Many software companies now sell onboarding solutions to increase employee engagement.

But is onboarding about software or people? I caught up with Leigh Lafever-Ayer, Corporate HR Manager for Enterprise Rent-A-Car in the UK and Ireland, who introduced onboarding to Enterprise in 2007, to find out more.

Deborah: So Leigh, what exactly is onboarding?

Leigh: “At Enterprise, it’s all about personal relationships and our culture.

“We say it is the socialisation of an employee into the business, and the systematic and comprehensive approach we’ve introduced to making every new employee feel welcome.

“It can start before the employee joins. We may invite them and their partner to events. As many of our new hires are recent graduates, we may engage with their families. We do what it takes to make employees feel a part of the team quickly.

Deborah: What’s the difference from an induction or orientation?

Leigh: “Induction or orientation provides the skills and knowledge that you need to do the job. Onboarding is everything you need to know to survive. It’s often the little things – at home, everyone has a different way to load a dishwasher. It can be irritating if someone new to your home loads it a different way. It may seem like common sense to do it your way, but it’s not. It’s just your way. And unless you explain, they will get it ‘wrong’.

“To a new recruit, there are hundreds of examples like this, and they can really trip you up in those first vital weeks of a new job.

“So our onboarding is designed to share this soft knowledge with people early on, so they learn the ropes more quickly.”

Deborah: Why did Enterprise develop an on-boarding programme?

Leigh: “For us it’s because of our customer service culture. We want our customers to enjoy their experience with us, and that can only happen if our employees really enjoy working with us as well.”

Deborah: How does onboarding work at Enterprise?

Leigh: “We believe everyone needs to be involved. It’s not just the line manager’s responsibility. So we have detailed guidance on how you need to get involved based on your role in relation to the new employee.

“It’s as simple as, here’s what you do a month before the person joins, here’s what you do in their first week – and this is what you need to do three months in. A lot of it is more guidance than rules, because you need to tailor it to the individual.”

Deborah: What has been the impact?

Leigh: “We track new hire retention levels, which have risen by 5% since 2007, with overall retention up by 9%. We also run surveys at specific points after someone joins to gauge the individual impact. So there are hard measures and soft measures.”

Deborah: Could onboarding work in any type of organisation?

Leigh: “Yes, because it’s just part of the employee journey with your business. It doesn’t matter on your size or sector. Find out what your current employees think could have been better when they joined the business. What could you have done to help employees feel in control more quickly?”

Deborah: How would you advise other businesses introducing an onboarding programme?

Leigh: “You can’t take your foot off the gas! Don’t assume it’s common-sense for line managers to onboard employees – it’s not. Managers don’t always empathise or remember how it feels to be a new employee. They won’t automatically get why they should have coffee or lunch with that employee on day one to make them feel welcome.

“So you need to get the right strategy at the beginning but you also need to make sure that line managers, especially new managers emerging through promotion, are making it happen, and that they understand why they need to do it.

“It’s also not the ultimate solution. Onboarding needs to be tied in with recruitment so that you get the right employees, with the right competencies, who are going to respond to the culture.

“You could say onboarding starts at recruitment, because the more potential recruits know what they can expect from your business, the more likely they are to be successful when they start.”

Deborah: What have been your key learnings since introducing the programme?

Leigh: “Don’t assume onboarding is common sense. To a lot of HR people it will seem intuitive to share information, but it won’t be to everyone.

“Once you’ve embedded a system don’t assume it will automatically be communicated as new managers come on board; you need to onboard them in their new role too. There has to be continual focus so it remains part of business practices.

“Find ways to measure it early on, even if the measures are quite subjective.

“Be prepared to change. Look for ways that you can use technology, social media to make it work. Or make it more personal. Don’t assume it’s set in stone.”

Deborah: How are you developing your on-boarding activity?

Leigh: “We’re looking at how to onboard people internally at each promotion stage to help them when they are moving to a new role. When you get promoted there are usually new rules about how you need to set standards, communicate values, provide leadership. In one sense you’re back at the beginning again, learning how you’re going to make the most of a work landscape that may seem the same but is actually different.”

Deborah: Why do you think onboarding has become such a buzz word?

Leigh: “The recession has put a lot of emphasis on getting high performance from employees, so more companies see onboarding as a way of getting people to be more effective faster.

But it all probably started with the Generation Y shift, and an era of recruits that want more from their workplace and are prepared to keep changing jobs until they find a role in which they are truly engaged.”

Deborah: Leigh, thank you so much for your sharing your experiences.