March 02, 2021

Belonging from day one: Building inclusive onboarding

Onboarding, the process by which new members of your team are formally introduced to their colleagues, their roles and responsibilities, and the company culture, takes on many forms. It often comprises an employee’s first 90 days on the job — the most vulnerable time in their journey. Much like you only get one chance at a first impression, onboarding is the single most impactful opportunity to lay the groundwork for a new hire’s sense of belonging.

Read more: More employees than ever are quitting after 90 days. It doesn’t have to be that way at your company.

A successful and inclusive onboarding enables employees to achieve three things: high performance, psychological safety, and belonging.  The value of performance is obvious, especially, as it pertains to the company’s best interest — but psychological safety and belonging enable the employee to thrive and grow rather than merely contribute in this new work environment. Low psychological safety and a lack of belonging inhibit an employee’s ability to be their authentic self, leading to stress and feelings of isolation.

Essential definitions: 

  1. Psychological safety: A belief and trust that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes
  2. Belonging: One step beyond inclusion is belonging — the most successful employees are those who feel truly “part of” their organization and can bring their full selves to work. 

Read more: How to know when your employees don’t feel psychologically safe.

Introduce inclusivity as a company value — and live by it.

Company culture is defined by how its values are lived every day; dissonance occurs when a company boasts its values but fails to live them. Clarity and alignment are vital to establish in onboarding. Achieve this by clearly defining your company’s mission, vision, and set of values, and ensuring that everyone at every level is fluent in them. Give new hires this information (eg. in a Company Handbook) on day one. Finally, communicate how their individual role directly contributes to the mission, vision, and values of the company.

Though organizations that focus on diversity have good intentions, it does not mean that their diverse workforce is inherently inclusive. According to an article published by Harvard Business Review, it’s critical to assess whether or not your company is creating an inclusive culture, “When employees feel they can’t be their authentic self at work, they have lower workplace satisfaction, find less meaning in their work, and have one foot out the door.” 

Hopefully, your company is hiring for culture and value add, not just culture “fit.” You can celebrate differences and acknowledge the unique qualities that new hires bring to the table, but keep in mind that these distinctions are only a small part of what makes them a welcome and exciting addition to the team.

Read more: Belonging is essential to your DEI strategy.

Additionally, consider a mentoring or buddy system in which both support and social capital are shared.. Beyond setting up coffee dates with folks for the first few weeks, a designated buddy system, mentorship, or sponsorship program is a great way to build connections and belonging. Consider mentoring “up” in addition to the more common practice in which senior team members mentor more junior members.

The majority of mentors take on protegés who share their identities. While giving in to affinity bias, the tendency to gravitate toward people most like ourselves, can jeopardize inclusion, there is value for people in underrepresented or marginalized groups, in having a mentor who “looks like them” or shares similar lived experiences. This balance is crucial in pairing buddies and mentors. Remember, mentorship isn’t just internal—there are partners and third-party solutions you can leverage to provide all hires with suitable mentors. 

Pulling it off in a virtual workplace

The pandemic has shifted workspaces from on-site locations to the home. The transition back to in-office work or a hybrid format will look different at every company. In the meantime, how can we keep onboarding inclusive when not directly meeting with each other? A few tips:

  • Immerse new hires in the culture from the beginning. Create a space for the team to get to know the new team member as a person. 
  • Coordinate 1:1 debrief sessions after critical meetings to provide space for questions, concerns, and clarifications. 
  • Avoid “Zoom overload” by spreading the tangible steps of the onboarding process out over several days, and by providing short self-serve videos in place of meetings and calls where possible.

It doesn’t end with onboarding.

The onboarding process can end with a “rite of passage” matched to your unique company culture. These traditions foster a sense of accomplishment and take people over the metaphorical threshold from “new hire” to “part of the team.” Examples include getting the company sweatshirt with your name on it, a custom Slack emoji that represents you, or the opportunity to present an early win to the rest of the company team.

After the initiation period, once an employee is technically onboarded, it is critical to continue to live by your company’s values and infuse them into day-to-day work. Remember that real inclusivity looks like: all employees feeling included, invested, and accepted within your organizations.

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