January 2012, Vol. 24, No.1

Succession Planning

Only one chance to make a good first impression

An ‘onboarding’ program helps new employees succeed

Kathy Allen

Starting a new job can be overwhelming. “Onboarding” for new employees can help. Jeannie Bechtold, supervising real property specialist, hit the ground running as a new employee at Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD). “The onboarding program was really, really helpful,” she said. “If I didn’t get the basics in those first days, I would have been totally lost.”

Onboarding is simply the process of helping a new employee become a successful part of an organization. MSD has developed and implemented an easy, low-cost onboarding program for new employees to help build strong relationships among the new employee, the organization, and the supervisor. The onboarding program started in early 2009.

MSD leadership recognized increasing challenges to attract and retain skilled workers years ago, according to Margie Anderson, wastewater administration superintendent and sponsor of the MSD onboarding program. “MSD is amidst the exodus of experienced employees as baby boomers are retiring,” she said. “Changes in the Cincinnati Retirement System are also accelerating retirements, which are expected to continue in large numbers for several years. MSD is meeting this challenge by recruiting and hiring excellent personnel to fill these positions.”

“MSD developed a business case for onboarding based on the fact that these talented new employees will shape the organization for decades into the future,” Anderson said. “Giving them the best start possible is in everyone’s best interest.”


Onboarding increases commitment, decreases stress for new employees

A formal onboarding program leads to higher job satisfaction, increased retention, higher performance levels, and lowered stress, according to research. An additional benefit that emerged for MSD is an increased respect for the organization, shown in comments like the following, made in response to an onboarding communication: “MSD’s onboarding program clearly demonstrates the department’s efforts of inclusiveness,” and “MSD is truly a well-run organization, I’m so glad to be here.”

In the Greater Cincinnati area, most formal onboarding programs are at private companies. Large corporations with headquarters in Cincinnati, such as Procter and Gamble and Fifth Third Bank, have extensive onboarding programs with full-time dedicated staff, printed materials, and a professionally designed online presence. At MSD, an internal onboarding team developed and implemented the program, keeping costs to a minimum. The team consists of representatives from a cross-section of MSD’s 600 employees and most of its nine divisions, unions, and salary levels. Jeff Burgess, a laboratory technician and vice president of Local 1543 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (Washington, D.C.), said his motivation for working on the onboarding team is to show the new employees that “somebody cares.”

Each onboarding team member serves as an advocate for new employees in his or her division. The MSD onboarding team selected and developed a series of components for the program based on MSD’s strategic plan initiatives for workforce development and input from employees. The components include

  • an onboarding checklist,
  • an onboarding home page,
  • a new-employee orientation,
  • a new-employee onboarding survey,
  • a new-employee e-book, and
  • a welcome e-mail.

The onboarding team first focused on developing the checklist, home page, and survey, all of which were implemented in 2009. Although MSD’s onboarding program is fairly simple, the response has been enthusiastic. Dan Louis, senior engineer, said he had worked at several private companies and that MSD’s onboarding process was “up there with the best ones; it was very helpful, concise and comprehensive.”


Start before the first day

Many organizations have a checklist for new employees. Prior to the start of the onboarding project, MSD had several checklists in use in various divisions. MSD now has a single onboarding checklist. The checklist is designed to have the division human resource liaison or supervisor review the checklist with the new employee. But when Ray Schork, senior engineer, started with MSD, he took the initiative to go through the list on his own and found that hyperlinks in the checklist that link directly to needed forms or policies made it easy to go through the list independently.

The checklist starts with a pre-arrival section. Everyone has heard about (or experienced) horror stories of new employees spending their first days sitting in a hallway or looking at boring manuals. Providing a checklist reminds managers to communicate the basics to new employees — whom to report to on the first day, where to park, how to dress, etc. — as well as to prepare workspaces. This helps ensure that new employees feel welcomed before and after the first day.

One especially popular part of the checklist is the MSD “List of Acronyms and Abbreviations.” Every new (and not-so-new) employee is challenged to keep up with numerous acronyms. For example, bewildered employees might get an e-mail or flyer telling them to go to the NEO at CMF sponsored by WWA — this translates as “New employee orientation at the Central Maintenance Facility, sponsored by the Wastewater Administration.” New employees receive the acronym list early in their employment to help them navigate the alphabet soup of acronyms that everyone uses as they become part of the organization.


One-stop shop for new employees

The team developed the MSD onboarding home page simultaneously with the checklist to provide quick access to information new employees might need. The City of Cincinnati and MSD intranets, as well as the City of Cincinnati website, contain key information for employees. Knowing where to look among these three sites can be confusing, even for long-time employees. The MSD onboarding home page provides links to important documents on all three sites, along with onboarding information. The onboarding home page is part of the MSD intranet, which is similar to a Microsoft SharePoint site.

Employees have reported they are quite satisfied with the home page, noting that it is easy to navigate, saves time finding references, and provides a “wealth of information.”


New-employee orientation

MSD’s training staff has facilitated the 1-day new-employee orientation for many years, including an overview of MSD, as well as a tour of the treatment plant. This orientation is one component of the overall onboarding program.


New-employee survey provides valuable feedback, leads to e-book

The onboarding team developed the survey to gather feedback on the program to guide future decisions. For instance, 95% of respondents said they wanted a new-employee handbook. In response, the onboarding team developed an e-book.

The new employees said they wanted an overview of MSD’s division functions, a summary of benefit information, including a benefit to-do list, and a list of policies and procedures.

Early in the planning process, the onboarding team recognized that using technology would simplify the use and updating of the handbook. The e-book was designed to be used independently by new employees. Comments from staff and new employees have ranged from “e-book is awesome” to “e-book is put together well and easily accessible for surfing and browsing … very helpful.”


Welcome e-mails

Every new employee receives a welcome e-mail on his or her first day on the job that includes links to the onboarding checklist, home page, and e-book, as well as a copy of the benefits to-do list. It also explains what onboarding is; it is important to define the term “onboarding” any time it is used with a new audience. New employees have responded appreciatively to these e-mails and say they are glad or excited to be working at MSD.

The e-mail element was started in 2011 to ensure that new employees had access to the e-book. In retrospect, the onboarding team would have started sending these e-mails at the beginning of the project, even before some components were developed. Enthusiastically positive e-mail replies from new employees or staff make it rewarding to send these e-mails.


The devil is in the details

Even for MSD’s relatively simple onboarding program, project management principles are essential to keep the program on track. The team developed a project charter and timeline. As part of the strategic plan, the project was tracked online, complete with color-coded project statuses. A standard operating procedure for implementing the program also was developed.

The team developed employee communications to raise awareness, gain cooperation in implementation of the program, and request feedback. Each communication emphasized the key messages that starting a job at MSD should be as positive an experience as possible and that all new employees should feel welcome. Communications included presentations to all MSD employees, as well as to senior managers and selected divisions; several articles in the MSD Inside Story employee newsletter; and the onboarding home page on the MSD intranet.

The names of new employees are entered in a database to ensure that they receive welcome e-mails and to track completion of the onboarding checklist. Onboarding team members attend staff meetings or meet with staff to problem-solve or introduce new staff to the onboarding program.

Ongoing project maintenance is critical in keeping the website and onboarding materials up to date. Hyperlinks that work today may not work tomorrow. The team relies on spot checks and feedback from employees to identify problems and make sure everything is working.


Making a difference

After nearly 3 years of the onboarding program, feedback from new employees and their supervisors indicates that the program is working. New employees say that they feel welcomed to MSD.

Ray Schork, senior engineer, said, “I am impressed with the onboarding instructions and documentation. It made it very easy for me to go through the onboarding process.” The onboarding program is building MSD’s reputation as a good place to work; new employees have said in response to onboarding communications that they are “thrilled to be here.” MSD’s executive director, Tony Parrott said the onboarding program “allows new employees to transition from new hire to a successful and valued asset in the organization.”

Even though the onboarding checklist could be perceived as another chore, once a supervisor implements the program, he or she sees the benefits as alleviating stress for both the new employee and the supervisor.

Barb Browne, treatment supervisor, said that “newbies are overwhelmed with other things. It is terrific that the onboarding team gets everything on paper to minimize issues down the road.” Bechtold, the supervising real property specialist, said she was glad that the “fabulous” onboarding help she received allows her to focus on the rest of her job. “It is exciting to be at MSD,” she said. “I feel like I am making a difference.”


Kathy Allen is a senior administrative specialist in  human resources and chair of the onboarding team at the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati. 


Want more information?

Download some of MSD’s onboarding materials. 

Click here 


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