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Viewpoint: The Key to Retaining Entry-Level Employees? Better Onboarding

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Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

It is no news that hiring right now is incredibly difficult. Labor shortages are widespread, young workers are expecting higher starting wages, and after employers hire and train a new employee, the risk that they will jump ship for a better paying job is rising fast. The cost of turnover is high, but it has always been higher than many employers realize and it's probably bad for your firm's bottom line.

How can employers do a better job hiring and keeping entry-level workers? To find out we talked with workforce development professionals — people who help employers find workers and young adults find employers. We asked them what employers should do to promote good hires, ones that last. These professionals see and appreciate both sides of the hiring process and were able to tell us what works and what fails in the hiring process. Our research focused on young workers filling the core production tasks in many types of jobs, including factories, health care and administrative service firms. For all types of jobs our focus was on what employers can do to find and keep new entry-level employees.

To attract and keep their core production people, many firms are raising wages, some are switching to full-time benefited positions, and some are even offering signing bonuses. These are essential, but what we learned is that what is more important to get young workers to stick around are the social aspects of hiring, especially those having to do with developing mutual respect and trust. These are particular challenges for workers of color, who often expect to encounter discrimination.

Our goal is to help employers examine their hiring and training practices, increase the speed at which new hires become productive team members and reduce the high dollar and emotional costs of turnover from failed hires. We learned ten lessons in our research to help employers hire successfully. The workforce specialists we interviewed developed these insights by observing the typical mistakes employers make, sometimes over and over again. Here's how you can correct them:

1. Create career jobs.

We're in an era of increased expectations for good jobs. A good job is not simply one that pays a little above the minimum wage; these are everywhere and plentiful. Good jobs promise a future and make young people feel valued. Career jobs pay living wages, have predictable hours, visible skill and wage progression and, most importantly, foster respectful relationships with supervisors and co-workers. Bad jobs communicate that the employer does not care whether employees stay or go.

2. Communicate opportunities for career progression.

Young people may have had multiple short-term, dead-end jobs before you hire them. It is important to recognize that what employers might see as a training period — with the goal that this will be a long-term relationship — for young workers might feel too much like the jobs that they have had in the past. What may seem obvious to the employer can be a mystery to a young employee. If you see this hire as the beginning of a long-term relationship, make that clear from the start. If you do not make this clear, young workers may leave prematurely for a job they see themselves growing in.

3. Build positive relationships prior to hiring.

If you are having trouble building a high-quality applicant pool, outreach prior to hiring can help. Young workers often need to be able to imagine themselves in your workplace, doing your jobs, working with your people. Mock interviews can communicate what employer's value, prior to the (often stressful) real interview. Workplace tours and job shadowing are effective in helping candidates see themselves in a role, although if everyone already at work is white or male, tours and job shadowing might be signals to many potential hires that they do not belong. The same goes for websites and training videos: If no one looks like me, I may simply assume that I am not welcome. Since the workforce of the future will increasingly be people of color, employers need to think about what signals they are sending to workers of color.

4. Ensure a positive first day reception.

Everyone gets nervous, but young workers are often particularly uncomfortable entering a new workplace. One of the biggest mistakes employers make is assuming that new workers are ready to work and will figure things out. This may be true for those who stick around, but it is also a signal that you don't care, and that will lead some to leave. The extreme version of this is when a new employee shows up for work and everyone seems surprised to see them. From the employer's point of view, this may indicate poor communication between HR and department supervisors. From the new employee's viewpoint, this is a sign that you do not care. First impressions are crucial to retention. Introductions to coworkers, supervisors, support staff and the boss are vitally important.

5. Assign new hires a mentor.

Employees need to learn both job skills and the informal culture of the workplace. If you leave it to chance, some employees will figure things out, some may get lucky and be adopted by a more senior colleague, and others will struggle. One tendency is to think that the strugglers are lazy or dumb. More often, they simply have not been adequately mentored and need help figuring things out. Mentors can provide information and integration into the social life of the workplace. Assigned mentors are particularly important for young workers of color who are often overlooked or ignored by older supervisors until they "prove" themselves. Many firms have well-developed mentor systems for their managerial and professional workforces but leave onboarding of lower-level workers to chance. This is a mistake, especially since these people are often your core production workers.

6. Communicate and explain expectations clearly.

Every workplace has both formal and informal rules around expected behaviors. Many people discover these rules by keeping their head down and looking around. But some rules — like no use of cell phones on the job or the importance of calling in if you cannot get to work on time — may seem self-evident to supervisors but arbitrary or unreasonable to young workers. For example, cell phones are often young workers' most expensive possession, a lifeline to their children for parents, and central to their identities and relationships for most young people. Of course, checking phones can be dangerous in some manufacturing settings, rude to customers in many service jobs and irritating to supervisors in general. There is nothing wrong with a rule that makes sense, but it is the employer's job to communicate not only the rules, but why they make sense. Otherwise, you may sound like a coercive parent or teacher telling them to "just do it." We all remember how ineffective that was when we were young.

7. Create a culture where young workers can ask questions.

Young workers are often hesitant to speak up and ask for help. They fear failure, and as a result, do not ask for help or explanations when they need it. Getting the hang of things happens sooner and more effectively when the new employee feels like asking questions is normal and that they will be treated with respect when they risk revealing ignorance. In an atmosphere of disrespect and impatience, the tendency is to hide your need for help. Allow your young workers to ask questions and be clear that it is productive to do so.

8. Understand non-work lives.

Young workers typically live different lives than more established workers. This is particularly true when your emerging labor force are people of color or immigrants. Some have children. Many must commute on mass transport. Some are in school or their children are. Successful supervisors understand that they must learn the reality of their young workers non-work lives. Children get sick, mass transport is often late and schedules sporadic, schools schedule exams or teacher work days, doctor appointment times are out of all of our control. Recognize that their life may be far different from yours. Taking the time to understand can prevent mistaking complex lives for bad work habits.

9. Foster a climate of respect and dignity for everyone.

Sometimes supervisors and coworkers who are equal opportunity bullies are excused by managers despite being the source of toxic racist encounters and sexual harassment. Managers should never treat routine bad behavior as an excuse for racism and sexism. Tolerating disrespect in any form drags morale down, reduces productivity and encourages turnover. Workplaces characterized by dignity and respect for all employees, regardless of race, citizenship, gender or just plain newbie ignorance are going to be much more successful in hiring and keeping young workers.

10. Create a racially equitable workplace.

Workers of color and immigrants have experienced discrimination in past jobs, schools and public places and are worried that they will experience it again in your workplace. A color-blind approach to race is an insult to immigrants and people of color's lived experiences. Employers should pay attention to the basics, such as race and gender discrepancies in pay, shifts and hours, and job assignments. Additionally, building stable and respectful relationships between supervisors, coworkers and new employees from all backgrounds is key to creating a racially equitable workplace.

Think about a new hire's first few weeks as a probationary period for both the employee and employer. Both are anxious to develop a long-term productive relationship. While employers are curious as to whether the employee will adapt to the rhythms and expectations of the workplace, new hires are gauging whether this workplace will be a respectful and encouraging place to build a career. Successful onboarding and reducing premature turnover requires communicating that you value a long-term relationship and that your workplace is a welcoming and respectful one.

Donald Tomaskovic-Devey directs the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he leads the "What works?" project, which focuses on successful managerial strategies to expand equity and inclusion in workplaces. Reyna Orellana is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, engaged in research on labor and understanding its changing dynamics. She previously worked at the UCLA Labor Center where she focused on low wage workers in the Los Angeles area. 

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2022. All rights reserved.


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