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Frontline Managers Can Make or Break Your Onboarding Process

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Tue Feb 17 2015

Frontline Managers Can Make or Break Your Onboarding Process
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When reviewing an organization's onboarding program, I ask if frontline managers—especially those who have worked there a while—go through new employee orientation at least once every few years. Often, the response is an involuntary quizzical facial expression, identical to one I would get if I asked whether any employees have ever, say, been attacked by wolverines or if molten lava occasionally comes up through the heating vents. 

"Well, no," is politely answered and with pausing inflection that actually means "of course not." 

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The reason, which they explain in a way that they hope will make what is painfully obvious to them also clear to me, is that managers already know about the company because they already work there. In addition, onboarding might not be the most productive use of time for individuals whose schedules are already overstuffed. 

I agree that asking frontline managers to participate in onboarding is a waste of time for organizations with “orientation programs” that are not much more than cursory "welcome" meetings," where a few forms are completed and an avalanche of way-too-much information is stuffed into a morning. In fact, it might be a good idea for new employees not to attend those meetings either. 

But if the onboarding process is even moderately effective, where the goal is to introduce and align new hires to mission, vision, values, and culture, then participation frontline managers is not only valuable, but crucial to the success of the onboarding process. 

Managers play perhaps the pivotal role in translating that cloud of ideas, roles, and idealized processes into the real world of how-things-get-done. Managers are the face of the job, processes, and the organization. If orientation paints an attractive oil-on-canvas representation of how the organization would like to see itself, then it is the manager who guides new hires into the actual three-dimensional landscape and the way-it-really-is. 

For onboarding to be meaningful, the message and reality must be the same. If they are not, both onboarding and the organization lose credibility, and the message to new employees from day one is that they cannot necessary trust what is said to be true. Or worse, they are joining an aberrant subculture within a company that is doing it all wrong. 

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The only way to assure that the story is the same and true is for managers to hear the message new employees hear and to believe it, embrace it, and model it. Manager involvement keeps all departments aligned and focused on the bigger picture. If there is a disconnect between story and real world, either the culture and process within an individual department must change to align to the rest of the organization or the message delivered to new hires must be changed to more accurately portray the way-things-really-are. 

Assuring that managers hear what their new employees are hearing assures: 

  • Consistency. That the “way-we-talk-about-what-we-do” and “what-we-do” are the same thing, and what new hires hear during the onboarding process can be trusted. In addition, it assures that mission, vision, and value of employees are consistent no matter where someone work in the organization.

  • Onboarding continues on the job. Onboarding is a process and continues long after the welcome meetings. In fact, most of acculturation will occur on the job, where attitudes and work habits will be forged through actual work. The manager is mentor, guide, and translator of mission and vision into practice.

  • Buy-in and ownership. By involving managers, sharing the message, providing them with tools to help bring out the best in their hires, and seeking their feedback, we encourage managers to own onboarding and enjoy its benefits. They will be more likely to embrace to message, contribute ideas, and be partners in the process. 

Without managers carrying the process forward and living the story, onboarding is meaningless theater. Mangers need to know just how important they are to the process and be aware of the benefit that will accrue in new employee productivity, commitment, and enthusiasm. 

But this involvement should not stop at frontline manners. The story told during onboarding must be delivered and embraced up through the entire organization, to middle management, and into the offices of the senior leaders. So make sure they go through it, too. Doing so is the only way to ensure that the new hire is joining the same one they heard about in when there were coming onboard.

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