Onboarding Done Right: Focus on the Employee, Not the Company

Courtney Bigony

Director of People Science at 15Five



August 2, 2017

Every year more than 25% of the working population moves to a new company. But unfortunately, not all these transitions are smooth sailing. In fact, about half of all senior external hires fail in their roles within 18 months and half of all hourly workers leave their new jobs within the first 120 days. How can onboarding make a difference?

Employees usually get 90 days to prove themselves and People Teams can do a better job in helping new hires adjust, feel part of the organization, and become productive employees faster. What’s wrong with the current onboarding process? The traditional onboarding approach is often a one-way relationship focused on bringing the new hire up to speed on the company. While this is an important piece of onboarding, it shouldn’t be the only aspect. New research turns onboarding on its head and recommends focusing on the employee, not just the company.

The result of a more well-rounded onboarding program? Higher job satisfaction, organizational commitment, performance and career effectiveness, and lower turnover and stress. Research shows that the trajectory of a new hire’s success is in the first two weeks, so it’s important to make the first day a special one. To put it simply, organizations that engage in proactive onboarding are more effective than those that don’t, according to Talya Bauer in her report Onboarding New Employees.

In the widely read whitepaper on Employee Lifetime Value (ELTV), Maia Josebachvili, VP of People & Strategy at Greenhouse, shows that investing in onboarding is key to shaping strong, productive, and engaged employees.

Employee Lifetime Value represents the total net value over time that an employee contributes during their duration at the organization. Based on the ELTV philosophy, People Teams can help increase new employee contribution at the company so they can ramp up quickly, grow their output and productivity, and increase their tenure at the company. Onboarding plays an important role in maximizing an employee’s lifetime value, yet only 20% of companies invest in a formal onboarding program.

What is onboarding and why does it matter?

You’ve likely heard onboarding referred to in different ways. Some call it new hire orientation, and some call it training. Social Science Researchers call it organizational socialization. Go-to onboarding researcher, Talya Bauer, PhD of Portland State University defines onboarding as, “the process of helping new hires adjust to social and performance aspects of their new jobs quickly and smoothly.” New hires experience onboarding as a mix of both anxiety and excitement that accompanies most transitions.

People teams can help transform anxiety into the comfort that people feel when they can be themselves, when they feel close and connected to their community and when they feel supported to do their best work. Using current social science research from professors at leading institutions such as Harvard and Cornell, People Teams can strategically design an employee-centric onboarding program that increases Employee Lifetime Value, employee retention, and customer satisfaction.

Here are 3 tips backed by the latest research to create a more employee-centric onboarding experience at your organization.

Research backed tip #1: Make day 1 about your new hire

Most onboarding programs focus on getting new hires up to speed on all things company related – the company vision, mission, history and values. But according to research, People Ops often miss one key ingredient – focusing on the new hire.

Research from Francesca Gino at the Harvard Business School and colleagues shows that an employee-centric onboarding program that focuses not just on the company, but also on the employee results in greater employee retention and customer satisfaction. Francesca and colleagues explain that “employees who receive onboarding emphasizing individual identity were more than 32% less likely to quit.” Everything from name tags and personalized swag to group exercises that emphasize a new hire’s best self has an impact.

New approach to employee onboarding body graphic

The New Approach to Onboarding

Onboarding is the time for managers to develop relationships that are grounded in understanding. It’s the time to get curious and learn about their new team member, both personally and professionally. What are your new team members top strengths? What are they doing when they’re at their best? How do they like to receive feedback? How do they like to be recognized? What motivates them to come to work every day? What skills do they want to learn to help them grow and develop in their role and beyond? Onboarding programs that focus on the employee result in more effective transitions – so make day 1 about your new hire.

Research backed tip #2: Help new hires develop social connections to the company & their local community

Christopher Collins at Cornell University explains how to reduce turnover through social embeddedness. Collins argues that onboarding is an opportunity to help new hires develop social connections, but there are two parts to the social connection formula. Employees who have strong social networks both internally to their company and in their local community have very low desire or willingness to leave. The first part is to help new hires connect socially to their coworkers. People Teams can help new hires develop social ties by hosting happy hours and developing buddy programs.

The second and equally important part of the formula involves helping new hires and their families develop strong social ties to their local community, especially for new hires relocating for their role. Organized activities during the onboarding experience to help new hires connect with their local community could be volunteering with local nonprofits or fun activities like local restaurant tours. Assigning a buddy who lives in the same neighborhood could also help in the localization process.

Research backed tip #3: Commit to your new hire by starting learning & development opportunities on day 1

Learning and development plays a key role in recruiting and retaining an employee. A Price Waterhouse Coopers study revealed that Millennials ranked learning and development as the number one benefit an employer can offer–above both flexibility and financial incentives. A Culture Amp study also found that people who stay with an organization are 24% more likely to say they had access to learning and development. The bottom line is today’s employees thrive at organizations that provide opportunities to learn and grow.

During the onboarding process, learning and development can play a role in two key ways. First, as part of getting to know your new hire and putting them first (Tip #1), it’s important on day 1 to find out your new hire’s career development goals and show how you’re committed to their growth. For example, the People Team and manager might work with the new employee to map out a personalized learning path on Udemy for Business, an online learning platform.

Second, onboarding is also a chance to conduct any necessary training to fill in any gaps your new hire may lack. For example, all newly hired managers might undergo leadership training specific to your organization. In addition, it’s sometimes hard to hire for all the skills on your wish list. The onboarding process can be a good time to conduct key skills training. For example, maybe your new employee needs to learn an additional programming language to work effectively with your engineering team.

First impressions count

Finally, your onboarding process is an opportunity to make your first impression count. Creating an employee-centric onboarding experience by showing that you care about your employee’s well being and development on day 1 will go a long way to maximizing their satisfaction, productivity, and lifetime at your company.

For more ways to design research-backed people programs at your organization, check out The Deep Feedback Movement.

Courtney Bigony is Director of People Science at 15Five, the leading employee engagement & performance platform, and founder of The Deep Feedback Movement, where she provides actionable insights for People Teams based on the latest social science research. Previously, she worked as an Employee Success Researcher at FiveStars.

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at business@udemy.com

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