Onboarding: Your Secret Retention Tool

» Posted by on Mar 24, 2017 in consulting, work | Comments Off on Onboarding: Your Secret Retention Tool

Onboarding: Your Secret Retention Tool

Last week I lead a workshop for non-profit leaders focused on retention. One of the important retention tools we discussed was onboarding.

In the past, most employees expected their first day (or week) of work to be boring. Paperwork often took up most of the day, and new employees yawned through boring lectures or software demos.

Today’s employees won’t give you that same latitude. Lose them on the first day, and they’ll be texting and tweeting their friends by mid-afternoon. (A quick Twitter search will show you what I mean.)

Why is onboarding so important? In Rethinking Retention in Good Times and Bad, author Richard Finnegan gives the evidence. A University of Florida study of 1,000 professional employees across seven organizations reported that employees intended to stay at their job average of seven years. However, many left sooner because of opinions they began forming in their first month on the job. These opinions included disagreements with supervisors and co-workers, as well as reassignment of projects.

Orientation or onboarding?

Orientation is largely administrative. It is event driven, and usually includes new hire paperwork, a tour of the office, and issuance of security cards, computers, and passwords. Orientation in professional service firms is typically handled by Human Resources and Training and Development staff. It’s often cancelled or rescheduled at the last minute. This can happen because the new employee needs to get to work quickly. Or, the existing employees don’t place a high enough priority on their presentations to keep their commitments.

Onboarding is an ongoing process that can take longer than 90 days. While many firms use a 90 day orientation period, 90 days is often not long enough for the new employee to experience the various aspects of their professional jobs. In an accounting firm, a great deal of onboarding takes place during busy season. It’s a great time to learn expected norms around work hours and how to handle conflicting commitments to different managers.

Onboarding involves giving new employees specific information about how to navigate relationships in your firm, whether it’s with peers, clients, supervisors, or partners. Professional staff with excellent technical skills who can’t figure out the trickier aspects of relating to people often will not last at your firm, or advance as quickly as they should.

Who’s in Charge?

Who, then, should be handling onboarding? Not the Training department. Not Human Resources. Onboarding is on ongoing process that’s best handled by your highly competent, positive, and well-trained professional staff, managers, and partners that are committed to retaining your employees. It’s the immersion in the culture of your firm, and the transfer of knowledge about the political climate and relationships a new person needs to succeed. That’s why onboarding is an excellent time to introduce your mentoring program to new staff.

Many smaller firms with 35 – 50 employees think onboarding is something only a Big 4 firm can pull off. They do have amazing programs, often sending new staff offsite for weeks at a time to immerse them in their culture. But, as a smaller firm, you have numerous advantages when it comes to implementing an onboarding program.

How to Onboard

  • Direct access to founders or leaders of the firm. In a smaller firm, the founder or managing partner of the firm is often very visible, and available to speak with new staff. Whether it’s a ten minute meet-and-greet, or a longer lunch, new staff can quickly get acquainted on a first name basis with the leaders of your firm.
  • Cross-department exposure. I’ve spoken to Big 4 staff who said they never met anyone outside their department in their first year! A smaller firm often has more flexibility and can introduce new staff to everyone at the firm, explain their role, and show how they contribute to the firm’s mission and values. This quickly demonstrates to new staff that every person at the firm is valued and involved in serving the client.
  • More fun. Let’s face it, starting a new job is stressful. But if your new job involves walking down a red carpet on your first day of work while the ‘paparazzi’ snap your photo, playing golf in a “Drinks on the Links” team of folks from the firm, or roaming through the city on a scavenger hunt, it’s liable to be a lot more interesting. (All of those activities part of the onboarding process we conducted at my prior employer, a mid-sized firm with about 150 professionals.)

How do you welcome new employees to your firm? Stay tuned for some specific ideas to implement or improve onboarding at your office.


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