Revamping Your Onboarding Process to Engage and Retain New Hires
You might not remember exactly how you felt as a shiny new hire arriving on your first day of work. But it probably involved some mixture of excitement, eagerness, and high anxiety—the same feelings all those new professionals feel today as they arrive at your firm’s doorstep. Research has shown that what happens immediately after these nervous newcomers arrive can significantly impact their futures—including how long they stay. This research suggests that adding a personalized component to your firm’s onboarding process that focuses on new employees’ strengths and unique attributes is one fairly simple way to enhance your overall effort to retain and engage new talent. Law is a high-stress industry, and one that I have personal experience in, so I have chosen to focus on the importance of personalized onboarding in law firms. The concepts, however, can have valuable impact across industries.
What Is Personalized Onboarding and Why Does It Matter?
The goal of a personalized onboarding process is to encourage newcomers to express their unique perspectives and strengths from the first day on the job and to frame their work as a place where they can do and be their best (Cable, Gino, & Staats, 2013b). Research has shown that such an individually-tailored approach can impact performance, engagement, job satisfaction, burnout, and turnover (Cable, Gino, & Staats, 2013a; Cable, Lee, Gino, & Staats, 2015).
But firms often botch this early opportunity by relegating the onboarding process to the Human Resources team, which conscientiously inundates newcomers with forms, policies, and basic IT training—inadvertently communicating that newcomers are just cogs in the machine. Even when firms have formal orientation programs, they often occur long after initial impressions have been formed and focus only on firm culture and expectations rather than lawyers’ unique strengths and potential for contributing.
There’s nothing wrong with conveying firm values and introducing new lawyers to their jobs. These are important aspects of onboarding (Bauer & Erdogan, 2011). Where firms may be missing the boat, though, is in being so one-sided—focusing solely on the substance of the job and the firm’s expectations (Cable et al., 2013a-b). For example, during a recent new lawyer orientation, a leader of a large firm highlighted the culture of hard work and announced, “Your best isn’t good enough here.” This suggested to this lot of already anxious newcomers that they were unworthy and would need to fundamentally change to be good enough to work there. The underlying message was clear: “Welcome. You’re lucky we hired you. Please fit in or leave.”
Old-school practices like this can contribute to the notoriously high turnover rates in law firms—50% of associates quit by the end of their third year, and over 80% quit by their fifth year (Levin & MacEwen, 2014). The high turnover rate costs the legal industry over $9 billion annually. Given these stark figures, firms might consider taking steps to revise their onboarding process in ways that may help curb turnover and enhance engagement.
How Can Firms Create More Effective Onboarding Programs?
Research suggests that firms could benefit from focusing more on new lawyers’ unique talents and potential during the onboarding process. The advice is based on a significant body of research showing that authentic self-expression is very important to optimal functioning at work (Cable et al., 2013b). When we hide our values or perspectives to fit into the firm culture, we can experience a depleting sense of alienation, depression, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion.
Research has shown that an effective way for firms to welcome newcomers’ authentic self-expression is by giving them opportunities to use their signature strengths from the outset of their employment and to be seen as the person they are at their best (Cable et al., 2013b). Firms could arrange activities for new lawyers to share stories about their “best selves” and think about how to create more of those opportunities in their new jobs:
Ask newcomers to answer personalized questions such as “What leads to your best performance and happiest times at work?” (Cable et al., 2013b). At the same time, to underscore the unique potential that the firm sees in newcomers, supervising lawyers can share all the positive things that contributed to the decision to hire them.
Ask newcomers to write about three specific times when they were at their best and share it with supervising lawyers or coworkers. Research shows that activities like this are linked to engagement and retention (Cable et al., 2013 a & b).
Another science-backed activity that requires a bit more investment involves a 360-degree “best self” review (Cable et al., 2015). Ask new lawyers to provide email addresses for a variety of people who know them well — e.g., friends, family, mentors, and co-workers. Contact these individuals to ask them to share a few specific moments when the new lawyers were at their personal best. After a few weeks, compile the responses and share them with the new lawyers.
Ask newcomers to think about how their strengths (as viewed by themselves and as reflected in the 360-degree feedback) can be applied in their new jobs (Cable et al., 2013b). This can help them frame their new jobs as giving them a chance to use their strengths and to integrate their own purpose and motivation into their jobs.
Research has found that onboarding programs that include more personalized activities like the above are superior to traditional practices that focus primarily on the organization. Specifically, they enhance job satisfaction and engagement and reduce turnover—which many firms constantly battle. The even better news is that these activities are not expensive and are fairly simple to implement. Given that they could make a significant impact on your firm’s efforts to successfully integrate and keep new talent, why not give them a try?
Bauer, T. N., & Erdogan., B. (2011). Organizational socialization: The effective onboarding of new employees. In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, Vol 3: Maintaining, expanding, and contracting the organization, APA handbooks in psychology (pp. 51–64). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Cable, D. M., Gino, F., & Staats, B. (2013a). Breaking them in or eliciting their best? Reframing socialization around newcomers’ authentic self-expression. Administrative Science Quarterly, 58(1), 136.
Cable, D. M., Gino, F., & Staats, B. R. (2013b). Reinventing employee onboarding. MIT Sloan Management Review, 54(3), 23.
Cable, D. M., Lee, J. J., Gino, F., & Staats, B. R. (2015). How best-self activation influences emotions, physiology and employment relationships. Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper, (16-029).
Levin, M., & MacEwen, B. ID Match and the Right People. (2014). Assessing lawyer traits & finding a fit for success introducing the Sheffield Legal Assessment. Retrieved from http://therightprofile.com/wp-content/uploads/Attorney-Trait-Assessment-Study-Whitepaper-from-The-Right-Profile.pdf.