All Aboard! How Canadian Pacific Went Back to Onboarding Basics

Greg Holsworth

Onboarding? On-Boarding? OnBoarding? On Boarding?

For as many ways as you can spell it, there were folks at Canadian Pacific who had different ideas as to what onboarding (that’s the spelling we finally decided on) meant. When I was first asked to lead a project to bring back a corporate onboarding program, I did my research and asked every person I could whom I thought was involved, or could be involved, in onboarding and what it meant to them. No two people answered the same way. It wasn’t until after a project team was struck, and a multitude of issues and ideas were raised, that I had the brainwave that there were really three streams of thought involved in onboarding:

  • The cultural acclimation or socialization aspect
  • The logistical or productivity aspect
  • The implementation or actual execution (or lack thereof)

Once we had identified that when we were talking about onboarding we were talking about one of those three subsets, we were able to group all of the various issues, ideas and horror stories and start mapping out a game plan to address each.


Canadian Pacific’s 18,000-stong workforce is over 80 percent unionized. Those unionized employees, for the most part, are dispersed along our rail network, which stretches from coast to coast in Canada, into the U.S. Midwest and New England, with the remaining 20 percent non-union (management) being centralized into the head office in Calgary and a few other locations. Our challenge was that we wanted each employee—regardless of union status and location—to each have the same onboarding experience. With some new hires embarking on a lengthy prescribed training program (conductors, for example), and some receiving no formal introductory training at all, our solution was to limit the consistent experience to what we call "Day One."

It’s About the Employee Experience, Stupid!

We brainstormed and batted around some ideas and finally decided that, really, we needed to put ourselves in the position of our new hires. What would we like to know, do, see and learn on our first day? That’s how we formulated what Day One should be about. I say "should" here: We cannot have one central location in which to welcome and onboard all new employees, so we must rely on all of the various onboarders (those who hire new employees and will onboard them to the company) to follow the prescribed best-practices.

There are many important features of Day One, but the central experience is learning about the company. We pulled together content from various sources and created a "Welcome to Canadian Pacific" orientation presentation that we made available in different formats, depending on where in the company the new hire was joining us. There is a PowerPoint presentation, an e-learning module and a DVD created—all with the same content to ensure that we are able to reach every new employee regardless of where in the network they are. New hires learn:

  • Who is Canadian Pacific—company introduction
  • What is the business of Canadian Pacific—what a railway does
  • What is the market place of Canadian Pacific—where we generate our business
  • Who we are at Canadian Pacific—introduction to the senior leaders and brief introductions to all departments
  • What’s new at Canadian Pacific—new corporate endeavors and initiatives

Together with a list of other recommended activities, this information forms the foundation of CP’s Day One experience for new hires.

Getting the Nuts and Bolts In Place

Measuring time to productivity is always an important metric in any onboarding program. At CP, we define "productivity" as having the tools and support in place for new hires to learn and contribute. So, what are those tools? Given that we do not yet have an automated onboarding system that feeds information forward to our human resources Service Center and our various service providers (for example, IT), and that we are relying on manual processes, we are currently offering to order only those items ("tools") that we deem "critical to Day One" in place for our new hires.

Our long-term goal is to implement an automated onboarding tool that will help us handle both forms management (tracking and pre-populating all of the required forms a new hire has to fill out) and task management (sending out service requests and tracking their progress to all our service partners). This is what we believe will really allow us to leverage all of the work that we’ve accomplished to date.

In addition to all of that, we have created a series of aids to help hiring managers, especially those who do not hire on a regular basis. One of the items is an employee expectations list. We write, "This is the first day for a new hire at Canadian Pacific. What can he or she expect of you?" The list includes:

  • Greeting—meet your new hire
  • Safety tour—give a tour of the building
  • Introductions—introduce to the team
  • Settling in—setting up the desk/work area
  • Pay and benefits—advise when the new hire will get paid; overview of benefits
  • Learning about the job and the company
  • Training—provide a training schedule (even if rudimentary)
  • Check-in—spend some time with your new hire reviewing how his or her first day went

Other support can be found in a series of checklists for managers of union and non-union employees in both Canada and the United States (variations in each checklist exist because of different sets of federal laws, company policies and union status). There are also Job Aids templates that a manager can ask a departing employee to fill out to help the new employee learn the role and responsibilities.

Tools and a support structure are great. But what if they’re not used? That’s why we have created a "Community of Practice," bringing together all the folks in the company who onboard new hires and asking them to continuously look for ways to communicate and educate our hiring managers and to look for improvements to our systems and methods.

Creating a Community of Practice

CP’s onboarding "Community of Practice" is the same group that came together to form the initial onboarding project team. Since we were all involved in onboarding to varying degrees in the first place, it made sense to keep us together after the initial project as a "Community of Practice." The idea here is that we can share in a common forum of what is working well for us and what is not and together think of ways of improving the overall onboarding process. Members come not only from human resources, but from each business unit, meaning we have cross-company representation, and most importantly, we get direct feedback from our business partners.

We measure our success by a couple of factors—some easier to measure than others. One measure of our success is a reduced turnover rate for new hires. Another (yet to be developed) will be a scorecard, where we can measure the success of how we did getting all of our "critical to Day One" elements into place. The final measure of our success will be the results of what we are informally calling a "stay interview." We thought instead of conducting a typical exit interview to find out why someone left the company, why not interview new hires at the three month mark to find out how we did and where we might improve? This offers us the chance to address any concerns before the new hire disengages and (possibly) departs. The stay interview, besides feeding us critical information relative to our onboarding, also acts as an important engagement and retention piece. It lets new hires know that we not only care about what they think, but that we’re willing to change how things are done to improve the overall process, based on their experiences.

Things Keep Chugging Along

One thing is certain in all of our onboarding work: It is a journey and not a destination. The accomplishments we have had to date haven’t cost a huge sum of money—only our time—and we still have a long way to go. The benefits of having folks get together to "talk shop" as a "Community of Practice" from all of our various departments cannot be underestimated. It keeps the onboarding experience alive and current so that it doesn’t become "just another human resources initiative," but rather is collectively owned by the business.

First published on Human Resources IQ.