Extreme Onboarding: here's 9 ways to WOW your new hires!

By: Dr. John Sullivan via LinkedIn

When you survey recent hires after they’ve gone through traditional induction process, they unfortunately often describe it as “a mind numbing experience” because of its focus on dry policies and videos, sign-ups and filling out forms.

Hiring managers frequently see the induction or onboarding process as an afterthought with very little business impact. But you might be surprised to learn that data from the consulting firm BCG, reveals that onboarding ranks #2 (after recruiting) with the second highest business impact of all of the 22 HR practices. In fact, firms that execute it well can expect to nearly double their corporate revenue growth and profit margins, compared to firms with only an average process.

Leaders should also pay attention to onboarding new recuits because most of the top employer brands including Google, Facebook, IBM, EY and Zappos have transformed their onboarding approach due to the major impact on the firms’ employer brand image. By “running the numbers” these firms have discovered the high economic value resulting from adding bold, exciting and high-impact new features that I call “extreme onboarding.”

The data has revealed that advanced onboarding has high ROI, which in at least one case proved to be 10 times higher than the ROI from traditional onboarding programs. These program ROI from traditional onboarding programs. Data has also shown that advanced onboarding can also directly improve several important business factors including the time it takes a new hire to be productive, new hire retention, new hire on-the-job performance and even recruiting.

If you are a corporate leader and you are not familiar with these bold new extreme approaches, this article will reveal more than a dozen corporate best practices that you should be aware of. These extreme practices cover many diverse areas including gamification, providing mentors, extending the duration of onboarding, applying technology to onboarding and starting onboarding activities before the first day of work.

If you’re having difficulty recruiting top talent, if you are experiencing increased new hire turnover or if your new hires are struggling to become productive, this article should provide you with numerous ideas for dramatically upgrading your current onboarding effort, so that you can literally WOW both your new hires and your hiring managers.

Benefits of a great onboarding program

1. Improve the on-the-job performance of new hires.

The Recruiting Roundtable found that effective onboarding programs can improve employee performance by 11.5%. Understanding how to motivate new hires is critical for individual performance and Baptist Healthcare found that you can increase new hire motivation and thus their performance by simply asking new hires to identify their key monetary and non-monetary motivators.

Having unhappy new hires on the job can also hurt team performance, so in order to ensure that new hires haven’t made a mistake in accepting their new job, Zappos offers up to $4,000 to quit during their initial training.

Having new hires generate ideas is also valuable because new hires have “fresh eyes” and an outsider’s perspective. So managers at Joie De Vivre Hotels encourage new hires during onboarding to share ways that they see that the hotel can improve both its customer experience and its new employee experience.

2. Employee retention can be improved using different onboarding variations.

Most traditional “first-day-only onboarding” unfortunately has a negligible impact on retention because only 4% of new hires decide after the first day that they are sure they want to stay with their current company (source: A Gostick and C Elton). However, if the new hires take part in a structured onboarding process, 66% of them are likely to remain with a company for longer than 3 years (source: DOL).

Fortunately, there are several elements that you can add to your onboarding process in order to improve retention. Wipro, for example, created an employee-focused onboarding process that emphasized the individual strengths of the new hires. After six months, the participating new hires were as much as 32% less likely to quit, than those who had participated in the traditional company-focused onboarding.

Extending the length of onboarding can also have a dramatic impact on employee turnover because it provides more time for coaching, sharing information and answering questions.

L’Oréal offers a full 2 year long comprehensive onboarding process and Succeeding@IBM is a 2 year on-line learning continuum that provides new hires with information covering corporate values, strategy, tools, and the resources necessary to be successful. Facebook requires 6 weeks at their onboarding “boot camp” and Rackspace and Zappos offer a 4-week long onboarding program. In order to reduce early turnover by ensuring that new hires are satisfied with their first job assignment, Facebook (for all employees) and Cisco (new college grads) allows new hires after completing onboarding to choose the team that they join.

And finally asking new hires “why they quit their last job” during onboarding may provide their new manager with insight into which factors may again cause them to quit this new job.

3. Pre-boarding activities can get new hires engaged immediately.

If you want new hires to “hit the ground running”, it’s important to reduce “first day” stress even before they start work to get new hires fully engaged with the company.

Before their official first day, Ernst & Young provides an innovative onboarding portal that includes an online virtual tour that provides their new hires with information about their firm, it walks them through the onboarding process and it answers the questions that are most frequently asked by previous new hires.

Warby Parker sends “an electronic welcome packet”, with the company history, core values, press clippings and what a new employee should expect during their first day, week and month. Also, the night before starting, new employees at Warby Parker get a call from their direct supervisor to make sure that they know “where to show up and when”.

At MasterCard, immediately after a new employee is hired, they receive a welcoming email which includes links to company videos, and access to a website where they can “update their employment information, upload a photo for their badge, read about learning opportunities and complete paperwork for benefits enrollment, taxes and direct deposit”. The new hire’s manager can also go online to select the tools and office space they will need, so everything will be ready for them on their first day.

Succeeding@IBM offers pre-start date learning and training, and new hires that participated in their pre-hire community are 80% less likely to leave during their first year.

Using a truly aggressive approach, one New Zealand bank even shipped their preboarding package with business cards, a new computer and mobile phone directly to the new hires current workplace, in order to impress the new employee, but also their current coworkers.

4. Onboarding can improve recruiting and your employer brand.

Onboarding can also play a critical role in improving your recruiting processes. Start by surveying your new hires about the recruiting process that they just completed. Ask them which factors caused them to say yes to your offer, and which parts of the recruiting process “worked” and “which ones need to be improved.”

The best firms also use onboarding to gather names, so ask new hires to make referrals from among the best employees that are still working at their previous firm.

And finally, it’s important to realize that all of the friends and close colleagues of the new hire will likely contact them during or immediately after onboarding to ask them what it’s like to work at the new firm. This means that if you make a powerful impression, onboarding can help spread your employer brand message that your firm is a great place to work.

Powerful Examples Of Extreme Onboarding Practices

I have found that one of the best ways to convince organizations to raise their onboarding efforts to “the extreme level” is to show them examples of how far other firms have already progressed in onboarding. The extreme best practice examples are listed below.

1. Gamification can make the onboarding process less tedious.

Traditional onboarding with its videos, lectures, extensive reading and seemingly endless forms can be a bit dull. However, converting elements of onboarding into a competitive game with instant feedback can help to keep the attention of new hires.

Firms like Rackspace populate their initial four-day onboarding effort with “games, skits, costumes, thumping music, and a limbo bar.”And tech firm Bazaarvoice sends incoming employees on a weeklong scavenger hunt designed to bring them up to speed on company culture and company jargon.

New hires compete during Rackspace's January 2013 orientation, image by Chris Godfrey

Many new hires love video games, so Arrow Electronics developed an interactive onboarding computer game called "A Culture for Success". New hires can select from game modules on “industry basics, corporate history and culture,” and each module is followed by a quiz-show type element that provides them with immediate feedback on how well they did.

2. Google research shows that reminding the hiring manager to set up the first day gets new hires up to speed 25% faster

Most organizations can only guess as to which onboarding features make a measurable difference. However, Google’s analytics team has led the way in testing which factors have the highest positive impact on new hire productivity.

Getting new hires up to speed is a critical success factor in onboarding and in the book “Work Rules”, Google revealed that a simple “reminder alert” email to the hiring manager can reduce the new hire’s time to productivity by a full month, a whopping 25% decrease.

This reminder email has 5 critical tasks which the hiring manger should perform:

  1. Have a role and responsibilities discussion.
  2. Match your new hire with a peer buddy.
  3. Help your new hire build a social network.
  4. Set up onboarding check-ins once a month for your new hire’s first six months.
  5. Encourage open dialogue

3. Help new hires understand team goals, priorities and success measures.

The corporate version of onboarding should cover the firm’s overall mission and corporate goals. However, the localized departmental version of onboarding can help the new hire to immediately understand the focus and the priorities of their new department and team.

You can help new hires understand the key priorities by showing them the department’s and team’s goals and their key performance metrics. Their manager can help them understand how they will be supervised by revealing their typically used management approach and style.

4. Help them know their individual goals, assessment criteria and career path.

New hires will better understand their job responsibilities and what that will be assessed on by showing them their own individual KPI’s, their bonus formula and the elements contained in their performance appraisal form.

Their manager can also help the new hire understand “how decisions are made” as well as where the new hire might be in the future by revealing the typical career paths leading from their job, the promotion criteria to the next level up, and what internal helping resources are available for increasing career growth.

5. Help them understand and appreciate the impact of their job.

If new employees immediately know “why” their work is important and their impact, they are more likely to be productive and focused.

Their manager should “reinforce the sale” that began during the recruiting process by making sure that each new hire fully understands the importance of their role and how it impacts their team’s performance, the company’s product and its customers.

Their impact can be further imprinted if the new hire is “walked downstream”, so that they can directly meet other employees and customers to better understand how others use and depend on their outputs.

6. Provide new hires with a mentor or buddy.

Providing new hires with a mentor or peer buddy can have a positive impact on both productivity and retention. Under Google’s “Buddy Hire Program”, most Nooglers (new hires) are given a mentor to help speed their progress towards becoming a productive employee.

IBM’s Royal Blue Ambassador Program provides every new hire with an experienced employee mentor for 30 days in order to help them adapt quickly to working at the firm. Beyond these 30 days, IBM has a volunteer collaborative group known as the “grassroots community” which continues to help new hires transition into IBM.

Qualcomm provides new hires with a mentor for a full year.

7. Adding off-boarding may help you rehire those that may someday quit.

The advanced onboarding approach at firms like DaVita lets all new hires know from the very beginning that even though the firm would like you to stay throughout your entire career, that they understand that this might not be realistic. And as a result, if you do eventually have to quit, they want you to maintain contact in the hope that you might return someday as a “boomerang rehire” (nearly 15% actually do return).

To increase the likelihood of your return, as part of the exit process, they also add an “off-boarding” component. Once again, this reminds employees that if they quit that they are welcomed back and encourages them to keep in touch during the years at their next job.

8. Utilize analytics to continually improve your onboarding program.

In today’s highly competitive recruiting and retention environment, excellence is required. And you can’t usually achieve your quality goals unless all major onboarding decisions are made based on data.

One of the best ways to continually improve your onboard program with data is to survey your new hires that went through your onboarding after 1, 6 and 12 months have gone by. Use that survey data to identify the program components that worked, those that need improvement and those that need to be added. External benchmarking of your competitor’s onboarding programs is also needed in order to maintain a continuous competitive advantage over them.

9. Be sure and consider these high-impact features for your onboarding effort.

Some additional onboarding program features that are proven to have a high impact on new hire success include:

  • Treat the process around a new hire joining your firm as a celebration, rather than an administrative task.
  • Provide a method that allows new hires to ask questions without being embarrassed. Start by providing them with a list of questions and answers covering areas of concern from previous new hires.
  • Ensure that their manager is present and available on their first day of work.
  • Limit first day “administrative sign-ups”, so you don’t literally numb your new hires.
  • Provide prescheduled meetings with managers and key employees. Also ensure frequent opportunities for two-way communications and “check-in” feedback sessions.
  • Make sure that the providing of space, work tools and equipment is closely integrated with the onboarding process.
  • Facilitate the building of a new hires internal networks and the rapid building of relationships with their coworkers.
  • Don’t delay the start of onboarding until later on in the week or month.
  • Prioritize jobs and customize the onboarding process for the jobs with the highest business impact.
  • Don’t just highlight company values, but also show actual examples of how your employees “live those values”.
  • First measure and then hold hiring managers accountable for shortening the time to minimum productivity, high new hire retention rates and for the satisfaction of new hires.
  • Develop a process for rapidly sharing best practices and new problems related to onboarding.
  • Assess the training needs of new hires and ensure that any needed training is available around their start date.
  • Consider forming a "new hire" affinity group, so that newbies can share problems, opportunities and experiences with each other.
  • Develop the capability to do orientation "remotely" using the Intranet, social media and teleconferencing.
  • Provide them with a glossary of acronyms, buzzwords and a who’s who list of key people.
  • Provide a tool that will create an internal social network of employee contacts with similar, traits, likes, interest (somewhat like an “employee match.com”) with employee picture and profile gallery to make assimilation easier.

Final Thoughts

As hiring heats up and, at the same time, turnover rates dramatically increase, the time has come for executives, hiring managers and HR leaders to realize the tremendous impact that modern onboarding can have on new hire productivity and retention.

The traditional goal of simply having people “signed up” and enrolled needs to shift towards one of WOWing new hires and providing them with the information and the support that they need to be productive as soon as possible.

Dr. John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

* image by Zappos

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