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Onboarding For Higher Performance and Engagement

by Paul Edwards

Hiring doesn’t end on an employee’s first day.

Onboarding and the first few weeks to months of employment – what we call the “getting acquainted period” – is the most critical part of the hiring process.

That’s partially because the onboarding phase is your best chance to control and influence your overall hiring expenses. Twenty percent of employee turnover happens within the first 90 days, yet companies with structured onboarding processes experience 50% greater new hire retention. Great onboarding simultaneously fulfills your legal obligations for new hires, engages your new employee, establishes routines that will help them succeed, and helps lower your long-term risk and cost of turnover.

We’ve learned that you can speed up your assessment of your new hire’s skills, strengths, and fit for your team through great onboarding. But HR professionals also hear a lot of assumptions about that first 90 days. We want to straighten out some myths, recommend specific steps that should (and in some cases must) happen, and discuss how great onboarding paves the way for success – for your employee, for you, and for the goals you want the practice to achieve.

As with most areas of HR, the possibilities of what you can include in your onboarding program are endless, so it’s important that you start simple and build from there. Our own processes, which I’ll share at the end of this article, are culled from working with some of the best managers out there. Do as little or as much as you are comfortable with, and the effects will multiply over time.

Unraveling Those 90-Day Myths

First, let’s do some HR myth-busting. In addition to the importance of onboarding and training, employers often believe there is a legal significance to the first 90 days of employment. But unless you’re in Montana or you have a contract stating otherwise, your employee is considered “atwill” throughout employment. That means you can fire them for any lawful reason – just not for an unlawful one. There is no legal timeframe that makes an employee “real” or more protected after 90 days.

It’s also a myth that letting a new employee go during the first 90 days has anything to do with how unemployment benefits work. Instead, employers must pay unemployment insurance taxes on wages starting from an employee’s first day. Unless you’re in Illinois, there’s no set amount of time an employee must work for you first. The employee’s eligibility (and whether you or their previous employers have to pay) depends on other factors.

What about other benefits? It is true that health insurance and mandatory sick pay must begin on or before the 90th day for eligible employees, so the number is significant for that reason. Employers do often wait to start health insurance benefits to minimize paying them for new hires who don’t work out. For this and other reasons, it’s often simpler to let problematic new hires go sooner rather than later, but nothing officially changes the employee’s status at day 90.

How you name that initial period of employment matters, though. Calling it a “probationary period,” “trial period,” or similar term is ill-advised – those have been unfavorably treated by the courts as implying something other than at-will employment. Instead, you want to keep it clear that employment is always at-will, at day 9, day 90, or day 900. For this reason, our preferred neutral term is the “getting acquainted period.”

20% of employee turnover happens within the first 90 days, yet companies with structured onboarding processes experience 50% greater new hire retention.

The majority of onboarding activities will naturally fall within your getting acquainted period. The point of this initial 90 days, or whatever period of time you choose, is simply to put you and your employee mutually on notice to pay attention and evaluate the fit.

Onboarding Creates a Blueprint for Success

The first key part of onboarding is to cover the things you are required to do by law every time you hire. After that, your onboarding activities focus on getting your new employee settled and integrated, setting expectations, making sure they have the best possible chance to learn, and assessing their fit for your team and office culture. These tasks are not easy, but they each have a part in creating a blueprint for your employee’s long-term success.

To protect your practice and positively impact new hire retention, consider all of the following when you onboard:

■ What should happen before the first day of employment? This includes the offer letter, the background and certification check, and much more.

■ What paperwork do you need the new employee to read or complete? I-9s, W-4s, direct deposit, your policies, and other necessary items should all be ready, whether printed or in HR management software like CEDR’s HR Vault.

■ What physical/practical issues need to be addressed? Your new hire will need building access, an office tour, their schedule, computer passwords, and so forth.

■ How will you draw your new hire into your office culture? This might start with providing a mentor, making sure they don’t eat lunch alone on their first day, discussing how your practice is managed, and other activities.

■ What training needs to happen? From HIPAA training to your computer systems to your patient processes, chances are your new employee has a lot to learn.

One reason onboarding works so well is that it sets good patterns in place immediately. The first few days of employment are a critical time when employees choose to become engaged or disengaged. Great onboarding increases the chances that employees will engage.

Onboarding Helps You See if You’ve Made a Good Hire

At its best, onboarding is not just a list of activities, or even a way to get your employee trained and interested. It sets a standard for effective communication and productivity. You’re saying to your new hire, “We’re happy you’re here, we’re invested in making this work, and we are committed to giving you the tools to be good at what you do here.” It’s also a way of passing the ball, so your new hire can show you how great an employee they can be. A well-organized program and clear communication from the start sends a message about the level of professionalism and engagement we, as employers, expect new employees to reciprocate.

We all need to know our time and efforts are worthwhile when creating new management processes. Onboarding takes work, but it also gives your new employee the best possible chance to hit the ground running, so you can evaluate their performance all the sooner. So, what should you be looking for in those first few weeks?

Having been at this for many years now and benefited from talking to thousands of office managers, we think the best predictors lie in emotional intelligence, trust, and resiliency.

Here Are a Few Signs That You Have a Great-Fit Employee:

1. They ask for help. The number one behavior in building trust is when someone asks for help. It’s a sign they know what they know and don’t know. How can we trust someone to perform the work we delegate unless they know their limits and ask for help?

2. Their attendance is spot-on. If they told you they had a preplanned trip prior to hire, or have a medical emergency, that’s different. But mostly, they need to be able to show reliability and commitment to the job by showing up, on time.

3. They make an effort to become integrated with the team. This becomes apparent through participation in social events, maybe going to lunch, offering to help others complete tasks, and asking about the outside lives of others.

4. Training them is easy (not effortless). They learn relatively quickly, they are patient with the process, and show appreciation for the time and patience of their colleagues while they come up to speed. They use training as a chance to form bonds.

5. They can laugh at themselves. Even when we have a lot to learn, our energy can create positivity and momentum.

Observing moments of stress or how a person receives constructive feedback can tell you a lot. Do they view it as an opportunity to improve, or to make excuses and place blame? Do they find humor and self-forgiveness in the learning process, or let it defeat and deter them from wanting to try again?

6. They demonstrate empathy and self-awareness. They praise others. They pause before responding. They listen attentively. They say please and thank you.

The more of these indicators your employee has, the better – and the onboarding period, during your employee’s most intense training, provides your best chance to observe how well they are learning and fitting in.

Committing to better onboarding may be cumbersome and uncomfortable at times, but the results add up. Even improving your onboarding one step at a time can drastically change your processes over the next couple of years, resulting in better retention and a more engaged team of employees down the line.

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