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Well, what is it? Orientation or Onboarding?


We’ve been talking a lot about employee engagement here at work as we start planning our strategic HR goals for the year. As with many retail organizations, we’d like to get some traction with our voluntary turnover and have been discussing ways in which to do so. Among the wide variety of ideas tossed around, we talked quite a bit about new hire orientation. As a matter of fact, I went ahead and rewrote our orientation program to include elements of onboarding and have had the opportunity to field trial it numerous times with different audiences in sales and sales support. In two words: it’s working!

More about that in a minute.

I have to tell you, it just makes me wince when I hear the word orientation used for onboarding and vice versa. They’re NOT the same thing.

Orientation is a program. Onboarding is a process.

As a fully structured event, orientation is a part onboarding. It’s a onetime event that usually takes place on Day 1. Orientation is an opportunity to go over a bunch of things that all new employees need to know, such as:

  • What to wear, or not, to work (no, it is NOT okay to wear a sheer blouse with your black brassiere showing*),
  • Where to smoke (and it’s not in front of the building in the back of your pickup truck*), and
  • There will a lot of role play exercises during the sales training (if you start to cry at this thought, then perhaps Sales is not for you*).

* All true stories from my years of doing orientations!

The important thing to remember is that orientation is just one piece of the onboarding process. Orientation is meant to kick start the onboarding process by getting essential paperwork completed and essential information across to new employees.

On the other hand, onboarding or organizational socialization should begin during the recruiting and hiring phases, be continued on Day 1 and then carry on anywhere from three months to one year, depending on the level of the position and the amount of organizational insight necessary to be successful in the role.

The point of onboarding is to align new employees with the company’s mission, vision, values and culture, help them clarify and adjust to the performance aspects of their job, and foster their social-emotional connection to the organization.

While it does have tactical elements, onboarding is really strategic in nature. See the difference between the two?

SkillSurvey points out nearly half of all new hires fail within 18 months and when they fail, 89% of the time it is for attitudinal reasons, not for lack of skill. SHRM research demonstrates that the earlier new hires feel welcome and prepared for their jobs, the faster they will be able to contribute successfully to the company’s mission. SHRM also found that 50% of all hourly workers leave new jobs within the first 120 days, primarily because they were not effectively enculturated into the organization.

Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, (great book, by the way) points out that “job transitions are periods of opportunity, a chance to start afresh and to make needed changes, but they are also periods of acute vulnerability, because new employees lack established working relationships and a detailed understanding of their new role.”

So, to formally begin the onboarding process during my organization’s one-day Orientation program, here’s a snapshot of what I did to revamp the session.

The first thing I did was to create a set of learning objectives that could be measured for the orientation program. Thus, at the end of the session, the new associate should be able to:

  • Recognize the key elements of our company’s culture, specifically our history, our vision, our mission, and our strategic goals.
  • Enjoy increased self efficiency and confidence by gaining an understanding and clarification regarding our employee policies, as well as our sales performance standards.
  • Comply with our company expectations regarding employee behavior in the workplace.
  • Affirm his/her decision to join our company by creating a social connection with the company and fellow associates through a positive new hire experience.

Notice the three crucial elements of the onboarding process (culture, clarification and connection) were included in the session objectives. These objectives were not created as standalones either — they fed into our overall onboarding process goals of shortening the new associate learning curve, fostering a uniform understanding of our retail organization and our culture, and building a positive attitude toward our company.

The second thing I did was to create robust, engaging content to meet each of the learning objectives. I took an adult-learning approach and made the program highly interactive and experiential, using all three training domains or categories.

In case you’re not aware, the domain comes from Blooms Taxonomy, which was created by Dr. Benjamin Bloom in 1956 to classify the different objectives educators set for students. It was designed to assist educators in focusing on all types of learning, thus creating a more holistic form of education. The domains are:

  • Cognitive: increase in knowledge, comprehension and critical thinking on a particular topic.
  • Psychomotor: change or development in behavior or skills (e.g., ability to physically manipulate a tool).
  • Affective: awareness and growth in attitudes, emotions and feelings toward something or someone.

Essentially, after a learning event the student should have acquired new knowledge, skills and/or attitudes. The linked chart is a snapshot of the our new orientation program, including the instructional strategy, the targeted domain and the associated measure of success.

Finally, using the Kirkpatrick Four Levels of Evaluation model as a guide, I crafted concrete metrics and evaluative tools with which to measure the success of the orientation program. These were:

  • Level 1 – Satisfaction: How will we know if our new associates are satisfied with the Orientation program itself?
  • Level 2 – Learning: What knowledge will our new associates need to be well oriented into the company and decrease their learning curve?
  • Level 3 – Engagement: How will we know if new hires are so delighted with their new hire experience, they are willing to talk about it with others?
  • Level 4 – Effectiveness: What behavior will our new associates demonstrate to show they are well oriented into our company performance culture?

While the metrics are admittedly aggressive, they at least put a stake in the ground as to what we expect to accomplish. Levels 1 and 2 measures really deal with the orientation program itself; Levels 3 and 4 deal with socialization and performance improvement as part of the overall onboarding process.

Check back with me in a year’s time to see how we’re doing – and I bet you’ll see significant improvement in voluntary turnover and retention!

About the Mouth

heathervx125Heather Vogel, SPHR is head of organizational development and leadership with Ashley Furniture HomeStores where she drives corporate culture, employee engagement and leadership development strategies.  Prior to joining Ashley, she booked 15 years of HR/OD leadership experience in private consulting with global companies such as AT&T.  Heather’s alter ego is the HR Whisperer, who is known for blogging on all things behavior.  She is also a past president of the HR Florida State Council.


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