Company Culture

The Keys to Building an Effective Onboarding Program

By Sarah AlexanderJanuary 30, 2017

When your company grows, it can be difficult to think about anything other than keeping your head above water as you navigate constant change. Similarly, for managers who are already struggling to keep up with a hectic schedule and looming deadlines, making time to orient new hires can be seen as a low priority.

However, according to a study by CareerBuilder, 35% of workers start searching for a job within weeks of starting a new position. Pairing this with another finding from Cornerstone that 17% of employees quit within their first 6 months due to insufficient training, it is reasonable to conclude that many companies are failing to execute an effective onboarding program.

But what are the keys to effective onboarding? We’ve surveyed insights from professionals, expert research, and literature to lay out the key components to building a top-notch onboarding program.

Embrace pre-onboarding

New hires will have many questions before their first day: What should they bring? Where should they park? Who should they ask for in the lobby? Where is the cafeteria? Who should they come to with questions (any ‘buddy’ they should expect)? Reaching out to your new employee and introducing them to a few of the basics before the first day will go a long way to make them comfortable before they step foot in the building.

Warby parker sends an electronic “welcome packet” with the company’s history, values, press clippings, and a list of what to expect in the first day, week, and month on the job. The night before starting, each new hire can expect a call from their supervisor to welcome them and ensure they know when and where to show up the next morning.

There are also many steps that need to be taken within your company to prepare for the new hire. Consider sending out an email to everyone in the office so they know to welcome the new hire. Make sure that someone has set up their computer, arranged for a security badge, configured the new hire’s email accounts and phone system, and printed a set of company business cards. Attending to these details before day one will make your new team member feel more confident from their first moment at the office.

Make it fun. Make it interactive. Make it memorable.

When a new hire goes home, the first question their friends and family are going to ask is, “how was your first day?” The best way to guarantee a positive answer is to make a great, and memorable, first impression.

Consider a welcome gift that is tied to the company’s culture and roots, or an experience authentic to the company’s brand. Cornerstone OnDemand, a talent management software provider, brings all new hires to a three-day orientation at its Santa Monica, California, headquarters. While the program includes traditional activities like meetings with company leaders, new employees also get a chance to get to know each other better by participating in a community service project, which aligns with the company’s values.

Keep the schedule structured

Scheduling new hires’ first week or two ahead of time will save them from ever wondering what’s next. It will also send the message, “trust us, we know what we’re doing.” That’s a good first impression to make. In fact, research by the Wynhurst Group has found that employees in a well-structured onboarding program are 58% more likely to remain at the company after three years.

Make it cross-functional

HR knows compliance; management can speak to performance expectations; peers can share insights about the day-to-day, and IT can teach how to get equipment up and running. Forming a small welcoming team with members from each of these areas will ensure all key topics are covered for new hires and will provide a network to which they can turn for any specific type of questions.

Spread it out

Onboarding doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, a 1-day or even 1-week process. Loading your new-hires with I-9’s, employee handbooks, non-disclosure agreements, payroll forms, and protocols off the bat can overwhelm them. Instead, consider spreading out the process in a way that gives them some individual autonomy to complete it on their own time and in their own way.

L’Oreal offers a 2-year long comprehensive onboarding process, and IBM provides new hires with the 2-year Succeeding@IBM online learning continuum, which provides new hires with information covering corporate values, strategy, tools, and resources required to succeed in the company. On a shorter timescale, Facebook requires 6 weeks at their onboarding “boot camp,” and Zappos offers a 4-week onboarding program for their new hires.

Engage the whole company to address the “why”

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole company to integrate new hires and get them up to speed. Consider scheduling some one-on-one time between new hires and more senior workers in different departments over the course of the first month, or assigning them a list of individuals to make coffee dates/appointments with, to talk about the different roles each team plays within the organization. This will allow your new hires to see how their role fits into the big picture while fostering a sense of cross-functional and interdepartmental collaboration.

Set expectations early and often

According to Allied HR IQ, 60% of companies don’t set any milestones or goals for new hires. This is a problem, vagueness is the enemy of corporations. Setting short- and long-term goals and having managers check in regularly on progress and challenges will set new employees up for success. It will provide a more concrete foundation from which to start the conversation in the formal performance review 2-3 months into their time at the company.

Welcome feedback

Research by 15Five has found that 81% of employees would rather join a company that values open communication over one that lacks communication and offers perks like great health insurance, free food, or gym memberships.

Initiate this communication from the start by asking for feedback about the onboarding process and why new hires left their previous company in order to gain insight into the factors they value. Then, develop a set of standardized metrics so that you can assess individuals’ progress, examine how your onboarding process is being received, and where you can make improvements.

Communicate the culture early and often

According to Forbes, 89% of hiring failures are due to poor cultural fits. The key is to not hire workers who do not align with your company’s mission and values, so it is critical to present an honest view of your company culture off the bat. This way new hires can confirm it’s a good match before both sides spend time and resources on the onboarding process.

One software industry engineer notes that Valve Software is “known to be quite unique and their management structure very flat, many new hires used to take close to six months to get acclimatized. [So] Valve employees thus decided to create an employee handbook for the new hires. The handbook is known for being one of the funniest and reflects the company culture pretty well. To give you a taste, the preface reads, ‘This handbook is about…how not to freak out now that you’re here.’ ”

Give it time

As you can see from the components above, while onboarding is often confused for orientation, it is much more involved than that. According to Allied HR IQ, it takes 8 months on average for a new employee to become fully productive.

It can be tempting to try to speed up onboarding and training, but Aberdeen Group has found that new hires in the longest onboarding processes reach full productivity 34% faster than those in shorter processes.

Patience will yield rewards. After going through an effective onboarding process, when your new employees do get to work, they will be happier, more engaged, and will have a much better handle on who to go to for each type of question they have and how to leverage the company’s resources effectively.

Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander

Author & Contributor

About the Author

Sarah is an elite triathlete and independent strategy consultant with an MBA from Chicago Booth. She is passionate about empowering others to achieve excellence.

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