World-class is a term that is often used and misused by those in human resources. It's important to realize upfront that good or even very good onboarding programs are quite common, but they are also quite different from the few existing "world-class" programs.
Almost by definition, the number of world-class programs in any field is extremely small. For example, to be considered as world-class in an Olympic sport, you must win a gold, silver, or bronze medal. Such an achievement is truly unique and the winners of this world-class status always number below one-half of 1% of the total number of participants in the sport.
Anyone attempting to design a world-class onboarding program should also realize that the program must include features and produce results that literally only a handful of onboarding programs in the entire world can achieve. As a result, the requirements for qualifying as a true "world-class onboarding program" are by definition, strenuous and quite difficult to meet.
If you're trying to move beyond "very good" and instead develop something that is truly "world-class", there are design features your onboarding program should include. In researching and writing my latest book on onboarding and orientation tools, I developed the following checklist with 38 essential program components, which are segmented into four distinct parts.
Part 1: Primary Strategic Goals of Onboarding
The items in this section are the primary strategic goals that serve as the foundation for world-class onboarding programs. Incidentally, they also differentiate onboarding from the more traditional "orientation" approach. The program should have clear and measurable goals that are communicated to all. In addition, the goals should also be prioritized or weighted.
A world-class onboarding program must have components to fit each and every one of these primary goals:
1. Make world-class the goal. The onboarding program has as its primary goal to become "world-class" and industry leading. Onboarding program features and elements are developed and updated by comparing current design components on a side-by-side basis to the attributes of benchmark "best in the world" or "best in class" programs.
2. Shorten new-hire time to productivity. Supporting the primary goal, the onboarding program is to impact the business by getting new hires up to the minimum expected productivity level as soon as possible. Each day of delay in achieving minimum productivity may equate to the loss of thousands of dollars in revenue if the product-development life-cycle or sales function is impacted. Delay in time to productivity can also frustrate new hires and lead to less than desirable viral marketing. Although providing information and getting forms filled out is necessary, it should not be the primary goal. Instead, having a business impact by increasing productivity and reducing initial errors and accidents is the primary goal. Other important goals should include retention, increasing referrals, gathering intelligence, and improving the company's external employment brand.
3. Integrate and coordinate all onboarding efforts. World-class onboarding programs make a special effort to integrate and coordinate what are traditionally independent activities. The program needs a process that integrates traditionally independent efforts including benefits enrollment, payroll registration, technology set-up, security registration, business supply delivery, office assignments, new-hire training, and local onboarding activities at the departmental level.
4. Create a competitive advantage. The onboarding program is designed to provide a clear and continuous competitive advantage for the firm. As a result, competitive analysis is conducted periodically in order to assess specifically where the firm's onboarding approach is superior and inferior, in order to expand the firm's competitive advantage.
5. Reinforce the employment brand. Immediately after accepting an offer, as well as after starting a new job, new hires can get dozens of calls and e-mails from their friends, family, and colleagues. How the new hire is treated during this crucial period has a direct impact on what they say when colleagues ask about the new environment. If they hear positive things about your firm, their friends would also want to join your firm. Negative comments can also negatively impact the over all image of the firm and even future product sales. In order to reinforce and build the brand, provide the new hire with compelling, repeatable stories, comparison information, and examples that differentiate and highlight what makes the organization an excellent place to work.
6. Learn how best to manage the individual. Identify what motivates and frustrates new hires, and learn why they quit their last job. This enables the new boss to manage and motivate them more effectively. It is equally important for the manager to find out what expectations the new employee has in the areas of training, promotion, and their preferred communication styles.
7. Make managers' expectations clear. During the first week, it is important for the new hire's manager to make sure that the new employee is aware of both company and departmental expectations. Provide information on corporate success measures, departmental plans, strategies and goals, how performance will be assessed, and bonus and promotion criteria. Specifically, reinforce what is expected during their first week and month on the job.
8. Gather referral names. An often overlooked but critical goal of any world-class program is capturing critical information from the new hire. Most important, gather names of any potential top performers that the new hire might refer. It is also an opportune time to solicit the help of the new hire in contacting and eventually recruiting referrals.
9. Keep new hires from changing their mind. Although the candidate has accepted, if the sale isn't reinforced, he or she could rethink the acceptance and instead accept another offer or be convinced to return to his or her previous job. Provide the new hire with an experience that is 100% positive, with an atmosphere akin to a celebration and a welcome ceremony, rather than a marathon exercise in bureaucracy.
10. Involve the family to bolster retention. A new job can impact the whole family, so provide the new employee's support team with anything that helps build their loyalty (remember their loyalty might positively impact retention). Potential loyalty builders include providing them with a listing of the company offerings that impact family and friends, small gifts, branded items, T-shirts, samples of company products, or even having a separate family orientation.
11. Improve the recruiting process. New hires are prime sources for identifying what worked and what didn't in recruiting. Ask new hires directly during onboarding what source motivated them to apply, as well as what information was the most persuasive that led to accepting the offer. Also, ask what part of the recruiting process almost caused a new hire to reject the offer.
12. Meet diverse needs. Because corporations make a special effort to hire diverse individuals, there must be variations in the onboarding process (either different information, the same information presented in a different way, or the information presented by different individuals) to ensure that the complete range of new hires get the information they need to become productive rapidly. This diversity might include slight variations based on geographic region, business unit, job level, or job family.
13. Have global capabilities. The onboarding program must work effectively in all locations around the world and be designed so that some elements of it can be tailored to meet local needs.
Part 2: Strategic Design Components
The following primary strategic design components serve as the foundation for world-class onboarding programs:
1. A "pre-start" component. The onboarding program provides information, online access, computer and telephone equipment, business cards, and an opportunity to sign up for benefits prior to the new hire's first day on the job.
2. An extended onboarding process. A world-class onboarding process extends well beyond the traditional first few days after the employee starts and continues as long as six months. By stretching out the process, you help to ensure that the new hire is not overwhelmed and that frustrations and questions that do not arise until weeks later can be addressed.
3. The manager is present. The most common fault at departmental-level onboarding (and the one with the most negative impact) is not having the employee's direct manager present on the first day with a plan of action for the first month of the new hire's employment. By not setting the expectation that the manager must be available with the plan on the first day, the organization is almost guaranteeing frustration and extending time to reach minimum productivity. Invariably, in the absence of the manager, new hires are shown their cubical, given a manual to read, and told to be patient until their manager returns.
4. The CEO is present. The chief executive officer or top local executive participates and appears "live" (even if it is a remote broadcast) at onboarding sessions on a scheduled basis.
5. Online capability. It is common in today's world of business for some individuals to work remotely, work on night or weekend shifts, or work in global operations. As a result, it is essential that world-class programs contain a component that allows onboarding to be completed 100% online, when a face-to-face meeting is not possible.
6. No delay in offering onboarding. Organizations that hire a small number of individuals frequently postpone providing most onboarding components until a large group of new hires can participate in a single session. Unfortunately, any delay can negatively impact new-hire productivity, as well as providing the new hire with an opportunity to make mistakes or learn poor habits that will later be difficult to erase. As a result, world-class programs offer online onboarding or do not delay onboarding beyond two weeks after the employee is hired.
7. The process periodically identifies frustrations. Because "sudden quitting" within the first three months is a real problem, the process should include at least one scheduled opportunity (whether face-to-face or anonymous) for the new hire to provide a list of the things that are frustrating them and keeping them from being their most productive. Include identifying positive factors that if added, could increase their motivation and productivity.
8. Opportunities to ask "stupid" questions. One of the most common things that prevent an employee from reaching productivity is that they are afraid to ask questions. One of the primary drivers of this fear is that the new hire feels that asking "dumb" questions might be inadvertently revealing that they were the wrong person to hire. World-class programs take that fear as a given and provide both direct and anonymous opportunities for new hires to get information and ask questions as long as six months after hire. Provide mentors, anonymous chat rooms or websites, pre-scheduled one-on-one meetings with a manager, an online glossary of key company specific terms and acronyms, or a photo gallery to help identify key individuals.
9. A growth plan is provided. Most professionals accept a job, quit a job, or are motivated to perform at a higher level by their desire to continually learn, grow, and be challenged. As a result, world-class onboarding programs require that the new hire's manager provides them with a personalized learning, challenge, and growth plan. This plan includes whatever immediate training they might need, who they feel that they need to meet, where they would like to be in 12, 24, or 36 months, as well as what the organization needs them to learn. Include personal learning and growth goals. In addition, periodically monitor these plans to ensure that they are both realistic and effective.
10. Debriefing to improve. World-class programs debrief all new hires in key positions after six months. Ask what worked well, what didn't work well, and what information would have been helpful. That information is fed back to program and new-hire managers in order to drive continuous improvement.
11. Culture is reinforced through examples. Because new hires can "dilute" an organization's culture, it is critical that new hires truly understand the organization's culture and how they are expected to act in certain situations. Research shows that the best way to reinforce these values is through telling compelling stories that illustrate these expected actions.