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Illustration by Steve McCracken

The Art of Assimilation

It’s the first day on the job for your organization’s latest hire, and the new employee is enthusiastic, energetic, buzzing around the office with a so-great-to-be-here attitude and a handshake and easy smile for all. 

Fast forward a few months, and the new hire now seems diminished, disengaged, schlumping around the office with a what-was-I-thinking attitude and a demeanor that resembles a half-deflated balloon. An early exit from a job once considered a great career move may be imminent. 

It’s a disheartening scenario, but a company can minimize the chances that it will ever happen with a strategic onboarding program. Effective onboarding, experts say, is a critical tool in maintaining high levels of employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention, and in reducing turnover costs. Yet many senior management teams view onboarding as an afterthought, if they think about it strategically at all. Given the stakes at play, this is inadvisable, says Laura DiFlorio, an onboarding expert with the Nobscot Corporation, a human resources consultancy specializing in retention management.  

“Managers can’t spend an hour with a new hire explaining processes and be done with it,” DiFlorio says. “It’s important to remember that even if a new hire is highly skilled and experienced, they know little to nothing about your company culture, your processes and expectations.”

Losing talented new employees because they are confused, feel alienated, or lack confidence may be an indicator of inadequate onboarding. But such a situation is remediable. An organization can go on the offensive and formulate an onboarding program that will help smoothly integrate new employees, reduce the time needed for new hires to reach high productivity, minimize early turnover, and possibly gain an edge over competitors. In this article, experts discuss the key components that are necessary to build an effective onboarding program and give best practice advice for its successful implementation.

The Fragile New

Onboarding, sometimes called organizational socialization, may be defined as a process through which new hires learn attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors required to function effectively in their organizations, according to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Foundation, Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success.

“Research and conventional wisdom both suggest that employees get about 90 days to prove themselves in a new job,” writes report author Talya Bauer, an onboarding expert and management professor at Portland State University.   

In addition, new hires are physiologically vulnerable during this period, says DiFlorio. She explains this as follows. When undertaking familiar tasks, most workers switch to autopilot to conserve energy and save brain power for things that require more conscious thought. Thus, a worker might switch into this mode while driving to work; once he or she arrives, that person cannot actually remember the trip itself.

New hires, on the other hand, have few auto-pilot opportunities. “Every action from the moment the new hire wakes up requires conscious thought. That uses a lot of energy and creates ‘new hire fatigue.’ It also makes new hires less resilient to things that are not going according to plans or expectations,” she explains. Thus, the mindset of new hires, although outwardly enthusiastic, is typically nervous, anxious, and a bit lost and confused.

With that fragile mindset, when things don’t go according to expectations, there’s a greater chance for either a “quick quit” when an employee leaves within the first 90 days—or early turnover, when an employee leaves within the first year. Such early exits are not uncommon, statistics show. Roughly 46 percent of newly hired employees fail within 18 months, while only 19 percent achieve unequivocal success, according to a study conducted by business consulting firm Leadership IQ.​

Before Day One

While no company wants early turnover, onboarding best practices can be hard to come by. The comprehensiveness of onboarding programs across U.S. organizations varies widely, according to the SHRM report. On one end are “passive” onboarding programs, which often include a brief one-time explanation of procedures and a checklist of disconnected tasks. The SHRM report estimates that about a third of all organizations conduct onboarding at this basic level. On the other end are programs like “L’Oreal Fit,” the L’Oreal company’s two-year, six-part integration program that includes personalized meeting programs, training, roundtable discussions, and field experiences, such as site visits and shadowing programs.

While many organizations might not have the budget or staffing to conduct a two-year program like L’Oreal’s, an effective onboarding program can still be run with modest means if certain key concepts are followed, experts say. An effective onboarding program, according to the SHRM report, has four levels: compliance, clarification, culture, and connection.

Compliance, the lowest level, is established when employees are taught basic company rules and regulations. The next level, clarification, is achieved when new hires understand their jobs and expectations. Passive onboarding programs generally operate on these first two levels.

The next two levels, however, are where organizations can distinguish themselves and reap the benefits of onboarding. Culture means providing employees with organizational norms, both formal and informal. Connection refers to the interpersonal relationships and information networks that new employees must establish for success.  

To launch an onboarding program that reaches all four levels, it’s crucial that the program start early—even before the new hire actually arrives, says George Bradt, author of Onboarding: How to Get Your New Employees Up to Speed in Half the Time.

In a sense, onboarding actually starts with recruiting, Bradt says. During the interview process, a candidate should be given information about the culture of the organization, and allowed time to do “due diligence” on what it would be like to work there. The hiring manager should encourage this, and not act like “a used car salesman” and oversell the position.  

Bradt also advises managers to ensure that everyone in the department is aligned with the new employee before he or she comes on board. Staff should know exactly what the new hire’s role will be and how they should coordinate and work with them. This is especially important, Bradt explains, because quick quits are usually due to conflicts with peers and other stakeholders, rather than with a supervisor who was instrumental in the hiring itself. “You get a lot of ‘I thought that was my job,’” Bradt says. “They trip over each other.”

In addition, many organizations are not prepared for a new hire’s first day. “It’s surprising, the stories you hear,” Bradt says. This mistake can be avoided if managers make the effort to ensure that the new employee’s computer and other technologies are working, that key cards and security clearances are ready, and that a work station is available and prepared. ​

Socialization and Culture

Once the employee is in the office every day, experts advise organizations to follow several practices to enhance the onboarding program.  

One focal point of the program should be the socialization process, in which a new hire moves from feeling like an outsider to connecting with, and identifying with, the organization, DiFlorio explains. This is crucial for avoiding early turnover; once a new hire identifies himself with the organization, he or she is less likely to quit. “It can be heard in the language that new employees use when they switch from talking about the company in terms of ‘they’ and move to the more self-inclusive ‘we,’” she says. 

To increase the chances of successful socialization, managers should consider a new hire mentoring or “buddy” program to connect new employees with a more senior person in a similar role who can help acclimate them, experts say. Acculturation is critical; embedded in an organization’s culture are unconscious and unspoken beliefs that determine how things are done within the company. “When this information isn’t communicated, new employees can find it difficult to be successful and may feel ostracized or get discouraged,” Bauer writes in the SHRM report. For example, a company may claim to have a relaxed attitude about communications when a more rigid reporting structure is actually the norm. Having this information could help a new employee avoid embarrassing missteps. Thus, a mentor can be a great help in getting a new hire up to speed. 

In addition to transferring cultural knowledge, a manager’s duties include making an effort to carve out space in the culture for the new hire, experts say. This is especially important if the organization has many long-term employees. In addition, the new hire’s supervisor should always keep in mind that they are the role model for the new hire. 

“Managers should be careful to ‘walk the talk’ of the culture that they want to reinforce,” DiFlorio says. For example, a manager who frequently bypasses security checkpoints when coming into the office is not setting the optimal example for new hires. Another sound practice is for managers to arrange for the new hire to have frequent check-ins, not only with the manager but with the manager’s supervisor or the CSO. Frequent check-ins help reduce miscommunication and anxiety and keep the new hire on track, she adds. 

To facilitate connection and relationships, security managers in particular should consider structuring extensive networking opportunities internally and externally. This can be particularly important if the firm’s security employees are perceived as the “company cops” who are neither socially nor culturally well integrated. 

 “Departments such as security can often feel like the unloved step-child to the rest of the organization. In this kind of environment, it’s important to build bridges as early and often as possible,” according to DiFlorio. Broadening onboarding programs to include components like cross-divisional mentoring programs, intradepartment training activities, and companywide online message boards can help break down silos and bring employees from different departments of the organization together, she adds.

Measuring Success

How does an organization know if its onboarding program is working? The SHRM report cites four areas, or “levers,” that companies can focus on to gauge onboarding effectiveness.

The first is self-efficacy, or self-confidence, in job performance. Self-efficacy has been shown to have an impact on organizational commitment, satisfaction, and turnover; when employees feel confident that they are doing the job well, their motivation and chances for success increase. “Organizations should target specific onboarding programs to help boost employees’ confidence as they navigate new organizational waters,” Bauer writes. For example, IBM assigns an “ask coach” to new hires to facilitate the early stages of the new job learning process.   

  The second is role clarity, or how well a new employee understands his or her role and responsibilities. Performance often suffers if expectations are ambiguous. Thus, managers should focus on making a new hire’s position as well-defined as possible, and they should also make an effort to avoid role conflict between new and existing employees. 

  The third is social integration. Research has long found that acceptance by coworkers is a crucial indicator of employee adjustment, and acceptance into a work group is related to employee commitment level and turnover rate, according to the report. Whenever possible, managers should facilitate the new hire’s social comfort in the organization. Meeting and working with organizational “insiders” can also enhance the adjustment process for a new hire. Such meetings can help to clarify how the workplace culture interprets issues such as dress codes.

The fourth is knowledge of and fit within the organization’s culture. Understanding the company’s politics, goals, and values, as well as learning the firm’s unique language, are key indicators of employee adjustment. It’s up to managers to make the company’s culture transparent, Bauer writes in the report, and all managers  can enhance this process by showing how the new hire fits well within the organization. So, after the new hire’s skills and interests are discussed during the interview process, the manager can facilitate introductions and connections with existing employees based on that information. For example, someone who played varsity softball in college might be introduced to the captain of the company softball team.

Another good way to measure onboarding success is for the manager and new hire to collaborate on an individual plan for growth and performance, with clearly defined deliverables, DiFlorio says. Managers should identify the skills the employee brings with them, as well as identify areas that will require training, and then encourage the employee to develop their own training plan for how they can come up to speed and develop new skills, she says. 

The final aspect to a successful onboarding program may be the most critical—new employees must actively facilitate the process. This can be done in a variety of ways, from engaging in small talk with coworkers to arranging informal lunches to participating in voluntary company functions.  

In this regard, it is often helpful for a new hire to “go slow to go fas​t,” Bauer writes in the SHRM report. Sometimes, go-getters adopt an extreme work-work-work attitude, in part to prove themselves. “A lot of times people want to jump in right away,” Bauer writes. But they may skip important aspects of building relationships and miss learning the subtler norms of the organization. 

“Actually going to lunch the first week can make a big difference,” she adds.

To read the article in Spanish, click here.

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