Onboarding: The Key To Talent Retention

Mark Liston

Onboarding is a term only human resources people really know. It’s hard to define and, if not explained properly, can easily get mixed up with the word "orientation."

It reminds me of the word "Google." Five or six years ago I had never heard of Google. Today it is a company, a verb and my home page. I can’t imagine where I would be without Google. And I can’t imagine where my company would be in the future without onboarding.

So what is onboarding, why is it important and why should managers and executives embrace it?

One of the best definitions I’ve seen of "onboarding" comes from Lynn Schleeter, Director of the Center for Sales Innovation, The College of St. Catherine in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She writes, "Onboarding is the process or system that organizations use to introduce, train, integrate and/or coach new hires to the culture and methods of the company during their first year."

Several months ago, before I even saw her definition, a few people from my company Valpak got together and defined onboarding. We defined it as "the first phase of a multi-phase process, defined as a period of time (starting at hire and lasting up to a year) wherein the new sales rep is coached by the sales manager and/or franchise owner, as well as Valpak, and results in measurable commitment, proficiency and benchmarked sales dollars. The onboarding phase is aimed at a much larger goal, creating an employee who is immersed in the company's culture and vision and makes the employee want to stay and contribute to the organization."

We did this for a few reasons. First of all we didn’t want anyone to confuse onboarding with orientation. This isn’t: "Welcome to your first day at ABC Company. Do me a favor—just fill out these 102 forms, watch this 30 minute video and I’ll meet you for lunch at noon. This afternoon we’ll walk you through the facility, have you meet a few of the real important people, give you 20 books to read and let you get home early. Oh, and don’t forget, the company picnic is in August. I’ll see you then."

Fortunately, or unfortunately, many orientation programs mirror this.

Valpak has 200 offices around the country. We wanted to make sure that Jim in Columbus, Nunzio in Trenton, Brad in Chicago and Jason in San Francisco all had the same vision of what onboarding is and how to embrace it the same way.

Here is the challenge for Corporate America. How can we get our mid-level and senior-level people to embrace it and change? We have to keep the talent pool challenges at the forefront of our mind.

The workforce is made up of:

  • 80 million baby boomers—41 percent of the workforce, which starts becoming eligible for Social Security in 2008
  • 46 million Gen Xers—30 percent of the workforce
  • 76 million Gen Yers—23 percent of the workforce

Five years ago we never said the words "recruiting" and "retention." Today these are words included in people’s titles. Why? Because 41 percent of our workforce is about to start retirement and there just aren’t enough people around to replace them. The experts tell us that by 2014 we will be short 8 million workers.

We can’t afford to have our good people leave us. When we attract new talent we have to make sure that we are getting new employees ingrained in our culture as quickly as possible. As I heard recently at a conference, "People never remember what they were told or what they read on their first day at a new job. However, they always remember how they felt at the end of the day."

I think we missed it when we wrote Valpak’s onboarding statement. Onboarding really starts the day a company offers someone a position. How many times have you or someone you know been offered a position and gave notice, only to find out that you are now more valuable to your current company—and they want to give you that raise that for the past three years you deserved. Now, and only now that you are leaving, are you more valuable than you were yesterday.

If the new company is keeping in contact and/or sending you updates or even a welcome card, is it easier for you to turn down the raise and still make the move? Of course.

The challenge is for mid-level and senior-level executives to embrace this and make sure that onboarding becomes as big a part of their lives as Googling! The end result for these executives is an employee who is committed, more productive in his or her first year and more likely to stay with the company for many years—the rewards provided by effective onboarding.