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Boler Management and Human Resources Students Help Local Non-Profit Improve Employee Onboarding

Boys Hope Girls Hope

One constant for those managing any non-profit organization is the need to maintain a high degree of  commitment to the mission among employees, while recognizing that employee turnover remains inevitable given salary limits and a tight labor market. According to Exact Hire, the voluntary annual turnover rate for nonprofits is 19 percent – far outpacing the all-industry average of 12 percent. A 2021 study conducted by Nonprofit HR found that some 45% of nonprofit employees will seek new jobs by 2025.

The leadership of Cleveland non-profit Boys Hope Girls Hope (BHGH) brought these concerns to Boler Professor of Management Dr. Alison Dachner and asked if her undergraduate Training and Management Development class might design a comprehensive and systematic onboarding program for hiring managers at BHGH to deliver to new hires.  The partnership was a natural fit given that (1) the class is a service-learning course through JCU’s Center for Service-Learning and Social Action with an emphasis on experiential learning, and (2) Dachner’s expertise and publications pertains to employee development and systematic program design for emerging adults and corporate alumni.

It was agreed that the students would take on the role of consultant to develop an onboarding program focused on socializing new employees to the organization. The underlying goals included: improving consistency across hiring managers and instilling a deeper sense of mission, community, and development during onboarding to better satisfy, motivate, and retain newcomers.

With a team of just over 20 professionals, BHGH delivers academic, mentoring and career guidance and support to under-resourced youth. The group’s BHGH Academy Scholars spend eight hours or more per week engaged with staff, boast a 100% high school graduation rate, and a strong track record of college attendance and graduation.

To establish BHGH’s unique onboarding and training objectives, a team of Dachner’s students, led by Nolan Laughlin, did an intensive discovery interview with the group’s executive director and surveyed each of BHGH’s five hiring managers to understand their distinct experience when onboarding newcomers. Using those objectives another team of students, led by Nate Leopold and Julia McNamara, established the training and onboarding content using academic literature, interviews with subject matter experts, and best practices from companies with excellent onboarding programs. 

Students learned that the first 30 days are often considered the most important for employee onboarding because most people decide to stay or leave within that time frame. However, research also suggests that socialization, the process that allows individuals to adjust to their new roles and become dynamic players in the organization, begins before someone is hired and lasts at least the entirety of their first year. Well-designed onboarding has a long-term focus on connection and culture to reduce the uncertainty and anxiety of the newcomer’s experience by expediting the socialization process. 

Among the many onboarding models that the Boler students considered was one administered by Disney, which looks to elevate the company culture and core brand promise —  to create happiness through magical experiences — throughout the onboarding and training process.

Taken together, the final deliverable to BHGH, presented by a third team of students      led by Emel Terzioglu,      was an Onboarding Playbook with a checklist of activities to do before employees start, on their first day, and during the first year.  Recommendations, included:

  • Emphasize socializing — face-to-face engagement — from day one.
  • Talk about and teach mission early and often.
  • Provide realistic job previews for job candidates.
  • Reinforce and reward mission-focused behaviors.
  • Praise team members publicly for their contribution to the mission. 
  • Make each new hire feel special when they arrive the first day.
  • Establish an Ambassador (“buddy”) program
  • Support employee development and career planning so that they see room for growth in the organization.

BHGH executives were so impressed with the playbook and presentation they called it a “home run” and quickly began implementing many of the Boler MHR student recommendations.