Gary Cookson
   

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In this blog I’ll discuss the importance of creating the right experience for new employees during the onboarding and induction period. In this phase, future levels of engagement by that employee are either set upon a solid foundation or are doomed to failure.

In my career I’ve had just five roles where I’ve been a paid, permanent employee and not an agency worker or short fixed term employee. Just five times I’ve been through this phase personally, and two of those occasions have happened in the last 18 months.

I’ve experienced great and poor onboarding during my career, and know how much this period matters. It’s true that first impressions do count, in work as much as in any other sphere. And so if organisations allow for a half baked welcome for new starters, they can’t be surprised if that new starter never fully integrated into the organisation and if that employee doesn’t last too long with them either. So in HR we need to own this phase and bring together all stakeholders in the employee experience to make this go as well as possible.

I mention other stakeholders because it’s wrong to assume that the employee experience is wholly the responsibility of HR. It’s not. Other functions such as IT, Estates/Premises, Comms, senior leaders across the organisation and even Reception/Security all play a part, but the role of HR should be to corral these sometimes disparate functions and ensure that the process of joining an organisation is as smooth and straightforward, not to mention motivating, as possible, and that there isn’t any unnecessary duplication of effort by anyone or abdication of responsibility either.

The new employee themselves should play an active part, which rises in proportion to their seniority or level of specialism in the organisation as it wouldn’t be right to expect the same level of onboarding activity from every new starter.

I often compare the working relationship to actual relationships, and the onboarding phase is the equivalent to the period where you’re introducing a new partner to your friends and family (and vice versa) and slowly integrating into each other’s’ lives. In such a scenario, you make efforts to ensure all parties are happy, and that they know everything they need to know and have opportunities to spend as much time together as possible.

I know people who’ve adopted children too and they’ve spoken about the very long period of getting to know each other before the adoption is finalised.

I have had elderly relatives go into care homes and have seen the various “trial days” they have before making their minds up about whether the arrangement is right for both parties.

And in the sporting world I’ve seen and done numerous examples of integrating new players into an established team – I always cite the example of Sir Alex Ferguson signing Ruud van Nistelrooy for Manchester United back in 2001 – the player was out with a very long term injury but Ferguson still wanted him and went out of his way to spend time with the player and integrate him into the team before both parties committed to a contract. And it worked.

So if onboarding, as a general principle, works well in all these situations, why do many employers not bother, or not get it right?

In my own experiences its often laziness. Employers are thinking that the new employee wants to join them, having accepted a job offer, and that there’s nothing else they need to do but wait for them to start. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As I mentioned, I’ve been through onboarding as a new starter five times, and although I’ve had some great times with some of those employers, the onboarding phases were nothing special in any of them. Yes, in the better employers, the induction itself was good and created engagement, but even in those there was nothing before I started to help me build engagement.

So I’ve often tried to manage the onboarding phase myself in recent times, which as a senior HR professional I’m in a good position to do. I’ve made contact with key people and met up with them before I’ve started, I’ve contacted key suppliers and talked to them about the working relationship, I’ve took control of my new diary and filled it up with various things, I’ve met my new team socially a few times and I’ve been remotely active in discussions with senior leaders about organisational issues.

Did this work? For me yes – it helped me to really understand the organisation I was joining, and took all of the worry out of “day one” – when I started, I felt like I was already an employee.

For one employer I joined I’m not so sure – because a lot of what I learnt during the onboarding phase made me question whether I’d made the right choice in joining that organisation. I suppose you’d call it due diligence – and for me it was coming too late – but it was obviously doing what it was intended to. The other unintended consequence was that my early involvement in the new organisation aroused suspicion as to my motives – their culture really didn’t support effective onboarding and this told me a lot. But in theory it should work.

And when I’ve been on the other side, as an employer with a new starter in my team, or a sports team manager with a new player, I’ve gone out of my way to show them ways in which they can integrate effectively both before and after they join. I’ve made sure they have access to all the information they want and need, and have a confidential buddy who they can ask all the “due diligence” type of questions they may not want to ask me as their manager. And it worked every time. Their experience was positive and they joined already engaged. In the situation I described about my own experiences, my experience in that onboarding phase was negative and I joined already disengaged.

But what can you do about it? I now had access to information that, had I had it earlier, would have led to my declining the job offer. But it was too late and I had left my previous employer.

Zappos have a well-known initiative where they allow new recruits to try out the organisation and then offer them a cash payment after their induction to leave. Those who take it probably wouldn’t have fitted in anyway. Those who stay are likely to become highly engaged. I think there’s something in that, even though Zappos overall approach has had mixed reviews. I know in my recent experience above, I’d have taken the offer to leave without a doubt.

Because when onboarding goes awry, there’s a lot at stake, and only the very best induction can save it. So if in your induction there’s no discussion about how your performance will be managed, no setting of clear expectations or boundaries in your role, no feedback except occasional negative feedback, no attempt to get you to fit in socially or in any other way, then as an employee you’d tire of this place quickly and begin to seek those things elsewhere. And as an organisation you’re then faced with repeating the time consuming recruitment process all over again, costs and all.

Imagine if you had to do that 5 times in 8-9 years for the same role.

If you did, it’s about time you looked at the experience you’re putting together for those employees and how you’re managing their initial entry into the organisation. You’d look carefully at the HR role as they should create the framework for this. But you’d also look at the prevailing culture and leadership style to see if there was something amiss, and my guess is that there will be.

If that’s your organisation, take a long hard look at yourself. And get the employee experience right from the outset.

Onboarding matters (even if it is a cliched bit of HR jargon). If you don’t put the effort in, you only have yourself to blame if you see underperformance, early exits from the organisation or behavioural problems. You only get one chance to onboard an employee and create the right experience, so get it right.

You get out what you put in.

Gary

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