How to keep your new IT hires from jumping ship

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

Kevin Hart, CTO 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 multimonth 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 was 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 that employees understand Cox's organizational structure so they know where to get what they need. Cox's turnover rate is lower than the industry average -- a fact that Hart attributes at least in part to programs like the IT onboarding initiative. "Every little bit helps," he says.

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 people with expertise in next-generation technologies, from cloud computing to mobile. And, given the competitive nature of the job market, they must work even harder to retain those coveted employees once they find them.

The High Cost of Staff Turnover

Staff turnover, especially for 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 why well-executed onboarding programs are important. If it hits the right notes, onboarding can help new hires be more productive in a shorter time, 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."

In fact, according to a TEKsystems survey of more than 2,100 IT professionals and 1,500 IT leaders, both sides see significant benefits to IT onboarding done right. Sixty-two percent of IT leaders said onboarding programs played extremely important roles in establishing a new hire's ability to be productive and add value, while 46% said they were extremely important tools for determining whether a new hire would be successful in the company long term. The IT professionals were equally bullish on onboarding: Nearly half (49%) said onboarding was extremely important to their ability to be productive, while 44% said it was critical for success in the company long term, according to TEKsystems.

Despite unilateral agreement on the upside of onboarding, most companies have yet to prioritize programs or address onboarding in a way that truly works for IT roles. The TEKsystems survey found that only 12% of IT leaders and 13% of IT professionals rated their onboarding programs as extremely effective.

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