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Want to send the right impression to new hires? Assess your own onboarding process. Here’s how.

I am going through the onboarding process as a new employee at a university where I’ll be teaching as an adjunct faculty member. Following my interview with the chair and another faculty member, this is my first real experience of the university. And, overall, it has been abysmal. If the Dean wasn’t someone that I admire and respect and want to work with, I might have walked away. As every company - from major universities to small and medium sized business - competes for talent, taking time to evaluate and improve your onboarding process is certainly time well spent.

My experience

To date, I have received 15 emails that require me to take action. These are emails that are generated as either form emails or pro-forma emails from systems or individuals who perhaps run a daily process to send these emails. They have the smallest degree of personalization - usually only my name - and only occasionally are they from an actual person with an email signature at the end.

Of these 15 emails:

  • About 8 of them contain duplicative information - although that is not always clear - and so I check off items in every email to make sure I’m dotting every i and crossing every t - meaning I’m wasting a lot of time.

  • 3 contain errors that have required me to call/reply in order to confirm I was going to perform the intended task correctly.

  • Three of them have come too early for me to take action on them. This institution uses your “hire date” which, as I type this, has not yet occurred as the date on which your access to several systems opens. So I get an email and think I can do the steps within only to call the helpdesk when the steps don’t work and find out I have to wait until my hire date - or more regularly find out that “it’s not ready yet and I need to wait” (more on this below).

  • Two of them REQUIRE me to call an actual person to get something done. While this isn’t inherently bad, it may be and is worth examining whether the specific activity could be automated less expensively than the current solution and allow those people who are taking these rather routine calls to do higher value tasks than talking on the phone while they walk me through two web pages and ask me to click things that I easily could do on my own.

Additionally, one of the more unusual processes at this institution requires me to fill out an online PDF form. Rather than telling you up front that the fillable PDF form often - for some reason they don’t understand - changes the state in which you live when you save it - they send it back to you after the fact so that you can cross it out and scan and send it again. This is even more frustrating because there is a lengthy explanation process for this tool where they could explain that.

All told, so far, I’ve spent 3 hours and 28 minutes on onboarding tasks for this institution. In today’s market, as a consultant, I expect to do some amount of “free work”. However, particularly in the domain of part-time faculty at universities, the amount of free work expected is something that all employers need to keep an eye on. I know that I’m not done yet. There is still a compliance training and an orientation program - all of which I assume are to be done with no compensation. While I’ve decided these are people I want to work with at an institution I want to work with, this is a lot to ask of new employees and should be kept to a minimum in today’s ultra competitive marketplace.

On the positive side, every interaction I have had with someone as I’ve asked questions about the various errors or issues with these communications has been extremely positive. The people I’ve talked to at the various IT help desks, in HR, and in finance have been lovely and very helpful. It is definitely not a problem of people - it is a problem of process.

Wouldn’t a new onboarding system be expensive or high tech?

Photo by Gilles Roux on Unsplash

I have found most people think to improve a process like this you have to go “high tech” and build a fancy onboarding system. Nothing could be further from the truth. To illustrate that, here are just four of the possible ways to make this process better - ranging from low tech to high tech.

  • On the low tech end is to have one email that factually details all of the various emails you’ll get (or better yet points you to a web page/google doc that walks you through all the different e-mails you’ll get) and how everything is going to flow. This would give the employee one place to go instead of having to go through 15 different emails to figure out which one has instructions on what you’re supposed to be doing - and which additional emails relate to that thing. The advantage of pointing to a google doc/web page is that there are not hundreds of different versions that people might forward floating around out there and it still stays in the low tech category. It also gives you one single place to update as things do change - which they will.

  • On the mid tech end is to streamline those email communications so that they all come on an as needed basis to the employee. Rather than one large email dump at the beginning of the process (like what I got), send the new employee one overarching email that explains at a high level what the steps are and when, approximately, all of those emails will come to them in relationship to the date of hire and the current date. To the best of your ability, match those emails coming to the employee with the date on which they can actually take action on them. One of the most frustrating parts of this current onboarding experience for me has been that many of the emails that I receive I can’t actually act on until my hire date. But which ones fall into that category is unclear from the various auto generated system emails. Just taking the time to edit those auto generated emails (which nearly all IT systems let you do) to add a note that you won’t be able to take action on this until your hire date would have eased a LOT of my frustration.

  • In between options one and two above is to make sure that your cross department communication and training is in place. The interaction I had with a young woman this morning on an IT specific issue made me realize she has no idea the process she is responsible for helping people with isn’t actually accessible until my hire date. So, rather than helping me, she “fixed my problem” by giving me a work around solution that doesn’t actually allow me to do my new job properly. I know this because I cross referenced one of those early emails and realized that the system this young woman helped me with isn’t supposed to be accessible until my hire date. However, I now have two separate log ons and while I realize the error, people who aren’t as comfortable with the technology aspect of these things as I am might not. Had anyone simply trained this young woman to tell the person on the other end of the phone that the process won’t work until their hire date - AND better yet - included that note in the automated system email - all could have been avoided.

  • On the high tech end is to create that single portal that every hiring manager dreams of that guides the employee through all of the processes and shows them some sort of signifier as each step is completed. This is certainly ideal but it’s also a massive investment and probably not best until the system is evaluated and improved as much as possible before the system is built to mask bad processes.

Onboarding is spread out across multiple groups within my organization. How do we even begin a process like this?

The first thing is to remember that there is no perfect process. I think many people shy away from these types of efforts because they can’t make it exactly what they want (i.e. that fancy onboarding system with the automated completion check marks as each step is done successfully). Perfect doesn’t exist. Only improvement. So, let’s try to improve it. And, as I noted above, that fancy system typically shouldn’t exist until the current system is maximized and fine-tuned as much as possible.

The best way to get started improving a process like this is to experience it and map the process from end to end. If your system allows, create a test employee or 10 and go through the process yourself. Identify the different categories that employees fit into and make sure you experience it from all categories. And, even if you think there aren’t categories of employees, there are when it comes to onboarding.

If your system doesn’t allow you to create test users, ask a few new hires if they will be a part of some improvement sessions with you (provide them appropriate additional compensation) and allow you to observe the onboarding process as they experience it. This can even be done remotely via zoom - and what a way to make people feel involved in a cross institutional project right from the start of their employment. Map the process using anything from a simple outline to a full process diagram in something like Visio.

Once you’ve mapped the process, identify areas that are confusing for employees who go through the process and identify potential ways to eradicate that confusion. Remember - there is no such thing as perfect here but there can definitely be improvement. There may be five or six potential ways to make a single communication to new hires better. And, what’s better for me might not be better for someone else so you can’t expect perfection. Simply try to make things as clear and concise as possible.

Finally, begin implementing your improvements. It’s actually best to do this in small doses rather than all at once. This gives you time to evaluate each step in the improvement process and gather feedback so you can continue iterating on the process. Again, remember that perfection isn’t the goal here - improvement through iteration is.

When you choose to take this on, be transparent in those initial communications with employees that you are engaging in an active improvement process and that you are aware everything isn’t perfect. Even tell them where you know the hiccups are - and ask for their feedback to make things better. A little transparency and communication goes a long way to making people feel welcome and heard.

Want help from process improvement professionals?

Our team at Monarch Strategies LLC can help you improve processes like these by doing the mapping, feedback gathering and analysis, and suggesting improvements for you and your team. We can also support you in the implementation process. If you’re interested in improving your faculty onboarding process or any process today, schedule a no obligation call at


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