How to keep your new IT hires from jumping ship

Savvy companies use IT-specific onboarding programs to bring new hires into the fold and keep them there. Here are their best practices.

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Kevin Hart, chief technology officer at Cox Communications, is fresh off his latest meet-and-greet session for newly minted IT hires. Once a quarter, Hart hosts about 35 incoming employees at Cox's state-of-the-art "C Tech" center, acquainting them with the culture of the cable giant, fielding questions about its technology stack, clarifying roles within the IT organization and outlining possible career paths.

Hart's presentation is all part of Cox's formal Technology Onboarding Program, which kicked off companywide last year after its start as a grass-roots initiative within a specific operations team. In addition to the meet-the-CIO roundtable, the multi-month program, completed by all 150 new IT hires last year, includes an overview of the telecommunications industry, a crash course on current trends, an analysis of the competitive landscape, a road map to Cox's multifaceted business strategy, and a deep dive into the company's technology goals and IT transformation plan.

The Technology Onboarding Program is designed to complement Cox's general onboarding routines centered around HR and administrative practices, Hart explains. He estimates that the program, in its first year, has spurred a 15% improvement in IT productivity by facilitating a business-driven focus among new staff and ensuring employees understand Cox's organizational structure so they know where to get what they need. Cox's turnover rate is lower than industry average, a fact Hart attributes at least in part to programs like the IT onboarding initiative. "Every little bit helps," he says.

Hunter Jones, IT business information manager at International Paper, discusses the impact the company's IT onboarding programs have had on his career.

And every little bit is crucial today in the telecom and cable industry, which is in the midst of a radical transformation driven by innovation and convergence. "In this new day and age, we are trying to acquire and retain great talent to help drive us through this technology revolution," says Hart, who also serves as executive vice president and CIO. "That means we need to develop new types of talent and invest even more to attract and retain them."

A lot of big companies, and, increasingly, many smaller shops, are finding themselves in a similar boat. With technology the centerpiece of most strategic business initiatives, companies like Cox are struggling to find talent versed in the next-generation skill sets, from cloud computing to mobile, while working even harder to retain those coveted employees given the competitive nature of the job market.

The high cost of staff turnover

Staff turnover, especially for these critical high-salaried positions, can be extremely costly, experts say. According to data compiled by the Center for American Progress, businesses spend about one-fifth of an employee's annual salary to replace that worker.

That's where a well-executed onboarding program comes in. If it hits the right notes, onboarding can help new hires be more productive in a shorter time frame, while also engaging them in the company's culture and business goals, practitioners say. "Onboarding is like a first impression -- it leads someone to trust a company as a new hire and have great thoughts about them -- or not," says Rachel Russell, who oversees research at TEKsystems, an IT staffing, talent management and services provider.

"Onboarding is essential so that the expectations between the employee and employer are very clear," Russell says. "The employee becomes empowered because they know what resources are available and what relationships they need to start forging. It tells them they are going to have the resources they need to get the job done."

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