How to keep your new IT hires from jumping ship

IT-specific onboarding programs help savvy companies bring new hires into the fold and keep them there. Here are their best practices

Kevin Hart, CTO at Cox Communications, is fresh off his latest meet-and-greet session for newly minted IT hires. Once a quarter, Hart hosts about 35 incoming employees at Cox's state-of-the-art "C-Tech" center, acquainting them with the culture of the cable giant, fielding questions about its technology stack, clarifying roles within the IT organization and outlining possible career paths.

Hart's presentation is all part of Cox's formal Technology Onboarding Program, which kicked off companywide last year after its start as a grass-roots initiative within a specific operations team. In addition to the meet-the-CIO roundtable, the multimonth program, completed by all 150 new IT hires last year, includes an overview of the telecommunications industry, a crash course on current trends, an analysis of the competitive landscape, a road map to Cox's multifaceted business strategy, and a deep dive into the company's technology goals and IT transformation plan.

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The Technology Onboarding Program was designed to complement Cox's general onboarding routines centered around HR and administrative practices, Hart explains. He estimates that the program, in its first year, has spurred a 15% improvement in IT productivity by facilitating a business-driven focus among new staff and ensuring that employees understand Cox's organizational structure so they know where to get what they need. Cox's turnover rate is lower than the industry average -- a fact that Hart attributes at least in part to programs like the IT onboarding initiative. "Every little bit helps," he says.

And every little bit is crucial today in the telecom and cable industry, which is in the midst of a radical transformation driven by innovation and convergence. "In this new day and age, we are trying to acquire and retain great talent to help drive us through this technology revolution," says Hart, who also serves as executive vice president and CIO. "That means we need to develop new types of talent and invest even more to attract and retain them."

A lot of big companies, and, increasingly, many smaller shops, are finding themselves in a similar boat. With technology the centerpiece of most strategic business initiatives, companies like Cox are struggling to find people with expertise in next-generation technologies, from cloud computing to mobile. And, given the competitive nature of the job market, they must work even harder to retain those coveted employees once they find them.

The high cost of staff turnover

Staff turnover, especially for critical high-salaried positions, can be extremely costly, experts say. According to data compiled by the Center for American Progress, businesses spend about one-fifth of an employee's annual salary to replace that worker.

That's why well-executed onboarding programs are important. If it hits the right notes, onboarding can help new hires be more productive in a shorter time, while also engaging them in the company's culture and business goals, practitioners say. "Onboarding is like a first impression -- it leads someone to trust a company as a new hire and have great thoughts about them -- or not," says Rachel Russell, who oversees research at TEKsystems, an IT staffing, talent management and services provider.

"Onboarding is essential so that the expectations between the employee and employer are very clear," Russell says. "The employee becomes empowered because they know what resources are available and what relationships they need to start forging. It tells them they are going to have the resources they need to get the job done."

In fact, according to a TEKsystems survey of more than 2,100 IT professionals and 1,500 IT leaders, both sides see significant benefits to IT onboarding done right. Sixty-two percent of IT leaders said onboarding programs played extremely important roles in establishing a new hire's ability to be productive and add value, while 46% said they were extremely important tools for determining whether a new hire would be successful in the company long term. The IT professionals were equally bullish on onboarding: Nearly half (49%) said onboarding was extremely important to their ability to be productive, while 44% said it was critical for success in the company long term, according to TEKsystems.

Despite unilateral agreement on the upside of onboarding, most companies have yet to prioritize programs or address onboarding in a way that truly works for IT roles. The TEKsystems survey found that only 12% of IT leaders and 13% of IT professionals rated their onboarding programs as extremely effective.

Why the big disconnect? Russell says most onboarding initiatives focus on general HR policies and administrative paperwork at the expense of covering the resources that IT employees need to be successful. "It has to be more than 'Here's where the bathrooms are' or 'Here's our work-at-home and vacation policies,'" Russell says. "Onboarding programs have to serve up components that provide background on the company and background on specific roles and workflows, and they must help facilitate relationship-building right from the get-go."

Of interns and onboarding

As good as IT-specific onboarding is, it can sometimes fall through the cracks, concedes Robert Krestakos, CIO at Steelcase, a provider of office products, furnishings and services. "There's a tendency for the IT group to defer to HR and think about it as an HR problem," he says. "Certainly, HR has to be close to the IT function to really understand the kind of talent needed and the culture that IT is working in, but if [onboarding] is viewed as a clerical or administrative process, then it doesn't fire on all cylinders."

While Steelcase has a formal HR onboarding program, but not one specific to IT, Krestakos says his department has initiatives in place to guard against turnover and to immerse technology employees in the company's strategic objectives and culture. An IT internship program, coordinated at the corporate level, exposes participants to company leaders, acquaints them with all aspects of the business and includes real work assignments, Krestakos explains. As part of this program, Steelcase recruits anywhere from 10 to 15 IT interns each summer, and hires two or three permanently, he says.

Another piece of Steelcase's de facto IT onboarding strategy is to send certain new employees off to work at another location, potentially overseas, to give them a global picture of Steelcase. Depending on their role and which business experts they'll be working with, employees participate in anything from a two-week trip to a six-month assignment.

"We've learned that it's a more effective way to get people up to speed faster and it's got the added benefit of being viewed positively by employees," Krestakos explains. "It helps them understand our architecture, the processes we work to, and it helps in relationship-building."

International rotations are key

At International Paper (IP), job rotations are a major part of the onboarding plan for IT-bound college recruits, according to Jeffrey Mayhew, the company's program manager for global HR transformation. Above and beyond the generic corporate onboarding program that covers basic company ethics and corporate vision, recent graduates who are hired for IT positions are funneled through a three-year program in which they participate in two to three rotations where, optimally, they gain equal exposure to IP's information management, process management and business management strategies.

"The idea is to give individuals broad exposure to all functions of IT to see how it's interconnected and to set them up to be a future leader in the organization," Mayhew says. IP also makes sure the new recruits (usually between 10 and 20 people) bond with one another. He organizes social activities like sports events and group community service projects to foster a sense of team unity. "In today's challenging world of recruitment, it's important that we keep people once they come in the door and not turn them over again and again," Mayhew says.

Hunter Jones went through IP's rotational IT onboarding program right out of college in 2005, and he's been with the company ever since. After stints in IT operations, a business-facing group and the Rapid Application Development Services team, Jones took an IT business information manager position in IP's Industrial Packaging group in Memphis.

The flexibility of the program helped him figure out exactly what role he wanted to play in IT, says Jones, who believes the team-building activities that encourage camaraderie and relationship-building are key to IP employees' overall job satisfaction. "Building community is very important from the standpoint of retention," he says. "People are much more likely to stay if there's a network of people who care about them and are interested in their development."

A peek at back-end 0operations

Manjit Singh is also a proponent of onboarding as the gateway to job satisfaction. Singh, director of enterprise applications at Hexaware Technologies, has been with the global provider of IT and process services for three years and participated in the company's onboarding program, which included a two-week trip to India to work with the IT staff handling day-to-day operations. The idea behind the trip was to give U.S. employees a feel for Hexaware's back-end operations so they could better understand and anticipate customer pain points and requirements, Singh says.

In addition, the time spent with the overseas group helped foster personal relationships, which, in turn, bolstered productivity. "With 10,000 employees, it's difficult to keep in touch over the phone or relate to people helping you out on a project," he explains. "By meeting them firsthand, you can pick up the phone and call someone you know. It ensures a quick turnaround as opposed to getting lost in the corporate bureaucracy."

Another key aspect of Hexaware's onboarding program, according to Singh, is its buddy system, through which each new hire is assigned a buddy -- a seasoned employee with a similar job function who helps acclimate the new employee both on the job and off. Buddies might steer new hires to the resources they need to do their jobs, or perhaps help them find schools for their kids if they've relocated from another area.

These programs helped Singh develop a sense of commitment to Hexaware, something he didn't have for his prior employer, which had no onboarding program. "There, we were thrown into the fire without any support, so you didn't feel like you were part of the company," says Singh, who spent less than a year in that job. "If a person isn't comfortable, they won't stick around for a long time. Onboarding helps make that connection."

Stackpole, a frequent Computerworld contributor, has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "How to keep your new IT hires from jumping ship" was originally published by Computerworld.

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