Onboarding is your new employee’s vital first experience – and critical to getting employee engagement off on the right foot – and Jon Williams explains that there are three critical elements of an exceptional onboarding experience
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression – Will Rogers”
We think of the drivers of an organisation through these five frames – purpose; strategy; culture and capability; alignment and, finally, execution. People tend to get most exercised about the first four of these, each of which answer fundamental questions of competitive advantage:
- Purpose: what do you stand for? What are you here to do?
- Strategy: is yours differentiated, fluid, reflective of your unique attributes?
- Culture: what are the enduring beliefs that make you who you are?
- Alignment: is every single employee aligned around the many small decisions, not just the few big ones
But all of this – your purpose, your culture, your strategy – only come to life through the actual experience that people have of working in your organisation. From their day to day interactions and experience your people infer the rest – to answer for themselves the questions of whether your purpose is really what you stand for, if the culture is how it was sold, if people believe in the strategy? This is the fifth frame, execution, and the first experience your people have of it is likely to be the onboarding process.
Onboarding is your new employee’s vital first experience. Sadly, turnover in the first year of employment in many organisations continues to be higher than in subsequent years, and most organisations see engagement decline for individuals during their first year – because the reality does not match the promise. Which tells us that onboarding is not being done well.
While there are many software products currently in or entering the market that claim to “fix” your onboarding experience, this is only a small part of the answer. There is a role to be played by a seamless execution of the mechanical aspects of joining a new employer – laptop ready, log-ins clear, compliance training ready to go … but unless your purpose is to deliver a seamless technical process there is more human work to be done.
“Give your people a buddy and time to reflect on the personal match between what they value and what the organisation does”
So, what are the basics of an exceptional onboarding experience?
1. Be clear on what you stand for, and what you want a new employee’s experience to be
If it is true that your culture is not what you claim on your website, but what you truly believe: then make sure you design an onboarding experience that provides a lived experience of those beliefs. For example, if innovation and creativity are core organisational beliefs – ensure your onboarding processes are not cumbersome, traditional or overly bureaucratic. Give someone the task of examining every key onboarding interaction and asking “what does this experience say about us”?
The onboarding experience shouldn’t be thought of as one-way either. Just as new employees need to understand what drives the organisation, the organisation needs to create space for the new employee to explore their own beliefs and how they match the new workplace. Give your people a buddy and time to reflect on the personal match between what they value and what the organisation does.
2. Deliver a consistent experience
Strategy creation is about the few big decisions an executive team needs to take, to set an organisational direction. Strategy execution, on the other hand, comes through the hundreds of small decisions made by others in the organisation that bring the strategy to life. Consistency and coherence are key. New employees are no different – they need to be clear on what’s important and have the information they need to be able to make decisions that line up from day one. Creating a consistent experience for all new employees that equips them with an understanding of your strategy will accelerate their time to adding value and supporting execution through their day to day actions. Ask your new starters, as early as the end of their first month, if they have all the tools, relationships and information they need to bring the strategy to life. Keep asking them until they say yes.
Our brains are wired to respond as strongly to observing others having a bad experience as they are if are feeling poorly treated ourselves. Just as one of the key reasons seasoned employees leave is because they see underperformers not being managed, so new people will look for what you walk past in the onboarding and treatment of others and judge you accordingly. Focus on ensuring your process is delivered consistently across efficiency, quality and fairness irrespective of the department or hiring manager.
“Consider how you can most quickly build personal connections at the individual and team level to give new starters a clear sense of team and relatedness right from the start”
3. Think about the human involved
Your relationship with a new employee starts way before they actually join your organisation: even before they first see a job ad or contact your recruiters, future employees are forming an idea of what they should expect from you – and what you might expect from them. Irrespective of what you do these perceptions or implicit assumptions form foundations of their psychological contract with you as an employer. Often formal on-boarding processes fail to recognise this – and don’t take the time to explore these implicit assumptions. Don’t just tell new starters what to expect and what their responsibilities are, take the time to understand their needs and expectations and the match with what you are expecting.
Belonging: humans are pack animals; we thrive when we are part of a herd. Mental wellbeing is a key focus for businesses in Australia, and much research points to social isolation and a lack of connection as key causes of this. From our cozy position in an organisation we know it is easy to overlook the level of challenge or stress the new starter is facing. Consider how you can most quickly build personal connections at the individual and team level to give new starters a clear sense of team and relatedness right from the start.
The onboarding process often falls foul of the familiarity bias. Because our experience has allowed us to make sense of the complexity of our own organisation we overestimate the ability of others, without that experience, to do the same. This leaves people – no matter the nobleness of your purpose, brilliance of your strategy or strength of your culture – feeling isolated, confused and ill-equipped to contribute. Unless keep putting yourself in their shoes and asking “if what we say about ourselves is true, is this the experience a new person should be having?”