Increasing Retention: Through the First 90 Days & Beyond

If you’re only focused on recruitment but not retention, you’re throwing away money.

According to Forbes, the cost of replacing an employee can range anywhere from 50% of the salary of an entry-level employee to more than 200% of the salary of a senior executive. Increasing retention – even by just a couple of percentage points – can save millions of dollars each year.

I think “engagement” and “retention” are just different words for the same thing. If you want to retain people, you need to engage them, and you should start as early as possible. Recent surveys have found that about 30% of job-seekers have left a job within the first 90 days of hiring. Despite this, most onboarding programs are too short. According to SHRM, nearly 40% of onboarding programs last one week or less.

This is important across the talent spectrum. In extreme-burnout, high-volume roles, culture counts. Rather than just dealing with unwanted turnover, you need to onboard employees to your culture early. You need them to be invested with you so they have a reason to stay.

On the other end of the spectrum, I consistently see specialized, rock-star candidates deflate when they become new employees. During the recruitment process, they are engaged and excited for a new role. But, when there is no onboarding process, they are left on their own – unengaged and more likely to respond to the next recruiter that pops into their inbox.

In this article, I’ll walk you through how to set up an onboarding program that builds engagement from day one. Then, I’ll share strategies on how you can continue to measure that engagement and build it further.

The 90-Day Onboarding Program

A well-developed onboarding program for the first 90 days makes all the difference in the world when it comes to engagement and retention. When new employees start on day one, they have a lot of expectations, and they’re excited. However, many employers forget how critical the first impression is to a new hire.

For many organizations, the onboarding program starts and ends an employee’s first day with HR basics. Employees fill out paperwork, get a badge, find their desks, complete a training and often receive some sort of handbook. That’s it. Employees are left without any idea of what their first 90 days will look like. In some cases, employees go home from that first day not even knowing what’s in store for day two. These programs are set up by default. They’re easy, and they’ve often been in place for a long time.

I recommend a 90-day program that is designed to give the employee control over their onboarding experience. When a person owns their career experience and expectations are clear from the beginning, they are more likely to stay. They will be set up for success in those first 90 days and beyond.

The Background

I like to think of a new employee’s first 90 days in three phases.

Phase 1: Shadowing

Phase one is often the first 30 days a new employee is at an organization. They are integrating themselves into your organization and absorbing your company culture, structure and processes. They’re learning what their own role entails and what’s expected of them.

Phase 2: Reflecting Back

Phase two takes place during days 30 through 60. The new employee is taking the information they learned in the first 30 days to start developing and sharing their own ideas. However, they are doing this cautiously, looking for feedback and checking to see how their role fits in the organization.

Phase 3: Starting to Soar

In phase three, or days 60 through 90, the employee is taking more freedom and action on their own, but still checking in with some regularity. As they transition out of this phase, they have a base where they know who to go to and how the organization operates, but they are taking control over their own career.

Building the Program

As employers build an onboarding program, I encourage them to think of it as a 360, where they introduce the employee to everything they will touch and be touched by at an organization. To do this, employers need to ask two questions:

What tools, technology and equipment does the new hire need to do their job?

Most organizations have some sort of onboarding program to get a new employee acquainted with the tools they need, but they fall short on the second question:

What processes and people does the new hire need to know to do their job?

We can break this question down into more pieces. Who is the new employee going to interact with? Who are they going to learn from? Will they have a mentor? Who will they go to for what kinds of information or resources? What is the operating philosophy at this organization and in different departments? What are the fastest and most efficient ways to navigate this organization?

Your onboarding program should provide a new hire with the answers to both of these questions and empower them to take control of their role.

A Program That Empowers

In many organizations, it’s unusual for companies to give a new hire control of their onboarding process, but I recommend creating an onboarding plan and handing it over. With that plan and the right guidance, employees will be engaged in their own career success from day one.

However, that doesn’t mean they are on their own. There’s a lot of hand-to-hand or shoulder-to-shoulder work that has to take place. If you have people working virtually, video is important. You can gauge someone’s total emotional responses. You can see if they’re learning and absorbing. Make sure you can see each other more than once or twice in the first 90 days. It makes new virtual employees feel like part of the team.

As a best practice, I encourage one-on-one, short meetings with key team members. This can be as short as 15 minutes. Managers should provide a new hire with a guide to what their first 90 days will look like – who they are going to meet with, where they are going to get the things they are going to need, and access to people’s calendars. In these meetings, the new hire can learn team members’ responsibilities, processes and philosophies, and can also share information about themselves. These conversations help facilitate better working relationships.

Instead of relying on traditional trainings for critical material, I encourage different interactive teaching styles so the new hire can absorb and apply the knowledge. This could be training on technology, best practices for outward-facing roles, or company culture – things that are tempting to stick in a guidebook or slide deck. However, because people often don’t retain information well from passive, instructor-led training, challenge the status quo and explore better ways to deliver training.

Transitioning Out

The transition out of the formal onboarding period should also be included in the onboarding plan you provide new employees. When you empower them to take control of the process, it should be simple. In the last 30 days, the new employee should already be starting to soar in their role, and check-ins will be less frequent. However, for some strategic roles, the process may take longer than 90 days. 

What About New Promotions?

I also recommend using this same approach with people who are promoted from within. While most employers typically have at least a very basic onboarding program, newly promoted employees are rarely given any onboarding support. You can use the same strategies, but I recommend – at the very minimum – an abbreviated version.

How to Measure Engagement & What to Do With the Numbers

We know what engagement feels like. When you walk into a workplace with an engaged workforce, you can feel the positive energy. When you walk into a workplace with a disengaged workforce, you want to turn around and walk back out the door.

Your battle for engagement may start with the onboarding process, but it doesn’t end there. Once, I took over a company for a founder and morale was really low. We measured it, and it was a three out of 10. Within six months, we scored it again and we were at a seven out of 10. When engagement is low, you need to measure and then act.

Measuring Engagement Effectively

There are so many engagement tools out there, but I say: just keep it simple. Measure engagement consistently, do it on a frequency that makes sense for your organization, share the results, and share what you’re willing to do about the results.

Most companies have some form of employee survey, and tons will do these surveys once a year like clockwork, but they don’t do anything with the results. If you’re going to survey people and do nothing with it, don’t survey at all. You actually do more harm to yourself and to your employees because you’re demonstrating that their wants, needs and engagement don’t matter.

First, ask for the right information. There are three areas I always recommend:

  1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  2. Do you have the tools that you need to do your work?
  3. Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best at work?

From there, you can ask more specific questions related to your organization or changes you are considering making, but only ask about areas where you are willing to make changes. You can ask more simple questions to make early wins. For instance, you could ask about upward mobility, career pathing or development – if you’re prepared to put something in place to address it.

Then, publish your results. You don’t have to share every detail, but you do have to publish the themes, and you do have to be authentic. If the results aren’t great, people already know that. However, it gives you an opportunity to demonstrate that you hear your employees and are willing to make changes to address their concerns.

Building a Pulse Team

I also like to create what is called a pulse team – the culture team for your company. The team should be a cross-functional group of key stakeholders – not executives. The group can pulse what’s going on, how people are feeling, if they are supported, if they are happy and if they are productive.

The pulse team reports up and out to the executive team on a frequent basis – many do it quarterly, but some companies even have it monthly. This gives everybody a pulse on what’s happening on the ground, especially if an organization is virtual or global. Then, leaders have a chance to understand when something isn’t going well and address it.

Organizational Influences

When you take time to follow these steps – building an onboarding program, measuring for engagement and responding, your people are more likely to become invested in your organization. They can see their career path. They can see that your organization cares. There’s depth and predictability. All of that increases engagement, which increases retention.

Recall what I said at the start of this article: engagement and retention are just different words for the same thing. To increase both, you need to start with the first 90days, and you can’t stop.

About the Expert

Dana Look-Arimoto is a mentor, speaker and change agent. Dana has more than 20 years of experience in the talent ecosystem. She’s created Phoenix5 to evangelize a new mindset: Stop Settling™. She coaches executives and leaders of all kinds to become their all in every part of their life: work, home, community and giving back. Dana also recently released the book, “Stop Settling, Settle Smart: Rethinking Work-life Balance, Redesign Your Busy Life.”

Post by Dana Look-Arimoto