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Every New Employee Needs an Onboarding “Buddy”

  • Category Teams

Bringing a new employee onboard is both an exciting and stressful time. And while managers play a critical role in shaping a new employees’ first weeks and months, a broader team effort can ensure the experience is both positive and productive.

Over the last few years, Microsoft has been working to improve its onboarding process. At the outset, we learned that a seemingly simple action — managers having one-on-one meetings with their new hires during their first week on the job — has outsized benefits. Through our continued research, we’ve also come to another conclusion: Onboarding buddies play an important role in ensuring a successful onboarding experience. While this may seem obvious, much like our findings on one-on-ones, it’s often missing in a new employee’s introduction to a brand new company. After piloting a buddy program involving 600 employees across the organization, we found that onboarding buddies help our hires in three key ways:

Onboarding buddies provide context. For tenured employees, the context surrounding most of their work has been so well established, it’s in the folds of every email written, every meeting attended, and every PowerPoint presented. For new hires, context is a precious commodity. Without it, a new hire will likely struggle to fully understand their role or how to contribute to their team’s success. Onboarding buddies can give the type of context you won’t find in the employee handbook. For instance, knowledgeable onboarding buddies can help new hires determine who relevant stakeholders are, how to navigate the matrix of different organizations, and think strategically when problem solving. They can also shed light on cultural norms and any unspoken rules that exist, which could lead to a much smoother transition into the organization.

Onboarding buddies boost productivity. Speed to productivity is often a concern for both the company and the new hire. By filling the position, the company satisfied the need for a certain skillset and now wants to see a quick return on its investment. Meanwhile, the new hire is likely experiencing the tension between wanting to ramp up quickly but also needing to take time to learn the job. At Microsoft, we found the more the onboarding buddy met with the new hire, the greater the new hire’s perception of their own speed to productivity: 56% of new hires who met with their onboarding buddy at least once in their first 90 days indicated that their buddy helped them to quickly become productive in their role. That percentage increased to 73% for those who met two to three times with their buddy, 86% for those who met four to eight times, and 97% for those who met more than eight times in their first 90 days. Clearly, that additional layer of support is critical to a new hire’s success.

Onboarding buddies improve new employee satisfaction. With over 120,000 employees, it’s not hard to imagine the overwhelming challenges one might face entering such a large and complex organization. In order to truly understand the value of onboarding buddies, we looked at the difference in hires who were assigned onboarding buddies versus those who were not. Our research found that after their first week on the job, new hires with buddies were 23% more satisfied with their overall onboarding experience compared to those without buddies. This trend continued at 90 days with a 36% increase in satisfaction. Those with buddies also reported receiving more active support from both their manager and the broader team.

After careful observation of our data, we decided to expand our onboarding buddy pilot program by creating an internal site for hiring managers to match new hires with an onboarding buddy, along with guidance on what makes a good match. For instance, buddies should have sufficient knowledge about the new hire’s role or the nature of the work, a strong job performance history, and the time to assist a new hire. Once matched, automated reminders were sent to the new hire, the manager and their buddy to encourage consistent engagement, particularly during the first 90 days of employment.

We still have quite a bit to learn as we continue to adapt and broaden our program, but here are some of our early insights and tips:

Reprioritize the workload. When matching a new hire with an onboarding buddy, consider the onboarding buddy’s current workload. In some cases, you may need to help reassign or deprioritize work so the buddy has time to support the needs of the new hire.

Communicate timing. Let both the new hire and the onboarding buddy know that this is a time-bound partnership. Buddies may be more likely to offer their services if the duration of the engagement is established in advance.

Reporting structures matter. Our research has shown that onboarding buddies reporting to the same manager receive more favorable ratings than those who report to different managers. Why? We think it’s because buddies who report to the same manager may also be more familiar with the new hire’s role and responsibilities. If the onboarding buddy lacks an understanding of the new hire’s role it can create frustration for both parties.

Being a buddy is mutually beneficial. It’s not just the new hire who can benefit from this relationship. Serving as an onboarding buddy provides an opportunity to demonstrate and develop managerial and leadership skills. A few years ago, we surveyed our employees to understand the attributes of a successful manager. Two of the top five attributes, communication and support, are also components for a successful buddy relationship. Additionally, teaching others can strengthen one’s own knowledge base, enabling buddies to develop a deeper level of expertise.

Ultimately, we’ve found that successful onboarding doesn’t require an overcomplicated playbook. It’s important to have a multi-dimensional onboarding plan in place, of course, but remember the most important thing a new hire needs for success is support. All it takes is a planful manager and a dedicated onboarding buddy to ensure their new hire has a positive and productive first few months on the job.

Dawn Klinghoffer is the General Manager of the HR Business Insights team at Microsoft. Her responsibilities include advanced people analytics and research for Microsoft’s business units globally; analytics; and reporting support for HR programs such as Global Diversity & Inclusion, Global HR Services, Talent Management, and Learning & Development. She is also responsible for reporting tools/technology for HR and employee data privacy.


Candice Young, Ph.D., is a Senior Data Analyst at Microsoft, where she acts as a research advisor to program managers in the areas of onboarding and manager capabilities. She is responsible for developing and implementing research methodologies used to provide evidence-based solutions to improve organizational practices and procedures that impact culture, onboarding, and career development.


Dave Haspas is a Data Analyst at Microsoft, where he works on analytics to support various aspects of the employee lifecycle, generating data-driven insights that inform our program teams on hiring, onboarding, internal movement, and engagement.

 

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Should You Try to Convince a Star Employee to Stay?

  • Category Teams

No matter how hard you try to create a supportive and fulfilling workplace, the day will come when you find out that a valued employee is thinking of leaving or has already accepted an offer outside the firm. What you do at that moment — whether you decide to convince the person to stay or let them go gracefully — matters not just to that specific situation but to your organization for years to come.

Should you convince them to stay?

The first question is whether you want to let this valuable employee go. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find out that someone is considering another job before they have committed to it. In that case, there is still a chance to retain one of your best people — and you should do what you can, within reason.

Here are some things you should do, all of which assume that your employee is aware that you know they are considering another position. If not, start by confirming what you have heard.

Take the person out for coffee. Find out what they’re thinking about. No matter how open and supportive an environment you think your organization has created — you might be wrong. Ask about their concerns and their hopes for the future. Be prepared that you may hear a few things that are uncomfortable for you. Sometimes you are the last person to find out some of the problems within your group — no matter how approachable you try to be.

Set up an atmosphere of joint problem solving. Presumably your employee wants things that they are not getting in their current position. You would like to keep them. In order to get there, you’ll have to approach this together.

Sometimes (particularly early in a person’s career) money is a big part of the problem. People entering their first job are often happy just to be employed, and so they don’t negotiate that hard on salary. Once you’ve figured out how valuable this person is — and they’ve figured out how valuable they are to any organization — they may feel they’re not making enough. If that’s the case, try to address it. There is nothing to be gained by nickel-and-diming a keeper. Any problem facing a star employee that can be solved by the proper application of money should be solved quickly.

More often, the issue is bigger than salary and you’ll need to think creatively. Ask a lot of questions about your star’s career goals, ambitions, and desires. Are there other ways to help them succeed that they haven’t thought about? Suggest new projects, mentors, and training. Consider helping them to get an advanced degree if they need one. Give them a sense of where you would like to see them end up in the next few years and commit to helping them get there.

One reason people stay at their jobs is that they feel supported by the people they work for. Show that support.

When to let go gracefully

Of course, you can’t win them all. Sometimes there are hidden problems you didn’t know about or can’t solve. Sometimes your star wants a new adventure. Many early-career employees just want to work for someone else to get a feel for how the field works. And sometimes you don’t find out about your star’s departure until they have already accepted a position somewhere else.

In this case, start by congratulating them on the new position. You may have been a supervisor to that person in the workplace, but most importantly, you’re a colleague. And you want to see your colleagues succeed, even if that success takes them elsewhere. A gesture of goodwill like wishing someone well goes a long way toward creating a healthy long-term relationship with that star.

You want your star to feel good about the organization as they might be back some day. There is an increasing trend toward boomerang employees who leave an organization for a while and then come back. You can smooth the path for a star’s return by letting them know you care about their future. If they decide that they were actually better off working for you, they will remember your supportive attitude. You can even remind them that the door is always open.

 

Even if your star never comes back, they are likely to remain in your sphere. Perhaps they will work for a rival firm or a company in a neighboring business. These days, many big projects require a number of organizations to band together to complete a complex project. That means that your star may be in the position to recommend your firm for business or even to partner up to bid for or complete a new project. You want to be the first one they call in the future.

So treat your departing employee as a potential ambassador for your firm. Not only might they direct business toward you in the future, but they might even recommend your firm as a place for their new colleagues to consider working if they need a change.

To be graceful in the face of a departure, you have to bear in mind that business is not a zero-sum game. The more people out there in the world with a positive impression of you and your firm, the more opportunities you will have down the line to succeed. Even the people who leave may still end up being valuable.


Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. His new book is Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career (HBR Press).

 

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