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Overcoming Leadership Resistance
to Modern Onboarding

Originally published on Talent Management and HR in June 2017

So many times in HR and talent management, our focus is on helping employees overcome resistance to change. However, it’s worth turning that focus inward and asking whether leaders in learning and HR are dismissing new techniques in universal needs like employee onboarding, and why they might be resisting new practices. Are leaders too set in our ways when it comes to onboarding? And, if we are, how can we become more open to bringing modern training practices into onboarding?

Resistance to new things affects every department, especially if it’s a department (or entire company) where change is slower to arrive. And because leaders and managers are human, they often suffer from similar resistances to change as their employees. This resistance is simply shifted toward the beginning of a new initiative, rather than in the implementation.

Why the Resistance?

When it comes to employees, many of us know the common reasons given for resistance to change. Ultimately, those reasons boil down to inertia; it’s psychologically easier for people to continue on as they always have than to make a change. Inertia affects leadership too. There’s a tendency to not want to look for new techniques if things are working well enough, or a fear that change will create a problem, or a worry it will cost more and be less effective.

One of the areas inertia is most evident is onboarding. Because the process of welcoming employees, getting them to fill out paperwork and taking them to their work area has been largely the same for many years and doesn’t require a change, many companies are happy to leave onboarding as is.

Department leaders have several roadblocks to bringing modern techniques into onboarding, and, although the reasons may vary slightly between companies, many face a set of core issues:

  • HR and training don’t typically have the type of budgets that allow for experimentation. Each dollar spent on a project that doesn’t pan out means another critical piece is being shortchanged.
  • The “good enough” mindset. If something is “good enough,” it becomes very easy to dismiss new innovations as unnecessary frills.
  • Old-school thinking. For many traditional managers, onboarding is only seen as the bare minimum to get new hires on the payroll and receiving benefits. They feel the rest should be up to the new hire’s supervisor.
  • Lack of time. Because HR or training leaders know how much time is spent properly managing change, they may stop themselves before they begin by overestimating how much time onboarding updates will take.
  • When you are the only person working on something, or are the leader of a small team, you can slip into being overprotective of a project without even realizing it. You don’t want to let other people have input on a project once it’s become your baby.
  • Always been done. The ultimate expression of inertia. Leaders don’t want to deal with something new, especially if they don’t see a major reason to change, so they excuse their resistance with a “But this is how we’ve always done it!”

Getting Out of the Rut

Even though inertia is difficult to overcome, there are things you can do to fight resistance and bring new techniques into your onboarding. Different strategies will work for different people, but we’ve seen companies have success with these approaches.

  1. Don’t make a big deal out of every change.

This may seem counterintuitive, since most advice says to involve people early and often. While there are major systems or other changes that need a solid communication and change management process in place, when it comes to onboarding, you can make small or subtle changes without drawing attention to them.

If your HR director faces a lot of pressure to keep things as they’ve always been, you don’t have to propose a total onboarding overhaul right away. Do something like adding microlearning, social or video elements that show your company’s culture, or incorporate follow-up pieces that support employees during their first six months at the company. You can implement smaller changes like this without C-level approval, then measure the impact and go to executives with the results to get approval for larger changes.

This approach is also helpful to overcome resistance from leaders whose biggest concerns are time and money. Smaller changes can be done for less money, and less risk. It also means you don’t have to talk your manager into investing three months planning a new program.

  1. Do your research.

Even old-school managers can have their minds changed by data. If you’re trying to convince the HR director that your onboarding needs to be more than a badge and packet of paperwork, it pays to do your homework. Do your research on the leader’s pain points, and what other companies are doing to combat those pain points.

For example, if the company is seeing higher turnover and the HR manager is being tasked with reducing that, you know you need to start with onboarding improvements that target an employee’s connection to the company. Come prepared with information about millennial turnover, and how bringing in elements of company culture and purpose into onboarding through social, mobile or microlearning can make an impact on turnover.

  1. Emphasize the benefits of improved ROI.

 There’s no faster way to the CEO’s (or COO’s or CFO’s) heart than showing a reduction in costs or an increase in productivity. For the people who are overprotective of their projects or think onboarding is good enough, you have to start by showing them the benefit of change is greater than the comfort of status quo.

Whether your HR manager wants a bigger seat at the table, a promotion, or more freedom to innovate, you can show them that making changes to your onboarding process will lead to the kinds of changes that will help them meet those goals. Accountability to results will also help secure buy-in for future projects.

Is It Worth It?

Improved employee engagement, faster speed to competency and lower turnover are all benefits of a more modern approach to onboarding, but without an HR or training director who is willing to buy in to trying new strategies you’ll be stuck in the status quo. These strategies for catalyzing change can help you overcome common objections to new techniques.