Improving onboarding – don’t make them feel like a fish out of water

Clients often ask us to look at their employee experience. And one of the most important aspects of employee experience is what it’s like for new employees when they join.  Onboarding, induction, new hire training. Whatever label you use, these first days and weeks in a new job are critical. Think of your own career. Have you ever felt supported and settled into a new job in a way that helped you to hit the ground running?

Onboarding - CX Lab customer experience consultancy

For most people, the first weeks and months in a new job takes up a lot of energy.  Lots of mental and emotional energy.  It’s common to feel like a fish out of water.  Which is draining and stressful.  
There is a lot written about adjusting to a new job, e.g. all that ‘first 100 days’ type literature.  Some of the most useful research I’ve come across is by two academics, Helena Cooper-Thomas and Neil Anderson.  When I’m asked to review or redesign an onboarding programme, I find that Cooper-Thomas and Anderson’s work is a helpful foundation for my methods.

All mouth no ears?

I also find that in many organisations, induction processes tend to be one way, and rather transactional. For example, doing a lot of telling and not much listening.  This misses a trick, as there is also so much to be learned from the fresh perspective that a newcomer brings. The ‘tell, tell, tell’ approach sends a strong subliminal message to the new starter:
‘You are here to listen; do not contribute your own ideas.’
This subliminal message is often contradictory to the values of the organisation. Loads of companies want to encourage involvement, ideas, and upward communication. For all types of job roles, from front line to senior managers, there’s huge benefit to be had by looking for ideas and input from day one. These first weeks are often a wonderful opportunity to gather fresh perspectives from the new hire. People are more objective in the early weeks.

Social animals

Because companies focus on task-y stuff like learning about the role and the company, they miss the important aspect of ‘socialisation’.  In other words, we humans are social animals. A new job transplants us from our old familiar social group, into a completely new group of people.  Sometimes there is almost a grieving process, as we miss those old colleagues.  It takes time to establish new relationships and feel a part of the new group.

One size is not enough

Cooper-Thomas and Anderson’s research is about how employees adjust to new jobs.  I’ve found that often companies’ efforts at induction and onboarding within organisations tends to be one size fits all.  CT & A (I can’t keep typing out their full names), found that graduate new entrants and other less experienced employees benefit from more structured approaches. But experienced newcomers tend to rely more on their own methods of adjusting.  Thus, CT & A write:
“HR induction and onboarding processes may be better off encouraging [experienced] newcomers to use their own adjustment strategies that can be adapted according to the role and context.”

How do you know when you’ve adjusted?

CT & A wrote that there are five indicators of a successful transition to a new job:

Social cohesion

As I’ve stated above, this is when the newcomer fits in socially. It’s about sharing values, norms of behaving, feeling a part of the team.

Role Performance

This is when the newcomer is succeeding in the job.  Of course the primary aim of any onboarding programme is to help the new start to perform at an acceptable level as soon as possible.  I once headed up L&D for a shoe retailer, and designed an induction programme for which one outcome was that new starters sold £17.40 per hour more shoes than people who hadn’t done the programme.  Result!

Extra-role performance

This is when the person goes beyond the job spec and does things that helps the organisation, even in small ways. An example is a new starter volunteering to join an employee committee.  

Internal stability

This is when the newcomer feels settled and intends to stay.  As opposed to feel unhappy or deciding to leave.  I think it is important to acknowledge that almost every new starter has an  “Oh my god, what have I done?!’ moment.  If not several! We’ve all been there.

External representation

This is when the newcomer says positive things about his/her company to their friends and family.  A newcomer wants to feel proud belonging to his/her new organisation.  I’ve noticed that there is that tipping point when the new starter stops saying ‘you’ and starts saying ‘we’.  
In my next post I’ll write more about the newcomer strategies that CT & A identified. If you’ve started a new role recently, how have you found it and what methods have you used to adjust to it?
At CX lab we help organisations to develop their employee experience to deliver the customer experience. This includes customer experience training, designing onboarding programmes, coaching leadership, developing internal communications and measuring the employee experience. To learn more drop us an email at or call 01344 317947.
Here’s where to find Cooper-Thomas and Anderson’s work:

Cooper-Thomas, H., Anderson, N., & Cash, M. (2012). Investigating organizational socialization: a fresh look at newcomer adjustment strategiesPersonnel Review,  Vol 41, Issue 1, p41-55

Cooper-Thomas, H., & Anderson, N. (2002). Newcomer adjustment: The relationship between organisational socialisation tactics, information acquisition and attitudes. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. Vol. 75 Issue 4, p423-437

Cooper-Thomas, H., & Anderson, N. (2006). Organizational socialisation. A new theoretical model and recommendations for future research and HRM practices in organisationsJournal of Managerial Psychology. Vol 21, Issue 5, p492-516