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Onboarding: New Considerations for Senior Leadership

Why is onboarding important? If for no other reason, it’s because corporations do it more frequently than ever.

August 1, 2007
Related Topics: Technology, Performance Management

Why is onboarding important? If for no other reason, it’s because corporations do it more frequently than ever.

The statistics speak for themselves — according to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 25 percent of the U.S. workforce has been at the same company for less than one year. Younger workers today will change jobs an average of 10 times before they turn 40. Recruiting consultancy Spherion reports 45 percent of all workers want to change jobs every three to five years.

Mergers and acquisitions also drive the need to bring aboard many individuals within a fairly small window. Achieving a Day 1 integrated workforce requires intensive planning and execution on multiple levels, including culture, training and human capital governance.

This is especially true in that, according to Mellon Financial Corp., the average time to full productivity is eight weeks for clerical jobs, 20 weeks for professionals and 26 weeks for executives.

Also consider the consequences of failed onboarding. The Labor Department has found employees are most vulnerable to leaving an organization for 18 months after they are hired. At the very least, failed onboarding means losing the direct costs of recruitment, which (according to and the Bureau of National Affairs) range from about 5 percent to more than 21 percent of annual compensation.

The Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates the total cost of employee turnover at 150 percent of salary, including tangible costs such as hiring, as well as intangible costs such as the ramp-up time and lost productivity while the job is vacant.

Onboarding must be a key human capital priority, not just for the human resources function but for senior leadership. Indeed, today’s senior leaders must play the role of onboarding sponsors and be prepared to set strategy and direction for successful programs. This includes providing both financial resources and their own personal attention.

Some of the emerging onboarding issues with which senior leaders must be engaged are:

• Promoting the organization’s values.

• Assisting new employees in developing their internal networks.

• Addressing the unique aspects of onboarding globally.

• Linking to formal and informal training programs.

Promoting the Values

Senior leaders have both the privilege and responsibility of the “bully pulpit” from which to tell new employees, “This is what it really means to be a part of this organization.” The onboarding process provides a unique opportunity, not only to communicate the vision of the organization but to match the words with actions that reinforce the company’s values.

For example, consider a corporation that is focused on innovation to drive its top-line results. To bring this to life, a senior executive might sponsor a brainstorming session as part of the onboarding process, bringing together new hires with longtime employees and outside experts to address a specific innovation challenge. Including representatives of multiple disciplines might stimulate even more fruitful discussion while introducing new employees to their colleagues across the organization.

By the same token, risk aversion is all too common a norm in many organizational cultures (and a major roadblock to innovation). This is often particularly true with new employees who are still trying to navigate their way and make good first impressions. Leaders can provide valuable examples of successful risk taking as part of the onboarding process, and they should be sure to reward both new and seasoned employees for their contributions.

Building Networks for Success

One reason many new employees give for leaving an organization is that they failed to establish relationships with co-workers and partners. This is not only a loss for the employee but for the company, as well, because new workers can bring new life and connections into existing networks.

Indeed, new employees who are able to establish social networks and are encouraged to bring in ideas and relationships from the outside tend to perform higher than average and have a greater degree of job satisfaction.

Unfortunately, some corporate cultures, at least implicitly, encourage employees to go at it alone — the onboarding mantra might as well be “sink or swim.”

This is particularly ironic, given that numerous studies of social networks and business performance indicate going it alone might not be the best strategy for optimal performance. For example, in a study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, researchers Keith Rollag, Salvatore Parise and Rob Cross highlight the importance of creating opportunities for individuals to build their personal networks as part of their initial assignments.

This focus on network development enables new employees to build the support systems that are critical to gain access to information, develop a sense of trust when addressing sensitive issues and build a common context and corporate vocabulary.

Addressing the Unique Aspects of Global Onboarding

A new employee might say joining an organization is like learning a new language, and when companies recruit many employees from outside their traditional operating environment, this statement might need to be taken literally. To be successful, a global onboarding program must address the unique cultural differences among regions, including local- language support and bandwidth considerations for distance learning. Often, companies find themselves without the proper space, equipment and personnel to effectively bring new hires up to speed rapidly. This is especially true for companies that expand into locations within emerging economies, where they are often hiring significant numbers of new employees with a short time horizon.

Further complicating matters, many of these employees might have limited experience in an international corporate setting, making a successful onboarding experience even more critical.

Technology can begin to mitigate some of the challenges in assimilating employees who are far from headquarters. Some organizations are creating simulated projects in virtual worlds such as Second Life, in which new hires can solve problems as part of a global team without the risk associated with a real-world project. Second Life also can be used to bring together retired employees who can share their knowledge and experience with newcomers without the constraints of geography and time zones.

Linking to Learning

Successful companies recognize an important part of onboarding is enabling individuals to find the resources they need to be effective in their new positions. Recognizing individuals can digest only a certain amount of information before beginning their jobs, a successful onboarding program provides guidance not only on what to do but where to get information, advice and counsel on how to be successful in a new role.

For one technology company, the need to rethink its onboarding paradigm occurred when the need arose to train several thousand new salespeople in a short time. The company recognized that a significant amount of on-the-job knowledge was required to sell effectively, so it set out to develop a learning experience that not only leveraged coursework but also incorporated mentoring, collaboration and knowledge management.

Therefore, it designed a program that not only allowed employees to tailor their learning experience to their particular needs (i.e., experienced outsiders versus university hires) but also tap into the knowledge and experience of others within the company.

This experience was built on a series of activities known as the PARR process, in which sales professionals were asked to:

• Prepare to address a particular skill (through both learning modules and actual content on the intranet).

• Act through an actual selling scenario.

• Reflect on how they performed their activity.

• Review their performance with a designated manager, mentor or colleague.

As a result of using this process, the new sales professionals were able to customize the learning they needed, apply the tools they would use during their day-to-day jobs and tap into coaching resources for feedback.

Through the convergence of a range of demographic, socioeconomic, technical and other factors, organizations must adjust to the increased pace and volume of onboarding. Senior management must embrace this, not simply as a human capital function but as a business performance opportunity.

New employees can invigorate a corporate culture, enrich all-important social networks and stimulate innovation and smart risk taking. Ensuring they have the knowledge, relationships and support to make these contributions should be key objectives of onboarding, as well as  a human capital priority for senior leadership.

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