Why Firms Should Rethink Their Onboarding Strategies to Keep New Hires Engaged

A pre-COVID Gallup survey shows that only 12% of respondents believe their company did a great job of onboarding new employees. In the April issue of INSIDE Public Accounting Monthly, we took a look at the gaps in onboarding at accounting firms and got some insight on ways to make the process more effective.

Turnover among new hires is always high – HR industry studies suggest up to 20% occurs within the first 45 days – but in accounting, onboarding is too often neglected, even at a time when firms can ill afford to lose anyone.

To be sure, onboarding has become more sophisticated over the years, particularly as remote hires are becoming commonplace, but the process hasn’t changed fast enough, observers say. Firms are still making obvious mistakes – immediately overwhelming new hires with administrative details, endless Zoom meetings and head-spinning software training – leaving these fresh-out-of-college team members feeling more confused than capable.

IPA learned more about effective onboarding from Eddie Hernandez, who revamped and formalized the onboarding process at IPA 200 firm Bowman & Company of Stockton, Calif. (FY21 net revenue of $16.8 million), HR expert Victoria Neal, chief human resources officer Brandon Smith from LMC CPAs, a $16.4-million firm in Manhattan, and marketing and DEI consultant Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk.

Ditch the ‘Sink or Swim’ Approach

Neal, an advisor with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), says it’s common for employers to believe the hard work is over once the hiring is complete. While onboarding has come a long way since the days when it was called orientation, which might have included basic paperwork, a tour of the building and an introduction to a supervisor, some companies stumble and end up doing more harm than good. She’s seen new hires arrive on their first day with no laptop or an invitation to lunch. “What kind of circus act is this?” In fact, she says, a pre-COVID Gallup survey shows that only 12% of respondents believe their company did a great job of onboarding new employees.

Whether the minimalist approach is seen as a strategy or an accident, the truth is that it’s not welcoming by any reasonable definition. “I’ve never been a fan of that,” says Hernandez, Bowman’s chief human resources officer. “A lot of companies use that as a way to see if people can maneuver through and be successful that way.”

Employers should remember that in this labor market, new hires are doing just as much, if not more, evaluation than their managers. New employees are examining whether a future at the company looks appealing, if the mission fits their values or any number of other considerations. Neal says new hires will ask themselves, “Am I actually creating something here? Am I doing something that makes me proud to come to work every day?” Throw a bad manager into this already uncertain mix and new hires may make a quick exit.

At LMC, leaders frequently solicit feedback from new hires, so early discussions are not focused on their performance alone. “Being deliberate at each stage is important when it comes to reducing early-stage turnover and recalibrating the employee’s performance,” says Smith. “It also gives us insight into their overall experience working within our organization.” Employees who are uncomfortable giving upward feedback are less likely to stay, polls show.

Think Personal Connections First, Details Later

Neal advises employers to cover the 4 Cs when onboarding new hires: compliance, clarification, culture and connection, with a special emphasis on the last two. She also says to slow down the process and ensure it covers 90 days at least, noting that some jobs can take an entire year to learn.

Buol Ruszczyk, founder of BBR Companies, advocates for “pre-boarding.” The time between “you’re hired” and Day One can be stressful and failing to address it is one of the biggest mistakes firms make, she says. “Regular check-ins with their manager, introductory calls or emails from future co-workers, and even a small welcome package from the firm can go a long way toward making sure they feel welcome and generate excitement about their new job.”

A good way to help associates understand the culture and make connections is to assign a buddy who can field questions and introduce them to their team members. The co-workers should be informed ahead of time of their new colleague’s responsibilities, supervisor and how they’ll fit into the group. “It’s hard enough to start a new job without dealing with team confusion and worry on top of it,” says Buol Ruszczyk.

The Buddy System

Pairing an associate with a buddy is a common, but often random practice. Hernandez conducts firmwide onboarding training and assigns five “onboarding partners” to each new associate because he’s found they’re often too embarrassed to ask one person a lot of questions, or the same question more than once. He’s designed onboarding to include six 15-minute check-ins each week, so no concern goes unaddressed, and the associate is always getting the support they need.

Choosing a buddy is an important component of the onboarding process. Leaders shouldn’t assume they can make the right matches, and it’s helpful if new hires can choose from among a group of people they feel comfortable with. For minority hires, Buol Ruszczyk suggests inviting them to employee resource group meetings so they can start making connections right away. Firms should also be mindful that leaders from under-represented groups are usually happy to help but may be overstretched. “I’ve talked to quite a few black women in senior firm positions who are the only, or one of very few, persons of color in that role. In addition to their regular workload, they are constantly asked to take new minority hires under their wing, adding to their responsibilities,” she says. The extra work may put them at a disadvantage when it comes to side-by-side job reviews.

Remote Challenges

Onboarding is more complicated for fully remote employees, so flying those new hires into town for the first week is a worthwhile investment. Face-to-face meetings with team leaders can be crucial, and even short conversations with on-site colleagues can reveal much about how the organization operates, such as whether the firm is risk-taking, data-driven, hierarchical or siloed, Neal says.

Sophisticated companies are revamping their onboarding processes for remote workers to include personalized video greetings from top executives, which have proven popular. “Executives can make a big impact for very little,” Neal says. In addition, online team meetings that start with personal interactions can bring out a new hire’s personality and help co-workers get to know one another.

Hernandez started a weekly online gathering for his firm’s eight or so remote employees so they can hear a brief firm presentation, start casual conversations, get answers to IT questions and hear from a longer-term remote employee who knows the ropes.

Measuring Onboarding Success

Common onboarding metrics center on whether goals set at 30, 60 and 90 days are being met. Outside of productivity, employers can conduct surveys at the beginning and end of onboarding, “stay” interviews and exit interviews. Employers should talk to employees who quit within the first six months to tease out what went wrong, Neal says.

Neal also advises developing a business case for improved onboarding, committing the budget resources to the process and monitoring the metrics. One of the most important things to remember is that onboarding is not just HR’s job, Neal says, it’s everybody’s job. Employees are 3.4 times as likely to strongly agree their onboarding experience was exceptional if managers take an active role, according to Gallup, and the time and money lost to recruit, hire and train a replacement are exceptionally high.

Hernandez has found that frequent check-ins are a big part of Bowman’s onboarding success. Associates are more quickly understanding the software, workflow and technical aspects of their jobs. Partners are telling him that productivity is up 30% over last year, in part because of the more formal onboarding effort. “We’re actually feeling it as a firm,” Hernandez says. “We can see it. I think when an employee feels comfortable, their engagement increases.”

When the 90-day onboarding period ends at Bowman, the new hire receives a certificate and a choice between two developers – called mentors at other firms – who meet with the new employees quarterly to help guide their future in the firm, demonstrating a commitment to support over the long term.

Involvement of a larger onboarding team takes effort, but Hernandez is spreading the responsibilities around so it doesn’t feel burdensome. The results show that the extra work is paying off. “They know that the more successful our new people are, the more successful our firm can be.”


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