Improve Your Onboarding Process
*This blog is adapted from the HR Party of One episode, Improve Your Onboarding Process, which you can view below.
A lot of organizations are focused on reducing turnover, but most employers don’t appreciate the power of onboarding. The connection between onboarding and retention isn’t always obvious.
The data shows, however, that a new hire’s first day is actually a make-or-break time for retention. I’ve been at BerniePortal for over a decade, and I still remember my first day. I had just finished an MBA program and I showed up in a suit and my favorite blue and yellow striped tie. Everyone else was wearing jeans. The point is everyone remembers their first day or week at a new job. It’s a powerful opportunity to impact the experience and perspective of everyone who joins your team.
So, it’s important to build your onboarding processes in with retention in mind. This reduces turnover, which is great, but the icing on the cake is that a stronger onboarding process alleviates administrative pressure on HR and hiring managers, too.
Onboarding for retention
So what does onboarding for retention look like? There are a couple of different ways to answer this question. For example, if everyone in your office wears jeans, consider telling a new hire to wear jeans instead of a suit and tie. Our position is that the absolute, most important thing…the most important thing…is providing new hires with extremely clear expectations around their role, how they’ll ramp up, and how long you expect that to take.
And as it turns out, clear, specific expectations are one of the most important — and least common — elements of an effective onboarding checklist.
A comprehensive roadmap of expectations over a predetermined period of time gives hiring managers and new hires a mutually agreed-upon set of actions to take, and milestones to hit, for a successful ramp-up period.
At our organization, we call this the “30-60-90.” This is the list of expectations managers have for the new hire’s first month, first two months, and first three months, or 30, 60, 90 days. Before we dive into the practicalities of onboarding, we’ve got to cover one of our most common questions at HR Party of One, and one of my favorite segments – whose job is it anyway?
Who should be in charge of hiring and onboarding?
Hiring and onboarding are going to be co-owned by HR and hiring managers. There are some parts of the process that will more naturally fall to HR - like the I-9, the W-4, and other legal paperwork, but realistically, the hiring manager needs to play the biggest role in actually onboarding the new hire on their first day. Throughout this episode, we’ll outline some more of these natural divisions of labor - starting with the 30/60/90.
Because of the nature of the supervisor / direct report relationship, the hiring manager needs to be the one responsible for building the new hire’s “30-60-90.” They’re the person who can answer what this person needs to accomplish and what skills they need to develop to be an effective member of the team. HR can’t be responsible for making those calls.
However, HR can definitely help with QA in this area. HR likely will need to take the reins on implementing a comprehensive and consistent onboarding process, including the development of a 30-60-90 or a similar roadmap. In other words, HR will need to be responsible for creating the company-wide onboarding process and coaching managers on completing it effectively.
Our organization actually provides our managers with a really thorough handbook on how we welcome a new team member. It starts before they even arrive - we ask managers to send an email with basic instructions on parking, dress code, how to get in the building, and other need-to-knows.
Then, the New Hire Welcome Guide breaks down a new hire’s first day down to the hour – sometimes the half hour – and focuses extensively on how managers should communicate our history, mission and our Culture Guide, which is our version of a company handbook.
We spent a lot of time developing the Culture Guide, and it extends beyond the basic info included in most handbooks. It also outlines how we tackle problems, what our team philosophies are, and more. In another episode, I’ll dive more deeply into how to build a really great culture guide and how to use it to navigate your organization’s future.
But for now, I’ll just say that our Culture Guide is broken down into 3 sections particularly important to new hires – our history and mission, our workplace policies like vacation and lunch break rules, and finally, logistics including their tech tools, how to use our printer, getting a team photo, and more.
Your onboarding process needs to cover all three of these categories as well, which is why a really comprehensive and consistent onboarding checklist is so important. If your organization doesn’t have one of these, it’s likely that every hiring manager has their own process - and inevitably, some will be better and more comprehensive than others. This is not ideal - you want all team members to have a consistent entrance into your organization.
We have an Onboarding Checklist - here’s what this looks like:
If your organization doesn’t have one of these, or if it’s simply ordering a computer and signing them up for benefits, you’re likely about 30 items short. It’s also likely that every hiring manager has their own process - and inevitably, some will be better and more comprehensive than others. This is not ideal - you want all team members to have a consistent entrance into your organization.
Getting management approval
This is an opportunity for HR to add real value by taking ownership of this process. The first step is to go to the business owner, president or CEO and make a case for how structured and strategic onboarding will improve the business. With her endorsement, you’ll schedule meetings with hiring managers to learn what they’re currently doing. You might find some really great ideas, or some big bottlenecks that need to be fixed.
An added benefit of auditing and developing an actual process is that it will make your job a little easier and more organized! It will also provide a better representation of your value to the organization - making visible all of the onboarding stuff that other members of your organization might just see going on in the background.
But to be successful, don’t position this as a benefit to you - it’s a benefit to the organization and to new hires.
Make the case for how a comprehensive and consistent onboarding process improves retention, saving the company money and time. How can you make that case? Well, here are the onboarding mistakes that contribute toward turnover - these are the things that hinder a new hire’s ability to ramp up and effectively integrate with your team, and could have them looking for a new job before they even really get going.
Examples of bad onboarding
Generally speaking, you want to avoid ‘new hire anxiety.’ Don’t immediately throw your new hires in the deep end with assignments or work they’re not ready for. Also prepare in advance all of the things they’ll need or will have questions about but may be too anxious to ask - coffee, the restroom, etc!
You also don’t want to “wing” a new hire’s first day. One of the goals of our New Hire Welcome Guide is not just making the new hire’s first day is successful, but also that managers are making the most out of that time, too. It’s a time commitment for the manager, but it produces better results.
You also don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that onboarding is a one-day affair. Onboarding extends at least through the new hire’s first month, if not longer, we think of onboarding stretching through the new employee’s first 90 days - which is why something like a 30-60-90 is so important.
Finally, one of the most important things that a strategic onboarding process includes is a mechanism for early feedback. Generally speaking, new hires are most receptive to feedback - they want to make a good impression, and they know there will be processes they’re unfamiliar with! Don’t be afraid to coach and offer feedback early - otherwise you set yourself up for a harder conversation down the line.
When I hire a new person on my team, I tell them on the first day… I’m going to give you direct feedback in real time. If you’re not used to that, it might feel awkward at first. But it’s going to set you up for success. I want you to enjoy autonomy as quickly as possible, and my early feedback will help you get there.
Utilizing 30-60-90 day plans
So that brings me back to the 30-60-90. Again, this is the list of expectations managers have for the new hire’s first month, first two months, and first three months, or 30, 60, 90 days. This is one of the best ways to ensure that direct reports know what the expectations are and managers are prepared to give early and regular feedback on whether the new hire is meeting the tasks outlined on their 30-60-90.
I’ll briefly walk through what one of our 30-60-90s looks like - this is what every new member of our Advisor Success team receives. The advisor success team supports the users of our software product, so think of this as a client success or customer service role.
This is what ours looks like for a Client Success role:
In 30 days, they’ll know how to create client accounts, sat in on a clearly defined number of sales calls - we do that with our team because our sales team gives a full overview of our technology, which is helpful to new team members. They also complete 1-1 meetings, read software reviews and listen in on welcome calls. They’ll shadow existing team members 10 times, and become comfortable with how we welcome new clients. They’ll start building out the client’s software solutions, with help, among other items.
In 60 days, the training wheels come off, so to speak, and they realize full functionality without assistance. They still sit in on a number of meetings and watch various demos to further their knowledge.
In 90 days, they’re comfortable in their specific role tasks, which are still clearly defined, without regular assistance.
Again - this is not something hiring managers can expect HR to do on their own. They will need to develop what these 30-60-90s look like, but HR can assist in the process.
So beyond the 30-60-90, what else do you need to think about when you’re implementing a consistent onboarding strategy?
This includes hiring paperwork like offer letters, legal notices regarding harassment disclosures or noncompete clauses, and the collection of official documents like the I-9 and W-4. This is an area that may be better suited for HR to manage, for consistency and compliance purposes.
Now, if you’re wondering why you have to do this in the first place, here’s a little background. The I-9 comes from The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which created penalties for employers who hired immigrants ineligible to work in the U.S. To monitor compliance, this verification process was implemented.
State laws on the I-9 vary, but generally speaking, employees must complete Section 1 by the first day of work and present the required identification and eligibility documents. Employers must review these documents and complete Section 2 within 72 hours after employment commences, even if the employee isn’t scheduled to work for that period.
The W-4 manages employer withholding of taxes, which was instituted to more efficiently fund World War II. This is the reason you can’t just cut employees a check every two weeks! The W-4 also needs to be completed on the employee’s first day.
Your organization is almost certainly already covering these legal requirements. If not, start standardizing the process immediately. You’re taking some serious compliance risks by leaving these items out.
Next, determine how you’ll equip new hires with the tech tools they will need to perform their job duties. This includes both hardware like company-issued laptops and cellphones, as well as software, like company email accounts and login credentials.
Additional items like company cars, credit cards, and building access keys should also be included in the technology segment of the onboarding process.
In many organizations, employees are introduced to these tools in a piecemeal fashion over several days as the hiring manager remembers them.
This greatly slows down the new hire’s ability to ramp up to full productivity in their new role. The better approach is to establish a baseline of company-wide technology needs — like access keys and computers — that all new hires require, and then work with hiring managers to determine any additional needs. Once you have a full list, set aside a specific time during the onboarding process to introduce all required tech to the new hire.
The first two categories of items can often be completed before the new hire’s first day in the “pre-boarding” process. However, there are some components of onboarding that cannot begin until the new hire begins — including cultural acclimation.
The first few days and weeks of a new job constitute a make-or-break period for retention. If reducing turnover is the end goal, your onboarding process must ensure new hires feel welcome, supported, and familiar with the culture.
For this reason, you should start introducing cultural components as early as the new hire’s very first day. By scripting this into your onboarding process, managers can more effectively communicate culture and mission to new hires.
This information will make the new hire feel like part of the team from the very beginning. This should be written down ahead of time - again, this is a benefit of having a Culture Guide in place. Why? Here’s one example - we hire a lot of entry level candidates who recently graduated from college. And we send our culture guide to them before they even start their first day, and one thing I’ve heard from a handful of new hires is that they’ve read the culture guide with their parents. Which is great! They should! After a long academic career, the parents of recent grads are often involved in helping them decide to start their careers. And if your culture guide is good, it helps signal that they’re on the right path.
You may also want to establish other team-building traditions as well. For example, every new hire on our team reads The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. A get-to-know-you lunch with the people they’ll be working with is another good idea.
If your company gifts new hires with swag, assemble the package ahead of time and present it to the new hire on their first day.
Finally, it’s time to help the new hire get to work. This is another area where the hiring manager will need to take the lead - with relevant training materials and their 30/60/90. This may also be the time to enroll in benefits or handle any remaining items.
At this point, onboarding should be complete, and HR should be more or less out of the picture from here on out. If the onboarding process was built effectively, and managers are following it correctly, anything needed from HR has already been considered and provided, and now the new hire jumps in with their team and their supervisor.
So have I sold you on structuring your onboarding process? I hope so. If you take the initiative to own this, your organization will be healthier, your leadership team will thank you, and you can elevate your role as a strategic HR Party of One.
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