Want to Keep New Employees? Invest in Onboarding

The author says that the federal government is in need of a revamped onboarding process for new hires.

With an aging federal workforce, increasing rates of retirement, and lackluster recruitment numbers to backfill vacancies, the federal government may be staring down the barrel of a staffing crisis in the next couple of years. Much of the conversation has simply focused on the recruitment challenges surrounding younger generations (Millennials and Generation Z); however, data suggests that the problem is more complex than just enhancing recruitment.

In 2022, the Partnership for Public Service released a report that showed the voluntary turnover rate for employees under the age of 30 was 8.5%, a much higher rate when compared to the government-wide average of 6.1%. Moreover, they reported that employees with five years or less of tenure had over 7% of attrition rate.

Combine these two data points and a concerning picture emerges. The resources and time needed to recruit a new employee are considerable, yet turnover costs the federal government more in both financial and non-financial terms. For example, it is estimated that the cost to replace one employee can range from 50% to 200% of the employee’s annual salary. Moreover, these costs include loss of institutional knowledge (brain drain), loss of productivity and morale, and the failure to meet the organization’s mission. 

Agencies need to start supporting and investing in the design and implementation of strategies and processes that keep talented employees in their chairs, regardless of age and tenure. One such critical investment should begin with employees’ first day on the job. 

You may have heard the saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This axiom is true not only for social gatherings, but also for the first impression an organization makes on its employees. 

An organization’s first impression comes in the form of its onboarding process, which is the way a new employee is integrated into an organization or team. It is a vital component to the new employee experience and sets the tone for how they perceive their new work environment. 

Moreover, if done well, the new employee will get to the breakeven point quicker. This is the point when a new hire starts adding value to the team, rather than depleting other people’s time and resources. Unfortunately, according to a recent survey, only 12% of employees strongly agree their organization does a great job of onboarding new employees.

A structured and robust onboarding process is separated into four distinct phases and should last between four to eight weeks. Each phase should have specific learning objectives and benchmarks for the new hire to meet. These phases are delineated below with some government specific tasks that may be appropriately included into an onboarding process: 

  • Pre-boarding (prior to start date): The new employee’s workspace and laptop is ready and waiting for them; they have the documentation needed for their entrance on duty (EOD) date; and an employee handbook is sent to them prior to their start date. They know when and where to arrive on their first day and know who will be meeting them to escort them through security.
  • Orientation (first day & week): The new employee arrives at your agency and is greeted in the lobby; they are introduced to key team members and office leadership; they are given a tour of the office and shown the bathrooms, kitchen, and their workspace; they are oriented to the organization’s culture; perhaps have a card or a welcome gift waiting in their workspace. 
  • Training (2-4 week period): The new employee is shown how to fill out their Web TA; they are given an acronym list, they take the necessary mandatory trainings (e.g. record management and NO FEAR act training); they are given the opportunity to shadow their peers or supervisor to gain a better understand their office’s mission and work; they are slowly introduced to their peers; they are given access to the various databases and software necessary for them to complete their job tasks. 
  • Transition (4+ weeks): The employee slowly takes on tasks that become part of their day-to-day work; they are fully integrated into their work unit and are actively contributing to the office’s work; continued networking occurs; continued skill development is encouraged. 

Unfortunately, onboarding in the federal government typically ends with the orientation phase. The EOD paperwork is signed, the newly minted public servant is subjected to the perfunctory gauntlet of introductions, with names and faces blurring into one mishmash of gobbledygook, and finally they are shown where to sit. Onboarding complete. 

For the next few weeks, they will try to decipher emails speckled with inscrutable acronyms, feel frustrated that they are not understanding their job role, and drink breathlessly from the proverbial fire hose. This is organizational malpractice. 

Is it really a surprise that a long term relationship with the federal government often ends with younger employees looking for the door?

Michael P. Hassett is a budget analyst for NOAA. He is also the co-founder and president of the nonprofit Friends of Tonga Inc. He earned his PhD and Masters of Public Policy from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and his Bachelors of History and Political Science from La Roche University.