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Employee Onboarding – Let’s Focus on What Matters Most 

New employees want to know what they should do and how they should behave to fit into the culture. As every company has its own norms, traditions and values, it is essential to help new hires navigate the culture. It is critical to address both the formal and informal norms in your culture. 

The key to business success are employees who are engaged and perform well. Companies invest a lot of resources into the recruiting and hiring process. However, they do not always pay enough attention to onboarding their new hires. Contributor Indrek Lepner HR Business Partner – Danske Bank, Estonia Branch.

Onboarding can be a powerful tool if it is well thought out and consistently applied. Experience suggests that administrative kind of onboarding programs fail to create value in terms of employee engagement, productivity and retention. Onboarding programs in order to be truly effective need to be strategic in nature. They must help new hires learn about how they are connected with the big picture. 

Onboarding is about shaping the varied experiences new employees have when joining your company. As resources are limited, we need to prioritize which of those experiences are worth most influencing. Experiences that revolve around human connection, business acumen, organizational culture, social blending and role clarity have the greatest impact in the onboarding process. You will gain the maximum benefit by incorporating all of them into your onboarding program.  

Human connection
Human connection should be the cornerstone of the whole onboarding experience. It should shine through all of the activities that happen during the onboarding process. People who feel connected to their leader are more likely to feel good about their jobs, put in extra effort and stay with the organization. Without connection, our emotional well-being will suffer. This may even lead to isolation and disengagement. When employees judge their managers, they first tend to look at two characteristics: how warm they are as human beings and how competent they are as professionals. 

As studies show, most managers are eager to emphasize their competence and credentials in the workplace. They feel compelled to demonstrate that they are up to the job. Research, however, suggests that it is the wrong approach. People first want to know how warm and empathetic their leaders are. Warmth contributes significantly more to others’ evaluations of us and it is judged before competence. It is critical to keep this in mind when onboarding new employees.

Creating a connection with a new hire has two prerequisites: direct manager’s physical presence and emotional attention. Direct managers must have regular conversations with their new hires to see how things are going and provide help when needed. These conversations should not only be work related. Informal chats about hobbies and life in general add a human touch to those talks.        

Here are some key questions that your new hire is likely to be thinking about during her onboarding process:

  • Do I feel welcome here?
  • Am I experiencing a well planned and structured onboarding process?
  • Do I perceive it as a caring and fun workplace culture?
  • Does my supervisor engage in frequent one-on-one conversations with me?
  • Does my supervisor also take interest in me as a person, not only as an employee?
  • Do I feel confident about getting help and support when needed?
  • Do I feel valued and respected by other team members?  

The author encourages you to use these questions to think through and design the human connection part of your onboarding program.  

Business acumen
Business acumen includes two essential aspects for newly hired employees. First, it has to do with developing a broader understanding of how a company operates and makes money. Employees need to be explained what the company does, who its target customers are and how it creates value for them. A great way to teach new hires your business is to partner them with a member of your customer service for a day or two. They’ll develop a real understanding of whom, how and why the company is serving. 

Second, new hires at all levels need to comprehend how their role impacts critical business outcomes. It is also instrumental that new employees quickly grasp how they cross-functionally connect to other parts of the business. Employees contribute more effectively when they understand the essence of your business and see how their work fits with what the company is trying to achieve. Such knowledge enables them to respond quickly to problems as they arise, make informed decisions and coordinate actions across business units. Providing illustrative examples of how other employees have delivered on the strategy helps new hires connect the dots. It activates their drive and ambition. 

Here are some key questions to guide you in preparing your business acumen section of the onboarding process:

  • What products and services do we offer?
  • Who are our target customers?
  • How do we create value for them?
  • Who are our main competitors?
  • How do we differ from the competition?
  • What does success look like for our company?
  • How does your new hire’s work affect business success?

Organisational culture
New employees want to know what they should do and how they should behave to fit into the culture. As every company has its own norms, traditions and values, it is essential to help new hires navigate the culture. It is critical to address both the formal and informal norms in your culture. 

Values play a critical role in organizational culture, serving as criteria for making decisions and setting priorities. As there are no specific instructions available for every situation, values guide employees in how they should respond to challenges and solve problems. Values need to be expressed in behavioral terms so that your new hires can quickly grasp the real essence and meaning behind them. For instance, teamwork as a value can be interpreted differently by different new employees. However, describing teamwork through specific behaviors makes it much more understandable and relatable. What do you think which would guide your new hires better during their onboarding training? Just telling them that teamwork is one of your core values? Or explaining them that by teamwork you mean the following attitudes and behaviors: “we welcome and respect every team member’s opinions and ideas”; “we actively share knowledge and experience to help each other succeed”; and “we give honest feedback to support each other’s growth”? You should give your new hires real life examples of how value-based behaviors have helped employees succeed. Sharing memorable stories help reinforce the fundamentals. Also, explain your new recruits how they are expected to treat colleagues and customers based on values.   

As organizational culture is broader than core values, it is also essential to touch upon other facets of the culture. Give a brief overview of the history (highlighting major milestones achieved) and share what corporate traditions you keep in place. This enables new recruits better understand why the company is what it is today. It is instrumental to focus on what it really takes to thrive in your company and how it reflects in management practices. Let’s suppose that competitiveness is an important aspect of your culture. So you basically need to explain what it is that you do as an organization to be highly competitive. How does this reflect in goal setting? Is individual achievement valued more than teamwork? How do we assess and reward great performance? How do we deal with underperformers? 

Social blending
Companies need to take a more systematic approach to helping new hires build relationships. They need to include initiatives that help new hires nourish personal and professional networks in the workplace. Having positive relationships at work is seen as a major predictor of employee engagement. In addition, relationships with coworkers can play a major part in a new employee’s decision to stay with a company. 

As far as professional networks, you first need to figure out who the main colleagues are that your new team member will start working with. Your new hire wants to know who they are, what they do and how her work interrelates to theirs. Your role as a supervisor is to help set up first meetings and give a bit of advice on how to effectively collaborate with those key stakeholders. Second, every new recruit should get a mentor to show her the ropes and give guidance. Mentors play a key role in helping new employees gain greater insight into organizational norms, practices and dynamics. Mentors also assist with navigating internal networks. A direct manager and a mentor serve as an essential supportive network for a new employee. However, you need to pay attention to developing broader internal social networks which enable to connect with many more colleagues. The better socially connected your new employee becomes, the better she understands your business. Organizing various corporate social events helps serve this purpose. Developing a shared platform which connects your new hires with existing employees contributes to this as well.      

When it comes to building personal networks, one way to bring people together is through shared interests and common hobbies. It is a well-known fact that similarities unite people. There are simple ways you can support common activities and encourage employees to get to know each other. First of all, you need to find out what the most popular interests are among your employees. It would not be possible to tailor to every single employee’s needs. However, you can build leisure activities around the most common areas of interest. Let’s suppose billiard is one of the most popular activities among your employees. You can arrange regular weekly/bi-weekly pool trainings and even hire a coach to teach both the beginners and advanced players. In addition, you can run corporate pool tournaments a couple of times a year. As running and bicycling tend to be popular these days, creating a common account where you can see each other’s sports entries, cheer and comment on those can be a good idea as well. If many employees are into singing, you can set up a corporate choir that meets on a regular basis and performs on special occasions. These are just a couple of examples. Every time you hire a new employee, you can point her in the right direction based on her interests. It helps new recruits quickly get to know their colleagues from different parts of the organization and build valuable personal networks.  

 Here are some key questions that you can use for building your social blending component of the onboarding process: 

  • Who are the key stakeholders that your new hire needs to meet?
  • What internal networking groups and sharing platforms does the company have?
  • What affinity groups do we have in the company?
  • Is the company engaged in charity events?
  • Do we have any after-work informal social activities with the team?
  • How could a buddy/mentor best foster new hire’s social integration?
  • How could a new recruit best support her own social blending?

Role clarity
Research suggests that role clarity is one of the most consistent predictors of job satisfaction and organizational commitment during the onboarding process. So it is crucial to make sure that employees develop a solid understanding of their new jobs. Work relationships often suffer from a lack of clarity. 

When it comes to role clarity, we need to pay attention to the following aspects. First of all, a new employee should have a job description that outlines the purpose of the job, major tasks and performance expectations. Job descriptions should be created based on input from various stakeholders who have a deep understanding of the requirements for the role. It is not enough just to hand over the written job description and hope it will work miracles. It is necessary to sit down with your new hire and discuss the job. You need to encourage new employees to ask questions to see how well they comprehend what you are trying to say. Second, setting specific and measurable goals is an essential part in providing role clarity. It gives employees a clear focus and direction. When talking about goals, it is also necessary to discuss what skills, behaviors and attitudes help achieve those goals. Third, it is critical that managers have regular one-on-one conversations with their new hires. These conversations help employees get feedback on their performance, receive coaching support, and ensure they clearly understand what is expected of them. Managers should also use these conversations to reemphasize why this specific job is critical to the company and how it affects business success.     

Here are some key questions that your onboarding program should address in terms of role clarity:   

  • What are the most essential company regulations and policies that a new hire must follow?
  • What are her major tasks and responsibilities?
  • What is her decision-making authority?
  • What objectives does she need to accomplish?
  • Does she have all the necessary resources and tools to do her job well?
  • How is her performance going to be assessed?
  • From whom and what kind of support can she get if needed?

Onboarding directly affects important employee and organizational outcomes such as engagement, productivity and retention. Successful onboarding programs are strategic in nature. They help new hires learn about how they are connected with the big picture.  Experiences that revolve around human connection, business acumen, organizational culture, social blending and role clarity have the greatest impact in the onboarding process. Each component answers key questions for new employees. Incorporating all of them into your onboarding program will help set your new employees up for success.   

Bauer, T. N. (2010). Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success. Published by The SHRM Foundation

Cuddy, A. J.C.; Kohut, M.; & Neffinger, J. (2013). „Connect, then Lead: to Exert Influence, You Must Balance Competence with Warmth“. Harvard Business Review: July-August 2013.     

Stein, M. & Christiansen, L. (2010). Successful Onboarding: Strategies to Unlock Hidden Value Within Your Organization. Published by McGraw-Hill  

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