NOTE: This post is an altered version of an article I wrote for the international magazine, CASE Currents, which was published in December 2019.
The excitement Jane Jones* felt on the way to her new job as a website specialist at a Midwestern public university quickly dissipated. By the end of her second week, she was questioning her decision to leave her previous employer.
“I thought that this would be THE job and workplace for me,” Jones said. “But on my first day, I was just shown to a cube and left alone to get started. I didn’t even get to meet with my new boss until my fourth day, and things didn’t get much better after that.”
“The problem,” she continued, “was that I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, who could answer my questions, how to contact IT to get logged into my computer…heck, no one could tell me where I should park on campus! I felt like no one cared I was there.”
Worried About the Outside Instead of the Inside
Organizations spend a lot of time fine-tuning their brand for an external audience; however, that process actually begins internally, with your biggest brand ambassadors: your employees. But if things start off on the wrong foot on a new hire’s very first day, this can snowball to eventually affect not only your department but ultimately how the organization is represented to students, parents and even funders or donors.
Informed and engaged employees are essential to your organization’s brand, and those serving your current and potential customers and the community should reflect your organization’s culture. The best—and first—opportunity you have to engage and motivate new employees is through a proper onboarding program.
Onboarding: Not Just HR’s Business
Onboarding is the process of integrating a new employee into an organization and there is no better time to harness an employee’s enthusiasm than when they first start.
They are usually energetic and excited to be there, and if you can properly guide them through their first weeks and months on the job, they are more likely to maintain that enthusiasm. And enthusiastic employees, no matter what their roles are in your organization, are those who will be incredible brand ambassadors both at work and after-hours. They are the ones who are engaged and vocal about your brand and want to share their enthusiasm with others, and who personally recommend your products or services to friends, family and even strangers. They are, essentially, unofficial ambassadors and customer service agents, and you want to ensure they are informed, engaged and positive.
However, if you have disengaged workers, the opposite can happen. You can’t hide from poor culture. Those we serve tend to notice quickly if employees are unhappy and may begin to question whether the image of what they were sold is what actually happens behind closed doors.
Communications in the Culture Cycle
Through my doctoral and post-doc research, I developed the CultureComm Model as a way for organizations to understand the impact of communications and culture on their external brand.
In a nutshell, the Model demonstrates how the cycle of properly onboarding and preparing new employees for their roles within your institution can impact their engagement. The level of employees’ engagement affects organizational culture and, eventually, how your brand is perceived outside of your company. Brand perception can then affect talent attraction and recruitment.
Engaged and motivated employees contribute positively to an organization’s culture and often become brand ambassadors, whereas disengaged employees are more likely to have a negative effect on both an organization’s culture and brand.
Think of it this way: if a fundraising staff member is not properly onboarded and trained in the mission, vision and goals of your organization or how her role makes an impact, how do you expect her to be engaged, enthusiastic and knowledgeable when meeting with donors? What about a college admissions rep who is reprimanded for not following your institution’s process, but no one ever ensured he was properly trained? This could lead to frustration and disengagement on his part, which will be evident when he gives a campus tour or when speaking to a potential family.
These “little” incidents add up, and if enough customers experience them, more than your brand will be affected.
Designing Your Onboarding Program
It can be easy to point a finger at HR saying they are the ones solely responsible for onboarding, employee engagement and organizational culture. But think of it this way: only you know your team and the demands and expectations they must meet every day. Yes, your HR department is where the experts in, well, human resources are. But everyone plays a role in helping to create both a strong culture and brand.
So, where to start? Begin by thinking of your onboarding program as a means to set employees up for success in their new roles and to build a foundation for positive, long-term impact on your institution. It is less expensive and time-consuming to retain employees than to recruit, hire and train new ones; therefore, if you take the time to properly onboard and educate, you are helping create a collaborative and supportive culture.
First, conduct a document analysis of your recruitment and onboarding materials: what do they look like? Does the HR section on your website align with your branding? Are your mission, vision and values clearly articulated? Are your job descriptions accurate and do they include your organization’s philosophy or guiding values?
In short, when someone applies for a position at your organization, do they understand what you stand for, where you’re going and how their future role will make an impact? Can they see themselves working for you long-term? Could your institution be THE workplace for them, as Jane Jones* had been searching for?
Before creating or reworking your program, it is also important to have discussions with new employees—those who have been with the organization for less than six months. Ask them what they wished they would have known or had been trained on as part of their onboarding. Understand what was helpful to them and what they would recommend be included or removed.
As you begin planning your program, consider developing a written onboarding plan. Like a communications plan, list your problem (i.e. turnover, lack of employee engagement, lack of internal knowledge, lack of buy-in, etc.), goals (both formal and informal), target audiences, key messages, measurable objectives, strategies, tactics, budget, timeline and evaluation methods. This will help everyone in the organization understand the purpose of the program, while keeping trainers aligned with the goals and stated outcome.
As for what should be including during the actual onboarding session(s), in addition to more formal documents and polices such as organizational charts and standard work hours, don’t forget to include information pertaining to your informal cultural settings and models such as:
- Where to park
- Where to store lunches
- Typical times people take their lunch breaks and for how long
- Where the restrooms are
- How to order supplies
- Whatever other information your current employees indicated would have been helpful for them to have known during their first days or weeks.
View your onboarding program as your opportunity to develop new brand champions: if they feel like a member of your team from day one, they will act like a member of your team, and will be more likely to quickly contribute and succeed.
Also keep in mind that people learn differently, so use multiple training methods to ensure retention:
- A physical handbook,
- A walk-through of your intranet with a recorded screencast to refer to later
- Links to training videos and screencasts, etc.
Don’t just include typical instructions such as how to set up your voicemail or how to access your pay stubs (although these are important). Give new employees:
- A few of your recent employee newsletters
- A list of upcoming events
- The cafeteria lunch menu
- A poster or infographic depicting your mission, vision and values
- An updated org chart
- A phone extensions list
Go a step further and include a “Who to Contact for What” cheat sheet because different organizations have different structures. Perhaps at their last job, HR handled payroll issues, but in your institution, Finance is the department to contact. Consider putting this information into a tabbed binder as well as on your intranet or shared drive so employees can easily access it without searching through files or loose-leaf folders.
Additionally, determine how current employees can be included in the onboarding process. Research indicates that by utilizing your current staff as trainers, not only will new employees recognize a friendly face or two around the office, but your current employees will feel a sense of pride in themselves, their work and the organization, further increasing their engagement, satisfaction and performance. And when newbies see the tenured staff happy to be at work, they’re more likely to adopt the same attitude.
When to Hold Onboarding Sessions
I once worked at a large university that held Monday morning orientations for new employees. It was great starting my first day with another 20 or so people, learning the ins and the outs of the university, building my internal network, and increasing my excitement for my new role and opportunity. I was also given face time with members of the executive leadership team and current employees, further solidifying, in my mind, that I had made the right decision in leaving my previous workplace.
Obviously, larger organizations with a rolling hiring process are more apt to offer group onboarding on a frequent basis, but smaller companies should still consider when and where their onboarding sessions will take place.
I’m a firm believer that a new employee must be welcomed on their first day with a formal program and plan for their first week or two on the job. We don’t want them thinking they made a big mistake by leaving a job and colleagues they were familiar and comfortable with for an organization that doesn’t seem to care they even showed up for work.
So, think about this: how are employees going to become engaged brand ambassadors when they are treated as just a number? Yes, we want to think that they are lucky we offered them the job, but we also need to realize that we are lucky to have found great talent.
Evaluate, Evaluate, Evaluate
Finally, you must evaluate your onboarding program to determine if you’ve reached your goals, and it’s especially important to evaluate the effectiveness of the entire process from recruiting until the end of an employee’s first year. Use a short survey to seek immediate feedback from participants on everything from the facilities where the program took place to the materials, topics and speakers.
Follow up with employees in one, three and six months to gauge transfer of knowledge, to determine if the program had any gaps and whether they felt adequately prepared for and supported in their new roles. At an employee’s first annual evaluation, ask them to reflect on what the institution has done to support their transition and what could have been done better. Take that feedback and tweak your program as necessary.
Be sure to constantly measure the results of these assessments against your stated goals and objectives. Report out on your findings. Publicly thank those employees who willingly gave of their time to help onboard new employees. Gather testimonials from new employees to share with the rest of the organization to excite, motivate and in some cases, reignite employees who may be disengaged. Help create a positive culture that lives into its brand promises and become the organization where top talent wants to work, stay, and perform.