Inner Workings

The way agencies bring new employees on board and help them acclimate to the culture can have a net effect on recruiting.

A broken federal hiring process, arcane pay rules, and anemic outreach and recruiting are making it difficult if not impossible for agencies to bring excellent candidates on board. In fact, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry has called for a "controlled burn" to eliminate unnecessary and cumbersome regulations.

But increasingly, federal human capital officials are focusing on what happens after someone has surmounted the logistical obstacles of the hiring process and landed the job.

They say the onboarding process can be a crucial period when employees make decisions about whether to stay with an agency, and agencies decide whether they have found the right fit. During this time, employees do everything from filling out health insurance forms to taking crash courses on their new agency's culture. As a result, some agencies are looking at ways to make onboarding more efficient so new hires will know what's expected of them when they arrive in the office for the first time, and will have the tools they need ready and waiting for them.

First Impressions Count

"The problem with something like onboarding is that it's not, by nature, a highly visible activity of the agency," says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "Hiring, either you have a body that comes on board or you don't. There's a clear end result that you see, and you know that [you're] getting people or you're not. You can do what some agencies do, which is nothing."

A 2008 report by the Partnership, which included conversations with officials at 11 agencies, found that organizations have very different approaches to bringing new employees on board. Some view the process as a series of transactions-health forms to be filled out, equipment to be requisitioned, security badges to be obtained, orientations to be attended-that begin when a new hire walks in the door for the first day of work. Others treat it as a holistic process starting when an applicant accepts a job and lasting for as long as two years.

The Partnership favors the latter approach, and marshaled an army of statistics to support it. Its report cited evidence that strong onboarding programs can improve employee performance by 11.3 percent by establishing clear expectations and lines of communications. It also pointed to research that suggests 90 percent of employees decide within their first six months on the job whether to stay or leave, and attrition rates for new hires range from 10 percent to 18 percent, far above the government workforce average of 3 percent to 3.5 percent.

In other words, that first year's worth of impressions count. Employees who show up on the first day of work and find an empty desk and a manager un-prepared to deal with them could be less likely to stick around than employees who arrive to find a computer, security badge and a mentor with plans for lunch waiting for them.

Cynthia Heckmann, the Government Accountability Office's chief human capital officer, knows that all too well.

"When I think of my own personal experience, I have one agency, which will be nameless, my first day, my first couple of hours there, I thought I made a mistake," she says. "I never should have accepted this job."

Now, she strives to create different impressions at her own agency.

Thomas Park, the director of product management for Monster Government Solutions, says the software company has seen a spike in interest among agencies eager to comply with mandates to bring new hires on board more quickly. In 2008, the company released a program that allows agencies to track all the tasks involved in onboarding, from writing offer letters to requisitioning equipment.

"We're hearing more and more from our clients that the agencies would like to see the bigger picture," Park says. "If [new hires are] not sitting at the desk and working, you haven't really performed your job as human resources. The question is how fast we can get candidates on board. In order to do that, you have to look at the entire process and measure and remove bottlenecks."

Welcome Aboard

But some agencies that have developed model onboarding programs are driven by strategic and demographic concerns, rather than reporting requirements.

For Joyce Cofield, director of recruitment, diversity and retention at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, on-boarding rose to the radar screen in 2003 when the agency began an aggressive outreach and recruiting program. Because it can take as long as five years for a bank examiner to become fully certified, OCC wanted to create a pipeline of new hires, and once they were recruited, make sure they stayed with the program. Randy Moon, director of employee engagement and retention at the CIA, was put in charge of examining onboarding programs as part of an effort to figure out how to assimilate a huge wave of post-Sept. 11 hires.

Though Cofield and Moon come from agencies with very different missions and cultures, the onboarding programs at both the Comptroller of the Currency and CIA focus on helping new employees understand the communities they've joined.

The OCC program has a personal focus. New bank examiners are divided into groups of no more than five for a formal training program that lasts six to eight months. After that training period, they are assigned to district offices. Veteran employees and managers participate in team-building exercises and workshops to prepare to greet their new colleagues and help them feel at home. In addition to their direct supervisor, newcomers are assigned a sponsor who can give them a candid perspective on how to succeed at OCC.

Those training programs inculcate the agency's values and address cultural issues. Cofield says OCC instituted training on intergenerational communication during the onboarding process after internal surveys and focus groups showed employees of different ages were frustrated by generational stereotypes.

At the CIA, onboarding is geared toward helping new employees understand the unique culture they have become a part of and the challenges they will face. The first week of the onboarding program takes them through an intensive introduction to the agency's components and its history before they begin training in the specific offices where they will work.

"One of the things that was great was the agency focused on how do we bring people on board, and how do we prepare them for the work life as well as the physical work," Moon says. "You could see a significant drop in the number of employees with a few years' experience who were leaving."

The Right Fit

But acculturation isn't the only goal of an onboarding process. It's also a time when agencies can set standards for accountability and demonstrate how they reward strong performance.

GAO's Heckmann, says during the agency's two-year professional development program for entry-level analysts, there are frequent reviews and upward pay adjustments for new employees. That program, she says, details how the agency's paybanding system works and the opportunities for strong performers.

But not all employees will move up during onboarding. Cofield says one benefit of the rigorous and personalized training program at OCC is it allows the agency to make the best possible use of probationary periods, especially with younger employees who still are learning how to operate in a professional environment, or who might be uncertain which career path is best for them. "We coach them either in learning new behaviors and new skills, or we coach them out of the organization," Cofield says.

Moon says the CIA's first priority is to help employees find the best use of their skills, even if their initial position isn't a fit. Because workers might not be able to make that determination themselves, he has worked to establish a corps of career management officers to help employees assess their own talents.

The Partnership's Palguta says rigorous onboarding programs can help agencies make good determinations about how well employees are fitting in and find positive ways to help them move on, for both their own good and the good of the organization, should that become necessary.

"It would be a small percentage, maybe two to three people out of every hundred [who don't make it past the onboarding process]," Palguta says. "But that small percentage can have a disproportionately negative impact if you allow [them] to go beyond that first year."

Building Better Tools

As agencies move forward with efforts to help new hires find their way, technology is making it easier for human resources staff to coordinate the basic processes that can get in the way of getting these employees to work.

GAO relies on a tracking system it developed to determine whether applicants have filled out necessary forms and offices have requisitioned the equipment they need. The Treasury Department uses a similar program, HR Connect, which Heckmann says GAO plans to adopt.

And the private sector is getting into the act, too. Ed Powell, director of business development for Monster Government Solutions, said the company's onboarding software is now in use throughout three Cabinet-level departments and in components of three others.

But the program's success is not due simply to advanced technology, but also to Monster's incorporating agencies' suggestions to improve the tools. Updates to the onboarding package simplify forms for new hires; they need to enter their names only once, for example, and then they will be entered automatically in every relevant space in every relevant form. Such updates can compress a time-consuming process, while creating electronic personnel files makes it easier for human resources departments to track where their employees are in that process.

Neither technology nor good program planning alone will get employees hired and productive as fast as agencies need them to be. The federal government still has to grapple with its hiring process and a host of other regulations and changes. But onboarding presents an opportunity. If agencies can make easy upgrades to their human resources procedures and take logical steps to get managers ready for their new colleagues, then employees will arrive to find fully stocked desks, fully prepared supervisors, and a chance to make full use of their talents.

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