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Optimize Onboarding

September 2019

By Adrienne Fox Luscombe

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Boost the odds that new hires will excel—and choose to stay—with an effective employee onboarding program.

When Shannon Seales, learning and development consultant at the University of Denver (DU), participated in the institution’s employee onboarding program five years ago as a new hire, she was dismayed. At that time, the program consisted of 90 minutes of paperwork and a legal review. “That was it,” she says.

The onboarding experience is the first glimpse that many new employees have into how an organization really operates, and it’s not always a pretty picture. According to Gallup workplace analytics, only 10 percent of employees surveyed strongly agree that their organization did a good job of onboarding.

A 2016 survey by Human Capital Index found that more than half of organizations focus on processes and paperwork during employee onboarding. One-third of participants described their onboarding program as informal, inconsistent, or reactive.

Meanwhile, the best employee onboarding programs are quite the opposite: structured and strategic, with a focus on culture and connections. According to the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation white paper Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success, onboarding programs should incorporate the four C’s: clarification, compliance, culture, and connection.

The white paper further states that 69 percent of employees at one organization surveyed were more likely to stay with that organization for up to three years if they had a good onboarding experience. Moreover, new employees decide within the first 90 days if they are going to stay or if they will stay until they find employment elsewhere.

Finding ways to improve retention is critical for colleges and universities—which grappled with an average 12 percent turnover rate for administrator positions from 2016 to 2018, according to Higher Education Publications Inc.—and effective onboarding programs can help. Research by Brandon Hall Group suggests a strong onboarding process can improve new employee retention by 82 percent and productivity by 70 percent.

To build a business case for revamping DU’s onboarding program from the ground up, Seales used research and her previous experience consulting for various types of organizations. “I looked at employee engagement surveys, our turnover, and how ineffective onboarding directly affects engagement and turnover,” says Seales. “I let the data tell the story.” She then received the go-ahead to overhaul DU’s onboarding experience and rolled out its program in fall 2015.

Provide Clarity

In order for employees to hit the ground running, a robust onboarding program must include the essentials everyone needs, such as an employee ID, parking pass, and e-mail credentials. Good programs ease the burden placed on new hires and supervisors for obtaining these must-haves.

At DU, that meant centralizing the administrative aspects of starting a new job and making the necessary information easily accessible. DU has five generations in the workplace, including students, but what works for one generation may not work for another. “The new program is more inclusive to all types of employees, with a combination of online and in-person delivery methods translated into multiple languages,” says Seales. “In the past year, we have created a complete onboarding program that is virtual for remote employees. We have a separate online section of resources for remote staff and faculty.”

The centralized concept is beneficial not only to employees but also to institutions at large. For example, through its onboarding process, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, is able to lay the foundation of its organizational culture and build a sense of community and connection to the goals of the institution, says Amy Grubbs, manager of NC State’s Onboarding Center, which opened in 2013. All permanent employees are required to attend the university’s new employee orientation, which runs about five hours, within 30 days of employment. The orientation includes a bus tour of campus and lunch at one of the dining halls. Grubbs and her staff of three specialists facilitate the onboarding of roughly 1,200 permanent employees and 2,000 temporary employees each year.

Once hired, a welcome e-mail that includes ID numbers and log-in information is sent to the new employees. A link is also provided to arrange an appointment with an onboarding specialist on the employee’s first day to complete tasks related to direct deposit, parking, tax forms, and ID cards. NC State employees can complete a benefits orientation online or in class, both of which have proven equally popular, according to Grubbs.

More and more, higher education institutions are centralizing their onboarding programs in order to create more consistency and control messaging to new hires. Chrissy Harrison, onboarding program manager at the University of Colorado Boulder, recently launched the one-stop QuickStart Center for new CU Boulder employees to obtain campus credentials; receive benefits information; learn how to access IT systems; and complete administrative tasks, most of which can be done online. Harrison and her team make sure that employees are ready to work on Day One. “Before it was centralized, employees would get to work and couldn’t access e-mail for weeks,” she says. Now Harrison works with IT to get employee credentials and e-mail access lined up in advance.

Explain Compliance

Training is another onboarding program essential. DU requires all employees to complete training in Title IX, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and discrimination and sexual misconduct, says Seales. DU also requires active-shooter training and covers its drug use and conceal-carry policies thoroughly. “Although marijuana has been legalized in the state of Colorado, DU remains committed to a drug-free workplace and campus,” notes Seales. “And, even though Colorado is a conceal-carry state, we are not a conceal-carry campus. We don’t allow any weapons on campus.”

CU Boulder also offers some mandatory training, both in person and online. Harrison keeps a checklist online for employees to sign up for training within the required time frame.

At NC State, training is conducted in the afternoons of orientation sessions. Each one is led by the appropriate subject matter expert, all from various departments. “We don’t own the compliance training, but we coordinate it,” says Grubbs. “We bring all the components together in one place.”

For typical onboarding programs, clarification and compliance might be the end of the agenda; for robust programs, that is only the beginning. The real value-added content of the onboarding experience focuses on culture and connection.

Share Your Culture

Many colleges and universities won’t attract and retain employees based solely on compensation, so they must get creative with how they present their employment opportunities. Fortunately, higher education has several strengths that appeal to a growing number of candidates, especially millennials. “Higher education has the ability to hook employees with on-site learning and development opportunities, rich and diverse campus programs, flexibility, and a connection to purpose,” notes Seales. “We need to connect new employees to those strengths immediately,” she adds.

A 2018 survey from the recruiting firm Jobvite found that among the 30 percent of new hires who leave within 90 days, 43 percent said job duties did not match expectations and 32 percent cited company culture. To combat this problem, Seales incorporated supervisors into the orientation session. “I put them one-on-one with their new hires to explain the mission of the university and how their work fits into that mission and into the overall strategic plan,” she says.

Harrison explains that CU Boulder is shifting away from exit interviews and toward stay interviews. At different intervals, she prompts supervisors to ask new employees questions such as: Does the job match what you expected? If not, where can we course-correct? What motivates you, and how can we integrate that more into your job responsibilities? “We provide tools to deepen those conversations between employees and supervisors,” says Harrison.

At NC State’s new employee orientation sessions, an onboarding center specialist spends time connecting employees to the university’s mission and vision. “We talk about the different roles at the university and how they’re contributing to the mission,” says Grubbs.

Honesty is the best policy when communicating university culture, advises Seales. Especially if new employees are coming from a corporate background, they should be made aware that the pace of decision making might be slower than what they’re accustomed to. At DU, new hires are invited to go on a student-led tour of the campus to hear about the university’s history and key programs. “They get to see the school through the students’ eyes and remember why they’re there,” says Seales.

Grubbs capitalizes on employees’ desire to seek purpose in their work. “We are a research organization and a land-grant institution, so a lot of what we do is driven by our desire to improve the state and to help the community,” she says. “Seeing the research that comes out of the university and the good it does gives a sense of pride to all employees. Even if you aren’t directly involved in the particular program making a difference, we emphasize how each person helps make that program or research possible.”

Her advice to other institutions is to identify special qualities of their campus life and then talk them up. “Make sure employees know what’s unique about your workplace,” says Grubbs.

Harrison agrees: “Working in higher education is a higher calling, and emphasizing the aspirational parts of the job resonates [with employees].”

Encourage Connections

Once new employees have been immersed in the culture, they need to stay engaged through meaningful connections—this also starts with the onboarding experience.

Sara Reed, associate vice president of people and workplace culture at Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, came on board about a year ago in this newly created position. SLCC had just transitioned from a decentralized onboarding process to a centralized one, which has improved the consistency and quality of the experience. Now the institution wants to evolve the program by focusing beyond administrative checklists to enhance the employee experience, says Reed. Part of her team’s work is to concentrate on employee engagement, starting with onboarding.

To achieve that goal, Reed’s team is facilitating connections between new hires and the mission and values of the organization through planned events. A semimonthly “Bruin Beginnings” program features talks from executives about SLCC’s culture, mission, vision, and values and how these translate to specific programs, such as diversity and inclusion. Many people are drawn to higher education institutions because of their missions and values, so when orientation programs don’t talk about them, “It is a wasted opportunity,” notes Reed.

SLCC started piloting cross-organizational events to break down silos and improve connections. “We got about four times as many people as expected at the first couple of events, so I think people are craving these opportunities to connect,” says Reed.

To that end, DU decreased the frequency of its new-hire orientations in order to increase the number of participants and their potential for connections. Of the roughly 700 new faculty and administrative staff DU hires each year, between 20 and 75 attend one of the semimonthly sessions. “Grounds workers sit next to executive directors,” says Seales. “We don’t care what your title is here at DU. We want to know what you’ll be adding to the university. The best feedback I get is from the higher-level folks, who appreciate getting to know people they ordinarily would never have the opportunity to meet.”

Seales starts each session with an icebreaker. “New employees will find surprising connections—such as being from the same hometown or loving to knit—that will instantly connect them,” she says. “That’s important not only for employees to feel engaged immediately but also to work across departments and divisions.”

To encourage connections beyond the initial orientation period, Seales hosts lunch sessions for DU employees hired during the previous 18 months. A representative from the athletics department may talk about free fitness classes and how to get tickets to games. Performing arts center staff members may highlight an upcoming show and packaged offers available to employees. The chancellor’s office may send someone to discuss task forces at the university and how to get involved.

CU Boulder recently rolled out a redesigned orientation program called the New Employee Welcome Experience (NEW-X), which is a full day spent on campus to learn about the institution’s values, initiatives, and history. Merna Jacobsen—Harrison’s mentor and CU Boulder assistant vice chancellor, deputy chief HR officer, and director of organizational and employee development—describes NEW-X as a way to “demystify the campus.” The program is held twice per month with a group of about 25 new employees. Heading into the third year of the new program, Harrison notes: “We are seeing a culture shift where people are working outside of silos and connecting to people outside of their departments.”

CU Boulder also recently redefined its onboarding model and now uses a three-tiered model broken into intervals:

After nine to 12 months, HR helps recent hires and their supervisors find ways to excel in their work through performance management and professional development. “We look at onboarding as a process that lasts a year or longer,” says Harrison. “All of this builds employee engagement and retention.” Onboarding is not an event, and it’s not owned by one department on campus. “The overarching purpose of onboarding is to move new employees to higher levels of productivity faster,” says Harrison. “The outcomes are increased retention and higher levels of engagement and job satisfaction.”

Solicit Feedback

To stay connected to new employees, Harrison’s office sends out targeted communications at 30 days of employment, at 90 days, and at 180 days. “Research shows that repeated messaging on the same topics is never a bad thing—reinforcing concepts that may not have clicked at first,” says Harrison. Consequently, CU Boulder is seeing upticks in satisfaction from survey respondents.

Some of the survey comments that Harrison has received include: “This is the best onboarding experience I’ve ever had” and “I am so glad I had this experience because it helped me see the big picture and how I fit in.” Supervisors also have thanked her office for streamlining administrative tasks. “The time it took to get digitally credentialed has gone down from two weeks to 24 hours, and [now] it’s completed before the start date. That’s a huge improvement.”

At DU, Seales conducted pulse surveys early on to get immediate feedback from participants and then followed up with two more surveys at 12 months and 18 months. The most common response was that employees had never before experienced an orientation as helpful as their DU orientation in terms of understanding the organization.

HR still struggles with ensuring that supervisors continue the onboarding experience, despite the checklists and guides it provides for that purpose, notes Seales. As manager of supervisor training, she has trained managers on how to continue the onboarding experience, but only 20 percent of the roughly 700 supervisors have participated in the voluntary training over the past two years. “It falls to everyone in the organization to onboard new employees, especially supervisors.”

At NC State, Grubbs surveys participants at 90 days to ask about their onboarding experience with the center and with their departments. Employees said they liked the one-on-one approach and the one-stop shop for handling parking passes and employee IDs, says Grubbs. “Department heads like that we handle I-9 forms, and our completion and accuracy rates are much higher [as a result].” Yet, she admits there is room for improvement. “[What] we notice from new employee feedback is that there are gaps in the process,” says Grubbs. “We partner with supervisors to help them understand their role in creating a positive experience for the new employee.”

While it’s hard to remove all the variables, Grubbs found a 218 percent increase in the retention rate among new employees within the first six months after the onboarding center opened. She also quantified the amount of time the center saved employees and supervisors on completing administrative tasks associated with onboarding. “We demonstrated 8,000 hours a year in time saved because we are able to consolidate these tasks and do them more efficiently,” says Grubbs.

Colleges and universities need to be more intentional about employee onboarding, says Reed. “Onboarding to some people can seem small and inconsequential, and so things fall through the cracks.” Yet, if even 1 percent fall through the cracks of a large institution with 30,000 employees, that’s 300 people not having a good experience, warns Reed. “And we know from research that it’s a lot more than 1 percent.”

Reed is in the process of conducting focus groups with employees to ask about their onboarding experience during their first 90 days. “We want to know if they feel engaged and connected and have found their community,” she says. “People want to feel like they belong. We want people to love working here.”

ADRIENNE FOX LUSCOMBE, Falls Church, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.


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The real value-added content of the onboarding experience focuses on culture and connection.