Starting Them Off On the Right Foot: Why Onboarding is Important

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Oct 12, 2010

By Autumn D. Krauss

While holding an orientation for new employees is a well- established human resources practice, “onboarding” is a more comprehensive process by which new employees are socialized into a company’s culture, in addition to being oriented to their specific job tasks and associated work expectations.

Management and organizational experts Tayla Bauer and Berrin Erdrogan describe onboarding as “a process where new employees move from being organizational outsiders to becoming organizational insiders.”

All employees experience some type of onboarding, although the formality and comprehensiveness of onboarding programs varies widely across organizations. By formally defining your own onboarding processes, you will be better able to successfully integrate your new employees into your workforce.

Why is onboarding important?

Research has supported the idea that effective onboarding can have a dramatic effect on job performance and satisfaction, organizational commitment, and retention. Recent evidence also suggests that a poor organizational socialization process can result in emotional exhaustion and job burnout.

Your organization, and the applicants who want you to hire them, invest a great deal of time and resources in the hiring process for any position, including hourly roles. During the selection stage, your hiring manager will make the decision to extend an offer of employment with the assumption that the applicant will fit in and be an effective performer who is satisfied in the position and committed to your organization.

The applicant accepts a job based on the same assumption. It follows, then, that onboarding is an important subsequent step in solidifying those decisions, as it increases the likelihood of achieving your expected outcomes — namely, effective job performance, job satisfaction, and commitment to your organization.

Effective onboarding is especially crucial for the retention of hourly workers, given their relatively high turnover rate. Turnover is typically most chronic during the early phase of employment; it is not unusual for 50 percent of a company’s hourly employees to leave within 120 days of hire date. Onboarding has been found to have a particularly strong effect on adjustment and work outcomes for new hires with limited prior work experience, which is often the case with individuals being hired into entry-level hourly positions.

It is important to make sure the relationship starts off on the right foot, since the first experiences of a new employee in your organization are critical. If executed correctly, a successful onboarding program will “maximize your new employees’ understanding of their specific roles and responsibilities, boost their confidence, and help them to become active and welcome participants in your organization and its unique culture.”

The Kronos Onboarding Study

For several years, academic researchers have been studying the topic of onboarding, or “organizational socialization,” focusing on what facilitates an employee’s adjustment and how that process affects subsequent attitudes. While systematic research into onboarding is becoming more prevalent, little of it has specifically examined onboarding practices for the hourly workforce. In fact, almost all onboarding studies examine the practices used to induct salaried professionals into their organizations.

To fill this research void, Kronos conducted a large qualitative research study to examine the practices organizations were engaging in to onboard their hourly workers. Because they were prototypical industries that employed large hourly workforces, the study concentrated on the retail, grocery, and healthcare industries.

The study aimed to discover what onboarding looked like to the hourly worker, as well as to compare employee perceptions of onboarding practices with supervisor perceptions and identify best practices and areas for improvement in hourly onboard- ing programs. The scientists visited 22 field locations of the participating organizations and interviewed 130 hourly employees and 59 supervisors, asking questions about the duration of the onboarding program, the involvement of different stakeholders in the program, the program content, and its effectiveness.

Kronos research study participants were asked:

  1. Whether supervisors worked alongside them in the first few weeks;
  2. Whether their expectations of their jobs had been met;
  3. To discuss their satisfaction level with the company;
  4. To explain the way their jobs contributed to the company’s strategic goals;
  5. To set performance goals; and ,
  6. To provide performance feedback.

Surprising results

The response showed these activities occurred infrequently, and there was little consistency across new hire experiences. For an onboarding program to be effective in this area, the Kronos study concluded, these six activities must be included within the first several weeks after a new hire’s start date and supervisors should be trained to engage with new hires in these types of activities.

In the Kronos study, researchers predicted their findings would show that onboarding programs for hourly workers were more focused on job training than on socializing new hires into the organizational culture. This prediction was made based on the fact that job training is essential, while information about the broader organization — such as its mission and history — is commonly perceived to be superfluous and less relevant for entry-level employees.

However, the results of the study proved them wrong: Most onboarding programs gave equal time to job training and teaching workers about the organization. But responses to questions and comments made by participants showed that more time was devoted to the completion of forms, administrative processes such as clocking in and requesting time off, and discussions of rules, policies, and procedures than to either of these issues — partly due to the short duration of many onboarding programs. In some cases, these operational details constituted the only content.

Both the Kronos study and a study conducted by the Aberdeen Group, a provider of fact-based research based in Boston, identified the following most common components of onboarding programs:

  • Forms/tasks management
  • Development and performance management
  • Cultural and social assimilation information about the company’s culture, values, structure, location, and strategic objectives
  • Training on company products and services
  • Assignment of a mentor or coach

While an onboarding program can include many different types of activities, the overarching goals of the program should be to teach new hires what their jobs entail and integrate them into the organization and its culture. Aberdeen noted that job training, performance management, and development planning were often negligible during the onboarding process.

Crucial for motivating new employees

However, these activities are crucial for setting performance expectations and motivating your new hourly employees. Know that the on-the-job training you provide will create a foreseeable impact on their future job performance, their enculturation into the organization, and their attitudes concerning engagement, satisfaction, and commitment.

Never underestimate the benefits of a mentoring program, either. During the Kronos study, both employees and supervisors were asked which information should be provided in the onboarding process so that new hires don’t have to learn it on their own.

While no clear commonalities emerged across the participating organizations, the most frequently cited responses included: “who the go-to people are for answers,” “the dos and don’ts of working at this company,” and “information about my teammates.” These are all areas that can be effectively addressed by a peer mentor program in which the new hire is paired with a senior co-worker (not a supervisor); this also gives the mentor a development opportunity.

The Kronos research further showed that although mentors are not consistently utilized for onboarding across departments and locations, every employee who had an opportunity to work with a mentor viewed the experience very positively. Indeed, other research has echoed this finding. New hires who have mentors are more knowledgeable about their organizations and more likely to internalize the organization’s values.

Excerpted from Creating the Workforce — and Results — You Seek: A Thought Leadership Anthology on Workforce Management from the Workforce Institute at Kronos. Copyright 2010 by Kronos Incorporated. Reprinted with permission from The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated.