Structured onboarding makes for happier, more confident employees: Survey

Socialization, mentors, feedback and followup needed for successful program
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/16/2011

New hires at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto undergo an extensive two-day onboarding process. Representatives from different divisions in the hotel give presentations about organizational standards, including loss prevention, grooming, guest relations, maintenance, finance and HR practices, said Danielle Saint-Louis, director of human resources at the hotel.

The employees are also paid a visit from the general manager, presented with an overview of the company history and taken on a tour of the hotel. By the end of the two days, new hires are measured for uniforms and given photo IDs, lockers and new employee paperwork.

This structured onboarding process is something all organizations should strive to offer due to its positive impact on employee engagement, found a recent study.

“If you want employees to be engaged when they start working, you don’t want to just throw them into the job and have them come see you if they have questions, you want to put them through a structured, formal onboarding process that helps them get up to speed and quells their anxiety,” said Jamie Gruman, an organizational behaviour professor at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont., and co-author of the study.

The study, “Getting Newcomers Engaged: The Role of Socialization Tactics,” was published in the July 4, 2011, issue of the Journal of Managerial Psychology and was based on a survey of 140 university students who were on a full-time, four-month co-op work term.

More structured onboarding tactics make employees happier, more confident and strengthen their belief they fit both the job and the organization, found Gruman, who worked in collaboration with Alan Saks, a professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at the University of Toronto. In turn, employees feel more engaged and increased engagement leads to reduced turnover and better performance, said Gruman.

The authors used their findings from the study as well as a review of more than 200 previous studies on onboarding to write a chapter in the upcoming Oxford Handbook of Socialization. They developed the socialization resources theory which includes 17 dimensions outlining best practices for onboarding.

One of the dimensions is to be in contact with the employee before his first day on the job.

“Just think about how it would feel for the recent university graduate to have the immediate supervisor get in touch with them before they start working to see if they have any questions, if they want to go for lunch — helping to reduce their anxiety level can be very beneficial,” said Gruman.

Once they arrive at the organization, employees should participate in a formal orientation program similar to that of the Ritz-Carlton, said Gruman. This may last anywhere from a half-day to one week, depending on the company.

Organizations should actively help employees develop a social network as part of the orientation process, found the study. New hires should be introduced to their co-workers as well as senior management.

“Supervisors should explain to newcomers, ‘It’s OK for you to take the initiative to seek out information and build relationships’ because a lot of newcomers, especially young people, will think they have to sit there and do what they’re told and not take initiative and that’s bad for them,” said Gruman.

New hires should also be assigned a mentor, found the study. Pairing a newcomer with a buddy who is comfortable with the organization can help the onboarding process, said Margot Uson, president of AlternaSolutions in Kirkland, Que.

“It used to be, ‘Fill in these forms, go to your desk, here’s a binder, read this and now you’re an instant employee,’” she said. “It’s not like that anymore, it’s far more complex... Someone needs to be assigned to that individual to help them find their way around.”

In the period immediately following orientation, social events should be held for new hires, found the study. At the Ritz-Carlton, Saint-Louis took a new hire in the HR department to lunch on his first day to make him feel welcome and get to know him, she said.

“It can be anything — have a softball game once a week, take people out for dinner or breakfast, have bobbing for apples at lunch — anything that’s going to help people build relationships,” said Gruman. “One of the strongest correlates of employee adjustment and positive job attitude are these social type resources.”

Work support is another key aspect to the onboarding process, found the study. Employers should provide the new hire with all the tools she needs to do her job as soon as she arrives at work and make sure she isn’t coming into an empty office, said Uson.

A new hire’s immediate supervisor should also sit down with him and go over goals and expectations right away, found the study. There should be sufficient information provided so a newcomer knows how to do his job properly and the tasks should be challenging from the beginning, it found.

The organization must also provide sufficient training to new employees. At the Ritz-Carlton, new hires are assigned a learning coach to help them complete all the training required for their position, said Saint-Louis.

“All new employees receive a standardized learning manual with a task list at the end and the learning coach is responsible for making sure employees get trained on all the tasks on the list, on the standard operating procedures and on a job safety analysis,” she said.

Regular feedback is also important for new hires, found the study. The manager should not only provide feedback on job performance but also on the written and unwritten rules of acceptable conduct, said Gruman.

“To work in banking versus in Silicon Valley, the types of attitudes you bring to the job are different and, as they adjust to the organization, they are going to need feedback on the appropriateness of their attitudes,” he said.

After the formal onboarding period, an employer should follow up with a new hire to see how well she is adjusting.

“This process of adjusting to a new job can take a really long time,” said Gruman. “If you think of it in terms of coming out of school, it could be a whole new identity they’re developing, so following up with people, three, six, nine months after they’ve started working is a valuable thing to do.”

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