Don’t Know How To Onboard New Employees? You’re Not Alone

Management consultant Pam Butterfield warns about the dangers of not onboarding employees correctly and how to do it right.

For many employers, bringing on new employees is something they haven’t had to do for years. The majority of their workforce was Baby Boomers who came and stayed. But today, those Boomers are leaving and employers are facing the impact of all that institutional knowledge going out the door with them.  Many are worried about how they will bring on new workers to fill all those slots.  What I’m worried about is that many of these employers have forgotten – or never really knew — how to onboard new workers so they’ll get up to speed and stay.

Here’s the challenge many employers are facing today: Boomers stayed in the workforce longer than anyone expected. As a result, many employers put off any efforts to recruit their replacements.  Several years ago there were lots of predictions about the Boomers leaving.  But many didn’t.  They chose to stay for economic or accomplishment sake.  So many employers fooled themselves into believing they would never leave.  Well, now they are leaving and employers are left with onboarding processes that are 15 to 20 years old.  If they had formal onboarding processes at all.

Today, those processes are critical. This is especially true when you’re hiring Millennials who make quick decisions about their workplaces and have no problem leaving if they are unhappy. If a company doesn’t on-board the Boomer’s replacement properly, chances are they will leave. And by the time the next employee comes along to fill the spot, the Boomer (and his or her institutional knowledge) is long gone.  Without that knowledge, the newest hire has a much higher chance of failing.

Why On-Boarding Matters

On-boarding gets an employee up to speed about how to do their job; how their work contributes to the company goals; how things are done and how things are not done. Good on-boarding gives new employees the tools to do their jobs based on what’s worked in the past.  It also gives them enough information to empower them to improve on those jobs in the future. 

Ken, the managing partner of a Connecticut-based financial planning firm and father of two daughters, told me about his firm’s struggles to bring on new employees. Here’s his lament: “I love LEGOS. My kids love LEGOS.  LEGOS come perfect ‘out-of-the-box’ every time. Why can’t new employees join our firm and fit so easily?”

The truth is you can’t expect someone coming into your organization to fit “perfect out-of-the-box.”  That’s where good onboarding comes in.  When you onboard well you get new employees up to speed faster and keep them engaged longer.

Here’s what happens when you don’t do this. I recently called two colleagues, who work at different companies, about their new jobs. Here’s what they said:

  • Employee No. 1: “No training … no onboarding … surrounded by veteran employees who are grumpy, who don’t offer help and don’t answer questions. Even my boss doesn’t have time for me.”
  • Employee No. 2: “When I ask for a little direction, the direction I get is ‘It’s on the network, go find it.’ ‘It’s not my job to help you.’‘Sorry but I just don’t have time'."

How long do you think these people are going to stay in those jobs?  Both are already looking.  When they leave, their employers will complain about “today’s employees have no loyalty.” The employer won’t realize what they could have done differently.

Get Really Good at Developing and Retaining Your People.

Improving your company’s ability to develop and retain good employees is a process, not an event.  Improvements take time and resources. Here are three things successful companies do to help new employees get off to a good start and become confident contributors:

No. 1) Onboard Employees — Imagine this. You’re standing with one foot on a boat and one foot on a dock. If you don’t put both feet on one of the surfaces, as the boat pulls away, you’ll fall into the water. The goal of a well-thought-out onboarding process is to get a new employee to move both feet solidly onto the boat (your company). You want them to be proud of the company they have joined; to feel like they belong and fit in. If you have a new employee and they get drenched from falling in the water too many times, chances are they will not be loyal to you. And they won’t perform the way you anticipated. Successful companies have an onboarding process that fits their size, culture and needs. Do an Internet search using the search term ‘onboarding new employees’ to find excellent, free resources to help you get started with onboarding in your company.

No. 2) Provide Company and Job-specific Training — Training costs money and takes time. Not training your employees costs even more. Good people do not want to go to work every day and screw up. And Millennials, who seek engagement and development, will quickly sour on their jobs without new challenges. 

What that means is that you must have an established, repeatable in-house training program.  This will help your employees develop the skills they need to do the job the way you want it done.  It will reduce the likelihood of mistakes and rework, and help new employees learn the procedures that allow them to do it efficiently.  Because you can expect Millennials (born between the early 1980s and early 2000s) to turn over more frequently than in the past, it will help you refine your processes for getting each new employee up and running faster.

By the way, “I talk. You learn,” is not training. You’ll need to train your trainers on how to train. Maybe the ultimate training solution will require you to design and implement a formal apprentice program and maybe this is several years away from reality. You might need to start with small steps. How about providing checklists for routine tasks to minimize employee errors and yield more consistent results? Or, create written work instructions for more complicated job tasks? There’s more to effective training than checklists and work instructions, but at least this is a start.

No. 3) Ongoing Feedback — Regular on-the-job ‘guidance’ catches problems before they become huge performance issues.  With newer employees, it allows you to provide course-corrections; on-the-job training and feedback.  If an employee improves, mistakes get nipped in the bud. If the person does not improve, you’ve spotted a potential flaw in your hiring process; hence the notion of continuous improvement.

This kind of ongoing feedback is also the key to retaining Millennials. They’ve grown up with constant, supportive feedback.  You can make fun of that as much as you like, but it’s what they expect. The annual performance review doesn’t cut it with this crowd.  They want to know now how they are doing constantly. Look for ways to provide that feedback if you want to keep them. 

Millennial Disruption: It’s Happening and It’s Not Going Away.

Millennials (one-in-three American workers today) are disrupting the way companies find and keep talent. They expect more from companies before they will even interview with them. They expect to be engaged and challenged where they work and to move on when they’ve learned all they can from a job or employer.

Employers who are dependent upon this generation for their next round of workers need to stop complaining about these new expectations. They need to learn ways to onboard them quickly and to get the most out of them for as long as they have them. I understand this is a disruption in the way things have been done in the past.  But it’s the way things are today. Employers that learn how to adapt to this disruption will attract and make the best use of this tech-savvy, knowledge-hungry and growth-seeking group of employees.

Here’s the mind-bender for many employers: In the past, companies hired people. Today, people are hiring companies.  Millennials learn about potential employers before they submit their resumes. In the interview process they are looking at the companies as much as companies are looking at them. And they won’t hesitate to withdraw from the selection process if a company is not a fit for them.

The Big Take Aways

I’ve worked with and worked for small companies who have succeeded in building a strong workforce. They have learned how to get, grow and keep employees. What I’ve noticed is it takes time - typically one to three years — for a small company to improve its ability to acquire, develop and retain the right employees.  These companies are often reluctant to accept this new reality and they suffer for it. They have trouble getting and keeping good employees.  When I try to talk to them about this new reality they kick and scream (“we don’t have time”, “it’ll cost too much”) and push back on the need to invest precious resources in reinventing how they hire and train their people. The time and cost concerns are valid; truly they are. If you plan to remain in business, doing nothing to improve hiring and managing people is not an option, especially in today’s hunt for scarce talent.

The lessons here are that today’s employees aren’t yesterday’s employees. And they never will be again. They expect more from a job and when they don’t get it, they leave. This drives up costs, increases frustration and the ability for a company to move forward.

Take a good look at your recruiting, onboarding, training and employee engagement processes. Start evolving them to meet the needs of the labor force you’ll need today and tomorrow. Develop repeatable processes that can be used over and over as these restless employees move on. Stop complaining and start learning from them. They may just have something to teach you.

Pam Butterfield is the founder of Business Success Tools which helps small businesses grow productively and accelerate growth through people and processes.

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