Onboarding: What Is It? Is It Worth It? and How Do You Get It Right?

David Lee

In an effort to increase employee new hire retention, competing organizations in the war for talent are re-evaluating their onboarding processes. Talent management consultant David Lee has made a name for himself in the business world by helping organizations warmly welcome talent. He believes "emotional intelligence" in the onboarding process improves company culture, talent retention and productivity because most current systems of management are fundamentally inconsistent with human nature. Lee talks with e-BIM about onboarding talent, new hire retention and how to make your company a great place to work.

First off, what precisely is onboarding?

As the name implies, it’s the process of getting new employees onboard, i.e. helping them become integrated into your workforce and productive members of your organization. We usually define it as the first six months on the job, but the amount of time it takes a new employee to learn his or her job and become integrated into the workforce can vary according to the complexity of the job and the organization.


I know onboarding has become quite the hot topic in the last couple of years. I can see where skeptics might see it as just another flavor-of-the-month management fad.

I could too, especially because the term sounds like "business speak." While I usually avoid jargon, every profession seems to have adopted some form of shorthand language that works. I think there’s value in using the term "onboarding" because it communicates the essence of the process. As far as whether it’s a fad, I find the sudden interest in onboarding a bit bewildering. Having experienced the kind of pathetic onboarding most employees have endured—and noticing how it affected the impression I had of my new employer—I wonder why so many people didn’t recognize the need for getting this right years ago.

Why do you think it took so long?
I think a big reason is because new employees are the least likely to complain. So employers are unlikely to get feedback about how atrocious their onboarding process is. Think about when you started a new job. You wanted to make a good impression. The last thing you wanted to be perceived as was "high maintenance" or a complainer. So, to avoid such labels, I think employees simply decide to "grin and bear it," rather than complain about an ineffective and unwelcoming orientation program, slipshod workspace preparation (i.e. boxes and other junk on their desk, no phone, etc.), their overwhelmed and disinterested new boss and the many other unwelcoming, inconsiderate ways that employers unwittingly treat their employees.
But why would a company that has spent all that money to recruit people do that to them once they’ve been hired?
I think it’s a combination of workload and human nature. Because there’s a never-ending supply of work and not enough time, it’s natural to focus on the urgent—the situations that scream at you. It’s not natural to go on "problem hunting expeditions" when you’ve got more than enough to do. Thus, because new employees were unlikely to speak up, employers assumed their onboarding process was working.
Then why the interest now?

I think two key reasons are the growing awareness of just how costly turnover is and the talent war. Employers realize they can’t afford to lose the people they do recruit. I also think that because Gen Y employees (basically your "twentysomethings") are so willing to pack up and leave if they don’t like their new job, there’s no missing the fact that your onboarding process isn’t working.
So you’re saying that the Gen Y worker’s willingness to leave makes it hard to miss the fact that an onboarding program isn’t working?
Exactly. When I do seminars on managing Gen Y employees, one of the points I try to get across is what I call "The Hidden Gift of The Gen Y Employee." While many managers and human resources professionals complain about the Gen Y employees’ lack of loyalty and their willingness to walk out the door if they’re not happy, I think there’s a hidden gift in this propensity. Because many in this generation have no qualms about either telling you you’re blowing it as an employer—or just leaving—you don’t have to worry about thinking everything is fine when it’s not. They’ll let you know in words or through action. So employers don’t have to worry about not knowing what they’re doing wrong as an employer. With Gen Y employees, you’ll know. So I think this also has had an impact on human resources professionals and management waking up to the importance of getting onboarding right.
What advice do you have for an human resources department or management team wishing to improve their onboarding process?

Well, first, read the current thought leadership on the topic. I’m quite partial to my white paper "Successful Onboarding: How to Get New Employees Started Off Right" and onboarding articles. Seriously, they will provide you with a good framework for creating your own "home grown" onboarding process. I highly recommend the home grown approach, since every company has its own personality and culture. As part of creating your own unique onboarding program, I would say the most important thing an employer can do is involve their employees in the process.
Involve them how?
Ask your new employees what knowledge, tools and training they need to get up to speed as rapidly as possible. Find out what they need to know to feel like they can navigate your organization. Knowing "the ropes," so to speak, will make a huge difference in how comfortable and secure they will feel. Ask them how you can do a better job welcoming them. Ask them how you can help them feel more connected to their peers and their employer as a whole. This last one is especially important for your Gen Y employees. There’s some fascinating research done by SelectMinds and Intellisurvey that showed the number one concern of new Gen Y employees is creating connections with their new peers. Thus, if you want to keep your Gen Y employees, you have got to do this well.

And how do you do that?

By asking them. It’s like the Fresh Eyes concept I first heard about years ago from Chip Conley, CEO of Joie De Vivre Hospitality, and author of Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow (a great book by the way). Years ago, Joie de Vivre hotel management started "borrowing the perspective" of new employees through their Fresh Eyes process. They ask their new employees to share their insights on how things are run and potential areas of improvement. New employees are told that because they are new to this job and this workplace, they can see opportunities for improvement that seasoned veterans aren’t able to.
With regard to onboarding, new employees can see how your onboarding process needs improvement where you might not be able to?
Exactly. This is especially true for aspects of your process that might seem obvious to a veteran employee, but which are confusing or mysterious to the new employee. Veteran employees know where to find the information they need; they know which hall to turn down without having to locate the miniscule signage the new employee must use. They know which rules are hard and fast and which ones you can apply discretion to. When we’ve been doing something for a long time or are familiar with an environment, we forget all the unconscious learning we draw from that which allows us to make decisions and navigate our surroundings. New employees don’t have all this contextual knowledge. So what’s obvious to us is not to them. Thus, you must ask them for their perspective on everything.

So, some kind of employee survey?

That will give you useful information, but I don’t think that’s enough. I’m much more a fan of one-on-one conversation, or, if that’s not possible, small focus groups. For the one-on-one approach, let me use Northeast Delta Dental, a company that does a great job with onboarding. They’ve been a perennial member of New Hampshire’s Best Places to Work list and for the last two years, a member of the Best Small Companies to Work For list by the Best Workplaces Institute™. They have a process they call "20 Questions with Connie." This is where the new employee meets with VP of Human Resources Connie Roy-Czyzowski, after 90 days to share with her how he or she is doing. As you might guess from the name "20 Questions With Connie," she has a list of 20 questions she uses as a framework to find out how their new hires are doing, if there’s anything they need and how Northeast Delta Dental can improve it’s onboarding process.

What about the focus group approach?

The Ritz-Carlton brings their new employees together after 21 days and asks them about their onboarding experience and whether they—the Ritz-Carlton—are delivering the amazing work experience they promised. A key part of this that makes it work is that they have managers in the room taking notes. As their VP of Global Learning and Leadership, Diana Oreck, notes, employees have to see that their ideas are being taken seriously and are being acted on if they’re going to continue to give feedback. So, if you solicit input from your new hires, surprise them. Do something with their feedback.

Make sure you follow up with the input you receive. Any other points you want to make before we wind up this interview?

Two things. I think that if you want your onboarding process to really be top notch, seek out the best hotelier in your area and invite him or her to lunch. Find out what he or she notices, looks for and does to create positive emotional experiences for his or her guests. Then share this with your onboarding team and use it as a catalyst for creating more positive new employee experiences. Or, better still, have that hotelier meet with your team and examine your processes.
So, it’s sort of like the Fresh Eyes concept?
Yes, except you’re borrowing the Expert Eyes of a true "experience professional."
What’s the other point you were going to mention?
The other point is that I hope the reader of this interview internalizes the four mantras of onboarding I write and teach about:
  • Everything Matters
  • Think Experience
  • What’s the Emotional Take-away?
  • What’s the Perceptual Take-away?
I’ve adapted these from the worlds of customer service and branding. I believe if you keep them in mind at all times when analyzing your current onboarding process and as you refine your processes, they can help you create an onboarding experience with the level of discernment and refinement that a world class hotelier like the Ritz-Carlton brings to its customer experiences.
Interview by Blake Landau, editor