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Onboarding: The Retention Connection

Some companies have retooled their onboarding programs to build a stronger connection between new hires and the organization.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017
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Two years ago, New York-based KPMG acquired a digital design agency whose employees were quite critical of the professional-services firm's onboarding process.

"They were very vocal about it -- they said the process wasn't very engaging," says Rick Wright, KPMG's technology innovation leader.

KPMG has since redesigned its onboarding program to make it mobile-friendly and more engaging, with the goal of creating a tighter bond between the organization and its new hires.

"Our research has shown that the sooner we can get people connected with the firm, our culture and their colleagues, the more likely they will stay," says Wright.

Turnover among newly hired employees can be a problem at all companies: Between 10 percent and 25 percent of new hires leave their organization within the first six months of their tenure, according to a recent survey of executives by Korn Ferry's Futurestep division.

Nearly all of the survey respondents (98 percent) said onboarding programs are a key factor in retention efforts, and 69 percent said they have formal onboarding programs for all employees. However, 23 percent said the programs last for only one day while 30 percent said they last for one week.

That's not nearly enough time, say experts. Too often, HR tends to look at onboarding as first-day orientation and paperwork when, in fact, studies show that people make the decision early on as to whether they're going to stay with a company. The onboarding process presents a golden opportunity to create that organizational commitment, says Elizabeth Malatestinic, senior lecturer in HR management at Indiana University's Kelly School of Business.

An effective onboarding experience includes assigning new employees a mentor who will connect with them prior to the first day of work and reconnect with them on a regular basis, says Malatestinic.

"You hear a lot about how recruiting impacts your brand as an employer, but onboarding also affects your brand," she says. "If a new hire says 'I got a note ahead of time from my manager,' 'They sent me a welcome letter,' 'I got a T-shirt before I started' -- the word spreads."

KPMG's new program (which is called KPMG OnBoard and is also being marketed externally), is an immersive mobile experience that begins the moment a candidate receives an offer from the company and lasts throughout his or her first 90 days on the job, says Wright. Prior to their start date, new hires receive photos of the people they'll be interacting with--everyone from HR staffers to work colleagues--and a list of "pre-boarding" tasks that need to be done.

The list includes time estimates of how long each task will take, says Wright. HR and recruiting managers can see where people are in the pre-boarding phase and contact them if they're not making progress, he says.

On "day one" at the company, new hires select their benefits packages, and receive information on "everything they need to do to become a productive employee," says Wright. This includes a list of activities such as training resources they need to take and a personalized component with information such as "Here are people in your department you should schedule lunch with" to introduce yourself and get to know them better.

"We believe we've turned onboarding on its head," says Wright.

"The program is also focused on ensuring they understand our company's credo around client service, our core values and volunteer activities," he says.

The onboarding process, which is called KPMG OnBoard and which the company is also selling to external clients, also includes an "off-boarding" component that's designed to make the separation process for departing employees as smooth and hassle-free as possible to increase the likelihood that they'll remain advocates for the company, says Wright.

"The more positive we can make the experience, the more likely they'll become members of our alumni organization, make referrals and, potentially, return to the organization," he says.

Onboarding doesn't have to be restricted to new hires only. At Minneapolis-based Ceridian, Chief People Officer Lisa Sterling says her company has launched a new program called "transboarding" for employees who transfer to different parts of the organization when they're promoted or reassigned.

"We realized we did a good job of onboarding new talent, but the people who wanted internal career growth were not getting the same type of support," she says.

Sterling found that these employees needed a more streamlined way to get connected with new colleagues, ensure they were on the right distribution lists for emails and important documents and knew who they were supposed to go to for help and advice.

"When people don't know what they're supposed to be involved in or connected to, or whom to go to for help, that can cause disengagement," she says.

Now, when internal employee at Ceridian are transferred, it automatically triggers a series of events that guide them through the process in a step-by-step fashion. They're assigned a buddy who serves as their guide to the new area, they receive a roadmap of each of the steps they need to take to ensure they're properly set up in their new role and a checklist that ensures they're up to speed in 30, 60 and 90-day increments.

"We want to ensure they're set up for success and can hit the ground running, just as we do for new hires," says Sterling.

Although the new program has only been in place since the middle of 2016, Sterling says she's already seen an uptick in engagement scores around career mobility. The company plans to survey internal transferees later this year, similar to its quality of hire surveys for new hires and managers, she says.

Small and mid-sized organizations are also lengthening their onboarding programs. At the American Productivity & Quality Center, a nonprofit organization with 70 employees, the onboarding process was recently extended to last for a month.

"We're a small organization, very lean, and so we need new employees to be able to jump in and start contributing right away, but our HR team found that they weren't getting critical information about their jobs and the organization," says Elissa Tucker, APQC's principal research lead for human capital management. "If employees didn't get the big picture within their first month, there was no time later on to go revisit that. They might get a year or so into their tenure here before finding out they lacked critical knowledge about some aspect of the organization or its work."

The organization recently revamped its onboarding program to give employees enough time and resources to learn as much as they can about the organization and their jobs as they acclimate to their new roles. The new onboarding program is also designed to be more fun than before, when it was mostly "a data dump" of instructions and paperwork during an employee's first day, says Tucker.

Now, new hires receive videos before their first day with coworkers sharing information about the organization in a "fun and light-hearted way," she says. New employees spend their first week learning about APQC, its mission and history, how the organization is structured and its leadership. The first month also includes a scavenger hunt in which the employees must go find the answers to a list of questions about the organization.

"The new hire works through it on his or her own, but it gets them out from their desks to go and meet people beyond their immediate team," says Tucker.

"At most companies today, we're all so lean and time crunched that it's really hard to put the time into onboarding," says Tucker. "But if you don't put in the time, you don't get the benefits."

New hires themselves tend to want to prove themselves quickly, but are short-changed by onboarding programs that don't include opportunities for mentorship and creating a roadmap for their first year at the organization, says Malatestinic.

"When companies focus on creating an entry experience where the new employee feels welcome and valued, they're much more likely to feel engaged and needed in the organization, and people want to feel that way," she says.

"When you make people feel welcome and needed right off the bat, it's a confidence builder for them, it gives them a feeling of 'I add value to this organization,' and people very much want to feel that way."


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