Connecting state and local government leaders
One of the greatest challenges confronting state and local governments is a badly understaffed workforce. Here’s one technological and personal way to confront that problem.
High turnover rates are a major factor in the workforce shortage that plagues cities, counties and states. Still, it can easily go unnoticed how many people head for the doors within two years of being hired. “We put so much effort into hiring and then we lose our new hires. It devastates the whole process,” says Joe Ambrosini, director of the Long Beach Human Resources Department. The California city currently has a 22% vacancy rate for its budgeted positions.
But if state and local governments put as much effort into how new employees are brought into an organization as they did in recruiting them, they might be able to retain those hard-won hires. For years, a thoughtful approach to this critical issue of onboarding has been in short supply.
For example, a June audit of staff shortages and retention problems in Berkeley, California, found that only 36% of new employees believed they had an adequate onboarding experience. In 2019, two years before Ambrosini took his job, an audit in Long Beach cited room for improvement “in post-employment onboarding policies and procedures across departments,” as well as spotty attendance of employees in orientation sessions. And a 2019 study in Tennessee showed that 58% of state employee turnover in its executive branch occurred in the first three years after hiring. More data collected in May 2020 revealed that just 63% of 2019 hires were still employed.
Those alarming statistics led Tennessee to conduct a subsequent survey in late summer 2020 that sought to learn more about the experiences of individuals hired within the past six to 18 months. It surfaced a variety of opportunities to improve the onboarding experience. About a third of respondents said that their orientation wasn’t interesting or informative; 40% said they were already looking for another job; and 31% said their work experience so far had not met their expectations. “That was a signal that something was needed to improve the onboarding process,” says Melissa Thomas, HR business solutions administrator for Tennessee.
For the past several years, Tennessee has been focused on simplifying the process for new employees during their first few days by introducing online checklists for both employees and managers. Some items on the manager’s list, for instance, are oriented to creating a good first impression: approaching new employees after the offer letter and before their first day; ensuring that the workplace is clean and ready; notifying staff that there’s a new person coming on board; and scheduling training. “We’ve put this into a format that is consistent and deployed across the enterprise,” says Thomas.
Beyond the very early stages of employment, the checklist includes scheduled check-ins for 30, 60 and 90 days after hiring. To further improve the onboarding process, Tennessee has implemented a short automated online survey that new hires take at the 60-day, 6-month and one-year interval to get feedback.
Long Beach has also taken steps to improve onboarding. The city started those efforts with a major initiative to remove unusual medical and drug-testing requirements for all employees that greatly lengthened the time between a job offer and the first day of work. The city also centralized all the early employment requirements into one location—eliminating the need to travel, for instance, to the clerk’s office to take an oath of office and then the police department for fingerprinting. Now the focus there has turned to creating a consistent post-employment practice throughout the city’s 23 departments, which is being overseen by a newly centralized talent acquisition unit. Ambrosini and his team are also implementing training, exit surveys, and better data-tracking and analysis.
In Indiana, new onboarding technology for all the state’s executive branch was introduced about a year ago, giving new employees the chance to electronically fill out paperwork—like required federal forms—prior to their first day. “It’s an annoyance for everyone, anytime you have to do something on paper,” says Matthew Brown, director of the State Personnel Department. "It’s 2023.”
At the same time, Brown and others emphasize that the broader employee experience, and not just the technological experience, is critical. While onboarding is sometimes defined narrowly as the initial instructions and paperwork that follows a job offer, the important period for making first impressions that will reduce turnover extends to employees’ experiences during their first days and even first year on the job, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM.
To provide a model for his state, Indiana’s Brown began reforming onboarding in his own department in January 2022 with an emphasis on creating a better employee experience. “It’s important to me that this not be all electronic,” says Brown. “You have to establish a personal connection.”
Onboarding in Indiana’s personnel department today goes way beyond the welcome basket that new employees receive with a state personnel tote bag, a mug and a handwritten note from the department’s director. Instead of sending employees to their cubicles to work after a first-day orientation dominated by an explanation of rules, leave programs, benefits, pay systems and ethical guidelines, each new employee now attends two additional days of required sessions run by leaders in the department, with subject matter experts explaining the function of each individual human resources area and how it fits into the bigger picture of the department.
New employees are supplied with an acronym guide and information about how state government functions as a whole. “It’s critical to know that you’re part of our team and where you fit in,” says Brown. “They connect individually, face-to-face, with people that we want them to know. We want them to see the kind of experts that they have helping them.”
The effort already appears to be contributing to a decrease in turnover with one-year retention of new employees in August 2023 at 85%, compared to 69% in January 2022.
Brown is hoping the personnel department model of an employee’s first days, as well as a training program that he put in place for the first year, will spread to the state’s 80 agencies and its 30,000 employees. “Not every job is the same, but the concept is the same,” he says. “It’s how you treat people and how you show them they’re important. That’s what matters and what impacts retention and it can be done in a thousand different ways.”
While onboarding may include centralized elements in the first weeks of employment, the job ultimately shifts to an often-decentralized team and managerial approach that depends on individual supervisors and managers.
“Honestly, onboarding should not be an HR driven process,” says Brown. “Onboarding should be driven by leadership in the organization. If the culture isn’t welcoming, it won’t be successful.”
That makes front-line supervisor training particularly important. When people quit their jobs, often as not, the reason they give is a problem with a supervisor or manager. “Managers have to be trained in what effective onboarding looks like,” says Leslie Scott, executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives. “It’s not just HR’s responsibility.”
The Indiana State Personnel Department also provides managers throughout the government with recommendations of how to approach new employees even before their first day of work by providing them with template emails and letters to warmly welcome them. Brown encourages other departments to have managers take new employees out to lunch their first day and has developed a handbook for managers that details how to “hire people and onboard them the right way,” he says. It matters how you’re introduced to your agency, and then it matters how you’re introduced to your group within the agency. And it matters how you’re introduced to your individual teammates, who work under the same supervisor.
“Each of those folks within management should have an obligation to make sure an onboarding experience is a positive one,” Brown says.