“Oh, you must be the new person. I wish I had some time to chat, but I’m on my way to a meeting. I think we have a desk here for you somewhere. Have a seat in the lobby till we figure out what’s up.” If that doesn’t make your heart sink as a new employee, nothing will!

If you’ve started a new job more than once, you probably have at least one story about a bad beginning. You showed up on your first day and didn’t have a computer yet, or you didn’t get introduced around, or you spent a few days with nothing to do because your arrival had not been adequately planned for. Perhaps there was no formal orientation session, or perhaps there was, but it was little more than a dry review of employment policies and a tour of the building.

Effective on-boarding is more than a nice touch; it can spell the difference between the success and failure of recruiting and retention. The Partnership for Public Service recently looked at federal agency onboarding and reported that no component of human capital management had been more overlooked than the process of integrating new employees into their work environments. The Partnership report also said that effective onboarding programs can improve employee retention by 25 percent. This can reduce the high cost of turnover that, by some estimates, costs organizations 30 to 50 percent of the annual salary of entry-level employees, 150 percent for mid-level employees, and up to 400 percent for specialized, high-level employees.

It’s tempting to look back and think we can fix such problems by creating a well-structured orientation program and giving hiring managers a checklist. But that kind of approach misses the key point that onboarding and orientation are two completely different things. Orientation is a critical component of a successful onboarding program, but it is an event within that program, and not the program itself. Onboarding, as defined by OPM, is a long-term process that begins before the new hire comes on board, and continues through the first year of employment. It is “the dynamic process of ensuring new employees have the knowledge, skills, and organizational awareness to become committed, effective members of the agency.”

Many agencies have made improvements since then, yet reports continue that onboarding processes remain overly transactional, inconsistent, and lacking integration and accountability. As a supervisor, here are some things you can do to ensure your new employee’s onboarding process continues beyond the new hire orientation period:

• Use OPM’s new hire survey to identify and address the needs of your new employees
• Focus on assigning meaningful work, and discussing with your new employee how that work supports organizational mission
• Hold frequent “check in” meetings with new employees to assess the need for further training and resources, to give formal and informal performance feedback, and to ensure expectations are clear
• Get an early start on the process of creating an individual development plan (IDP)
• Explicitly recognize positive employee contributions
• Provide insight into organizational values and culture; what does it really take to “fit in” in your agency and work unit?

Taking a continuous improvement approach to your onboarding process will pay large dividends in increased employee engagement, accelerated time-to-productivity, and greater employee retention.