In my parents’ day, kids learned how to swim by being thrown in the deep end. A violent thrashing that resembled treading water, a dog-paddle to the side and, along with a bit of sputtering, confidence grew that you could conquer the pool.
Today, infants and toddlers get comfortable in water before they are toilet trained. Kids routinely learn aquatic skills and stroke fundamentals before they learn to read. It seems like we’ve come a long way.
Then I consider how so many companies handle the onboarding of new employees. They might as well throw them into the deep end! The surprise is that so many companies just expect qualified people who have succeeded in the past to succeed this time. “They’re senior, they don’t need the help, right?” Ugh!
I thought I would pass on some observations on why so many onboarding programs suck, and steps that can be taken to make them great.
When does it happen?
KornFerry research showed that an overwhelming majority (74%) of companies see onboarding as a key factor in employee retention. Even more companies (83%) have onboarding programs in place. Yet most companies’ onboarding programs last for one week or shorter, and almost ¾ of companies have onboarding programs of a month or shorter.
Beyond the limited duration of most onboarding efforts, there is some variation on when they are conducted. Small companies might begin to onboard individual employees on their first day. Medium and large companies might have regularly scheduled onboarding programs, allowing HR managers to group employees together for efficient processes. The problem here is that new employees might have to wait some time before getting the benefits of an onboarding effort.
I submit that the best time to start onboarding is before an employee starts the job. There is no reason why materials can’t be given to people when they accept an employment offer but before they start work. This doesn’t eliminate the need for a Day 1 program. But giving pre-employment homework makes employees better informed when they walk in the door, and it creates a more meaningful on-site orientation.
And I’d suggest that onboarding extends beyond a week. In fact, it extends beyond the 90-day period often discussed in literature. People are often still referring to their former places of employment as “we” after 90 days. People often don’t see the most significant problems they have to deal with until month 6 or 8.
What gets covered?
Gloria Sims of Insperity pointed out that onboarding often gets confused with orientation. If your onboarding lasts for only one day, as KornFerry reported among 23% of companies, you are conducting a new employee orientation. This will tick off the boxes:
In essence, the one-day program gives an employee the equivalent of an organizational GED. Onboarding should provide greater depth through a series of events that show people how to be successful in their jobs and how their contribution fits into the bigger organizational picture.
For many junior or mid-level positions in a company, roles and responsibilities are well defined, and processes are documented. This should be covered in the earliest parts of onboarding.
More senior positions are often characterized by their ability to manage ambiguity and to define their own role. Perhaps it’s too much to ask, but is it possible for an executive to document what they do, keeping a journal or diary of their onboarding process? Here are two obvious benefits:
Who gets it? Who conducts it?
Among companies that offer onboarding programs, over 80% provide them for everybody. That is appropriate. Each new employee needs help making it from the middle of the pool to the side. The problem is that overtaxed HR departments adopt a “one size fits all” approach, often delivering it in a classroom setting. Two problems here… one size does not fit all and HR departments shouldn’t carry so much of the burden that good work gets short-changed.
The need for onboarding is not limited to people who have just joined your company. That is what an orientation is for. When your existing employees find themselves in a new role, what process do you provide them to help them succeed?
Proper onboarding requires an individualized approach, because what it takes for an IT manager to be successful is pretty different from the success criteria for a Sales Vice President. For onboarding to work well, a portfolio of stakeholders must participate. It cannot be the sole responsibility of an HR function. The new hire’s supervisor gets involved in helping to set expectations and to provide frequent feedback. Direct reports can participate in a new manager initiation program, where they voice what they want to know about the new boss and what they need from them. And colleagues can provide perspective of how collaboration will happen.
Most of onboarding can self-guided, but the new hire needs a road map. Even if you think a senior hire can figure things out on their own, you have to admit that it is not an efficient way to bring them up to speed.
Where to go with questions?
One of the critical parts to successful onboarding is providing the new employee with a mentor, somebody who either is a peer with relevant experience or who has senior ranking and can provide perspective on the culture, people and politics.
The value of a mentor is dramatic. Sun Microsystems found that employees with mentors had 72% higher retention rates (a side benefit is that the mentors’ retention rate was 69% higher than employees who were not part of the program.) So, if you are wondering why your investment in onboarding doesn’t seem to pay off, the lack of mentoring is a likely culprit.
The mentor might take the new hire out to lunch early in his tenure or facilitate their introduction to other people in the organization. Regularly scheduled meetings should be arranged, at least monthly. And the mentee should have an open invitation to reach out to the mentor when questions or concerns pop up. Relationships between mentor and mentee are open-ended. They don’t stop once the new employee is comfortable in their role. They potentially last for years.
Organizations with formalized programs that offer training for mentors, that establish objectives up front and that monitor when meetings occur are at the head of the class. Other companies just do match-making between mentor and mentee, and they leave the pair to their own devices. Informal mentoring can result in employee satisfactions scores on a par with formal programs, while outscoring satisfaction levels of employees with no mentors (Chao and Gardner, 1992). A large advantage of formal programs is the level of commitment that both parties bring to the relationship. It is harder to break an appointment if you are reporting on your meetings together.
Mentors are a critical part of learning the unwritten rules of the organization. This acculturation is at the heart of successful onboarding. There is enormous value gained by being coached on who can help, who won’t help and how to get things done.
A mentor’s institutional knowledge is important. But the traditional mentoring relationship often is quite personal. It succeeds when both parties can make themselves vulnerable. This vulnerability might be impractical for a senior mentee working with a peer or with their boss, the CEO. But there are alternative paths.
The new hire in a senior position might try reverse mentoring, where the mentor is somebody junior in the organization. The goal of this relationship can be for the new executive to learn about the culture, to learn about some specific aspects of the company or the market served that comes from a junior employee’s expertise. As with peers, there might be limits to the psycho-social relationship with reverse mentoring. But often the benefit goes beyond simply socialization into the company.
Finally, the new senior employee might avail themselves an external mentor. The mentor may have retired from the company and gives back by passing along their knowledge of the company to new leadership. More often, the mentor has no background with the company. Their experience in similar roles is valuable, and their distance from the company provides perspective and assurance of confidentiality. Using a portfolio of mentors, an internal reverse mentor coupled with an external mentor, can be the best of both worlds.
If retention is an issue, it's likely that your onboarding sucks. Consider when you start onboarding new employees, how long the process goes on, how personalized it is and where the new employee can go for help. Easy fixes can have a major impact on your employees' smooth integration.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.