On Board with Onboarding?

About a month after starting my current job, my boss asked me to assemble a graphic that would require skills beyond my abilities. When I asked who at the company could help me, he answered: “Kristen.”

I then asked, “Who’s Kristen?”

He replied irritably, “She’s in the art department. She’s been here for years,” as if I should know.

My boss isn’t the smartest person you ever met, but that aside, I bet this situation arises often after a new employee starts at a company. Managers, and other long-time employees, assume the new person will magically know things he or she has no way of knowing.

This belief in the magic of new employees knowing without being told came to mind when I saw results of a recent CareerBuilder survey: More than a third of employers (36 percent) do not have a structured onboarding process, and many are reporting costly consequences. Forty-one percent of these employers believe the lack of a structured onboarding process has had one of the following negative impacts on their company:

  • Lower productivity: 16 percent
  • Greater inefficiencies: 14 percent
  • Higher employee turnover: 12 percent
  • Lower employee morale: 11 percent
  • Lower level of employee engagement: 10 percent
  • Lower confidence among employees: 10 percent
  • Lack of trust within the organization: 7 percent
  • Missed revenue targets: 6 percent

What kind of onboarding program does your company have? It seems that most of our Training Top 125 companies have a formal, structured onboarding program, but many, if not most, companies in the world probably don’t. I know I’ve never worked for a company with one. The usual new employee routine, as I’ve experienced it, is to spend an hour with a Human Resources representative reviewing benefits and signing documents, and then be sent to your department to begin work.

Not having a formalized onboarding process never bothered me. I always thought it was a relief not having to meet and shake hands with many people all at once, and then sit through a huge overview of the company, most of which I probably would forget a few minutes after it was over. I’m one of those people who learn best in an on-demand kind of way—learning what I need to learn only at the exact moment I need to learn it. It’s always been hard for me to learn far in advance of the actual need, just in case I might happen to need to know something.

With the computer technology revolution over the last 30 years, how should onboarding have changed? Back in the 1960s or 1970s, it made sense for onboarding to be a day when a manager, or co-worker, would take the new employee around the office introducing her to everyone, and explaining how everything in the office worked, from typewriter, to photocopier to coffee machine. But with the digital revolution, is any of this necessary?

Maybe what’s needed now is for every company to have an on-demand information and learning directory that can easily be called up onto the employee’s screen with a simple URL and password. The directory would be excessively simple, as simple as the list of TV shows and movies that come up when you visit HBO OnDemand, or one of the other cable OnDemand channels. The first thing the employee would see is a list, and the list would include the major areas of the company, such as: “my department, “the departments that work with my own department,” “my tasks,” “getting paid,” “benefits,” “taking time off,” and from there, you would be able to drill down.

Let’s say you need to know who everyone in your department is, and what everyone does. You would go to “my department,” and when you click on it, you then would see a list of all the people in your department with descriptions of what each person does, along with their photo, e-mail address, and phone number. If you don’t understand exactly what your responsibilities are, you just go to “my tasks,” click on it, and there’s a list of everything the person in your job role is responsible for. An advanced system would enable an employee’s manager to create a section under “my tasks” that can be updated to show the employee’s current assignments, along with brief descriptions, helpful notes, and due dates.

An on-demand directory, in place of a huge overview the employee is likely to forget, is an essential modern tool. But it doesn’t replace the in-person introductions. That said, those in-person introductions are better over a series of casual group lunches or coffees, when people can sit down together for a half-hour, or so, and have a meaningful exchange, rather than just a smile, nod, and handshake, like they are in a receiving line at a wedding or funeral. Plus, introverts like me hate being dragged around the office, forced to meet and greet, and make one-minute small talk. It’s so much better, and more relaxed, to just have lunch, or coffee, together.

What are the strengths of your onboarding program? How has it evolved in recent years, and how do you anticipate it continuing to change?

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