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Employee Onboarding: Improve First Impressions & Lasting Retention

Recruiting & Hiring

For K-12 Human Resources offices, the task of staffing the district for another school year needs to be a two-sided coin, one side focused on getting (recruiting and selection), and the other side focused on keeping (onboarding and retention). Finding the top employees for your district is a complex and time-consuming project, but it is only part of the job. It’s just as important to focus on keeping your district’s top employees engaged and satisfied with their position at the district.

In some organizations, employee onboarding is limited to an orientation event that lasts maybe a few hours on the first 3 or 4 days on the job, but it is really more of an afterthought — the formalities that need to take place once the recruiting and hiring process is over. However, your district’s onboarding process can make a huge impact on the district atmosphere and your colleagues’ regular performance.

Whether thoughtfully crafted or simply superficial, your onboarding process affects the quality of your district’s relationship with its staff and the quality of the staff’s performance in a number of areas, including:

  1. Continuity of services
  2. Consistency in delivery
  3. Reliability & dependability
  4. Maintaining the culture
  5. Cost of replacement training, in dollars and time

While a high rate of employee turnover can result from a number of different factors, making an effort to improve your onboarding process in specific ways can drastically improve employee engagement and retention in your district.

What is Onboarding?

Onboarding is the combination of orientation and induction. The Society for Human Resource Management offers definitions for these two terms:

Orientation

“The introduction of employees to their jobs, co-workers and the organization by providing them with information regarding such items as policies, procedures, company history, goals, culture and work rules.”

Induction

Programs designed to introduce and acclimate newly hired employees into the organization.”

While orientation and induction make up onboarding, onboarding needs to expand beyond the orientation event for it to be effective. An employee’s onboarding should start upon their acceptance of the job offer and continue through much of the first year, adding engaging practices and knowledge of district culture to the standard processes they learned on their first few days. Effective onboarding needs to be a shared experience.

The Productivity of Pride

Author and onboarding expert David Lee says, “The term ‘Onboarding’ refers to the process of integrating new employees into the organization, of preparing them to succeed at their job, and to become fully engaged, productive members of the organization.”

Fully-engaged, productive employees offer tangible benefits to your district’s overall health and recruiting budget. If you can convert your new hires into engaged district stakeholders, your district will enjoy higher employee retention. This means your district will spend less time and money on recruiting and hiring, orientation, travel and compliance-related regulations.

However, converting new hires into district stakeholders is easier said than done. You must learn to see your employees eye-to-eye and convince them to take up responsibility for the district’s cause alongside of the administrative staff.

Lee offers one excellent sentiment to strive to create during your onboarding process: pride.

You can be proud to work here.” If you can communicate this notion to your staff, both verbally (with support for your claim) and through the quality of the onboarding experience, you’ll be on your way to converting your new employees into district ambassadors.

Your Objectives for Onboarding

As a school district, you have specific takeaways you want your new employees to understand after going through the onboarding process. In “Onboarding: The First Line of Engagement,” Martin and Bourke offer five benefits organizations want to achieve through onboarding:

  1. Ensure new employees are engaged and assimilated into the company’s culture
  2. Help your new employees become productive faster
  3. Increase retention of new employees
  4. Improve the experience your organization offers via more effective employees
  5. Save on long-term costs

The first two are obvious and important. You need to bring your new hires into the fold of the district staff. And this isn’t just for their own sake. A Texas Instruments study showed that employees reached “full productivity” two months sooner when their onboarding process was fully attended to, as compared to those whose was not.

A lot of ground can be gained or lost in two months. After two months, nearly half of a semester is over. Employees have already established their opinions on their position within the district, and students have certainly solidified their opinions of the district’s staff. After two months of employment, the battle for an employee’s engagement has largely already been won or lost.

However, an effective onboarding process affects more than the productivity of your employees. Improving your onboarding experience also improves your district’s employee retention and long-term recruiting costs.

Lee cites several examples of organizations that reduced their employee turnover by improving their onboarding experience. Hunter Douglas reduced their employee turnover from 70% to 16% in just six months. Likewise, Designer Blinds reduced their annual turnover from a staggering 200% to less than 8%, which directly translated to a reduction of their recruiting budget.

However, the true cost of something isn’t always in dollars and cents. The cost of losing your best employees to voluntary attrition can also be seen in:

  1. Lower morale of remaining employees
  2. Questionable supervision inquiries
  3. Reduced public satisfaction
  4. Service or performance declines and delays
  5. A change in organizational reputation

Your Employees’ Objectives for Onboarding

So how do you improve your onboarding experience? One of the biggest mistakes you can make in your employee onboarding is to take a one-sided approach to the process. Another is trying to cram too much into too little of a time frame. Two parties are involved in the onboarding process: the district and the new hires. You must take adequate time to acknowledge the needs and wants of both parties in order to have an effective process.

Often the time crunch of compacting onboarding activities into only a few hours or a couple of days causes district staff to overload and overwhelm their newest talent at a time when those recruits should be most excited and enthusiastic.

If you want to change your district’s employee engagement and retention, invert your onboarding process and focus on employees’ questions first.

Ask yourself what your individual employees want to know. Then ask yourself what the district wants its employees to know. Your employees’ questions may seem secondary compared to the high-level expectations the district needs to set, but if the employees’ questions aren’t answered, they might be too preoccupied to focus on what the district is communicating.

In “What New Employees Really Need to Know,” Lin Grensing-Pophal shares three categories of questions on new employees’ minds, as well as the order in which they should be addressed:

The Things That Affect Employees Personally

“Where should I park? What should I wear?”
“Where should I report? What are my work hours?”
“Will I be expected to work overtime? To work evenings? Weekends?”
“How does the phone system work? When will my email be active?”
“What’s my network login and password? Do I get keys?”

The Things That Affect Employees as a Member of Their Department

“Who will I be working with?”
“Who are the people I need to get to know in the department and in other departments?”
“How will my work be judged?”
“Are there opportunities to serve on special committees or task forces and how can I find out more?”
“If I have ideas, suggestions or concerns, what channels exist to share those concerns?”
“How do people prefer to communicate in this organization? (Face to face? By e-mail? Phone?)”

The Things That Affect Employees as a Member of the Organization

“What are the organization’s mission, vision and values (and how does my department fit into this)?”
“Do we have a strategic plan? What does it entail?”
“What are the major external issues that impact us?”
“What are our priorities? What are our long-range goals?”
“What are employees rewarded and recognized for?”

As Maslow from your psychology class has suggested, if you can meet the more foundational, immediate “safety-security-survival” needs of new employees, they will be in a better frame of mind to consider their place within the district at large and be more receptive and engaged for your district agendas.

Onboarding Tip:

Focusing on your employees’ needs first will guarantee that they are engaged in the onboarding process from the start. By engaging them, they’ll become better assimilated into your district staff, and therefore become productive faster. Productive employees are generally more satisfied with their roles in the district, and will likely remain at the district longer, improving district performance and saving on recruiting expenses.

Engaging Your Employees During the Onboarding Process

A Gallup study shows nearly 70% of your teachers are not engaged in their jobs. That’s troubling news for American education.

Many district administrators balk at a statistic that drastic, believing it cannot be true of their district. But according to the survey of 7,200 teachers, 31% of teachers are engaged, 56% are not engaged (although satisfied) and 13% are actively disengaged.

Gallup defines these terms as follows:

Engaged: “Involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work . . . knowing the scope of their jobs and constantly looking for new and better ways to achieve outcomes”

Not Engaged: “May be satisfied with their jobs, but they are not emotionally connected to their workplace and unlikely to devote much discretionary effort to their work”

Actively Disengaged: “Dissatisfied with their workplace and likely to be spreading negativity to their coworkers”

Naturally, any organization would want its employees to be engaged with their daily job and company culture. The benefits or the costs of engaged or disengaged employees are obvious. However, the burden of K-12 school districts to engage its employees is far greater than increasing a profit line.

Any district employee — especially a teacher — who is “enthusiastic about, and committed to their work” is significantly more likely to make a positive impact on a student’s growth. We need our students to be surrounded by a faculty and staff who are “looking for new and better ways to achieve outcomes.”

Yet according to Gallup’s sampling results, less than a third of K-12 teachers in the U.S. are actually engaged with their roles in their districts. How can we work to correct this?

Fostering Engagement for Retention

The word ENGAGE is a handy mnemonic for remembering six key actions you can take to foster engagement in your district and increase employee retention — and not only with new hires.

  • Expanded recognition
  • Networking availability and encouragement
  • Generated “input for impact” dialogue
  • Access to resources
  • Giving your time
  • Evaluations made often

E. Expanded recognition

Employee recognition should be given across all levels of the district. Employees should feel welcomed as a member of the team by their peers, as valuable assets by their immediate supervisor, and as individuals by their district administration.

Establish programs for effective recognition that increase the number of persons highlighted, such as rewards or employee spotlights on district newsletters or allowing peer “high-fives” to be given via social media, as examples.

N. Networking availability and encouragement

Networking is important as a career- and relationship-building opportunity. If an employee doesn’t have the chance to build a relationship with other members of the district (on multiple different levels), then that employee probably won’t be engaged with his or her role in the district.

Here are some potential networking options:

  • Committees and task forces
  • Work team projects
  • Division or department challenges
  • Group wellness activities
  • Community service projects
  • Campus renovation days
  • Group volunteer days
  • Staff meal prep
  • Interest-based outings

G. Generated “input for impact” dialogue

Most employers collect information on why employees leave, exit interviews. Why not collect information on why employees choose to stay? Kathryn Tyler of SHRM HR Magazine writes about the value of interviewing employees who have chosen to stay at your district in her article “Who Will Stay and Who Will Go?”

Start with the top performers and influencers of your district. Find out what it is about your district that engages them. Not only will this interaction further their own engagement by asking their valued opinion, but it will help you to understand how to engage the rest of your staff as well.

This will also give you the opportunity to collect data to determine critical timeframes for engaging employees in your district, prior to when your data indicates an upswing in voluntary departures. In their survey, Gallup uncovered correlations between how experienced a teacher was and their level of engagement.

percent of engaged employees based on Gallups State of America's Schools Report 2012

Insights like these can help you make informed decisions for your district.

A. Access to resources

Remember, engaged employees are “constantly looking for new and better ways to achieve outcomes.” It would be hard for an employee to innovate or improve the impact of their job if they don’t have access to valuable resources. You need to equip your district’s staff, so that they can equip your district’s students.

Here are just a few examples of resources you could provide to your employees:

  • Cover class or job responsibilities to observe a peer or meet to collaborate
  • Send to a relevant workshop, class, clinic or presentation
  • Nominate for a committee or team
  • Bring in a specialist, presenter or program
  • Introduce to an expert, colleague or organization
  • Provide web links, videos, newsletters or trainers

G. Giving your time

Your district’s administrators and supervisors need to genuinely and generously give time to their employees, especially in the onboarding period. Spend this time giving employees validation by slowing yourself down to listen to their needs and ideas and to build real relationships with them. If you meet your employees on a level of respect, first as a person and second as an employee, you’ll stand a far better chance of earning their respect and keeping them in your district.

E. Evaluations made often

Effective evaluation is like effective practice. You need to commit to regular evaluations so you can understand the status and see the growth of each employee, and they can understand your expectations.

Early in an employee’s career, frequent evaluations will help establish engagement between you and your new staff member, and it will help you track their productivity. Over time, as the employee demonstrates progress and mastery in their role, you can distribute your evaluations less frequently throughout the year, so that you can focus more time on new employees. Noticing that you are “loosening the leash” a bit by spacing out evaluations demonstrates trust, which in turn increases the employee’s motivation and engagement.

If you can form a habit of talking with your employees — not at them — early and often in their careers, and provide the necessary guidance and resources they need to grow in their role, your district will enjoy and retain a more fully engaged team.

Building Relationships Through Onboarding

If you’ve made it this far, you understand the impact the onboarding experience has on your district’s health and employee retention. You understand the value of instilling in your employees pride for their roles within your district, and you have some tips on how to improve the interaction and relationships built through the onboarding experience.

In “Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success,” Tayla Bauer offers the “Four C’s” that should be present in all successful onboarding processes:

  • Compliance is the lowest level and includes teaching employees basic legal and policy-related rules and regulations.”
  • Clarification refers to ensuring that employees understand their new jobs and all related expectations.”
  • Culture is a broad category that includes providing employees with a sense of organizational norms-both formal and informal.”
  • Connection refers to the vital interpersonal relationships and information networks that new employees must establish.”

If your district’s onboarding process only lasts the first day or two on the job, do you believe you’ll have enough time to truly express the culture of the district? Will you have enough time to establish legitimate connections between new employees and their peers, supervisors and the district administration?

Probably not. But unfortunately, that’s what happens in many school districts. However, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, approximately 46% of those surveyed began their onboarding between accepting the employment offer and day 1 on the job.

With only a day or two slated for onboarding procedures, many employers would only find time for the first two C’s necessary for successful onboarding. Expanding the onboarding process before day one can help give you the time you need to cover all areas pertinent to your employees’ assimilation into the district.

“The first few days on the job can be crammed full of information, but if you’ve been able to take advantage of starting prior to day one, the amount of information you need to cover during this period will be relatively less…. This provides you the opportunity to go more in depth into certain topics than you would with programs of shorter duration.” – SilkRoad Technology

In addition to starting the onboarding process before your employees’ first day on the job, you should extend your onboarding practices after the first day as well. In fact, you should make an effort to deliberately onboard your new hires throughout their whole first semester or year. The same SHRM survey indicated 32% of employers surveyed extended their onboarding activities from 8 days on the job up to during the first 6 months.

Studies have shown that extending onboarding beyond the first day, preferably from 3 months to one year, can significantly improve the overall experience and the resulting engagement and retention of your employee base.” – SilkRoad Technology

Here are some examples of extended onboarding activities that enable you to focus on before and throughout an employee’s first school year:

  • Additional job-specific training in smaller chunks
  • Benefit decision-making, enrollment resources and tools
  • Confirmation of compliance notifications and training
  • Initial evaluation event and document tracking
  • Connecting with mentors and other employees
  • Other performance goal documentation
  • Providing feedback to the employer on the new employee’s onboarding experience

Common Barriers to Expanding

If better onboarding and an emphasis on culture are so important, why don’t more employers take steps to implement these changes in their districts? Districts often cite the following obstacles:

  • Time — can’t spare workers from their jobs
  • Insufficient HR or other staff to implement
  • Resources focused on completing paperwork and transactional new hire processing
  • Finances
  • Lack of Senior Admin support
  • Not enough annual new hires to emphasize new practices

While these barriers do pose problems for districts, onboarding technology with pricing scalable to the size of your district can relieve most of these challenges.

Using Technology to Automate Onboarding Processes

By using recruiting and onboarding tools, you can automatically gather information as your new hires pre-board online. Automating these basic onboarding steps can save a great deal of time and paperwork management, allowing your HR team to focus on the rest of their duties, even during recruiting and onboarding season.

Then, by getting the more tedious parts of the process out of the way ahead of time, you can spend your employees’ first few days giving tours, conducting group exercises and building relationships that will strengthen your individual employees’ engagement in your district.

And by improving engagement and thereby increasing employee retention, your district could see a significant decrease in your annual recruiting costs. In “Fully on-board: Getting the most from your talent in the first year,” Martin and Lombardi offer the five key functions that “best-in-class” employers utilize in their onboarding processes:

  • Reporting tools that monitor which employees have completed what forms and tasks
  • Tools that leverage data collected in the recruiting process
  • Tools that track progress against development/career plans
  • Tools that automatically trigger emails when status changes from applicant to employee
  • “Smart forms” that pre-populate fields with built-in routing/workflow

Using Technology to Promote Your Culture

The advantages of technology for accomplishing the “paperwork” side of onboarding are obvious. But could your district also use technology to transmit culture?

Employees who know what to expect from their company’s culture and work environment make better decisions that are more aligned with the accepted practices of the company.” – SilkRoad Technology

Creating an awareness of your culture will help new hires, current staff, students and parents understand what to expect and how to identify with your district.

Consider content, such as a video, on your district website or social media channels to welcome newcomers and communicate what the district culture is really like.

Several districts, including Dallas ISD, Atlanta Public Schools, Goshen Central School District and Des Moines Public Schools use Pinterest to share resources and communicate the culture people can expect to find in their schools. Efforts like this to produce engaging content and to utilize media channels relevant to the people in your district shows that your district cares about its culture and the people within it.

Better Onboarding = Greater Student Success

Time and attention open opportunities for recognition. Recognition increases employee motivation. Higher motivation increases employee engagement. Higher engagement increases commitment. Higher commitment increases discretionary effort, loyalty and retention. Higher discretionary effort, loyalty and retention increases employee productivity and performance achievement. Higher employee productivity and performance achievement increases student success. It’s all related.

Self-Evaluation Worksheet

Want to see how you’re doing in your district? Try this onboarding self-evaluation checklist and scoresheet to document possible next steps for your district as you work to enhance your district’s onboarding process.

We recommend completing the Self Evaluation Checklist first and filling out the “Doing this currently” column. Then review the Scoresheet to see if your answers rate as “basic,” “advanced” or “enhanced” on the scoresheet afterward.

Ready to streamline the onboarding process in your district? Learn More 

Lowell Ghosey

Lowell Ghosey, Ed.D., is a career educator, serving 32 years in public schools as a high school teacher and coach, high school assistant principal, junior high principal, high school principal, district director of curriculum for grades 7-12, and 13 of those years in district human resources administration for a growing district of 27,000 students and 4400+ employees. Dr. Ghosey has also served as an AASPA member for over 20 years and a past-president of KS ASPA.