Strategic On-boarding

Maximizing on brining new employees on board

Employees get about 90 days to prove themselves in a new job. The faster new hires feel welcome and prepared for their jobs, the faster they will be able to successfully contribute to the firm success.

After effective recruitment and selection, one of the most important ways that organizations can improve the effectiveness of their talent management systems is through the strategic use of on-boarding.

On-boarding is the process of helping new hires adjust to social and performance aspects of their new jobs quickly and smoothly. This should always be a priority for organizations.

In the United States, every year more than 25 percent of the working population experiences career transitions. In the Fortune 500 companies alone, about 500,000 managers take on new roles each year, and overall, managers begin new jobs every two to four years. Unfortunately, in the midst of all these transitions:

  • Half of all senior outside hires fail within 18 months in a new position
  • Half of all hourly workers leave new jobs within the first 120 days

Let us explain why on-boarding is so important, where it fits into the larger HR context, how managers can proactively manage on-boarding and, finally, how new employees can help facilitate their own on-boarding process. 

A Choice of Approaches

Research and conventional wisdom both suggest that employees get about 90 days to prove themselves in a new job. Every organization has its own version of the complex processes through which new hires learn attitudes, knowledge, skills and behaviors required to function effectively. Academic researchers who study on-boarding also use the term organizational socialization. No matter what the terminology, the bottom line is that the faster new hires feel welcome and prepared for their jobs, the faster they will be able to successfully contribute to the firm’s success.

The formality and comprehensiveness of on-boarding programs varies widely across organizations, and those considered “best in class” for on-boarding have more formal on-boarding programs. For example, starting with a first-day welcome, global beauty company L’Oreal says, “Our aim is to develop successful, committed and mutually beneficial relationships with each of our employees.” The company supports on-boarding with a two-year, six-part integration program called “L’Oreal Fit.” The program includes:

  • Training and roundtable discussions
  • Meetings with key insiders
  • On-the-job learning supported by line management
  • Individual mentoring and HR support
  • Field and product experiences such as site visits and shadowing programs

Approaches to on-boarding range from quite structured and systematic—as in the case of L’Oreal—to the “sink or swim” strategy, in which new employees often struggle to figure out precisely what is expected and to understand the norms of their new workplace.

One of the first things managers should consider is whether their firm is served best by: 

Informal or formal on-boarding 

  •  Informal on-boarding refers to the process by which an employee learns about his or her new job without an explicit organizational plan.
  •  Formal on-boarding refers to a written set of coordinated policies and procedures that assist an employee in adjusting to his or her new job in terms of both tasks and socialization.

Research shows that organizations that engage in formal on-boarding by implementing step-by-step programs for new employees to teach them what their roles are, what the norms of the company are and how they are to behave are more effective than those that do not. Again, as in the case of L’Oreal, formal on-boarding provides a fixed sequence of activities for new employees—a sequence that is timed carefully—as well as help from organizational role models.

Some other variables managers will want to look at when analyzing their firm’s on-boarding procedures are sequencing, numbers of new hires grouped together and how supportive the company is—an intangible that is always difficult to measure.

The Four C’s 

On-boarding has four distinct levels, the Four C’s:

  • Compliance is the lowest level and includes teaching employees basic legal and policy-related rules and regulations
  • Clarification refers to ensuring that employees understand their new jobs and all related expectations
  • Culture is a broad category that includes providing employees with a sense of organizational norms— both formal and informal
  • Connection refers to the vital interpersonal relationships and information networks that new employees must establish

The building blocks of successful on-boarding are often called the Four C’s.

The degree to which each organization leverages these four building blocks determines its overall on-boarding strategy, with most firms falling into one of three levels.

Level 1: Passive On-boarding  

Almost all organizations naturally cover compliance as part of formal on-boarding. For firms that engage in

Passive On-boarding, or Level 1, some role clarification may be given, but neither Culture nor Connection is addressed. Some informal ways of guiding new employees in terms of Culture and Connection may have developed over time, but no one—including HR staff— is coordinating the task to maximize on-boarding success. If your firm is engaged in Passive On-boarding, you are likely to view on-boarding as a checklist

of unrelated tasks to be completed. Research shows that approximately 30 percent of organizations- large, medium and small—work at this level. Passive On-boarding can be functional, but it is certainly unsystematic.

Level 2: High Potential On-boarding  

When compliance and clarification are well covered by a firm’s formal On-boarding practices and some
culture and connection mechanisms are in place, Level 2—High Potential On-boarding—has been reached.
In these organizations—about 50 percent of all firms—the complete process has not yet been established
in a systematic way across the organization.

Level 3: Proactive On-boarding  

All four building blocks are formally addressed in Level 3, Proactive On-boarding. If your firm is systematically organizing on-boarding with a strategic human resource management approach, you are at
Level 3. Only about 20 percent of organizations achieve this level.

Talya N. Bauer, Ph.D – Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success