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Benefits of a Robust Onboard Orientation

An improved orientation process for new hires at the University of South Florida focuses on the big picture of organizational mission, vision, and values—while still gathering the nitty-gritty human resources and benefits details.

By M. Timothy Miller

Participant surveys and instructor observations at the University of South Florida (USF), Tampa, indicated we needed to improve the process of bringing new employees into our organization and engaging them in their work. In 2008, we formed a workgroup and began to research best practices for what we called “onboarding”—bringing in new staff and engaging them in meaningful ways to enhance their work experience.

In our one-day orientation, we'd been focusing on the review of our human resource policies and the sign-up for benefits, which didn't leave much time for the bigger-picture perspective of the university. Plus, the classroom format wasn't the best venue for creating enthusiasm for our institution and its mission. After much discussion, we moved to a day-and-a-half format that includes multiple forms of information delivery and involves representatives from leadership, department management, and staff peers, in addition to the human resources staff.

Early results have shown that the new onboarding process, Welcome to USF, reduces staff turnover and boosts morale. Following are the details of the program change.

Revisions Required

To achieve the maximum benefit of an effective staff orientation process, we recognized the need to make shifts in four areas:

Focus. Instead of making human resource policies and benefits sign-up the priority, we focused more broadly on our organization's mission, vision, and values—and the important contribution each employee makes to our success.

For example, the first morning of Welcome to USF, we now present a president's message, the university history, a student presentation, and a campus tour. In the afternoon of Day One, we provide employee testimonials on working at the university, distribute a gift bag of USF items, and allow employees to meet one-on-one with HR benefit representatives. The half-day session on the second day focuses on compliance, safety, diversity, and employee-relation topics.

Timing. Instead of holding a single event to orient new employees, we decided to offer a phased approach that includes:

  • Prearrival: In advance, we give each new employee key information regarding start dates, reporting relationships, and background information on job scope and responsibilities.
  • Introduction and general orientation: We highlight essential information to engage new employees and leave a positive imprint.
  • Introduction and department orientation: We offer tools that allow the employee to be functional with computers, passwords, and office equipment.
  • Integration and contribution: We define long-term results and ways to make visible contributions.

Delivery. We changed from a classroom-led delivery to the use of multiple modalities, including Web-based and classroom methods, CDs, and individual interactions with human resource representatives. We decided to make benefit and retirement information available online.

Responsibility. Rather than relying solely on human resources, we opted to share the responsibility for orienting new employees among HR, leadership, department managers, and peers.

Overcoming Stumbling Blocks

The task force soon discovered a major challenge in shifting to the new orientation process: We did not have a common start date for administration and staff new hires, but our in-class orientation program was scheduled every two weeks. Since our department managers had been determining start dates, new employees could be on the job for nearly two weeks before they attended the new employee orientation.

To achieve the full benefit of our redesigned onboarding and orientation process, the taskforce recommended the following changes:

  • Offer a common hire date every two weeks for staff joining USF. Require new employees to attend our Welcome to USF program, which takes place during the first day-and-a-half of employment.
  • Provide benefits information online before the first day of employment for review or completion beforehand; schedule additional time before the start of the Welcome to USF program for those needing to complete the paperwork.

Follow-Up Activity for New Faces

To ensure new hires stayed engaged, we continue to reach out to employees with a five-step approach during their first year of service.

During the first two weeks of employment, a benefits representative calls new hires to answer questions and make sure they have everything they need.

Thirty days after the start date, we send bookmarks as well as complimentary theater tickets from the College of the Arts to new employees as an additional welcome.

Ninety days after the start date, a representative from the HR service center offers to meet with new employees and asks for their participation in an online survey to provide feedback on their experience.

Four to five months after the start date, supervisors receive an e-mail from the HR service center to address any concerns brought up previously and to encourage the supervisor to complete a probationary evaluation.

Before one-year anniversaries, departments are reminded to conduct annual evaluations and to send anniversary letters.

Evaluation and Results

Since the introduction of the onboarding program on the Tampa campus, the turnover in the first eight months of employment at USF has been reduced significantly. In the five years prior to the new program, approximately 13 percent of new staff and administrative employees separated from the university in those first eight months. Since November 2011, when we implemented Welcome to USF and the follow-up activities, the turnover for new employees has been reduced to 6 percent.

Another indicator of the program's effectiveness comes from comments in the 90-day follow-up survey. “The onboarding experience has been intentional and well thought out,” wrote one new employee. “We are doing more here [than at] any other university where I have worked. I appreciate it and have felt welcomed—and continue to feel welcomed through ongoing professional development. Thank you.”

Another participant wrote: “I was sharing with my department all that I had experienced and learned in the Welcome to USF program, especially the importance of the 'giving' aspect of the new program. You felt the spirit of generosity, not just with the tangible lunch and gifts but with the enormous time and resource investment for the program as a whole. When you consider the extraordinary cost of recruiting, hiring, and training new employees, this small investment will provide a solid return as new employees are given the opportunity, in a short day-and-a-half program, to synchronize their efforts with the goals of the university. Everyone in the boat rowing the same direction early in the process can return enormous efficiencies.”

Continual Adjustments

The onboarding process is one of continuous learning. We are making revisions to the program based on feedback from presenters and participants. Our goal is to get new employees fully up to speed in their jobs, our culture, and our organizational processes so that their value and contribution to the mission can be fully felt as quickly as possible.

M. TIMOTHY MILLER is the program director of human resources organizational development at the University of South Florida.