Onboarding, also known as organizational socialization, refers to the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members and insiders. Tactics used in this process include formal meetings, lectures, videos, printed materials, or computer-based orientations to introduce newcomers to their new jobs and organizations. Research has demonstrated that these socialization techniques lead to positive outcomes for new employees such as higher job satisfaction, better job performance, greater organizational commitment, and reduction in occupational stress and intent to quit. These outcomes are particularly important to an organization looking to retain a competitive advantage in an increasingly mobile and globalized workforce. In the United States, for example, up to 25% of workers are organizational newcomers engaged in an onboarding process. The term Induction is used instead in regions such as Australia, New Zealand parts of Europe and Canada. This is known in some parts of the world as "training."
Antecedents of success
Onboarding is a multifaceted operation influenced by a number of factors pertaining to both the individual newcomer and the organization. Researchers have separated these factors into three broad categories: new employee characteristics, new employee behaviors, and organizational efforts. New employee characteristics are individual differences across incoming workers, ranging from personality traits to previous work experiences. New employee behaviors refer to the specific actions carried out by newcomers as they take an active role in the socialization process. Finally, organizational efforts help facilitate the process of acclimating a new worker to an establishment through activities such as orientation or mentoring programs.
New employee characteristics
Research has shown evidence that employees with certain personality traits and experiences adjust to an organization more quickly. These are a proactive personality, the "Big Five", curiosity, and greater experience levels.
"Proactive personality" refers to the tendency to take charge of situations and achieve control over one's environment. This type of personality predisposes some workers to engage in behaviors such as information seeking that accelerate the socialization process, thus helping them to adapt more efficiently and become high-functioning organizational members. Empirical evidence also demonstrates that a proactive personality is related to increased levels of job satisfaction and performance.
The Big Five personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—have been linked to onboarding success, as well. Specifically, new employees who are proactive or particularly open to experience are more likely to seek out information, feedback, acceptance, and relationships with co-workers. They also exhibit higher levels of adjustment and tend to frame events more positively.
Curiosity also plays a substantial role in the newcomer adaptation process and is defined as the "desire to acquire knowledge" that energizes individual exploration of an organization's culture and norms. Individuals with a curious disposition tend to frame challenges in a positive light and eagerly seek out information to help them make sense of their new organizational surroundings and responsibilities, leading to a smoother onboarding experience.
Employee experience levels also affect the onboarding process such that more experienced members of the workforce tend to adapt to a new organization differently from, for example, a new college graduate starting his or her first job. This is because seasoned employees can draw from past experiences to help them adjust to their new work settings and therefore may be less affected by specific socialization efforts because they have (a) a better understanding of their own needs and requirements at work (2002). and (b) are more familiar with what is acceptable in the work context. Additionally, veteran workers may have used their past experiences to seek out organizations in which they will be a better fit, giving them an immediate advantage in adapting to their new jobs.
New employee behaviors
Certain behaviors enacted by incoming employees, such as building relationships and seeking information and feedback, can help facilitate the onboarding process. Newcomers can also quicken the speed of their adjustment by demonstrating behaviors that assist them in clarifying expectations, learning organizational values and norms, and gaining social acceptance.
Information seeking occurs when new employees ask questions of their co-workers and superiors in an effort to learn about their new job and the company's norms, expectations, procedures, and policies. Miller and Jablin (1991) developed a typology of information sought after by new hires. These include referent information, understanding what is required to function on the job (role clarity); appraisal information, understanding how effectively the newcomer is able to function in relation to job role requirements (self-efficacy); and finally, relational information, information about the quality of relationships with current organizational employees (social acceptance). By actively seeking information, employees can effectively reduce uncertainties about their new jobs and organizations and make sense of their new working environments. Newcomers can also passively seek information via monitoring their surroundings or by simply viewing the company website or handbook. Research has shown that information seeking by incoming employees is associated with social integration, higher levels of organizational commitment, job performance, and job satisfaction in both individualistic and collectivist cultures.
Feedback seeking is similar to information seeking, but it is focused on a new employee's particular behaviors rather than on general information about the job or company. Specifically, feedback seeking refers to new employee efforts to gauge how to behave in their new organization. A new employee may ask co-workers or superiors for feedback on how well he or she is performing certain job tasks or whether certain behaviors are appropriate in the social and political context of the organization. In seeking constructive criticism about their actions, new employees learn what kinds of behaviors are expected, accepted, or frowned upon within the company or work group, and when they incorporate this feedback and adjust their behavior accordingly, they begin to blend seamlessly into the organization. Instances of feedback inquiry vary across cultural contexts such that individuals high in self-assertiveness and cultures low in power distance report more feedback seeking than newcomers in cultures where self-assertiveness is low and power distance is high.
Also called networking, relationship building involves an employee's efforts to develop camaraderie with co-workers and even supervisors. This can be achieved informally through simply talking to their new peers during a coffee break or through more formal means such as taking part in pre-arranged company events. Research has shown relationship building to be a key part of the onboarding process, leading to outcomes such as greater job satisfaction and better job performance, as well as decreased stress.
Organization socialization efforts
Organizations also invest a great amount of time and resources into the training and orientation of new company hires. Organizations differ in the variety of socialization activities they offer in order to integrate productive new workers. Possible activities include their socialization tactics, formal orientation programs, recruitment strategies, and mentorship opportunities.
Socialization tactics, or orientation tactics, are designed based on an organization's needs, values, and structural policies. Some organizations favor a more systematic approach to socialization, while others follow a more "sink or swim" approach in which new employees are challenged to figure out existing norms and company expectations without guidance.
- Van Maanen and Schein model (1979)
John Van Maanen and Edgar H. Schein have identified at least six major tactical dimensions that characterize and represent all of the ways in which organizations may differ in their approaches to socialization.
- Collective versus Individual socialization
Collective socialization refers to the process of taking a group of recruits who are facing a given boundary passage and putting them through the same set of experiences together. Examples of this include: basic training/boot camp for a military organization, pledging for fraternities/sororities, education in graduate schools, and so forth. Socialization in the Individual mode allows newcomers to accumulate unique experiences separate from other newcomers. Examples of this process include: Apprenticeship programs, specific internships, "on-the-job" training, etc.
- Formal vs. Informal socialization
Formal socialization refers to those tactics in which newcomers are more or less segregated from others and trained on the job. These processes can be witnessed with such socialization programs as police academies, internships, and apprenticeships. Informal socialization processes, on the other hand, involve little separation between newcomers and the existing employees, nor is there any effort made to distinguish the newcomer’s role specifically. Informal tactics provides a non-interventional environment for recruits to learn their new roles via trial and error. Examples of informal socialization include on-the-job training assignments, apprenticeship programs with no clearly defined role, and more generally, any situation in which a newcomer is placed into a work group with no recruit role.
- Sequential vs. Random socialization
Sequential socialization refers to the degree to which an organization or occupation specifies discrete and identifiable steps for the newcomers to know what phases they need to go through. Random socialization occurs when the sequences of steps leading to the targeted role are unknown, and the entire progression is quite ambiguous. In other words, while there are numerous steps or stages leading to specific organizational roles, there is necessarily no specific order in which the steps should be taken.
- Fixed vs. Variable socialization
This dimension refers to the extent to which the steps have a timetable developed by the organization and communicated to the recruit in order to convey when the socialization process is complete. Fixed socialization provides a recruit with the exact knowledge of the time it will take complete a given passage. For instance, some management trainees can be put on " fast tracks" where they are required to accept new rotational assignment on an annual basis despite their own preferences. Variable socialization processes gives a newcomer no specific timetable, but a few clues as to when to expect a given boundary passage. This type of socialization is commonly associated upwardly mobile careers within business organizations because of several uncontrolled factors such as the state of the economy or turnover rates which determine whether any given newcomer will be promoted to a higher level or not.
- Serial vs. Disjunctive socialization
A serial socialization process refers to experienced members of the organization grooming the newcomers who are about to occupy similar positions within the organization. These experience members essentially serve as role models for the inexperienced newcomers. A prime example of serial socialization would be a rookie police officer getting assigned patrol duties with an experienced veteran who has been in law enforcement for a lengthy period of time. Disjunctive socialization, in contrast, refers to when newcomers are not following the guidelines of their predecessors, and there are no role models to inform new recruits on how to fulfill their duties.
- Investiture vs. Divestiture socialization
This tactic refers to the degree to which a socialization process either affirms or disaffirms the identity of the newly entering recruit. Investiture socialization processes sanction and document for newcomers the viability and efficacy of the personal characteristics that they bring to the organization. When organizations use this socialization process it prefers that the recruit remains the exact way that he or she naturally behaves and the organization merely makes use of the skills, values, and attitudes that the recruit is believed to have in their possession. Divestiture socialization, on the other hand, is a process that organizations use to reject and remove the certain personal characteristics of a recruit. Many occupations and organizations require newcomers to sever previous ties, and forget old habits in order to create a new self-image based upon new assumptions.
Jones' model (1986)
Building upon the work of Van Maanen and Schein, Jones (1986) proposed that the previous six dimensions could be reduced to two categories: institutionalized and individualized socialization. Companies that use institutionalized socialization tactics implement structured step-by-step programs, enter into an orchestrated orientation as a group, and receive help from an assigned role model or mentor. Examples of organizations using institutionalized tactics include the military, in which new recruits undergo extensive training and socialization activities through a participative cohort, as well as incoming freshmen at universities, who may attend orientation weekends before beginning classes.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, other organizations use individualized socialization tactics in which the new employee immediately starts working on his or her new position and figures out company norms, values, and expectations along the way. In this orientation system, individuals must play a more proactive role in seeking out information and initiating work relationships.
Regardless of the socialization tactics utilized, formal orientation programs can facilitate understanding of company culture, and introduces new employees to their work roles and the organizational social environment. Formal orientation programs may consist of lectures, videotapes, and written material, while other organizations may rely on more usual approaches. More recent approaches such as computer-based orientations and Internets have been used by organizations to standardize training programs across branch locations. A review of the literature indicates that orientation programs are successful in communicating the company's goals, history, and power structure.
Recruitment events play a key role in identifying which prospective employees are a good fit with an organization. Recruiting events allow employees to gather initial information about an organization's expectations and company culture. By providing a realistic job preview of what life inside the organization is like, companies can weed out potential employees who are clearly a misfit to an organization and individuals can identify which employment agencies are the most suitable match for their own personal values, goals, and expectations. Research has shown that new employees who receive a great amount of accurate information about the job and the company tend to adjust better. Organizations can also provide realistic job previews by offering internship opportunities.
Mentorship has demonstrated importance in the socialization of new employees. Ostroff and Kozlowski (1993) discovered that newcomers with mentors become more knowledgeable about the organization than did newcomers without mentors. Mentors can help newcomers better manage their expectations and feel comfortable with their new environment through advice-giving and social support. Chatman (1991) found that newcomers are more likely to have internalized the key values of their organization's culture if they had spent time with an assigned mentor and attended company social events. Literature has also suggested the importance of demographic matching between organizational mentors and protégés. Enscher & Murphy (1997) examined the effects of similarity (race and gender) on the amount of contact and quality of mentor relationships. Results indicate that liking, satisfaction, and contact were higher in conditions of perceived mentor-protégé similarity. But what often separates rapid on-boarders from their slower counterparts is not the availability of a mentor but the presence of a "buddy," someone of whom the newcomer can comfortably ask questions that are either trivial ("How do I order office supplies?") or politically sensitive ("Whose opinion really matters here?"). Like mentors, buddies can be people who are officially assigned by a manager or who simply emerge informally (a nearby co-worker, for instance) as an easily accessible resource and confidant. Furthermore, buddies can help establish relationships with co-workers in ways that can't always be facilitated by a newcomer's manager or mentor.
In order to increase the success of an onboarding program, it is important for an organization to monitor how well their new hires are adjusting to their new roles, responsibilities, peers, supervisors, and the organization at large. Researchers have noted that role clarity, self-efficacy, social acceptance, and knowledge of organizational culture are particularly good indicators of well-adjusted new employees who have benefitted from an effective onboarding system.
Role clarity describes a new employee's understanding of his or her job responsibilities and organizational role. One of the goals of an onboarding process is to aid newcomers in reducing ambiguity and uncertainty so that it is easier for them to get their jobs done correctly and efficiently. Because there often is a disconnect between the chief responsibilities listed in a job description and the specific, repeatable tasks that employees must complete to be successful in their roles, it's vital that managers are trained to discuss exactly what they expect from their employees. A poor onboarding program, for example, may produce employees who exhibit sub-par productivity because they are unsure of their exact roles and responsibilities. On the other hand, a strong onboarding program would produce employees who are especially productive because they know exactly what is expected of them in their job tasks and their organizational role. Given this information, it is easy to see why an organization would benefit substantially from increasing role clarity for a new employee. Not only does role clarity imply greater productivity, but it has also been linked to both job satisfaction and organizational commitment.
Self-efficacy is the degree to which new employees feel capable of successfully completing their assigned job tasks and fulfilling their responsibilities. It makes logical sense that employees who feel as though they can get the job done would fare better than those who feel overwhelmed in their new positions, and unsurprisingly, researchers have found that job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover are all correlated with feelings of self-efficacy.
Social acceptance gives new employees the support needed to be successful. While role clarity and self-efficacy are important to a newcomer's ability to meet the requirements of a job, the feeling of "fitting in" can do a lot for one's perception of the work environment and has been demonstrated to increase commitment to an organization and decrease turnover. If an employee feels well received by his or her peers, a personal investment in the organization develops, and leaving becomes less likely.
Knowledge of organizational culture
Knowledge of organizational culture refers to how well a new employee understands a company's values, goals, roles, norms, and overall organizational environment. For example, some organizations may have very strict, yet unspoken, rules of how interactions with superiors should be conducted or whether overtime hours are the norm and an expectation. Knowledge of one's organizational culture is important for the newcomer looking to adapt to a new company, as it allows for social acceptance and aids in completing work tasks in a way that meets company standards. Overall, knowledge of organizational culture has been linked to increased satisfaction and commitment, as well as decreased turnover.
Historically, organizations have overlooked the influence of business practices in shaping enduring work attitudes and thus have continually underestimated their impact on financial success. Employees' job attitudes are particularly important from an organization's perspective because of their link to employee engagement and performance on the job. Employee engagement attitudes, such as satisfaction with one's job and organizational commitment or loyalty, have important implications for an employee's work performance and intentions to stay with or quit an organization. This translates into strong monetary gains for organizations as research has demonstrated that individuals who are highly satisfied with their jobs and who exhibit high organizational commitment are likely to perform better and remain in an organization, whereas individuals who have developed negative attitudes (are highly dissatisfied and unattached to their jobs) are characterized by low performance and high turnover rates. Unengaged employees are very costly to organizations in terms of slowed performance and rehiring expenses. Since, attitudinal formations begin from the initial point of contact with an organization, practitioners would be wise to take advantage of positive attitudinal development during socialization periods in order to ensure a strong, productive, and dedicated workforce.
Limits and criticisms of onboarding theory
Although the outcomes of organizational socialization have been positively associated with the process of uncertainty reduction, they may not necessarily be desirable to all organizations. Jones (1986) as well as Allen and Meyer (1990) found that socialization tactics were related to commitment, but they were negatively correlated to role clarity. Because formal socialization tactics insulate the newcomer from their full responsibilities while "learning the ropes", there is a potential for role confusion once expected to fully enter the organization. In some cases though, organizations may even desire a certain level of person-organizational misfit in order to achieve outcomes via innovative behaviors. Depending on the culture of the organization, it may be more desirable to increase ambiguity despite the potentially negative connection with organizational commitment.
Additionally, socialization researchers have had major concerns over the length of time that it takes newcomers to adjust. There has been great difficulty determining the role that time plays, but once the length of the adjustment is determined, organizations can make appropriate recommendations regarding what matters most in various stages of the adjustment process.
Further criticisms include the use of special orientation sessions to educate newcomers about the organization and strengthen their organizational commitment. While these sessions have been found to be often formal and ritualistic, several studies have found them unpleasant or traumatic. Orientation sessions are a frequently used socialization tactic, however, employees have not found them to be helpful, nor has any research provided any evidence for their benefits.
Executive onboarding is the application of general onboarding principles to helping new executives become productive members of an organization. Practically, executive onboarding involves acquiring, accommodating, assimilating and accelerating new executives. Proponents emphasize the importance of making the most of the "honeymoon" stage of a hire, a period which has been described by various sources as either the first 90 to 100 days or the first full year.
Effective onboarding of new executives can be one of the most important contributions any hiring manager, direct supervisor or human resources professional can make to long-term organizational success, because executive onboarding done right can improve productivity and executive retention, and build shared corporate culture. A study of 20,000 searches revealed that 40 percent of executives hired at the senior level are pushed out, fail, or quit within 18 months.
Onboarding may be especially valuable for externally recruited executives transitioning into complex roles, because it may be difficult for those individuals to uncover personal, organizational, and role risks in complicated situations when they don't have formal onboarding assistance. Onboarding is also an essential tool for executives promoted into new roles and/or transferred from one business unit to another.
It is often valuable to have new executives start some onboarding activities in the "Fuzzy Front End" even before their first day. This is one of ten steps executives can follow to accelerate their onboarding.
- Position yourself for success
- Choose how to engage the context and culture
- Embrace and leverage the Fuzzy Front End before day one
- Take control of day one: Make a powerful first impression
- Drive action by activating and directing ongoing communication
- Embed a strong burning imperative
- Exploit key milestones to drive team performance
- Over-invest in early wins to build team confidence
- Secure adept people in the right roles and deal with the inevitable resistance
- Evolve people, plans, and practices to capitalize on changing circumstances.
Recommendations for practitioners
Some, including scholars at MIT Sloan, suggest that practitioners should seek to design an onboarding strategy that takes individual newcomer characteristics into consideration and encourages proactive behaviors, such as information seeking, that help facilitate the development of role clarity, self-efficacy, social acceptance, and knowledge of organizational culture. Research has consistently shown that doing so produces valuable outcomes such as high job satisfaction (the extent to which one enjoys the nature of his or her work), organizational commitment (the connection one feels to an organization), and job performance in employees, as well as lower turnover rates and decreased intent to quit.
In terms of structure, empirical evidence indicates that formal institutionalized socialization is the most effective onboarding method. New employees who complete these kinds of programs tend to experience more positive job attitudes and lower levels of turnover in comparison to those who undergo individualized tactics. Some evidence suggests that in-person onboarding techniques are more effective than virtual ones. Though it may initially appear to be less expensive for a company to use a standard computer-based orientation program to introduce their new employees to the organization, research has demonstrated that employees learn more about their roles and company culture through face-to-face orientation.
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