“Welcome aboard!” my new boss said. Her smile was wide. At my new desk, a shiny logo-emblazoned official corporate coffee mug waited for me. I felt like I’d won some exclusive golden ticket to a Willy Wonka wonderland of interesting colleagues, exciting challenges, and logo-enhanced caffeinated beverages—all capped off by a regular paycheck.
Flash forward six weeks. My official corporate coffee mug lay forgotten and unused at one corner of my paper-strewn desk as I added the finishing touches to my resignation letter. I walked out of the office that same afternoon with deep relief, a final paycheck (partial), and one official corporate coffee mug (never used). My ex-employer, meanwhile, faced the daunting task of going right back to square one to begin the recruitment process from scratch.
In just a few weeks, a dream job and a professional match made in heaven had transformed into a category one dumpster fire big enough to toast s’mores on at fifty paces.
The spark that ignited that dumpster fire was a catastrophically bad onboarding process.
In this blog post, we’ll take a close look at onboarding. We’ll check out some stats, look at the underlying causes of bad employee inductions, and then dive into some ideas on how you can onboard employees the right way.
Table of Contents
Let’s get the ball rolling with some (oddly reassuring?) stats
It turns out that, as personally calamitous as my and my employer’s situation felt at the time, the research out there reveals that none of this is particularly unusual.
- Close to 90 percent of employees finish onboarding their new job with a negative impression of their company, according to a 2023 workplace survey by job placement platform, Zippia.
- A staggering 17 percent of employees, these same survey findings suggest, left their job within the first quarter of employment.
- Another 2023 workplace survey found that fewer than half of newly recruited workers received more than one day of workplace orientation.
- Yet another 2023 workplace survey (yeah, we vote ’23 be recognized as the International Year of Highly Specific Vocational Surveys) found that roughly six in ten onboarding processes focus exclusively on admin and paperwork.
So here’s the weirdly reassuring bit: If you feel bad that your company isn’t doing right by your new hires, don’t worry.
Not by a long shot.
How to build a better onboarding process
So it’s official. Onboarding, then, is usually an objectively awful part of the employment experience. How to fix it, though? Here’s Ruby’s take, and spoilers—what you’re about to read involves a dollop of authenticity, a hefty slug of listening, and a commitment to clear and compassionate communication.
1. Focus on the big picture.
As I took the train home that fateful resignation day, I pondered one question. (Well, truthfully, it was two questions, the first being how I planned to pay the electricity bill at the end of the month.) But the far more interesting question was, what were they actually paying me to do? I realized I actually never had a moment of clarity about the bigger picture of what my job really entailed.
Keep an eye on the bigger goals.
It gets back to that statistic cited earlier. A good six in ten companies focus on getting you “into the system,” “on the payroll,” and a whole bunch of other low-level nuts ’n bolts noun/verb combos. Perhaps we’re all scared that the higher-level stuff is too scary and intense for a new hire? Don’t be scared. We’re social creatures. We thrive on context!
Here’s a simple step to capture that context.
Once you’ve defined all those essential daily outputs, lay down some details around the bigger outcomes you hope the position will achieve. Then show how that links into one or more of the company’s collective goals.
Check out this article to learn more about the raw morale-building power of transparent metrics.
Broaden the conversation.
We’ve already talked on the Ruby blog about the importance of busting out of silos operationally. As non-robots of a distinctly human disposition, it helps to think of our work holistically. The same rule applies at the onboarding stage.
One easy way to achieve that broadened perspective is to have a senior person in your company explain the mission statement to new hires in their own words. Then introduce the new person around to a cross-section of departmental heads and counterparts.
Bonus points? Make it a real conversation, preferably with donuts.
2. Get on the same page.
We’ve established the big picture is important. But with onboarding—as with life—the little picture counts too. Decades of behavioral research into the factors affecting job retention confirm that social connection plays a huge role in overall job satisfaction—up to 30 percent according to some studies.
The point is, fostering enriching human relationships isn’t just a cool thing to do. It also makes good business sense, especially among people who are new to your company.
Practice the noblest art.
No, not we’re talking about frisbee golf.
We are, in fact, talking about conversation. Looking back on my onboarding experience, I realize now that we never got past the usual small talk to converse about who we were, what we wanted, how we think, or why we were there. The result?
Awkward smiles at the photocopier.
Blandly beige partitions.
When things got tough, we had zero social capital in the bank! We had no shared language, no way to band together and find a way forward. Good conversations build that bounteous capital. The Great Art gives us the tools we need to be excellent to one another. You know the deal: active listening, open-ended questions, genuine curiosity, and 100% certified farm-reared grade-A candor.
Care for a conversational refresher? We have a blog post for that too.
Build an online community.
Here’s an easy one! You’ve heard that it takes a village, yeah? So make one. An online office social site is a great way to combat isolation, especially if you have remote workers on your team. We have the technology. Here’s Ruby’s guide to creating an office community site using SharePoint.
3. Create a safe space.
All of the above is a lot of sensibly rational stuff. But when I think back on what went wrong for me, so much of it was emotional. With the benefit of hindsight, neither my boss, my colleagues, nor I felt truly safe. Too much rode on the moment. We were all stressed. Yet none of us felt OK to say, “Ummm, something isn’t working here.”
Again, nothing about this situation was particularly remarkable. Over a third of workers lose over an hour of productivity per day to stress, according to a series of surveys conducted by The American Institute of Stress.
Building a safe space to combat that stress begins with onboarding.
Open the door to real feedback—no matter what.
It’s worth taking a step back to appreciate the sheer gaping chasm both the new hire and the employer have to leap when they place their future prosperity in each others’ hands.
It’s one giant leap of faith.
A key message you can deliver at onboarding is that things might go wrong, and that’s completely understandable. In those first few days of onboarding, it’s a good idea to explicitly reinforce the company’s openness to real feedback. Invite a two-way conversation about what’s going right and wrong, from the tribulations to the trivial.
Oh, and a pro tip: make it easy!
Encasing your feedback mechanism in formalized procedures and systems is a surefire way to shut anyone up. Simplify. Reduce the administrative and procedural barriers to authenticity as far as you humanly can.
Real feedback sounding a bit intense? Here are some tips on how to make communication easier in times of tension.
Foster psychological safety in the workplace.
People need to feel that they can be honest about their identity—“their true selves at work,” as we put it in our article about workplace psychological safety. The onboarding stage is a great opportunity to talk about your company’s commitment to the principle of psychological safety.
What does a commitment to psychological safety look like in 2023?
The Department of Health and Human Services endorses a five-part framework for workplace well-being, comprising protection from harm, connection and community, work-life harmony, opportunity for growth, and a sense of mattering at work. Check out the HHS Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being for more information.
Give your new hire room to grow and change.
We humans are restless ones. Most of us want things. It’s who we are. It’s what we do.
There’s a good chance that on day one of their new job, your new hire is already thinking about what they’d like to achieve, how they like to progress, where they ultimately want to end up. It’s a smart and compassionate move to give new employees the space to talk about those goals—both within your company and beyond it.
By acknowledging a new employee’s longer-term goals, you’re sending a message that they’re safe to grow in their role with you, that they’re safe to pursue their full potential.
Thanks for being one of the good ‘uns!
So there you have it. It’s entirely possible to onboard a new hire in a way that keeps a spring in their step. All that’s left is to thank you for actually caring enough to want to offer your new hires a decent onboarding process. On behalf of all ex-employees who know the bitter irony of owning a “welcome to the team” coffee mug that’ll never convey the acrid fortifying brew for which it was destined …
… we salute you.
Experience the Ruby difference for yourself.
Looking to work with like-minded folks who believe that kindness will always be part of the equation?