What is Onboarding? And Why Does It Matter?

Cindy and I focus the majority of our work around helping organizations develop their leaders and build more effective communication into their cultures. Quite frankly, I can’t can’t think of anything else that can impact a company’s productivity, and in turn profitability, any more than those two things. Unfortunately, these are usually the first things that get cut from the budget when times get tight, if they’re ever included in the budget to begin with! While I will never waiver on how important those two things are, or in emphasizing that we cannot afford to focus our efforts on only those with “supervisor” or “manager” in their title, I also believe that we can’t wait until there’s an issue to add this into the messages we send our team…

Effective leadership needs to be something we provide every member of our team from the very beginning! And we need to work diligently to ensure we’re communicating our message effectively every single time we’re with one or more of those team members!

With that in mind, it may serve us all well to look at how we can do this from day one - beginning with our onboarding process! So what is onboarding anyway? And why does it even matter? 

More often than not, I’ve seen the onboarding process viewed as a necessary evil; something that sucks up time on an employee’s first day with the company and keeps them from getting started on the work that will actually make money… But is that really the case?

Before we even bother digging into any hard financial evidence that proves the way we onboard has (or doesn’t have) a significant impact on our overall profitability, let’s start by looking at what it is, as well as what we should be doing in that process!

Here’s how BambooHR, a human resources technology firm, defines onboarding:

Onboarding is a human resources industry term referring to the process of introducing a newly hired employee into an organization. Also known as organizational socialization, onboarding is an important part of helping employees understand their new position and job requirements. It’s the process that helps them integrate seamlessly with the rest of the company. There are many activities that go into the onboarding process, from the job offer to team training. Onboarding may last anywhere from a few weeks to a year, but the most effective onboarding usually lasts at least a few months. Ideally, employees will feel confident and competent when the onboarding process is complete.

I think this is a solid explanation, albeit something very few organizations do at all - let alone well… In many cases, especially in smaller companies that just don’t have someone dedicated to being intentional about the onboarding process, the legal paperwork is sent home with the employee when they fill out their background check authorization form so they can get them started on their actual job as quickly as possible the first day.

I certainly understand the pressure every company faces to be profitable, but trying to do too much too fast can have a far different effect long term! Regardless of the nature of our work, slowing down on the front end may be the very thing that helps us speed up results down the road. When we invest the time from the very beginning to make sure we’ve set the tone for what our organizational values really are, and we’re intentional about building at least some level of a relationship with that new team member, we remove a lot of the guesswork and we limit (some) of the chance that those values will be diluted or even poisoned later on…

Moving forward, we’ll take a hard look at how we can be intentional about creating an effective onboarding process that drives measurable results (without breaking the bank or crippling production on the front end)!

Employees or Teammates?

Since we now have a definition of onboarding that we can work from, and I started pounding the drum about the importance of making sure our organizational values are a heavy part of that process, let’s start looking at a few things we need to keep in mind if we’re going to be effective in doing… Before I move on here though, I’ll emphasize that none of what I’m about to share will just happen by simply wishing it to be! It will absolutely require very intentional effort, but I’d argue that effort won’t be any harder than what most organizations are currently doing  - it will just be different - AND this effort will yield a completely different result!

Let’s think about what likely drives any company to do all they can to speed up the hiring process and get the newly hired individuals engaged in revenue producing activity as quickly as possible… While that statement alone seems rhetorical, that wasn’t my goal - this time… Revenue ALWAYS matters, anyone suggesting otherwise may need a checkup from the neck up! That said, I believe something that creates just as much push for getting the new folks into the actual positions is the under-staffing many organizations have dealt with for nearly two years now. I absolutely have some strong thoughts about what’s been driving that particular issue for far longer than two years, but I won’t go down that part right now. I will share that I personally know of several companies in completely different industries, just in my local area, that are all operating with 15 to 30% less staff than they need to get the work done that they have on the books on any given day - even without chasing new business. Some overtime may be an option, but how much would it really take to make up for a 30% deficit in headcount? And how long will the folks putting in that much OT tolerate it??? (Those are rhetorical questions!)

Unfortunately, I believe that constant pressure to fill holes may likely be creating an (additional) issue into an already tough equation. The pressure to get more people into those revenue producing roles is quite likely pulling at least a little focus away from helping them become part of the team! Not so long ago, I referenced how much more engaged someone is likely to be when they feel a strong sense of teamwork. With regards to the onboarding process, we need to be intentional about managing our own perspective, as well as the perspective of the leaders on our teams; we need to focus on bringing on new teammates rather than just hiring more employees…

This may seem like semantics, but I truly believe that making a simple shift in the way we view each individual who’s becoming part of our team can make a lasting impact on their performance, as well as their tenure, from that day forward. When we consider the potential a teammate can have on results for years to come rather than just the immediate need to get a certain task accomplished, making an investment into the onboarding process becomes a no-brainer - even when the pressure is high to get tasks checked off the list… When we show value from day one, we get a far higher level of value in return. But we can’t leave it up to that new teammate to understand why we’re investing in them or what kind of return we need from that investment…

Don’t Just Check the Box!

In my next article like this, we’ll start working through the tangible benefits an organization can expect from an effective employee orientation program but before we go too far into the HOW, we have to nail down the WHO and the WHY! Otherwise, any steps we take won’t likely make the impact we’re hoping for…

Once we have a solid understanding of what a strong onboarding process should be designed to accomplish and we’ve decided to bring on teammates rather than just employees, we have a solid head start on anyone competing for the same skill sets simply because we’re investing in doing something other than just knocking out the required paperwork and funneling warm bodies into the meat grinder - I mean, the production process… But even then, we can’t just go through the motions. Without being extremely intentional and completely genuine, it’s still little more than checking a box!

More than twenty-five years ago, I sat through a two week long onboarding process with nineteen other folks. We were the first new full time employees hired by a local manufacturing facility in years, and we were selected from more than 1,000 candidates who had applied! Interestingly enough though, the only thing I remember from that process all these years later was the brief interaction we had with the plant manager on the first day and how painfully boring everything else was. That company had invested tens of thousands of dollars into those two weeks, not to mention the costs involved with screening through all the other candidates to get to that point… For my only positive memory to be the short time the plant manager was with us on day one, and really the only thing I can remember from the entire two weeks that actually had ties to what we’d actually be doing, I don’t think I’m out of line in saying that their money wasn’t well spent.

While that two week ordeal was about as different as I can imagine from the scenarios where someone completes their tax forms before showing up and gets their hands on real work by hour two of their first day, I can’t say it helped us be any closer to feeling “confident and competent” when it was over. Regardless of how much (or how little) time an organization schedules for new hire orientation, there had better be some intentional focus put into making a strong connection with each individual. Quite honestly, I believe that’s why I remember the brief time we had with that plant manager 26 years ago but so little about everything else in those two weeks; he made it a point to show us he cared about the people working there, including us! For what it’s worth, he also lived that same thing out in the years that followed…

I’m not about to suggest that the onboarding process should be the same for every organization, nor do I believe it needs to take a specific amount of time, but it does need to connect with the new team members in a way that they know they matter and in a way that earns their buy-in. Anyone involved in the process can’t just be spewing facts and figures, they should be connecting the information they share to the tasks the team members will be engaged in AND tying all of that to the company’s overall mission. 

The time, energy, and money that goes into effective onboarding is truly an investment. And like any investment, we should absolutely realize a positive return! We can’t leave this return to chance… While it’s important to make a connection with each new team member and to provide them with all they need to feel confident and competent, we also need to be very clear about what we need from them at each step along the way. When we’ve provided them with the tools they need to become successful teammates and we’ve set clear expectations for what that looks like, being sure to build strong connections with them through the entire process, we build a strong foundation for everything we do moving forward. We’re not just checking a box, we’re working with purpose.

Next time, we’ll take a look at WHAT we should expect to achieve when we’ve taken the time to get the WHO and the WHY right. We’ll also dig into the HOW, and that will be the easiest part when we have the rest in place! Until then, you're welcome to work through the short quiz below that will help you identify some of the profitability killers currently impacting your business...