Onboarding that Increases Employee Engagement and Retention

Posted on September 22, 2023

Three people in business suits sitting at a conference room table across from a person on a laptop.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Bill Brantley, Chief Learning Officer for BAS2A (instructional design and talent development consultancy) in College Park, Md. Connect with Bill Brantley on LinkedIn

What I’m reading: “Causal Artificial Intelligence: The Next Step in Effective Business AI” by Judith S. Hurwitz and John K. Thompson.

What I’m watching: Binge-watching “Have Gun, Will Travel,” a late 1950s Western series.

What I’m working on: Preparing two short, online courses to teach state and local employees how to incorporate AI tools in their work effectively.


Do you remember your first onboarding experience when you started working in your state or local government job?  

Maybe your experience was like mine when I started working for the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Agency on Sept. 2, 1991. I showed up for what I thought was a second interview. My new boss told me that I was hired and escorted me to my cubicle. Thirty minutes later, a human resources representative stopped by with a pile of documents for me to sign. Two hours later, I was brought to the executive director’s office to meet them. After five minutes of small talk, I returned to my desk and started working on my first assignment. 

I blundered for the next six months, learning how things work around the office. I made many mistakes and sometimes wondered if I made the right decision in accepting the job. After nine months, I started feeling like I belonged at the organization. 


The Problems with Onboarding

According to a recent article in Route 50, “a June audit of staff shortages and retention problems in Berkeley, California, found that only 36% of new employees believed they had an adequate onboarding experience.” After Tennessee experienced significant government employee turnover in 2019, HR surveyed employees’ onboarding experiences. “About a third of respondents said that their orientation wasn’t interesting or informative; 40% said they were already looking for another job; and 31% said their work experience so far had not met their expectations.”

So, what can be done to improve the onboarding experience? Let’s look at some lessons learned from state and local governments that reinvented the onboarding experience.


Senior Leadership Needs to be Involved

Stop thinking of onboarding as an administrative process to be performed by HR. Onboarding is often the first exposure to the organization’s culture. You want the new employees to feel valued and excited about working for the agency. Have a senior leader greet the new employees and thank them for choosing to work at the agency. Talk about the organization’s values and how the new employees can contribute to the organization’s vision and mission. The idea is to connect the new employees’ work to the organization’s broader mission.


Train Managers How to Onboard New Employees

People’s immediate supervisors are the No. 1 reason people stay or quit. Train the frontline managers to welcome the new employees and help them transition to the organization.

My favorite onboarding experience was a manager who gathered all the employees around my office to welcome me to my first day, and they handed me a gift basket with snacks and office supplies. For the next two weeks, the manager stopped by to check on me and ask how she could help me settle in. That is the model behavior you want from your managers in onboarding new employees.


Onboarding is a Long-Term Process

I have been through nine different onboarding experiences in government. Seven of the onboarding experiences were a couple of hours long to a day-long event. I filled out forms, viewed PowerPoints, and was escorted to an empty office while I waited for my new manager to show up.

And then, there was the excellent onboarding experience where I filled out all the forms online two weeks before I reported to the job. When I showed up for work, all my work technology was in place, and my manager took me to lunch. For six months, I met with my manager weekly to discuss how my work was going and how I fit in. The manager was a trained coach and did a fantastic job bringing out my best work. 

It takes time for people to learn their job and the organizational culture. Respect that process and build that into your onboarding.


The Key to Engagement and Retention is Making People Feel Valued for Their Contributions

Making people feel valued starts with the first minute of the first hour of the first day they join the agency. If your new employees feel like they are an afterthought and a burden on their first day, it will be hard to overcome those feelings as the employees continue to work for the agency. If your employees don’t feel valued at your organization, they will soon find a place where they will be appreciated.

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