Stop lip-servicing your onboarding process

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Onboarding is a favorite topic of mine, which might seem weird to some people because I’m not a “HR professional” nor have I ever really worked in Human Resources. So why do I care so much about onboarding? Let me try and run this down for you:

  • The Gold Watch Era is over: By that I mean, people are staying at one or two companies a lot less — and job-hopping a lot more.
  • That reduces average tenure: That means someone may work for you for 3–5 years, whereas previously it would have been 8–10.
  • Do the math: If someone only works for you for three years, that’s 36 months. Their first six months, then, is 16.6% of their entire tenure with you. (If they were going to work with you for 10 years, or 120 months, six months would be 5% of their total time.)
  • By some measure, then… The end of the Gold Watch Era and the opening up of the Job-Hopping Era makes onboarding three times as relevant for companies.
  • But we still don’t care: Read some of these stats.
  • So we want “hit the ground running!” people: Problem is, the ability to “hit the ground running” is a total farce of a concept in business.

When you add all this up, here’s what you get: we need to care about onboarding more, but we seem not to. Instead we seem to be trying to “get the best possible people” via our hiring processes, but our hiring processes are a f’n joke.

So if hiring isn’t really working and onboarding isn’t really happening, what do we do now? Here’s an idea.

Onboarding: The power of corporate story

The term “corporate story” made me shiver a little bit when I typed it, because usually that’s high-end buzzword BS. “My grandfather started this place in a tiny shop farm in Iowa. Now we exploit migrant workers in the third world to the tune of a $45B market cap, and I have a house in Antigua.” People actually think that’s a story. It’s not. It’s the same way we think “marketing content” is “sales documents.” It’s not.

I’ve written a little bit before about fixing onboarding processes; you can read that here. I talk a little bit about story in that post, but here’s the essential bouncing ball:

  • Stories resonate for human brains more than virtually anything
  • Video/image-based stories are processed about 60x faster than text-based stories

From those two bullets, we could infer that “storytelling is powerful and important” and “videos and images are processed quickly by the human brain.”

OK. How we do we apply that back to onboarding?

Let’s set the psychological stage here. When you’re going through onboarding with a company, here’s where you usually stand:

  • You went through their hiring process, so you’ve talked to a few people there
  • You’ve probably researched them online and in media
  • You’ve maybe done a run through Glassdoor or similar sites
  • You maybe know 1–2 people there (came in via referral), so have context around that
  • You know what your salary will be
  • You have a vague understanding (hopefully more than vague) of what your job will entail

This varies by position — incoming execs may have been wined and dined more, etc. — but that’s a general framework of where someone stands in the onboarding process, usually. (Please don’t yelp at me in the comments about how little I know. When you write about business stuff, you write at the broadest level possible — then gradually try to make it specific. It’s like a funnel! Sadly, no one really understands business funnels anymore.)

Alright, so … psychologically speaking, you have a couple of different context points and content points for this new company as you’re going through onboarding.

What you usually lack, though, would be:

  • Purpose of the company (aside from generic mission statement on website)
  • Vision
  • Priorities
  • Goals
  • How processes work
  • How stuff gets done
  • What it’s actually like to work there (even if your friends got you in, you have no idea)

The second set of bullets essentially defines work. The first set is mostly transactional stuff. But you have the first set (“My salary will be…”) and you lack the second set (“This is how stuff really gets done in our Ops department…”).

What tends to happen in an onboarding process is: we take transactional elements and add more transactional elements. Here are some forms to sign. Here is your e-mail password. Here is information about flex benefits. Here is how to order supplies. Transaction on top of transaction.

You think that creates connection? You think that fosters engagement from the jump-off?

Now let’s marry the two concepts together. What if we re-did onboarding so that …

  • An executive or senior decision-maker showed up and talked about the company’s story?
  • A non-BS company video was played detailing the day-to-day of working there?
  • The longest-tenured employee in the new hire’s department came in and told stories of the place?
  • We presented a slideshow of staff engagement events and meetups/happy hours in the past year?

Now this set of bullets begins to tell a story about the place, and foster a connection between new employee and organization before any real work has been done … that’s going to get us closer to “engagement” and “productivity.” If we just keep heaping transactional elements into the fray, it makes it seem like onboarding is totally transactional, which means your first 1–2 days of interaction with a company are totally transactional.

It’s amazing how many people in business will say “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” and then … the first impression their company gives is either (a) a bass-ackwards hiring process or (b) a series of forms to sign and initial before a quick lunch with your boss.

Tell a story. Explain the place and its purpose. Explain the connections of the people. Make onboarding transformative.

Onboarding: The power of the individual’s story

Now we’ll quickly discuss the new hire, because the above section was about how the company can tell their story.

There are actually two legitimate pieces of research around what to ask employees — and what to discuss with them — during onboarding:

Ideally both of these conversations would take place between manager and employee, as opposed to HR and employee. It’d be nice and unexpected if the HR lady toting the “I Ain’t Got Time For This Sit” hand-knitted bag asked me who I am when I’m at my best, but since I’ll probably next talk to her when I get fired or leave, it might be a better question coming from my manager. I’ll see him/her every day, give or take.

Ask questions like this — “Who are you at your best?” and “What goals do you have here?” — while also explaining how tasks relate back to goals. This gives the sense that you, as a manager/company, care about and respect the employee from Day 1. Instead of parading them through a bunch of no-context meetings with other managers (“Who are you? Are you my 2:15?”) and HR, show them you value them from the first day of official employment.

We talk about the future of work in about 19,847 different ways, and it’s predominantly bullshit. The future of work is the same as the past of work. People want respect.

But onboarding processes rarely begin with a notion of respect. They seem to begin with an idea that you’re a transactional element. A number. Another one down the pike. We parade everyone through these motions.

In six months — which will fly by, BTW — this person may have already exhausted close to 1/5th of his/her time with your company. Why not make that more powerful to begin with?

Why not focus onboarding on stories?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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