuring talent acquisition metrics (like cost per hire and time to hire) and engagement metrics, they are creating a black hole by failing to measure onboarding effectiveness, which in turn can make it difficult to identify and solve new hire turnover in the first 45, 90, and 365 days on the job.
“First-year turnover is a frustrating problem for any organization, especially when it is so competitive to hire the right people with the right skills into your organization,” says Deb Wolfsen, human resources manager for EPS Security, a Michigan-based commercial and residential security agency. “It takes time to hire and it takes resources to train and develop employees. Having the right technology in place has made it easier for me to track the relationship between our programs to reduce turnover.”
Measuring and reporting workforce trends with fact-based evidence also makes it easier to implement changes that will make a difference, says Wolfsen. “We are working on finding out exactly how much it costs to hire and train a new employee, and when an employee leaves, we’ll never get that investment back unless they eventually boomerang back to work with us again,” says Wolfsen. “By combining the cost of hiring and training with our turnover metrics, it helps us make a pretty compelling case to our leadership for why modest investments will yield significant returns. Having that data creates such a powerful case.”
Wolfsen says this data-driven focus to implementing and course-correcting programs has decreased first-year turnover by approximately 28 percent.
Keys to Success
Ideally, onboarding should provide new and internally transitioning employees with an organization’s values and mission, clarify the tasks and responsibilities of their roles, and determine the systems, tools, and resources available to them.
Technology can help ease the burden of onboarding on managers and self-service portals can empower new hires to find information on organizational norms, benefits, paystubs, and policies. But small steps that require little to no budget—like clarifying roles and objectives, creating a cross-functional team, and establishing a consistent, repeatable program for hiring managers—can also unlock significant gains.
“Successful onboarding programs provide new hires with the keys to success,” says Lauby. “They reduce turnover, shorten time to proficiency, and increase productivity and employee engagement.”
As organizations look to implement a more candidate-centric recruiting process and continue to emphasize an employee-centric experience, effective onboarding should be a vital program to help employees grow from new hire to high performer.
Stacey Kervin is a senior manager in the human capital management practice group at Kronos Incorporated.