Onboarding: Just a Fad or a Key Differentiator?

By: Erin Terry, Director of Marketing, Executive Development Associates

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Yet many organizations ranging from start-ups and small businesses to large government entities and multinational corporations have yet to embrace the importance of onboarding as a critical component of their overall organizational culture. Consider these facts:

New employees who are part of a well-structured onboarding orientation program are 69% more likely to remain at a company for up to three years. 1

25% of companies admitted that their onboarding program does not include any form of training. This can lead to a loss of 60% of a company’s entire workforce over 4 years. 2

When surveyed, organizations perceive effective onboarding as improving retention rates by 52%, time to productivity by 60%, and overall customer satisfaction by 53%. 1

I know I have personally had a wide variety of onboarding experiences throughout my own career. I was curious to know what my colleagues had experienced in the various jobs that they have held over the years, so I took a quick poll. Here are a few highlights:

  • I went to college at UC Davis, which is about a 2-hour drive from the casinos in South Lake Tahoe.  The casinos would hold huge interview sessions to select blackjack dealers to help with the influx of tourists visiting over the summers.  About 50 of us were chosen by one of the large casinos in town, and we moved there for the summer to work.  Onboarding looked like this – we were broken up into 2 classes – about 20 per class.  We endured two weeks of “dealing school” – learning the rules, how to physically deal the cards, how to handle rowdy customers, security proceedings, tricks to count faster, etc. We were all just thrown together to be taught by some strict dealers – there was nothing warm and fuzzy about it! Then we had a shift or two where a seasoned dealer would shadow us. After that, we were set off on our own! It was really intimidating because these seasoned dealers did NOT like us 21-year old newbies. We were ignored or scolded for accidentally flicking a card off the table or not being able to count fast enough. However, compared to some organizations that provide little to no training for new hires, I do feel that the informal “dealing school” gave me the basic knowledge that I needed to do my job.
  • Both companies I worked for previously followed almost the same approach.  The first day on the job, I was given a tour of the office and during the tour, we stopped to meet all the individuals at the office (it was a small office space). We had brief introductions and continued with the tour and with the next person. Then, during that same week, a team lunch was arranged. I thought this to be a positive experience and a good way to meet the other co-workers in the office. I also liked that it was informal and a fun way to meet those in the office. It also helped put faces with names and was a great way for me to meet others in different departments. The team lunch allowed me to meet my team 1:1 and connect with them on a more personal level.
  • When I first moved to Nashville, I decided to apply for a job at the YMCA to work in their Y-Play department.  It allowed for flexibility to bring my young kids with me to work as well as the benefits of decent pay and a free YMCA membership.  I remember being introduced to everyone by my supervisor.  The thing that stood out most to me during this process was that I was called for an interview after many weeks (possibly months) of waiting to be called. During my interview, the person interviewing me proceeded to walk me around the entire YMCA while people were working out (and I am in my “interview clothes”) interviewing me as we walk and he gives me a tour.  It was so bizarre and awkward – it really makes me laugh to think of it now!
  • When I worked at a large technology company as a manager in the 2000s, they had a Lead First weeklong managers training course for all new managers, whether new to the company or new to their role.  It was a great class because all the new employees got a sense of what the company was like, met colleagues, and were trained on all the typical new manager “required reading”, such as motivation, interviewing, building effective teams, managing talent, delivering feedback, as well legally required content. I felt more comfortable with my job responsibilities from the very beginning because of this orientation.
  • Most of my new job experiences were very similar. Walk in on day one, take a short tour around the office shaking hands and making brief introductions, get settled into my new desk and start figuring things out on my own. Thankfully I have never been afraid to ask questions or solicit help as “the clueless new person” and I’ve always found that most people are very willing to train someone on the fly who is eager and willing to learn. I do, however, appreciate a solid onboarding process, like the one that I got to experience twice while employed in the airline industry. My first experience with the company was as an intern. My entire first day was spent in orientation with all the other interns from the various departments at corporate headquarters. This was in the height of the post 9/11 recession, so there were probably 20-25 of us total (comparatively speaking, this company’s internship program is probably 4-5 times this size today). It was also the first group of interns that were paid since 2001. Needless to say, I was very grateful for the opportunity. We spent the day hearing from various folks from different areas of the company – HR (aka: The People Department), Marketing, PR, and even a few Executives stopped in to speak and greet us. We participated in group learning activities, learned about different ways that we would be working together throughout the summer outside of our departmental duties, and really got to know one another as an intern team. This immediately made me feel comfortable. Many of us lived in the same apartment complex for the summer as well, so I had “instant friends” to go to lunch with, carpool with, etc.
    My second day on the job was spent meeting my entire department (around 100 folks). My manager literally took an entire day out of her work week to take me around and meet every single person – from the VP to the administrative staff. We stopped in each cubicle and had a 5-10 minute conversation. These people weren’t just interested in saying “welcome, it’s nice to meet you” – they truly wanted to know about me – where I was from, where I went to school, about my family, etc. I was blown away. That same day, my manager had also set up a welcome lunch with our immediate team. I still remember everything about it. We went to a local pizza joint, and EVERYBODY on the team came. I remember feeling so special that these people took time out of their day to honor me, a virtual stranger, the new intern (and the company didn’t pay for lunch – it was on their own dime!). Departmental leaders, including the current CMO, were at my lunch that day. “I’m too busy” or “I have a meeting that conflicts” were not prioritized over making new employees feel welcome. Though we now work in different industries, I am still good friends with my manager from this internship. I also ended up working at this company as a full-time employee for 10 years. First impressions are so important. Though ‘onboarding’ was not even a buzz word back in 2003, this company was ahead of the times and truly made a lasting impression on me as an employee.

Based on the stories above, I see a clear trend. Onboarding experiences are memorable, critical, and often shared with others (especially in the social media age that we live in today). Many of the stories above took place between 10-20 years ago, yet we can still recall and share them vividly. My advice to anyone in a position to influence their organization’s onboarding experience would be to take the time to develop a standard process, survey the participants (perhaps informally – a hallway chat is fine) to make sure the intended outcome was achieved, and, perhaps most importantly, actively participate in the process. There is nothing more impressionable to a new hire than having a leader take the time to genuinely make you feel welcome and take interest in getting to know you. Be consistent, be structured, and never take the importance of the process for granted.3