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The Importance of Onboarding

This story is based on a real incident. The client worked with me on the story and approved it. Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

A couple of days ago a client—let’s call him Walter--- phoned me. After just over one month at the new job, his boss pulled him into the office and said, “This isn’t working out.” Walter told me how for days he had felt something was wrong, yet he was still surprised when the axe fell.

Walter kept his cool and calmly asked his boss why. To his surprise, the boss---let’s call him Barry--- didn’t have a specific answer. After a long pause, Barry muttered how he thought his new hire would “bring them to the next level.”

Walter next asked, “How was I supposed to do that? What did you expect me to do?”

Barry didn’t offer a precise answer, saying he had hoped Walter would be more entrepreneurial.

Walter then started telling me about his days: His hiring manager disappearing; being switched to a new manager; not having much to do; interrupted meetings; interrupted training; other employees gossiping about absent management. I asked questions and suddenly Walter understood: “There was no onboarding.”

Proper on-boarding has three components. All three are needed to ensure a new hire becomes a successful hire. Walter’s company seems to have misfired on all three, making it very hard for him to succeed. Let’s review them:

1) Preboarding is the proactive process of preparing for the new-hire once an offer has been accepted by the applicant. It ends on the first day of employment. The preboarding objective is to ensure the new-hire has everything needed--by or on day of arrival—thus setting up a smooth on-boarding experience.

On the surface it may appear that there’s no need for the company to do anything right after the applicant accepts the offer. Companies figure the new person will show up for work on the predetermined start date, at which time they will be properly onboarded and everyone will live happily ever after.

The reality is that many new employees show up ready for work on day one and find they don’t have a work-space or a computer or other essentials and that there’s no training plan.

2) Orientation is an event; the first step in the onboarding process. This is usually when the company collects all relevant forms, someone from HR presents a PowerPoint slideshow, the new hire is introduced to colleagues, and the manager provides an orientation plan that describes some specific next steps.

In theory, this is when new-hires learn everything about their new company and are prepared to be productive.

The reality is how all too often new-hire orientation is a series of boring PowerPoint slides delivered by a busy HR-rep, followed by the boss introducing them to a bunch of busy people. The orientation plan—a series of items to be checked off—is often forgotten or abandoned because there’s no time to pursue it.

3) Onboarding is the process of integrating new employees into an organization and familiarizing them with the company’s products & services, standard operating procedures, and culture.

The theory is that companies recognize this integration process can last weeks or even months; and that it requires constant communication, feedback, and performance measurement, which are all key to employee longevity and loyalty.

The reality is that onboarding in many companies ends with orientation. Often, an employee is considered a veteran after just a few weeks. If you have a question or need help, you’re expected to solve it on your own or, perhaps, ask a peer.

So, what went wrong between Walter and the company? Let’s see:

1) Preboarding: Walter and Barry didn’t nail down Walter’s position or precise responsibilities. In March, Barry was looking for a customer support rep; in May it was a client relationship specialist. Walter’s personal goal was to serve as a Professional Services consultant to existing customers and to also bring in additional business. Barry said the immediate need was to assist in getting the new database up and running within two months and after that Barry could switch to the Professional Services side.

2) Orientation: Barry disappeared within Walter’s first few days (because of other important company business) and it wasn’t until after almost two full weeks that Walter was assigned to a different manager, who we’ll call Sam. Sam assigned Walter to a project that had little to do with why Walter had been hired by Barry. Then Sam left Walter mostly alone.

3) Onboarding: Walter grew frustrated, because his bosses were rarely available to answer his questions. On the few occasions he managed to grab some of their time for training or Q&A, the phone rang or someone else came in with a pressing issue and Walter was told to come back later.”

4) Preboarding: Barry had vague ideas that because Walter had come from a large company, he would be able to “take the company to the next level.” But, because Walter and Barry never discussed objectives, strategy, and tactics to do this, there was no concrete plan.

5) Onboarding: There wasn’t much communication between management and Walter. Over the six weeks, each side grew more disheartened, without raising their concerns, culminating in the boss finally calling Walter in to let him go.

For both sides, it was an expensive experience. Could this have been avoided? Definitely. Here’s the process:

  1. Have a clear vision how to use the new employee.

  2. Ensure the company and employee have clear alignment with the vision.

  3. Ensure both sides execute their assigned responsibilities.

  4. Maintain frequent communication to ensure continued alignment with the vision.

Walter interviewed with the boss several times over three months. His tenure was shorter than his application. The company managers probably feel “Bad hire.” Walter is thinking, “I should have seen the warning signs.” A proper onboarding experience would have avoided all this.

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