New Hire On-Boarding for Strategic Growth

The fluctuating economy has crippled growth for many companies. Yet in spite of the cutbacks and struggles, the war for talent is as strong as ever — its focus has simply shifted to strategic hiring and retention.

As new employees join lean business environments, a well-designed on-boarding program can give a company an edge in securing a deep bench of high performers and a strong pipeline for future leadership, both of which are critical. Figure 1 details a few of the shifts occurring in new hire programs.

The emerging best practices listed in Figure 1 are designed to harness the new hire’s enthusiasm and passion to create and retain dynamic problem-solvers who can collaborate to help the organization respond to the accelerating rate of change in business.

For example, employees of entertainment software and technology company Valve created a new employee handbook positioned as a survival guide for “the fearless adventure of knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.” By its design, it embodies the essence of the company’s brand and culture, mixing game-like graphics, amusing cartoon illustrations and witty, straightforward messaging.

Resources and Tactics
Facing tough economic times, many companies are cutting resources for learning initiatives, on-boarding programs included. However, innovative companies are investing in redesigning their on-boarding programs to deliver results with fewer resources. These programs are strategic, performance-driven and experiential.

Strategic: Beyond aligning with the firm’s goals, being strategic when designing an on-boarding program means developing an experience that garners its own employment brand. This requires that talent leaders do more than deliver information that answers a new hire’s basic questions; it’s about building an experience that creates an impression and reputation unto itself, which then strengthens a firm’s brand. Once established, this brand should be protected by evolving the program as entering new hires’ needs change.

In their book, The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media, Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner identify three converging workforce trends that also must be addressed when designing or revamping on-boarding: expanding opportunities for personal connection, emerging expectations from shifting workforce demographics and the increasing reach of personalized technology.

Performance-driven: Assimilating content is usually not the problem for new hires. The real challenge is learning the critical performance context and how it affects the organization. In their book, Innovative Performance Support: Strategies and Practices for Learning in the Workflow, Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher talk about five fundamental moments that make up the full range of performance support and learning needs people have when starting at a new company. They are:

• When people are learning how to do something for the first time.
• When people are expanding the breadth and depth of what they have learned.
• When they need to act on what they have learned, including planning what they will do, remembering what they may have forgotten and adapting performance to unique situations.
• When problems arise or things don’t work as intended.
• When people need to learn a different way to do something that is deeply ingrained in their performance practices.

A key to driving performance in an on-boarding program is moving beyond the first two moments of learning need, which is where many on-boarding programs stop. Most new hires will likely experience all five moments of learning need because they bring existing behaviors and skills to the new organization.

Experiential: Engaging new hires should not be transactional; it should be an experience that delivers more than just information through formal learning. It also should drive a dialogue between the organization, the new employee, the employee’s manager and peers that evolves over time.

“On-boarding isn’t a program,” said Peter Grassl, director at Cigna University. “On-boarding is an ongoing experience that requires commitment and collaboration between hiring managers, support networks, central service providers and formal/informal coaches and mentors.”

How to Evaluate, Build an On-Boarding Program
Figure 2 shows the 4S criteria that can be used to evaluate existing on-boarding programs or as a measuring stick to design a strategic, performance-driven on-boarding experience.

By definition, the framework for a strategic, performance-driven on-boarding program focuses on performance outcomes. Rather than assume this means the more formal learning there is the better, think of learning as a component of the program.

By design, a performance-driven on-boarding experience centers around critical knowledge, skills, performance context, support systems and reinforcement mechanisms that a new hire needs to have to perform. In short, it should be a tailored experience that includes multiple learning events and the support infrastructure to sustain effective performance.

The following nine essential elements should align with 4S criteria to form a strategic, performance-driven on-boarding experience.

Performance-driven: Focus on critical performance outcomes. The on-boarding experience should transition to the work environment and provide performance support pieces such as job aids, reference guides, planners, checklists, and assessments and diagnostics.

Accessible: On-boarding information should be accessible in a variety of formats on a variety of devices. For instance, make a discussion guide for new hires available both online and in a printable format. For some employees, technology can get in the way of a good dialogue. For others, having the guide on an iPad could help facilitate discussion. This includes accessibility before, during and after the on-boarding experience; at the moment of application; via a single point of access; and through the use of clear, concise language.

Integrated: Integrate on-boarding activity into the work environment. Whenever possible, these activities should be authentic. For example, the on-boarding experience for a new field sales representative should proportionally include more performance-based coaching and mentoring in the field and less time in the classroom and self-paced online courses.

Drives ownership: While the organization provides access to resources, the on-boarding experience must set an expectation for new hire ownership to ensure a relevant, high-impact experience. This is important because a key to learning transfer is for learners to develop their own relevance and meaning.

Flexible: On-boarding programs should be flexible enough to support the diverse range of roles and performance contexts throughout a company. The experiences should be flexible to address a range of organizational and new-hire needs. The goal is to strike a balance between a globally consistent experience and locally specific application and between a collective understanding and individual integration.

Rich: On-boarding materials should include a wealth of resources that can be reconstituted for meaning based on personal relevance. Each new hire will have different work experiences, contextual understandings, skills and abilities. The information-sharing experience could be driven through an on-boarding portal, which could include a new employee guide; a new employee checklist; job aids; new hire wikis, blogs, forums and podcasts; recent new hire videos capturing insights and best practices; reference materials; FAQs; and formal courses, such as compliance, benefits and good communication.

Reinforced and supported: On-boarding should reinforce desired performance behaviors through interactions with the on-boarding support team. Though the roles on various on-boarding teams might differ based on the company or employee, to be successful, all members of the team must have clear expectations. These individuals could include the manager, administrative assistant, mentor and coach.

Trusted: On-boarding program content should contain a trusted voice. Whatever the format, the content should be easy to maintain. This ensures it is accurate and current. Ratings also can help build trust about content relevancy and usefulness.

Measured: On-boarding programs should be measurable on at least three of the four levels of Kirkpatrick’s evaluation system. The results of the on-boarding experience should be measurable in ways that are meaningful for the new hire, talent leaders and the organization. Data can be gathered via satisfaction surveys, new hire skill assessments and manager feedback.

While economic concerns abound, the need for a solid on-boarding program has never been greater. One day those new hires will be mentoring and guiding other new hires, and the investment made in their job skills and company alignment will pay off.

Matt Donovan is the executive director of client services for GP Strategies Corp. He can be reached at