New Hire Onboarding as a Driver of Employee Engagement

The most effective employee onboarding programs share several essential elements—Momentum, Enablement, Collaboration, Assimilation, and Connection.

Many organizations recognize the benefits that result from a highly engaged workforce—improved retention and employee and team performance, to name just a couple. But few organizations have strategies in place that foster engagement in a significant and sustainable way.

A growing number of leading organizations are systematically fostering engagement through new hire onboarding. Having implemented a more robust onboarding program, they are seeing improvements in key talent metrics and are consistently winning the war for talent.

As the point at which new hires are introduced to company policies and procedures, performance expectations, and workplace culture, onboarding presents a unique opportunity to set the stage for the rest of an employee’s lifecycle. However, very few organizations consider their onboarding programs to be particularly effective. Brandon Hall Group’s 2014 State of Talent Acquisition Study shows that 40 percent of organizations rated their onboarding programs as less than moderately effective.

But those organizations that have invested time and resources to improve the quality and scope of their onboarding process—the 27 percent that rated their onboarding process as more than moderately effective—are consistently outperforming the rest:

  • 78 percent saw increases in revenue in the last fiscal year (1 in 3 saw increases of more than 10 percent).
  • 64 percent saw positive gains in the majority of their organizational KPIs.
  • 54 percent saw significant gains in employee engagement metrics, including employee turnover, absenteeism, productivity, and employee satisfaction.

Although even small improvements in onboarding can yield big wins, for any overhaul initiative to be successful in the long-term, a few key questions must be answered first. These include:

  • What are your goals? Ask yourself, your executives, and your business unit leaders what talent outcomes are most important—and how a better onboarding program could drive them.
  • When does onboarding begin? In truth, onboarding begins much sooner than an employee’s first day. Throughout the selection and hiring stage, employees glimpse the inner workings of the organization—including HR process, organizational transparency, and levels of communication. Organizations that struggle to manage the transition from hire to onboarding risk loss of momentum and engagement.
  • How long does onboarding last? HPOs are taking a different approach to performance—one of enablement rather than enforcement. They are providing new employees with ample opportunity to master the necessary skills and knowledge required for a long and successful career with the organization. While this may delay the time before employees enter the operation, it ensures that they will hit the ground running once they do.
  • Who are the key players in onboarding? From HR to IT to Operations, new-hire onboarding tasks rely on several parties to complete. And from an administrative and compliance perspective, it’s crucial that you assign clear ownership to onboarding processes and tasks.

Essential Elements

As presented in the Brandon Hall Group report, High-Performance Onboarding: A New Model for Excellence, the most effective employee onboarding programs share several essential elements—Momentum, Enablement, Collaboration, Assimilation, and Connection—that breathe life into traditional administrative processes.

Momentum. Momentum isn’t a word you often hear in the realm of people process, but it is a major component of onboarding success. At high-performing organizations, pre-boarding—wherein new hire forms and paperwork are completed and workstations are ready before employees’ first day—is standard practice. New hires’ first days are well organized and orchestrated, and often spent learning about the company and workplace.

For example, DeVry Education Group, one of the largest publicly held, international, higher education institutions based in North America, regularly onboards upward of 120 new employees every month in various institutions around the world. DeVry’s program, built on a technology solution, automates much of the administrative work typically associated with onboarding.

After that, new colleagues take part in a highly immersive, virtual reality environment called Virtual Day 1. Here they are introduced to the DeVry Group culture and values, as well as company objectives, resources, colleagues. They also can chat live with the moderator and their colleagues as they work their way through a timed, multi-venue experience.

From there, communications are paced on Day 1, Day 3, Day 7, Day 14, Day 30—all the way through their first year. By maintaining momentum throughout new hires’ first days and months through regular check-ins, DeVry Group is able to ensure things are going smoothly or to make adjustments as needed if there are signs employee concern or disengagement.

Collaboration. Collaboration is increasingly important in an integrated talent management process. The goal is to show new hires how your company works, how it makes money, and how the different parts fit together. Cross-instruction, often in groups, is a widely popular method of fostering collaboration in onboarding. Many invite individual department heads to give a presentation of their role and expertise, and give an overview of the products and services they oversee. Not only does this approach to onboarding deepen new hires’ understanding of the disparate parts of the organization—and their role in it all—but it also builds a sense of camaraderie from their first day.

DeVry Group leverages a combination of social media tools (i.e., new hire community) and real-time consultation (AskHR live chat) to support collaboration within its various onboarding phases—starting before the employee’s first day and extending through their first year of employment.

Enablement. Employees need to know explicitly how their jobs make the organization’s mission and vision possible. Enablement focuses on providing new hires with the knowledge they need to get started, and connecting them to resources they need for long-term effectiveness.

To drive engagement and knowledge retention, Travelport, a leading travel commerce platform that operates in 70 countries, deployed a “gamification-like” approach to its onboarding portal. Travelport devised a clever strategy of leveraging a passport concept. New hires virtually collect “stamps” for their online passport as they interact with the varied information and activities on the site. They can view an interactive map that shows the progress of their onboarding journey demonstrated by the various stamps they have collected.

Assimilation. Often, the only way new hires learn about the nuances of a company and its culture is after they have done something wrong (or not quite right). Failure to assimilate isn’t just frustrating for new hires; a poorly assimilated employee places stress on an entire team.

Zions Bancorporation, one of the premier financial services companies in the United States, operates 500 banking offices in 10 Western states under local management teams and community identities. Therefore, it is important for employees to feel connected to the company as a whole, as well as the specific location where they work. Through role-based workflow in their onboarding process, Zions has the ability to automate not only the collection of key new employee data, but also direct resources and policy acknowledgements at a corporate level, and to branches/divisions/locations. Employees also are presented with branding that is reflective of the bank at which they work.

This is why the best onboarding programs take care to provide new hires with clarity on many levels—clarity of responsibilities, clarity of individual and team goals, clarity of the roles of other business units—all to ensure new employees can focus on reaching a point of proficiency.

Connection. Establishing meaningful connections with the people your new employees are working with serves two purposes: It reinforces a sense of belonging and gives them access to subject matter experts who can guide them through the first months of their tenure. Employees who are connected to the greater organization (its culture and purpose) are far more engaged than those who are not.

For this reason, every new employee at California Pizza Kitchen, which struggles with turnover in the early stages of employment, participates in a “Be Our Guest Day.” New employees sit down together for a meal at their restaurant, and are encouraged to order several things as an introduction to the food. “We encourage them to be adventurous, try new things. If more than one new employee starts on the same day, they order family style and share a meal together,” says Cassidy Prideaux, senior manager of People, Communications and Culture. “For your first 90 days, you can’t order the same thing twice.”

All told, connection is arguably the most important piece of our model, as it has the single largest impact on employee tenure. Employees who have a strong connection to the organization and good relationships with their colleagues are more likely to stay beyond their first year.

Kyle Lagunas is Talent Acquisition analyst for Brandon Hall Group, an independent HCM research and advisory services firm. BHG provides insights around key performance areas, including learning and development, talent management, leadership development, talent acquisition and HR/workforce management.