Three key strategies for designing a successful onboarding program

Illustration showing a checklist and a calendar with text, "Day 1"
March 3, 2020
6 minutes
Illustration showing a checklist and a calendar with text, "Day 1"

Recruitment - or talent acquisition - is (or should be) an ongoing task for successful organizations.

In spite of efforts made to smooth out the onboarding process, bringing in new talent tends to be an expensive proposition; more so when you have to unexpectedly replace that hard-won talent because their onboarding experience was less-than-satisfying.

And a recent Gallup poll noted that almost 90% of employees were disappointed with their own onboarding experience.

It’s worth examining why that dissatisfaction level could be so high.

I think we can agree that an onboarding program should provide everything the new hire needs to function and succeed in their chosen organization, to say nothing of demonstrating WHY the new hire made the move in the first place.

What onboarding programs seem to devolve to is an exercise in filling out forms for HR, sorting out payroll benefits, and acknowledging receipt of a voluminous corporate policy manual or taking a series of onboarding training courses.

While we shouldn’t understate the importance of compliance, organizations ignore the operational aspects of onboarding at their peril.

It’s natural for new hires to evaluate their decision in the early weeks, so why shouldn’t we give them every reason to stay?

If you’re looking to pull together an onboarding program, or wanting to revamp your existing program, there are three strategies you should adopt to make your program successful.

Let’s make sure we know who owns the onboarding program

One of the major complaints I’ve heard over the years about onboarding is how in spite of the effort made on the new hire experience, new hires too often feel they are on their own and don’t know who to turn to if the onboarding program doesn’t meet their expectations.

The question of governance starts with “Who owns the onboarding program?”

I think a lot of folks might suggest the answer is that HR needs to own it and so endeth the query.

Alternately, some organizations may leave onboarding to IT because they feel the provisioning of the hardware/software is the most critical thing for a new hire.

If we dig a little deeper, it’s not quite as simple as handing it over to HR or IT and hoping for the best.

If we ask HR to own it all, then we set an unusual expectation that HR is responsible for leading the staff and, therefore, we have effectively removed the hiring manager from the equation.

This is not to say that HR doesn’t have a role in the process. They are ideally positioned to function as stewards of the onboarding program, because it is a strategic effort. As part of that stewardship, HR partners with IT and the hiring manager for the execution of the program as it transitions from pre-hire (recruitment) to post-hire (day one and beyond).

So, we have program stewards, but it’s also essential to think about who owns the day-to-day work in onboarding a new hire. And that ownership rests on the shoulders of the Hiring Manager.

One of the driving forces in leadership is the capacity to develop their direct reports. Should that development not begin with the onboarding program?

May I also be so bold as to suggest that effective onboarding of new hires becomes a management deliverable with suitable performance metrics attached?

If we ask managers to take ownership of KPIs for revenue or sales surely we can ask them to take equal ownership of their human capital?

You can’t win without a robust design

It’s worth noting that onboarding is one of the richest playgrounds we can have in L&D, because a well-designed program facilitates connections with all aspects of the business.

Unlike straightforward L&D projects where the objectives are usually well-boundaried and can usually be distilled to one or two objectives, an onboarding program is much more complex.

Onboarding should encompass a variety of subject areas and activities, from compliance, culture, administrative, and role-specific or line-of-business operations.

I liken the various pathways and streams within on-boarding to an orchestral score, where you have many parts, players, and cues, all of which need to be coordinated in order to provide the full experience.

The additional challenge with onboarding is to move away from a content-driven experience to one driven by activities and/or outcomes.

That may seem like a no-brainer when it comes to ‘regular’ workplace learning initiatives (and L&D luminaries have been saying it forever), but onboarding programs tend not to get the same treatment.

Surely we have the collective creativity to drive ALL of the required learning in an onboarding program through activity instead of content?

Use your tech to your advantage

Chances are good that your organization has an IT infrastructure you can harness.

It’s fair to say that a lot of folks don’t take advantage of things beyond their own desktop. That’s not to say that you can just dump a bunch of content on a Learning Management System or document repository and call it an onboarding program.

Yes, I know there are many in the L&D industry claiming that “the LMS is dead”, but there are more than enough arguments in favour of its continued use.

Harnessing its capabilities for onboarding is but one of them.

Regardless of the direction you go, it takes a well-managed platform - coupled with the robust design - to make your program successful.

There are two major benefits you can realize from harnessing technology for your onboarding program: automation and customization.

Automation

In spite of the technology at their fingertips, organizations still seem to LOVE their paper, especially when it comes to talent acquisition and onboarding where folks seem to love their little paper checklists and task-lists and whatnot.

While there is a certain “comfort level” with the tangibility of paper, it’s inefficient at best and can form a startling contrast to what might be a stellar candidate experience through the hiring process.

And it’s not just about moving the contents of paper-based policy and other documents into elearning content, it’s also about the capacity to automate things like reporting and even activity progression for the new hire.

What’s nice about learning platforms is being able to leverage the variety of roles to allow all the stakeholders to be involved in the onboarding program.

A number of years ago I used the more “academic” features of a particular platform to assign roles to new hires and hiring managers as “instructor” and “student”, respectively.  

By rewording an “assignment” function, I was able to use that as a task for the “student” to complete; in this instance, acknowledging the completion of a milestone in the new hire roadmap.

The “instructor” received notification that the “assignment” needed to be “graded”. By assigning the “pass” grade to the “student”, we not only replicated the function of the dual sign-off, but the trigger conditions to release new content/materials would be met, as well as notifications to other stakeholders as needed.  

A small hack, to be sure, but the labour-saving and increased oversight became of huge value to the organization.

Customization

With technology also comes the ability to customize new hire learning paths based on their role and learning needs.

Customization can be small-scale tweaks and adjustments or could even include entirely different content, if appropriate.

This kind of personalization resonates well with new hires because they appreciate having a pathway tailored for them, and it also empowers new hires to focus on the activities and outcomes and make adjustments as the onboarding experience evolves.

It also helps tie the onboarding program to the real-world expectations of the role instead of simply providing a one-size-fits-all onboarding process. And that, too, is always a critical goal for any L&D project.

Looking Ahead

Bringing in new talent is an ongoing activity for organizations but it comes with costs so it makes sense for the organization to ensure they get a meaningful return on that investment.  

The new hire, of course, has to do their part in the process, but it’s critical that the business fulfil its responsibilities to the new hire so they can make that contribution to the organization’s bottom line.

That responsibility means having good stewardship from HR, an activity-focused design from L&D, proactive support from IT, and an actively engaged hiring manager to guide, support, and coach the new hire from day one through to full integration with their peers, goals, and with the business.

And even though a good onboarding program involves more than just training, dominKnow | ONE can play a key role because it can help you develop a wide range of different content to meet different learning needs, whether that’s formal elearning courses or simpler content pieces like infographics. It’s also a great way to bring together all the stakeholders in your onboarding program during the content creation process, with features for co-authoring and easy content review.

Want to learn more? Sign up for a free trial of dominKnow | ONE.

About Mark Sheppard

Mark Sheppard is the Principal Consultant of 2Sphynx Innovations, a boutique Learning & Development consultancy helping to solve the riddles of workplace learning challenges. He operates at the intersection of workplace performance and learning innovations. His experience includes everything from fostering behaviour change through human capital development to learning technology selection and implementation. He serves clients in the US and Canada, and prides himself on agility, creativity, and the drive to embed the learning into the work. He can be found on Twitter as @2Sphynx.