Sink or Swim? Getting Onboarding Right at Your Firm
A bit more empathy and effort from business leaders can go a long way in ensuring the fresh faces joining their firms keep their heads above water.
From the smallest to the largest accounting firms, recruiting and retaining talent seems to bring about rough seas. The most recent 2021 PCPS CPA Firm Top Issues Survey, published biennially by the AICPA, confirmed once again that “finding qualified staff” was a significant concern for all firms with two or more professionals, and retaining and developing talent consistently ranked as one of the top five issues among the largest firms.
It’s no surprise then that firms crewed with human resources experts advocate for structured onboarding processes to both familiarize young professionals and new hires with a firm’s internal operations and to engage and immerse them in the organization’s culture. But what of the firms that don’t yet have such onboarding steps charted out? While welcoming new hires with some company swag, maybe a team lunch, or a social media post are common go-to moves of today’s busy business leaders, a bit more empathy and effort on their part can go a long way in ensuring the fresh faces joining their firms keep their heads above water.
“While many, if not most, public accounting new hires have had an internship, they’re still going to be somewhat unsure of whether their education has truly prepared them for the profession,” says Kimi Ellen, CPA, managing partner at Benford Brown & Associates and a director on the Illinois CPA Society’s board.
For new recruits with minimal workplace experience, it can be intimidating to simultaneously adapt to a new environment, a new role, and new coworkers. This triple threat can fuel apprehension to even dip a toe into the water, let alone fully immerse oneself into the happenings of the firm.
With this in mind, Ellen encourages firm leaders to understand that they’re going to need to toss their new recruits a lifeline and help them navigate the waves of uncertainty associated with joining a new workplace: “They’re going to feel intimidated to work with peers in which, outside of work, they have little in common with. Until they develop relationships, they’re going to feel isolated.”
To help ride out these initial impediments, Ellen personally checks in regularly with her new hires to assess how they’re acclimating. “I like to ask my new hires at least once or twice a week if there’s something that I can do to help them feel more comfortable in their work environment. I ask if there’s something the firm can do to help them understand our performance expectations,” she notes.
In similar fashion, David Bitton, co-founder and CMO of DoorLoop, a property management platform, stresses the importance of getting new hires started off on the right foot: “Don’t leave them hanging or unaware of what to do, especially on their first day!”
His steps for initial onboarding success include ensuring all new hires are promptly introduced to everyone with whom they’ll be working closely with and that these individuals are available for clarifications and questions. Bitton also suggests managers map out clear plans for new hires that provide essential directions and outlines the expectations of them and their tasks. “Be specific, so that your new hire won’t have to tiptoe around,” he emphasizes.
Of course, the explosion of remote and hybrid work environments has added new complexity to the onboarding process. James Shalhoub launched Finn, an e-commerce company, in early 2020 that coincidentally coincided with COVID-19’s initial surge here in the United States, requiring a new approach to onboarding—video.
As part of his video onboarding process, employees are provided with a training schedule that clearly outlines each day’s itinerary, mapping out exactly what new hires will learn and focus on during each training. “Our main objective was to make hiring more efficient, while also ensuring we were giving our new hires all the tools they needed to succeed,” Shalhoub recalls. “Using this approach, our onboarding process has improved to two weeks from three. We still tweak little things, but we’ve noticed a huge improvement in our new hires’ initial performance and the questions they ask.”
While clarity throughout the onboarding process is decidedly crucial, firms also need to be cognizant of the possibility of overdoing it—information overload is a fast-track to overwhelming your new hires.
AVOIDING THAT SINKING FEELING
“Some firms simply go overboard with onboarding,” says Daniel Cook, director of human resources for the Texas-based law firm of Mullen and Mullen. In fact, he argues that there are some benefits to letting new hires swim a little.
“I believe that giving young professionals some autonomy in their projects encourages them to learn new skills, while also learning from their mistakes and failures. It also teaches them how to be effective leaders, and helps them build self-confidence,” Cook advises.
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, the need to address and quickly start building new recruits’ self-confidence is a requisite of any effective onboarding strategy.
One way to do this is to implement “shadow days,” where new hires are partnered with seasoned peers, subject matter experts, and even the most experienced employees for a day at a time to help them acclimate to the culture and workflow of the organization. “Being able to watch work be performed is the number one way to ensure that someone will be more comfortable performing the task appropriately,” says Joanna Zambas, a career expert at CareerAddict.com, an online career development resource.
Taking this a step further, establishing a formal mentorship program could help ensure smooth sailing throughout the course of the onboarding process. Bitton says that providing dedicated mentors is a proven key to both employee success and creating a stronger sense of belonging, as mentors can guide new hires through the initial uncertainty, providing direction and reassurance, and then serve as go-to resources and advocates as the mentees navigate through their careers with the firm.
“A mentor knows the ins and outs of the job and the firm,” Bitton explains. “The guidance, feedback, and introductions they can provide will undoubtedly help new hires to become productive members of the firm more rapidly.”
Of course, there’s more to mentorship than simply assigning a new hire to an established firm member. “A good mentorship program will have several components in place, including a clear and concise description, a timeline of expectations, a system for tracking progress, and a way to give feedback,” adds Erik Hansen, a management consultant with the London-based IT recruiting firm Right People Group.
That last bit about giving feedback is critical, according to Zambas. “The most important component is the follow-up,” she emphasizes. “This will tell you whether or not the new hire has benefited from the mentorship program and can help determine any adjustments that might be needed moving forward.”
This includes adjustments the mentors may need to make. “We call it ‘T3,’ or ‘train the trainer,’” says Luke Lee, CEO of Pala Leather. “Firms should consider all of their managers, leaders, subject matter experts, and seasoned employees as trainers, and should put formalized processes in place to educate them on proper knowledge transfer and instruction processes to ensure consistency and uniformity.”
To further help facilitate mentorship relationships, firms can sponsor mentor/mentee workshops and retreats where team-building exercises are incorporated. Firms could also explore structured group projects, where working teams are required to be a mix of junior and senior employees. Such efforts facilitate communication, collaboration, and cross-functional networks, while providing everyone a sense of purpose.
MAKING THEIR OWN WAVES
As important as all the structured, formal processes and programs are, sometimes the informal opportunities lead to even more meaningful connections and development. “If you really care about the success of your employees, it’s important to not only provide them with opportunities to grow but to also support what works for them,” Zambas says. In this sense, firms should be clear about their willingness to invest in sending their young professionals to relevant conferences and industry events of interest to them, and to support their desired memberships and participation in industry associations, to encourage both learning and networking.
These experiences are also known to lead to the development of informal mentorships. Understanding that formal and informal mentorships can offer significantly different experiences and development opportunities, Hansen say firms should “encourage their employees to reach out to their networks and seek advice from experts throughout the profession.”
Firms can further facilitate informal mentorships internally by creating physical and virtual spaces where employees can socialize freely. “In these spaces, employees can be transparent and have ‘watercooler’ talk,” Shalhoub says. For instance, his organization has a dedicated Slack channel where employees can chat virtually. “It’s something we implemented for fun, but it really gets people talking and sharing life experiences—all good things for creating that sense of belonging and purpose,” he says.
“When your new hires and young professionals understand they’re valued as people, when they see the firm is investing in them, they feel supported and appreciated. The result is growth, effectiveness, motivation, performance, collaboration, and loyalty,” says Lisa Nichols, CEO of Love Your Niche.
However, even with defined onboarding processes, formal and informal mentorships, group projects, networking spaces, and more, there’s only so much an organization can do to onboard their new hires and keep their heads above water in a demanding profession—eventually they need to learn to tread water and then swim on their own.
Nichols points out that “there are many aspects of professional development where skills and knowledge are ‘caught’ rather than ‘taught.’ As such, firm leaders need to remember that their new hires are more than just employees, they’re people, and we’re all just doing our best to stay afloat.”
Carolyn Tang Kmet is a senior lecturer at the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago and a frequent contributor to Insight.