Onboarding for Life: How to Support Employees at Every Stage of the Employee Lifecycle

Christina Zurek
Christina Zurek

Group of employees being onboarded at work

While attending the recent SHRM Talent Management Conference and Expo, I mentioned that one of my favorite sessions focused on how engagement needs differ based on the employee lifecycle stage. This is in stark contrast to the traditional approach of tailoring efforts based on demographic segmentation, like age or generation.

I’ve been a believer in this philosophy for some time and realize now that, while I’ve shared my thoughts before on engaging throughout the employee journey and critical touchpoints in the employee journey you don’t want to skip, I actually hadn’t yet shared my perspective on how employee engagement needs are varied based on the stage they’re in.

In the session I referenced from the conference, speakers reviewed the research they fielded on this topic. Based on their findings, they concluded that the primary stage-based segments occurred in the following tenure groups:

  1. 3 years or less with the company
  2. 4–7 years with the company
  3. 8–10 years with the company
  4. 11 years or more with the company

I don’t often see research on this viewpoint and, in particular, enjoyed hearing the presenters share insights on how the challenges, preferences and motivations for each of these tenure ranges vary. Interestingly, after seeing the tenure breaks this organization used to segment employee stages, I noticed parallels to the recently fielded research from CMB on the topic of how psychological benefits impact employee engagement.

Between both research projects, it’s clear that tenure plays an important role in the engagement equation.

Here are several of my takeaways on the impact of employee tenure, including ideas about how we can leverage that knowledge to improve and elevate engagement for team members, no matter what stage of the employee lifecycle they might be in.

1. Employees Early in Their Tenure With an Organization Can Be Especially Valuable Advocates

In CMB’s research, they found that employees with less than one year of tenure are the most likely to recommend an organization as a place to work (and also the least unlikely to recommend the organization)—more than any other tenure range. These are your veritable cheerleaders at this stage, so it’s important to show them you support their enthusiasm.

How to Support Them

Your newest employees are likely eager to share how excited they are about your organization, so help them feel more comfortable promoting your company to their own networks.

During this stage, take time to share with them your company perspective on employee brand advocacy, including examples of how other team members currently engage in this way.

Make team members aware of any tools you've created to support their efforts and use this as an opportunity to highlight any confidentiality issues they should be aware of. Just remember: while it’s important to make sure they understand rules or expectations, make sure you don’t dampen their pride (or creativity) with too rigid of a response. Often, just letting them know that you’re OK with them promoting the exciting and fun things you’re doing as an organization can create a groundswell of support from them, which only helps draw in future talent and community support for your organization.

Related: Take a deep dive into the full CMB research report to learn more about the psychology of engagement.

2. As Employees Gain Tenure, They’ll Still Need Support—Just in Different Ways

Increasingly, organizations are turning their focus to amplifying onboarding efforts. It makes sense—nearly 40% of all employee turnover in 2018 was among those one year or less on the job. But could this work actually be creating unanticipated engagement issues downstream? We believe so. In fact, CMB’s research found employees who experience of each of the psychological benefits that are key to employee engagement decline following their first year and take years to recover. The impact of this is jarring and degrades engagement, advocacy levels for your organization and, as you can see in the accompanying chart, levels of motivation.

Employee tenure chart
How to Support Them

It might seem counterintuitive that as an employee gains tenure they need more support—after all, they should be more proficient, more capable and even readying themselves for future growth. But that’s the paradox: they are all of those things, but they’re also looking for support in other ways. At this stage, they know what’s expected of them and what success in their role looks like. However, it's likely they're also looking for something deeper.

Things like meaning and purpose behind what they’re doing, opportunities for growth and development (think special projects, not just promotions) and more meaningful connection with peers.

The more you can help solidify a team member’s place in your larger organization during the critical time from about three to seven years of tenure, the more those employees will realize their potential from staying long-term with your organization.

3. The Number 7 is Significant for a Reason (and 11 Should Be, Too)

In addition to carrying significance since ancient times, the number seven holds a particular reverence in the research from both CMB and Padilla: when employees make it beyond seven years with an organization, a perceptible shift occurs. Both in terms of their priorities and motivations (per Padilla’s research), but also in terms of their expression of the psychological benefits, which CMB found to be critical to engagement.This is a period of recovery, including increasingly positive emotions, a reduction in negative emotions and a 6% jump in satisfaction, as seen in the following chart from CMB’s research.

Overall satisfaction with organization compared to tenure with organization chart

What’s more, you can see that this only continues to improve once employees stay for 11 years, when satisfaction tops even year-one levels and fully recovers. I understand that talk of employees staying seven years (much less 11) might feel lofty given how high current turnover rates are. But it’s important to see that these highly-tenured employees are not only possible—they should be viewed as an exciting opportunity for an organization.

How to Support Them

More tenured workers have always been valued for the knowledge and company acumen they possess, but there is much more they can offer to an organization as well. For example, they’re more likely to be focused on helping the overall organization mission or goal since they’ve had time to gain a solid understanding of how they fit in with the company's vision. As a result, they can be especially good mentors for others still struggling to find their footing. In addition, they’re likely to have a good amount of pride in knowing what they’ve been able to achieve.

Look for ways that you can support this confidence, including recognizing them in personally meaningful ways for their achievements and highlighting them as examples of how you can grow and develop from within.

Ensure they know that their development isn’t finished, either—while some may be at a life stage where they’re preparing to slow down, others may be feeling like they’re catching their stride and will be eager to hear a vision and roadmap for other ways that they can leverage their engagement, enthusiasm and expertise in productive ways for the organization.

As a researcher and life-long learner, I’m always excited when I see parallels like this form. There are so many great things happening in the world of employee engagement, and the more we can work to prove out our theories with data, the more I believe we’ll be able to actually turn the corner on improving engagement.

Want to learn more about how you can leverage the onboarding process for success long-term? Check out our white paper, Why Good Employees Leave: The Unintended Consequences of Great Onboarding.

Why Good Employees Leave: The Unintended Consequence of Great Onboarding

Christina Zurek

Christina Zurek

Christina is an experienced leader with a passion for improving the employee experience, employee engagement and workplace culture. Few things excite her as much as an opportunity to try something unfamiliar (be that a project, development opportunity, travel destination, food, drink or otherwise), though digging in to a research project is a close second.