• Ed Barrow

The Art of Competitive Onboarding



The Art of Competitive Onboarding

Let’s face it, in most markets, and especially the Washington DC metro area, there’s a war going on for top talent. In fact, there’s a book called “The Talent War” which dives into this topic quite well https://thetalentwar.com/ . There are many aspects to how this war is won and we’re all looking for an edge, but today we will focus on some of the key components to help you with more successful outcomes.


Today, we want to focus on one of most overlooked parts of the quest for top talent – Onboarding.


Onboarding certainly has some administrative elements to it such as paperwork and tax forms. There are also steps to take the first few weeks to integrate new hires. But we’re talking here about the softer, more intangible aspects of onboarding that need to be employed between a signed offer letter and day one. The purpose being twofold (1) getting the accepted candidate to actually start with your company; and (2) providing an amazing experience for the candidate, or first impression , as they begin their journey with your organization.


Unfortunately, this is an area where many companies struggle. At a minimum it leads to a mediocre onboarding process where the enthusiasm of the offer and acceptance wanes and the employee starts their new job with a whimper, not a bang. At worst however, it leads to a loss of key hires in that critical and very vulnerable few weeks between the signed offer letter and the employee’s start date.


Let me pose a rather ridiculous question. You wouldn’t get engaged to someone and once you hear a yes say “OK great, I’ll see you in 12 months at the wedding”. Of course not, but when it comes to onboarding, other than requests for documents and online processes some companies do exactly that.


Why does this happen?

Simple, it’s human nature. Many companies don’t mean to do this, but too often their hiring managers view filling open positions as just another problem to solve in their business. The thinking is we made the hire, the candidate accepted and she starts in 3 weeks. Great, problem solved, check, now I can tackle my next problem. On some level that’s true, but without properly onboarding candidates, the problem may not be solved. All too often new hires experience a lack of communication in the critical few weeks between acceptance and start date. This is an area where risk comes in, especially when we’re in a competitive market.


What could go wrong? Three things

First, good candidates receive multiple offers. Even though they accepted your offer, they still need to navigate a dangerous path to joining your company, and they don’t even know it! First, they have to tell their other offers no. Good companies don’t take no for an answer. They may sweeten their offer or bring out their leadership teams to talk to your new hire, and all this is going on without your knowledge. Most people aren’t very good at saying no and they’ll tend to “hear them out” if a company wants to discuss a revised offer or why they feel this is the right job for your new hire. Again, it’s a talent war. These things should be anticipated and you should be doing some of these things too. Your competition certainly is.


Second, in the time between an acceptance and start date, candidates still receive recruiting calls. While they should be saying no to them, there may be a job they applied to a few weeks ago at a great company and they finally hear back. Since they haven’t actually started their new job yet, they may be tempted to check it out. If they haven’t been getting a consistent communication stream from you, that temptation grows.


Third, good candidates often receive counteroffers. It’s important to be proactive and have the counteroffer talk with your key hires. Of course, this won’t apply in some circumstances where the candidate’s reason for leaving is compelling, or if they aren’t working. But, otherwise, it’s an important conversation that needs to occur. It can also be an awkward conversation and ideally is handled by a third party, such as an Executive Recruiter who is trained for this. But if you’re not using a search firm, an experienced Human Resources executive can do this, or in a pinch, the hiring manager. All key hires should be coached on counter-offers. The discussion can start simply by “Have you given any thought as to who, when, and how you’ll be giving notice?” That leads to “My experience has been the best candidates often receive a counter-offer to stay.” “How do you expect they’ll react when you resign?” “The statistics on counter-offers actually working long-term are incredibly low, but I’m sure you know this. What are your thoughts?” Again, this can be a difficult conversation and is best done by your Executive Recruiter, but it does need to happen. As an example, when we recruit Big 4 candidates we spend a good 30 minutes preparing each candidate for their inevitable counteroffer. These are often 3-5 year CPAs who have never resigned from a professional job – and they’re about to resign to a Partner they admire who has heard the same story 100+ times. They are simply not prepared to go into this scenario without some insight and preparation! They need to coached and supported throughout the resignation process.


Practical solutions

So, what can a company to do in this competitive landscape to properly onboard candidates? For certain key hires, the process we’re talking about here could really be called Shepherding, not Onboarding. A key hire should be shepherded all the way from a signed offer letter to their first day, and ideally beyond. Remember, we’re trying to do two things: ensure the candidate actually starts and create a great onboarding experience for them.


First, honesty is critical. Having an open discussion with your new hire on any pitfalls that could occur when they turn down other offers or when they resign is critical. These aren’t easy conversations but they’re important. Fortunately, it’s gets easier (dare we say fun?) from here.


The secret sauce to good onboarding is really quite simple. It’s staying in close contact with the candidate in those fragile few weeks before they start. You need quality touch points and they can come in a variety of ways.


A congratulations call from one or more high level executives. It’s flattering and it doesn’t cost a dime. Not suggesting this for all hires, but for key people, it’s recommended.


Take them to lunch – and quickly. Have the hiring manager call the candidate immediately after acceptance, congratulate them, and schedule a celebratory lunch. Keep close to them!


Send a gift basket.


Send a sample training schedule. Candidates are always curious of what training will entail and they will be put at ease to see that there’s a plan in advance.


Send some company swag. An “ABC Company” sweatshirt in the mail is always well received.


Send Linked in requests and messages to new hires and have other executives do the same. “Dear Mary, I heard the great news you’re coming on board in a few weeks and I’m really looking forward to having you on the team.”


Consider a call to solicit their opinion on an area that may impact their department once they start. It shows you value their opinion, and again, it’s a good touch point. You have to make sure this isn’t considered actually working before they start so this should be done judiciously. That said, many people would welcome the opportunity to provide input on an issue (especially if it impacts them) before they start.


Be creative and have some fun with it! There’s really no limit to what you can do here. And most of these things are either free or relatively inexpensive. We heard one organization who used the website Cameo and had the employee’s favorite star call them and congratulate them on their new job!


All throughout this process, it’s important to see how your touch points are received. If communication isn’t reciprocated, the candidate suddenly goes radio silent, or there’s a lack of enthusiasm on their part, it is almost always cause for concern.


All that said, however you decide to shepherd your critical hires through the potentially choppy seas between an acceptance and the safe port of their first day, the important thing is to maximize your chances of your new hire starting and to provide them with a great experience!


Those companies that don’t cultivate the time between the offer and when the candidate starts need to break that habit and should be mindful of this critical aspect of winning the talent war.


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