The First Dance is Often the Only Dance: Why Employee Assimilation Should Be Part of Your Charter

In a good labor market, temptation is everywhere. If you are located in a place like Silicon Valley, your employees face a constant barrage of calls from friends, headhunters, and even casual acquaintances offering greener grass. If you are located further away, the lure is to move – to go where the weather and economic opportunities are greatest. This is why turnover rates have skyrocketed into the 20% and 30% range for technical people and even into the teens for non-technical people. But even if your turnover rates are very low, I suggest you not sit on your laurels. There are probably two main reasons: (1) you have a pension and/or stock plan that a significant number of employees are committed to, and (2) you have a high tenure, baby-boomer rich workforce. I bet you still have a hard time keeping the younger and newer employees. As having many different jobs over a few years becomes common, and as the average tenure dips to about 4 years from 10 a decade ago, it seems logical that every company should be focused on customer (read employee) satisfaction and support. Most organizations I am familiar with are doing a lot with stock, pay, and benefits to keep people. Yet they are forgetting the one key ingredient that has been shown to significantly affect turnover: how an employee enters your organization. If, as the old saying goes, you only have 30 seconds to make a first impression as an individual, how long do you have as an organization? While I don’t know the answer, I DO know that it isn’t very long. Getting a new employee socially networked and productive should be a major role that the recruiting and development functions share. No matter how carefully you may have screened a candidate to fit your organization’s culture or how closely her skills match those of the job, there is a good chance she will leave in the first year. Why? There are four major reasons why people may be dissatisfied with a new work experience.

  1. Everyone enters work with a set of expectations about what the work and culture will be like. Some perceptions are more realistic than others. Mismatched expectations start the process of doubt and dissatisfaction that often leads to people leaving.
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  3. This is often compounded by a lack of friends in the organization. I see people following their old bosses and friends from job to job because they have an instant social network. Networks may be the most important ingredient in why people come to or leave any organization.
  4. And, as study after study has pointed out, the manager and the employee’s relationship with her is key to job performance and retention. Poor managers who do not take the time to get to know their new employees may actually drive them away.
  5. And last are the employee’s skills and competency. While we all believe we have hired very competent people, we may have been mistaken. Often if an employee senses that they do not have the right skills for the job they were hired to do, and if they see no way to develop those skills in a reasonable timeframe, they leave to avoid embarrassment or because they are afraid they will be fired.

The first step in preventing all of these things from happening is to have a strong orientation program that goes beyond administrivia and benefits forms. An effective new employee orientation program needs to be tied closely to bridging any gaps in understanding or expectations or misapprehensions about the culture, and it needs to provide skills and understanding that a new employee can rely on for their first few months in the organization. Here are four things you can do to put in place a dynamite orientation program: Step #1: Help every employee build an internal social network. We all know how powerful networks are and companies that actively promote employee interaction and teamwork have less discontent and less turnover than those that keep employees apart or at odds. Some of the best orientation programs I have seen start new employees off by assigning them a more experienced employee as a “buddy” for the first week or two. This is someone who agrees to take the employee to lunch once a week and be available by phone or email to answer questions. They make introductions and whenever the new employee has a meeting with someone, they provide some inside information on that person and their role in the organization. This is a simple thing to set up, but it has long-term impacts. It is very hard to leave an organization when you have friends and a network and have built some trust. I also recommend starting clubs and social groups within the company that work and play together. Some companies form college clubs for new college grads or other clubs that serve as tools to help new employees become oriented to the firm and meet other new hires. This raises the level of commitment they have to the organization and reduces turnover. Internal networks are powerful binding devices. Step #2: Help the new employees understand the culture. Many good companies have a day where new employees learn about the culture of their new company. This can be done in many ways, but more participative and organic approaches work better than lectures. I have seen companies bring senior employees in and tell what they think is great about the company. I have seen storytelling sessions where employees speak of times of great stress and how the company dealt with them or how the company has developed products or dealt with a customer. These stories are more powerful than any lecture or video and they bring the culture to life. Step #3: Educate managers and get the bad ones out of managerial positions. The manager-employee relationship is the most critical and important of all. A bad manager can do more damage than low pay, poor benefits, or lousy working conditions. I have seen cases where people were working in absolutely substandard places without complaint because they liked and respected their manager. Develop programs that help managers understand how important this role is and work with human resources to make assimilation involvement and turnover rates part of the mangers performance rating. A good manager can be shown to have qualitatively better productivity and higher tenure than poor ones. Let the data speak. Make the manager part of the orientation process. One company I work with encourages the manager to go through part of the orientation process with the new hire. They have actually created a social experience as part of the orientation program where the employee spends social time with the manager. Step #4: Finally, provide lots of training. A small dose of skill development can help many an employee. Some employees find themselves in situations where their skills are stretched. If they have a good network, perhaps they can get someone to coach them or help them get the task done, but in many cases they have no one. Good, widely available training and development programs can reduce turnover and raise productivity because, rather than pretend to be able to do something and make many mistakes, an employee can turn to the development process and build competency. Competency builds satisfaction and confidence, which translates into stability. Making sure employees are aware of training opportunities during the orientation can make a difference. And when recruiters are involved in the assimilation process they can learn what skills and traits to look for in new candidates and use the knowledge they gain to become ever better recruiters. So, I urge you all to take any “quiet” time during this temporary lull in recruiting to work in a good employee orientation program. It will pay big dividends when things heat up again. <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.

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