Onboarding New Employees and the Growth of Mentoring as way of Improving Retention

February 2, 2016

Strategic People Management Part II

Editors’ Note: This is the second in a series of articles on strategic people management. The first was on recruiting, and the next will focus on performance management.

So, you’ve taken the first step. You’ve created and implemented a good hiring process, one that finds strong job candidates and successfully hires them. At a time of intense competition for good workers, that’s a great beginning.

But don’t stop there.

In the past decade, job mobility has become commonplace as employees look for more attractive work environments. The tightening labor market means you have to think strategically about the process of introducing new employees to your company. This “onboarding” process is an essential initial investment, one that helps reduce the high costs and lost productivity of losing talent to other businesses. Employers need to ensure that workers—from day one—know that their company is thinking about them, ensuring they have support, and meeting their workplace needs. This should be part of your company’s brand and identity—something that will attract new workers while retaining current employees.

As with all things, first impressions count. And as the weeks and months of employment go on, your company needs to be thoughtful about how it is enhancing its reputation with employees by showing it cares about their new role, their ongoing work, and their career advancement.

The onboarding process
That first day on the job is a crucial moment for both employee and employer. HR departments should closely examine policies for that first day, and walking through it step by step is a good exercise. Who is there to meet the new employee? What is the first thing to attend to?  How are policies and things like benefits explained? If there is a technology aspect to the job (and most jobs these days have some computer-based work) IT should have that hardware and software ready to go, and a plan for training as necessary.

But a simple list of things to learn is hardly going to make a new employee eager to show up the next day. The first day should be as painless as possible, even fun—finding ways to ease the stress of so much new information is an important part of good onboarding.

Experts in recruitment and retention say a little hand-holding for new workers is simply part of good employee management . We’re all human, and a new work environment can be overwhelming. Keep the experience as light as possible. Throw in a few trinkets, such as coffee mugs or laptop bags. It’s simply human nature to appreciate a gift—even if the actual value of the item is relatively low. “It’s the thought that counts” is a cliché for a reason. Show your employees from their very first day that your company appreciates its workers.

The bottom line is that employees should feel welcome, and should also feel that your company is prepared for them. Scrambling around to accommodate a new worker is not an impression you want to give.

Mentoring: an evolving tool for retention
Mentoring is not a new concept, but it has been growing in popularity as a way to improve retention. With large numbers of baby boomers nearing retirement, there has been a realization that the institutional knowledge and work experience of these workers is a valuable resource that should not be wasted. But even relatively young workers can be mentors, if they have skills and knowledge to share.

There are two types of mentoring. One, of course, is for employees being groomed for advancement or for leadership roles. But another type of mentoring is for new hires, workers who are getting used to their new employer and their role in the company.

As with the onboarding process itself, a mentoring program for new hires needs to be carefully designed. Think about the goals and purpose of the mentoring program, and how it fits with the company’s culture overall.

There should be a process for finding good mentors and policies for how the mentor works with the new hire (in the mentoring process, these are often referred to as “prodigies,” rather than the more awkward-sounding “mentees.”)

Mentors should go through their own training process, with written or online materials that are updated as needed. A quarterly check-in with HR is also valuable, as are meetings between mentors, to compare notes and discuss what strategies work and don’t work.

Some in the business world balk at the idea of mentoring; they think it’s too much work or will be distracting to employees. But surveys show as many as 80 percent of new workers say they would get something out of a mentoring relationship. In a highly competitive job market, this tool should not be underestimated. If a company doesn’t have experience in mentoring, there are many resources, and many consultants who can help.

Introducing new employees to the concept of mentoring
Because mentoring as a training or onboarding process may be new to workers, companies should be careful about how the process is described. If it is framed as an investment in workers, new employees are usually positive about the prospect. Let the new workers know that mentoring is part of the company culture and that the one-on-one aspect of this training has many advantages.

The topics discussed by mentors and prodigies don’t need to be focused entirely on work duties; mentors can give helpful advice on a range of employee concerns: transportation and parking, or finding good lunch spots, to name two examples. It may sound like pretty mundane stuff, but to get the lay of the land from a fellow worker who has more experience is the kind of practical, day-to-day help that employees value.

Another strategy that some companies have found helpful is to bring in mentors from other departments or areas of the company. This makes the training less insular and helps the prodigy feel connected to the company as a whole.

Mentoring, like other aspects of the hiring and onboarding processes, requires thoughtful planning; it shouldn’t be an ad hoc, thrown-together process. There are logical steps: create a formal process, find the mentors, provide the support, refresh the knowledge base, and have a way of developing the skills of the mentors. When all the bases are covered, you’ll have a powerful tool for bringing valuable new employees up to speed, and ensuring that they know their employer supports them and will help them develop the skills they need to succeed.