Most large companies do a good job with the basics of signing up and orienting new employees, but far fewer have processes that address the biggest challenges these hires face in fully integrating into their teams and coming up to speed in their roles. For example, in surveys of HR executives, just 29% indicated they provided support for cultural familiarization, even though struggles with culture are a big reason newly arrived leaders fail. This lack of onboarding follow-through has major consequences for time to performance, derailment rates, and talent retention.
When firms do a good job, it’s often with senior hires. This makes sense to a point, given the potential impact of higher-level executives, including the costs of underperformance. However, as roles across organizations become more complex, the competition for talent more intense, and the consequences of poor onboarding better understood, more firms are taking comprehensive looks at their policies and practices in this area.
For example, when a global, multi-business organization with more than 120,000 employees conducted an in-depth study of how it was onboarding the 20,000 new employees it was hiring each year, it found a highly fragmented and inconsistent approach with large variations among businesses, geographies, functions, and levels. Although the company was known as a great place to work, executives worried that the inconsistencies could someday damage their employer brand and hurt engagement and retention.
They decided to develop a company-wide onboarding system that balanced the need to deliver consistent, high-quality support and guidance to all employees while still being easy to administer and flexible enough to deal with differences across units. The solution had to incorporate the procedural and legal formalities of the “signing up” process, provisioning of technology, space and other critical resources, orientation to the organization including cultural and functional training, and acceleration of the transition/integration process including peer, manager, and team connection.
To meet its many different needs around the world, the organization designed a framework consisted of five key (but flexible) elements:
Onboarding journeys for all. A guiding principle was that every new hire should be taken on an “onboarding journey,” from orientation, through integration, and ultimately to full effectiveness. However, the length and depth of the journey differed by level, with entry-level employees supported the least.
A manageable number of distinct “personas.” The organization designated a set of four personas, representing broad classes of employees: wage earners, individual contributors, people leaders, and executives. Resources were customized for each persona based on the needs and complexity of the roles. For example, time-poor, experience-rich senior leaders were offered journeys that had robust content but placed fewer demands on their and their managers’ time.
Enabling technology that facilitated push and pull. The organization realized that, to support the new onboarding process with limited headcount to manage it, they would need a technology solution. The platform they chose (one of many that now are available) pushes out customizable content at a specified cadence to provide just-in-time support and provides links to various orientation and development resources for new hires to pull when needed.
A standard transition language and framework. The organization used the same planning frameworks and tools (in this case one based on The First 90 Days) for key integration steps, including learning, creating transition plans, and engaging in critical conversations.
Clarity about roles and responsibilities. Finally, the organization clarified what would be expected from the new hire’s manager, mentor, peers, predecessors, and other stakeholders. The focus was on building a support system for these employees.
To ensure long-term support and engagement, the team designing the new onboarding system engaged with existing team members and recent arrivals to identify needs and build content to address them. For example, new hires are frequently given long lists of people to connect with over their first few weeks on the job. Now, this process starts with a discussion between the incoming employee and his or her manager so the latter can share insights on key stakeholders. The new hire is then given conversation guides to ensure that these initial meet-and-greets have significant depth and breadth. These include reflection/preparation exercises and action planning for follow-ups.
Another key focus was ensuring the new onboarding resources are visibly supported by influential senior leaders and the HR community. The goal is to create a culture in which supporting transitions is seen as a way to contribute and add value.
While the focus of this project was on new hires, anyone taking a new position needs some elements of support and guidance and similar systems can be used to support internals moves. These often happen more frequently than external hires, can be as or more challenging, and typically receive less support.
Because onboarding journeys also help employees to learn the skills and behaviors necessary to be successful in their new roles, they can also serve as a cost-effective and time-sensitive alternative to more conventional leadership development.
Organizations can no longer ignore the needs of onboarding at all levels. By identifying target populations, creating semi-customized journeys, and enlisting stakeholder support, they dramatically speed up the integration and acclimation process and set new employees up for greater success.
Authored by Rose Hollister and Michael D. Watkins