Canadian Cancer Society launches new onboarding program

Strategic approach designed to build concrete foundation with employees during ‘honeymoon’ phase
By Deborah Kyrzakos and Sue Nador
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/07/2009

Employees are more in control of their careers than ever before. Rather than suffer quietly in jobs that lack the challenge, development opportunities or type of culture they want, employees are saying, “Thanks for the memories” and moving on.

With this increased mobility comes the need to orient more new employees. So HR professionals are rethinking traditional approaches to orientation because organizations are under pressure to maximize early productivity and engagement. They know the energy spent wooing candidates in the “courtship” recruitment phase must be sustained in the “honeymoon” phase to build the right foundation for the future.

Onboarding a challenge for a diverse organization

The Canadian Cancer Society, Ontario Division, decided to take a more strategic approach to onboarding. The division has hundreds of employees and thousands of volunteers across Ontario who carry out the society’s mission to eradicate cancer and enhance the quality of life of those living with the disease.

One objective was to reduce voluntary turnover by equipping new hires with a greater understanding of, and connection to, the work of the society as a whole. In an organization that is geographically diverse (46 locations across the province), multi-faceted (portfolios include prevention, advocacy, research and education) and has many external alliances, it is important get people up to speed quickly so they can make a strong, sustainable start.

Senior staff at the society knew that by consulting with key groups, including the executive team, regional employees and recent hires, they could customize an approach that resonated with new recruits.

The consultation process resulted in a better understanding of how the society could more consistently leverage “pockets” of best practices across Ontario and optimize the role of key people in the onboarding process, including the executive team, HR, hiring managers and new employees. It also identified the type of support and resources that could make the biggest difference.

The onboarding plan contained many elements. One part focused on “foundation knowledge.” The objective was to give every new hire, regardless of her position or level, a consistent macro understanding of the society — including things such as key people, portfolios and programs.

Another important aspect of the plan was experience. A new person needs to engage in certain activities to develop the partnerships and personal insights critical to her early visibility, credibility and success.

Thought was given to the timing of different onboarding activities so the process would unfold in a logical and integrated way throughout the first year of employment. These activities are incorporated into detailed checklists to promote a consistent experience and ensure all elements are covered.

Foundation knowledge: People remember stories

For many organizations, the challenge is not a lack of information to share with new employees to get them up to speed but too much information that is difficult to navigate. New employees can become overwhelmed by having to absorb too much too soon. They don’t yet have the organization-specific navigational skills to discern what’s important in the mountain of binders, reports, intranet resources and other information provided.

The HR team’s solution was to develop an approach that reinforces the society’s brand and ensures a consistent and reliable method of providing information.

A typical volunteer, Ray, was selected to help guide the new employee through the organization’s massive intranet and essential links. Through his story as both a volunteer and cancer survivor, Ray helps the new hire absorb static information — mission, cancer research and statistics, organization structure and fundraising activities — in a more logical, dynamic and memorable way.

For example, Ray talks about his community work and his family’s participation in the Canadian Cancer Society Relay For Life, a national fundraising event. He then invites the new hire to click on appropriate links to drill deeper into fundraising information.

Ray’s story reinforces the importance of volunteers and provides the perspectives of both a client and volunteer. Too often organizations present information in silos that conform to organizational structure and an internal perspective — such as marketing or HR — rather than in an integrated way from the customer’s perspective.

Experience: Managers can’t do it all

Recognizing the importance of developing quality relationships early in a new employee’s tenure, the society developed a series of discussion guides to help new employees, their managers and their internal and external clients talk about mutual expectations.

In one guide, a new hire and her manager ask each other a set of questions to help define the “soft” side of the working relationship. For example: “What type of recognition is important to you?” and “How do you prefer to collaborate?”

Another guide helps a new employee interview key clients to understand their priorities and expectations. This helps the employee take action and establish credibility early on.

Another part of the experience is learning how the society’s work touches the lives of Canadians. Whether it is a visit to a regional cancer centre, participating in one of many fundraising activities or sitting in on a call from a cancer patient in the call centre, new employees gain a personal understanding of how the society operates. Every employee and volunteer feels empowered to be an ambassador in their community by being able to talk from the heart based on their own experiences.

Future plans include measurement, enhancements

While the onboarding program is still in its early days, there are already plans to measure the effectiveness.

And future program enhancements include the development of specific departmental orientation modules and a survey that solicits confidential feedback about program usage and impact from both new hires and hiring managers. This will provide quantitative and qualitative information that can be translated into design enhancements.

Organizations have an opportunity to differentiate themselves by the quality of the onboarding. Employees expect their early days and months to live up to the promise of the courtship. They want the support to make an early mark, develop the networks that bond, and feel they are an integral part of the organization. Organizations that deliver this experience create a culture that benefits not only the new hire but all employees.

Deborah Kyrzakos is the director of human resources at the Canadian Cancer Society, Ontario Division, in Toronto. Sue Nador is a partner at Nvision Consulting in Toronto. She can be reached at (416) 466-3010, or visit for more information.

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