New Emphasis on First Impressions

By Leslie Klaff

Mar. 13, 2008

If you were to look over the shoulder of new employees at Sun Microsystems these days, there’s a good chance that they will be hunched over their computers, playing a game called “Dawn of the Shadow Specters.”

   Plunged into a futuristic world, the player is battling forces of evil that are trying to destroy Sun’s network.

   While the new hires may look like they’re wasting time, they are actually learning about Sun’s core businesses and the company’s mission and vision. The game is one way that Sun is revamping its employee “onboarding,” which is the talent management buzzword for how organizations help new hires transition into their jobs. At a time when Sun is losing talent to companies like Google and MySpace, the organization is making new hires a top priority in order to improve employee retention and productivity, as well as recruit top talent and strengthen its corporate brand.

   Before Sun launched its new onboarding program in October 2007, an employee’s first day was typical for what you would see at many companies today. The new employee spent most of it filling out paperwork. The new hire’s workspace, phone, computer and security badge may or may not have been ready. Some new employees were waiting two weeks before they had access to e-mail. Almost half of Sun’s 34,000 employees work remotely, so many new hires wait weeks or months before meeting their managers.

   “We weren’t making a great first impression,” says Karie Willyerd, chief learning officer at Sun, which is based in Santa Clara, California. “The competition for talent is really tight. People have choices about where they work, and the first few days are particularly vulnerable. They can make them feel good about their choice, or it can put a doubt in their mind. We wanted to make a better first impression.”

   Sun is not alone in wanting to improve its onboarding approach. Some companies are starting to automate the administrative end of their onboarding programs to ensure those first-day mishaps don’t occur. But others are looking at onboarding more broadly, as an opportunity to integrate employees into a company’s culture, improve company image, gather employee feedback and even train employees.

   How employees are treated during the first few weeks on the job affects retention, satisfaction and productivity, says Brian Platz, COO of Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based SilkRoad Technologies. SilkRoad is one of a handful of talent management software vendors that in the last few years have come out with Web-based products that automate onboarding processes. Within six months on the job, 86 percent of new employees have made up their mind about whether they’re going to stay with their company, according to a new survey of almost 800 human resource managers by Aberdeen Group.

   “What does it say when you’re not ready, and the new employee is just sitting there with nothing to do on the first day?” Platz says. “It’s a terrible first impression, and the impact never goes away.”

   At Sun, the onboarding process now starts as soon as new hires accept their job offers. They can log on to the company’s new-hire Web site, where they learn about Sun by playing one of two video games.

   “This started with the need to target college graduates who grew up with computers, and the missing generation we have from not hiring as much during the dot-com bust,” Willyerd says. “We knew we wanted to engage them and capture their imagination.”

   Sun also is using the new site as a recruiting tool, so most of it is open to the public. New hires can watch a welcome video from CEO Jonathan Schwartz and connect with other employees via social networks by posting profiles and having conversations. New hires fill out their W-4s, I-9s and other forms online and check off what they’ve completed on a task list. Their hiring managers can monitor the whole process to make sure everything is set for day one.

   Sun also wanted to make onboarding more “warm and fuzzy,” says Brandon Carson, chief instructional designer for collaborative learning at Sun Learning Services, one of Sun’s core businesses. When Carson started at Sun a year ago, he didn’t meet his manager for three months, and after a short orientation, he felt like he was on his own.

   “We need to make sure our process is welcoming, high-touch and sets the stage for Sun as a place to have a career, not just another job,” he says. New hires now receive notes thanking them for joining Sun with a packet of flower seeds attached, symbolizing growth at the company. All new employees get a backpack with the Sun logo, replacing the old employee gift—a thin Sun T-shirt, which usually faded after a few washings. The onboarding paperwork has been updated with hip, cooler colors.

   “Onboarding is about image too,” Willyerd says. “Before, we weren’t sending a message that we were a high-tech company. Sun is a 25-year-old company. The perception is that it’s not as hip a place to be now. Now it’s Google or MySpace. Part of this is revamping our own image to be appealing to the marketplace.”

   Sun’s attention to onboarding is not the norm, Platz says. “Most companies are doing the minimum. It starts and ends on day one with a quick orientation, filling out forms and watching a video,” he says.

   Onboarding programs need to start the moment an offer is accepted. The weeks between accepting an offer and starting work are critical because some new hires are still interviewing at other companies and may jump ship. Onboarding should continue until the new employee is productive. For an accounts payable clerk that may mean two weeks; for a new salesperson selling a complicated product, it could be six months, Platz says.

   El Paso Corp., a Houston-based provider of natural gas and related energy products with almost 5,000 employees, is working on better follow-up with new hires. New employees attend an orientation the first day and then another session 30 days later. During the first week, they receive an e-mail with helpful links—everything from ordering business cards to joining the local credit union.

   The company also is seeing new hires become productive more quickly by using a Web-based onboarding solution from Taleo, a software vendor based in Dublin, California. Before El Paso’s onboarding program went digital in April 2007, new employees waited up to two weeks to get computers.

   “New employees were here, but they were just sitting around doing nothing because they didn’t have the tools to work,” says LaToya Daily, a systems administrator. Now, most new hires have their workspace, computer and access to the network on the first day. In the past, paperwork took up to two weeks to complete; turnaround is now two to three days.

   More important than checking off items on a to-do list, onboarding is about creating employee loyalty from the outset, Platz says. “Onboarding needs to focus on continuing to sell the employee on the company,” he says. Zimmerman Advertising, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based company with 1,000 employees, uses onboarding to immerse new hires into the company’s culture, says Carmen Marston, vice president of human resources. “There’s a bigger picture of what onboarding can do for you,” Marston says. “For us, it’s about new employees understanding the company, getting excited about the company and feeling engaged before their first day.”

   Once new employees accept their offers, they log on to the new-hire Web site and learn about the company’s philosophy, clients and leadership. The company’s themes of “doing what it takes” and “never saying no” are repeated throughout the site. On their first day, new hires meet for an hour with CEO Jordan Zimmerman, who talks about how he built the company. Training also is a part of onboarding. New hires get a 30-, 60- and 90-day training checklist that must be completed and signed by their supervisors. Zimmerman is adding feedback surveys to the Web site as well.

   “I think that a lot of human resource professionals know the term onboarding, but I think where a lot of them fail is that they think of it only as a tactical solution to their issues of filling out forms and getting computers set up for new employees,” Marston says. “They’re not looking at the bigger opportunity … to help new employees understand who you are as a company so they are prepared on the day they start to integrate into the company.”

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