Girish Menon: The importance of 'onboarding'

Recruitment is just the start: new staff must be helped to settle in, to know the scope of their role and to understand the values of the organisation

Girish Menon
Girish Menon

Recruitment is one of the most important management functions. Ultimately, it is about getting the right people with the right skills, expertise and attitude, who are aligned to the values and culture of the organisation. We all know how difficult it is to get it right, we all know the pitfalls of not doing it well enough and we all know how difficult it is to retain the right people.

Once it is completed, the recruiting manager gets a big tick in the box. Job done! But our experiences show that getting the people into an organisation is only the start of another and more important responsibility, which I personally find very exciting – that of onboarding.

The use of the word "onboarding" is relatively recent. It has replaced terms such as "orientation", perhaps because it is about making a new entrant more comfortable with the workplace and their colleagues, and enabling them to understand the organisation and settle down well. "Induction" is another popular term, one that involves focused and tailored sessions about the organisation and getting to know about the various teams or departments in the organisation, the policies and processes, the ways of working and so on.

Onboarding is a more comprehensive term that is all the above, but it is also about enabling the person to be fully on board. It is about understanding the role the person is recruited to fill, its connection with the mission and purpose of the organisation, the key inter-relationships both internal and external, and, very importantly, the culture and values that underpin an organisation.

So how can onboarding be done effectively? Here are a few things that I have found quite useful.

Organisational history and purpose

One motto I have found quite useful is respect the past, live in the present and be aspirational about the future. It is so important to know where the organisation has come from, what were the key phases in the evolution of the organisation and how we understand its history. That is what helps new joiners to better understand the context in which we are working and get their heads around the rationale behind the various changes in the evolution of the organisation.

Clarity about the role

It is quite reasonable to expect that a new joiner will know what their role is. After all, they will have gone through the recruitment pack, which enables them to prepare for the role, and that’s why they got the job, isn’t it?

Often, it is not that simple. When a person comes in, they do have some understanding of the organisation and the role, but do not take it for granted. They need to understand the role in the context of what the organisation seeks to achieve. They need to understand their role in relations to those of others in the team and those in other teams. They need to understand the distinctive contribution they need to make. They need to understand what is expected of them and the basis on which their performance will be assessed. They need clarity about the role, in terms of their objectives and measures of success.

Culture and values

We have all seen various ways in which people try to explain the culture and values of an organisation. It might be on the wall, on the intranet site, on postcards or in documents. The trouble is, when we ask people about these values or to explain the culture of the organisation, the reply often depends to whom you speak. As is often said, culture is more about how people experience it rather than how people explain it. It is that intangible feeling people have about being in an organisation. There need to be opportunities and space for the person to understand this, to ask questions and to be guided towards a better understanding and thus a deeper commitment to the organisational culture and values.

Accompaniment

A new role in a new organisation can be daunting in itself. It can be particularly so for a person who is relatively young and starting a new career, someone returning after a long break, someone settling in from overseas, someone who is from a different sector or someone who is moving up or sideways in a career. The first port of call is usually the line manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day accompaniment, with a mixture of coaching and mentoring. In some cases, it could be someone from the human resources team.

These are more formal and established touchpoints for contact, but it is worth thinking of a system of "buddying" if the person is up for it and if the role is complex enough to require it. Some organisations also engage external coaching for senior roles because they need to get to grips with complex leadership challenges quickly.

It is very difficult to estimate the exact length of time that the process of onboarding will take for it to be effective. But in my experience it is rarely less than six months and could last for up to a year, especially in more senior roles and in international organisations. When done well, it is a huge investment of time and resource that is well worth the effort. It is all about making the person settle down well, which in turn drives engagement and retention. The last thing organisations want to see is someone leaving within a year or two of joining or someone who is unable to perform, primarily because they were not supported in their early days.

Girish Menon is chief executive of ActionAid UK

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