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Onboarding Employees: Do it Right and Reap the Rewards

by | Aug 26, 2016 | For-Profit Entities, Government Entities, Not-for-Profits

Handshake.jpgThe term “onboarding” hasn’t yet graduated from mere business jargon to an entry in the Webster’s Dictionary. Still, it’s a term that’s common in today’s business world. It refers to “the process of helping new hires adjust to social and performance aspects of their new jobs quickly and smoothly,” according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The sooner new employees are truly on board, the faster they can be productive.

It’s no longer considered sufficient to show new employees around, introduce them to a few coworkers, complete basic legal paperwork and then wish them good luck. SHRM research suggests that devising a formal onboarding program and implementing it methodically will deliver better and faster results than a seat-of-the-pants approach.

In particular, a comprehensive onboarding program promises to deliver:

  • Higher performance,
  • Higher job satisfaction,
  • Organizational commitment,
  • Reduced stress, and
  • Career effectiveness.

Assimilation at IBM

What does a comprehensive program look like? Large employers like IBM have been very intentional about integrating new employees, long before the term “onboarding” was used. About 20 years ago the company created what it called its three-stage “assimilation process:”

  • Stage 1 (“affirming”), begins before new hires start to work. It involves designating a coach for the new worker, getting the workstation prepared, and welcoming him or her to the company.
  • Stage 2 is when the employee officially begins work, procedures are in place to assure that the new employee is greeted, necessary paperwork is handled expeditiously, and, for the first 30 days, regular “check-in” times are scheduled with managers to create opportunities for any settling in issues to be addressed.
  • Stage 3, labeled “connecting,” lasts an entire year. It features scheduled interaction with a coach who, after making sure the new employee is basically integrated, assesses his or her accomplishments.

The informality of the coaching relationship gives new workers a greater comfort level in seeking and receiving advice than is often possible with a supervisor. New employees are, naturally, reluctant to ask questions that they think might make them appear incompetent.

Similarly, trusted mentors can help new employees feel their way through the “political” dynamics of the organization before they are fully acculturated.

Not every organization is large enough to have people available to serve as coaches and mentors, of course. What’s most essential is acting proactively to detect and address any employee integration issues before they blow up; don’t expect new employees to bring them to you.

The 4 Dimensions

Here’s a template for onboarding programs developed by Talya N. Bauer, Ph.D., an expert on the topic and professor in the Portland State University’s School of Business Administration (in Oregon). It features four dimensions:

  1. Compliance — teaching employees basic legal and company policy rules,
  2. Clarification — ensuring that new workers understand their jobs and all related expectations,
  3. Culture — acquainting employees with the workplace ethos and organizational norms, and
  4. Connection — developing relationships with other employees and information networks required for them to truly fit in.

Pulling the Levers

According to Bauer’s research, there are several social and job-specific “levers” related to those dimensions that can be pulled to smooth the new employee’s transition to becoming a highly productive worker. One is employee self-confidence.

While that attribute cannot be manufactured and handed to employees on a platter, a key aim of onboarding programs is precisely to instill self-confidence. Greater self-confidence can lead to great motivation and better job performance.

Another lever, clarity, pertains to how well a new employee understands his or her role. Performance will be disappointing if expectations are cloudy. “Measures of role clarity are among the most consistent predictors of job satisfaction and organizational commitment during the onboarding process,” Bauer stated in a study published by SHRM, “Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success.”

A third lever, social integration, can be accelerated in the onboarding process by connecting new employees to a variety of seasoned employees, both peers and others higher up in the organizational chart. “Failure to establish effective working relationships” Bauer writes, “is a commonly cited cause of unsuccessful hires, and the onboarding program is the best tool to prevent that from happening.”

Finally, pulling the lever of cultural fit is a key goal and purpose of onboarding. “Understanding an organization’s politics, goals and values, and learning the firm’s unique language are all important indicators of employee adjustment and down the line are associated with commitment, satisfaction and turnover,” according to Bauer.

– ©2016 –

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