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Diane Dowsett, LoyaltyOne’s assistant vice-president of talent management, says the company decided to spread out its orientation sessions over several months to help employees better absorb information. (Gloria Nieto For The Globe and Mail)
Diane Dowsett, LoyaltyOne’s assistant vice-president of talent management, says the company decided to spread out its orientation sessions over several months to help employees better absorb information. (Gloria Nieto For The Globe and Mail)

engagement

Companies shift strategies to retain employees Add to ...

When Deane Code arrived a year ago to start her job as a senior consultant at Environics Communications Inc. in Toronto, she found her new business cards waiting at her desk. She also knew what her new co-workers looked like and how to get to their offices, thanks to a “family tree” that arrived in the mail a few days earlier, with staff photos and a map of the office.

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Stacey Marson had a similar welcome to her new job at LoyaltyOne, a customer insight and strategy firm. Before she started as a co-ordinator of business-to-business public relations and corporate marketing, she got a phone call from her new boss, and a package of information – including a book written by the company’s chief executive officer.

The cost of replacing mid-level employees is now estimated to be 1.5 times their annual salary – factoring in recruiting costs, hiring time and training. So it’s not surprising that employers are eager to make sure newcomers quickly learn their roles and feel comfortable with the company, increasing the chances of them becoming stable, long-term employees.

Many companies are paying more attention to the ways they can make new hires feel confident, from providing seminars that help them understand an organization’s structure and their place in it, to pairing them with mentors who can take them for coffee and answer informal questions.

LoyaltyOne, which employs 1,500 staff mainly in Toronto and Mississauga, introduced its program for employee orientation (“onboarding” in human resources jargon) two years ago. It comprises eight 60- to 90-minute small-group seminars, with additional online elements, and covers everything from benefits to marketing to customer care.

The program is designed to be completed over about six months. Employees sign up online and fit the monthly seminars around their regular work schedules.

Diane Dowsett, LoyaltyOne’s assistant vice-president of talent management and the driving force behind the program, said the format evolved after surveying staff and finding they wanted face-to-face interaction, shorter sessions rather than half-day events, and scheduling flexibility.

The company used to offer orientation in a two-day “boot camp,” but Ms. Dowsett said spreading the information out over a few months makes it easier to absorb.

“Joining a company is like learning to speak a new language: In the beginning, the words wash over you and you understand one in five, but over time if you have repeated exposure and people willing to make the effort, you become fluent pretty fast,” she noted.

At Home Depot Inc., employee orientation is propelled by the company’s focus on the store level. Store employees receive two days of orientation (in person and online) as well as 35 to 40 hours of training about specific products in their department. And head office staff are required to put in 24 hours at a store in their first three months, including at least a four-hour shift in the first 30 days.

“Everything we do at Home Depot is around supporting store associates because they are front line with the customers,” said Kim Forgues, vice-president of human resources, noting that the practice came about as a way to connect support staff with the stores.

“It really gave me an understanding of what’s happening in the stores and how I can help people in the stores provide the best customer service,” said Erika Botond, a manager of public relations and communications for Home Depot, who was hired about a year ago and completed her training in the paint department.

New hires value the opportunity to interact with their colleagues. At Environics and Home Depot, a buddy system pairs new and established employees. Environics also hands out a quiz that forces new employees to interact with co-workers across the company to answer questions such as “Which Environics employee met Taylor Swift backstage at a concert?”

Employees also want to hear from their managers. At LoyaltyOne, such feedback prompted Ms. Dowsett to incorporate a “graduation” session about the company’s vision and culture, led by the CEO. “People love the fact they get access to the CEO and all of our business leaders so quickly and so it’s a really good opportunity for them to foster engagement,” she said.

“Employees come in and do their job for eight hours without being able to see the bigger picture of what they’re looking toward,” LoyaltyOne’s Ms. Marson noted, adding that the orientation program “creates a united work force going forward to the same goals.”

Another thing new employees seek is feedback and a bit of personal attention. “I circle back with all new hires, whether or not they’re on my team, four to six weeks after they start,” said Josh Cobden, senior vice-president at Environics.

Mr. Cobden, who was hired 16 years ago, recalls a time when the company – which now has 120 employees and offices in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Washington – was small enough for the whole staff to take new hires out to lunch.

Given the expense of hiring and training a new employee, companies are finding that paying close attention to a newcomer right from the start pays off with an engaged, long-term staff member.

At Home Depot, for example, Ms. Forgues notes that a 90-day “check-in” with new employees resulted in a 15-per-cent decrease in turnover in the past year.

“The type of people we hire are high performers, who put pressure on themselves to demonstrate that hiring them was the right decision,” Mr. Cobden noted. “But what they don’t know is that we put as much pressure on ourselves to prove that joining us was the right decision.”

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