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New Attention to Onboarding: Where Trainers Hold the Keys

by Sue Plaster, M.Ed.

Today, more attention is being given to effective onboarding of new employees, not just so they can be productive more quickly but so employers can retain talent in a competitive market. “Onboarding” has taken on a larger meaning than orientation to the job. It has become an umbrella term for all the steps involved in bringing in new talent from the moment of hire all the way through the first few months, even the first year.

Training staff, leaders, hiring managers, recruiters, and new employees themselves all play important roles in orientation and onboarding. But training and development staff, in general, are the ones who design the programs that bring new employees on board and help them affiliate with our organizations in their early days of employment. The relationship between trainers and hiring managers is vital to designing orientation programs that truly help new employees create bonds to the job, the supervisor, the department, and the overall organization. Because we as trainers work with leaders as well as hiring managers and experts from across the enterprise, we have important insight into the overall work of the organization as well as that of each department. We also work directly with employees at various levels of tenure so we are likely to understand where there are gaps in onboarding. We bring these important perspectives to the design of onboarding programs.

A series of questions helps shape the onboarding of new employees to the overall organization they are joining. These questions outline the organizational view that we as corporate trainers understand and translate well.

Organizational Landscape

  • What is our corporate “story” and how does this story show itself in our daily culture and work environment?
  • What is our business mission, our vision and values, and how shall we explain them to new employees so that they are brought to life?
  • Who are our customers and what do they care about?
  • What is the critical work of the organization and how can new employees be rapidly engaged in it?
  • What technologies do we use to reach customers and to communicate with each other?

Individual Fit to Training Methods

Onboarding establishes and reinforces bonds with our organizations. As with any new affiliation, this process depends on both the organization and the individual. Learning and performing the job itself, and establishing a relationship with one’s supervisor are paramount. But other factors can impact affiliation and foster rapid learning about an organization in the first 90 days. Maybe it’s feeling connected to the company’s product or industry, having a positive sense of the leadership, establishing good relationships with peers, or understanding larger causes in which the company is involved. For each new employee, there may be unique circumstances that create, foster, or deflect the forming of bonds.

We are also attuned to generational patterns that influence how, when, and where employees learn. All of these factors influence the onboarding training plan. It’s important to know what aspect of affiliating with a new organization matters most to the new employee. For example, a baby boomer may be very interested in understanding the perspectives and motivations of the leaders of the organization, so as to quickly contribute, learn, and grow as part of this organization. The Generation X employee with young children might care about whether personal and professional life could be balanced effectively in the work setting. And a millennial might look closely at development opportunities and at the organization’s community involvement or volunteer opportunities.

We, as training and development staff, can help ensure that when we design an orientation plan for a new employee it is the best possible fit for his or her needs as well as that of the department. Because each new employee brings individual needs, learning styles, and expectations, corporate trainers – with our knowledge of adult learning methods – hold unique insight into what will make learning most compelling for the talented individuals we are grafting to our corporate tree.

Three Views to Consider

Acculturating new employees (especially new leaders) is a process that acquaints them with three very different perspectives: the big picture, the middle view, and the close up view. Onboarding is not the only source of information for these perspectives, but they must be part of the overall onboarding plan for the employee. In designing programs to bring new employees on board and ensure rapid connection to the organization, here is a list to double check against:

  1. Big Picture – The entire organizational scope.
  • The industry and its competitors, and major forces that affect the organization.
  • Overall organization leadership team and managerial culture.
  • History of past change initiatives, especially if the new employee is expected to be a change leader.
  • Plans for the future of the division or organization that may not have been shared in the interview process.
  • Communications style and channels of the organization. How are the most important messages communicated and what channels are most important be immediately tuned into?
  1. Middle View – The new employee’s department, function, and organizational level.
  • Expectations of managers in the immediate work area.
  • History of the department and functional areas served.
  • Key alliances essential to doing the job; important connections, meetings and networks.
  1. Up Close – The employee’s role, duties, direct reports, and supervisor.
  • The department supervisor’s specific expectations and ways of working.
  • Use of technology in the department and which technology supports are most critical for this particular role. In what sequence should the technology be learned?
  • Best ways of communicating with supervisor and coworkers, in ordinary times and in emergencies.
  • Information (verbal and documented) about those whom the employee is leading.

Ask Employees Too

It is also important to ask new employees themselves about the needs they bring to the onboarding process. Training staff may need to interview some employees personally, especially those in mission critical positions, to make sure the learning plan is appropriate for the position held. New employees themselves need to feel empowered to make onboarding work for them.  They may need to discover their learning style, for example, and ensure that this is part of their on-the-job learning. If the employee is one who needs to do background reading, for example, he or she can identify sources and do research on their own. Onboarding well — bonding with the new company so as to contribute better, sooner — sometimes means the employee must come up  with the “missing link” that is key to future success.

The Onboarding Training Plan

Whether we have an onboarding plan for the entire organization, an individualized approach, or a combination of approaches depending on organizational level and responsibility, we in training and development have a unique and vital role in developing the plan and implementing it. Done well, onboarding contributes greatly to organizational productivity as well as to its ability to keep and grow great talent.

About the Author

Sue Plaster, M.Ed. has invested more than 30 years of her career in the diversity and cross-cultural communication arena. Her consulting work focuses on assistance to small and large organizations with diversity and cultural competence, as well as succession planning that take diversity into account.  Sue also serves individual clients as a career transition and mobility advisor.  Sue’s industry experience includes health care delivery, health care manufacturing, controls manufacturing, and secondary education.   Sue holds a Master’s in Education from the University of Minnesota, with a focus in leadership development. Her undergraduate degree is in English, Speech and Education from Saint Catherine University.  Sue has been an instructor in Internal Communications for the University of St. Thomas Master’s in Business Communication and presents at numerous local and regional conferences. You can connect with Sue through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or sales@writingassist.com