No two employees are the same, so why should they all get the same onboarding experience?
As organisations bring new hires into their socially distant workplaces, HR tech, such as onboarding platforms, is likely to become more common. Numerous HR tech platforms promise to streamline onboarding processes and give new recruits a seamless and often exciting user experience. The business and individualised benefits of streamlining are there for all to see.
But the problem with treating every new employee the same is that they are all different. And some people have spent much of their life trying to get others to respect that difference. For example, people with vision impairment may not be able to read the information on an onboarding app.
Diversity in recruitment is both the right thing to do and smart for business. The next logical step is to make sure your onboarding is inclusive. Rather than assuming everyone will fit your mould, change the mould to fit your people.
Here are some ideas and thoughts from experts that your organisation might consider. This is by no means a complete list, but it should be a good conversation starter.
First things first
All the interviewees in this article stressed that successful onboarding through a D&I lens is about asking questions such as, “What do you need from us to support you to do your job?” Ask every single new recruit this question and you’ll quickly discover just how wide-ranging people’s experiences can be.
In saying this, it’s important to acknowledge that different organisations will be at different stages of their D&I journey, so sometimes more detailed advice is necessary.
David Tran is a professional adviser in employer engagement for JobAccess, a government-funded organisation that supports employers to become more disability-aware by offering a variety of services, including free disability training. At a recent seminar he attended for Victoria Police, employees were asked to share their thoughts on the department’s onboarding process.
A man who is living with autism spectrum disorder spoke up. Before signing his contract, he asked to come and see the workplace. He was able to meet his team leader and inspect the environment, and he was shown all the different facilities – all before committing himself to the organisation.
“This helped to alleviate any anxiety he might have had about going into a foreign environment, with foreign policies and people,” says Tran.
This simple gesture could be afforded to any new starters (when isolation restrictions are lifted, of course). And even though a lot of recruits won’t take you up on the offer, it signals to them, right from the beginning, that their comfort and wellbeing is something you care about.
Choosing the right words
The type of language you use is incredibly important and should be consistent across all of your organisation’s platforms, including your mission statement, website content and job description.
“In Australia, you might occasionally still see or hear the term ‘disabled staff’, but that’s not best-practice inclusive language,” says Dr Katie Spearritt, CEO of Diversity Partners. “We talk about a person, or people, with a disability.”
“It’s about the person, rather than their disability,” says Spearritt’s colleague, Grazia Pecoraro, a diversity consultant. “So it’s ‘person living with low vision’ rather than ‘a blind person’. It’s called person-first language,” says Pecoraro.
This person-first principle should be applied to all staff from diverse backgrounds. But language considerations don’t end there.
“Some job advertisements will unintentionally contain words that appeal to men more than women,” says Spearrit.
“Words such as ‘dominant’ and ‘superior’ have a masculine association, and it’s important they are balanced with words associated more typically with women to convey a diverse set of skills and attract diverse candidates from diverse backgrounds. Equally, some job ads will inadvertently limit the pool of candidates by not making an explicit commitment to flexible working.”
Spearritt and Pecoraro acknowledge that getting the language right can be difficult. (During the interview for this article, my own phrasing was respectfully corrected. But as I learnt, these awkward fumbles don’t kill you. They are a great way to learn and adapt to best-practice inclusive workplace standards).
Tran says nervous employers need to push through the fear of saying the wrong thing.
“We’re afraid of offending someone, so some people have a tendency to avoid the topic altogether. That obviously does a disservice to certain individuals. You might accidentally say something that’s not politically correct, but wouldn’t you much prefer that than being avoided altogether? Saying the wrong thing gives people an opportunity to correct their mistakes and opens up the conversation.”
Setting up the foundations
Processes are only one part of onboarding. Equally crucial is your organisation’s culture.
“If you’re a person from a diverse background and you go into a workplace and don’t see anybody like you, it may feel isolating and consequently unwelcoming,” says Sonja Braidner FCPHR, a senior consultant at Eveiller Consulting.
“There need to be strategies in how to onboard diverse staff effectively, and this may be different from the mainstream experience. It needs to be more than, ‘Hi, here’s your staff badge. Please fill out this superannuation form.’
“You need to have diversity-capable managers with confidence in leading inclusively, and every part of the employment journey needs to be considered through the filter of inclusion. If it’s not up to scratch and has inherent bias, it needs to be redesigned.”
It’s all about getting familiar with the intricacies of an organisation’s unwritten culture, says Braidner. For example, the work she does with companies that already have some sophistication around diversity focuses on more intricate theories such as intersectionality. That might take the form of a drive to more actively foster culturally and linguistically diverse female hires.
But she might not take this same approach with emergency services (where she’s doing a lot of D&I-related research) because the gender disparity is so high in that sector. When that is the case, she needs to focus on fixing the broader issue before adding nuanced layers.
Fixing existing barriers to D&I is no easy task. For example, Spearritt and Pecoraro say that while most organisations will proclaim to have an open-door policy for welcoming staff from diverse backgrounds, many do not realise that their door is slightly ajar, or sometimes completely shut.
To combat this and ensure organisations are inclusive, Spearritt suggests running an inclusion lens across the end-to-end hiring and onboarding process in your organisation.
“For example, you may ask employees who identify with different diversity dimensions to review the language of your job advertisements and HR policies to ensure there aren’t any descriptions or terms which may inadvertently exclude someone.
“They may pick up, for example, that your parental leave policy uses hetero-normative language and doesn’t reflect the family structures we have today, including same-sex or single parenting.
“By actively including people, it sends a strong signal that all are welcome, that everyone belongs and no-one has to mask their differences,” she says.
Cultural awareness or unconscious bias training can be helpful when it’s part of a strategy that focuses on creating an inclusive work culture, says Spearritt.
“If we’re going to train our leaders in unconscious bias and cultural competency, it’s important we also train our recruitment teams, and any external providers, because sometimes a candidate’s experience with the organisation doesn’t start with the manager. It can be with an external agency representing your brand.”
While Braidner can see the value in unconscious bias training, she identifies the real-life pitfalls.
“I don’t think unconscious bias training delivered without due consideration of your existing culture is effective. It may actually be harmful. There’s Harvard research about how confronting it is for people to realise they hold a bias. That needs to be managed very professionally.
“Even though I’m a D&I expert, I wouldn’t necessarily run this training myself, especially in an organisation that’s in the early maturity phase for diversity confidence and may hold resistance to inclusion. I’d consider bringing an organisational psychologist on board with me.”
Tweaking the process
All of the above might feel daunting, but there are small adjustments you can make right now to make your onboarding process more accessible.
“Let’s say you’ve received a letter of offer, or a training module that you have to complete before you start a job,” says Tran. “If I happen to be someone who relies on screen-reading software, the PDF or document you’ve uploaded might not be compatible with my software.”
Checking this is actually quite simple.
“Microsoft Word has a function that will check a document for accessibility. It’s included as part of the software, but almost no-one I’ve ever spoken to is familiar with it.”
Windows: File > Info > Check for Issues > Check Accessibility
Mac: Tools > Check Accessibility
A bar will pop up on the right-hand side of your screen which identifies accessibility issues. Often images, labels or anything that assumes a logical reading order, such as a table or chart, will be flagged. You will be taken through how to fix the issues.
“Most people read from the top and work their way down, and that’s how the screen-reading software works. But when it lands on a descriptive feature – such as an image or a shape – it doesn’t know what’s actually in there.
“You can fix that by verbalising the description in the alternate text section. So, when the software gets to that part, it will read something like ‘HRM logo’ so the employee can follow along.
“Imagine if you had a number of images in an onboarding document. The screen reading will just say ‘blank, blank, blank’. How do you follow that?”
For employees from neurodiverse backgrounds, you might need to consider the contrast levels of your document. For someone with low vision or colour vision deficiency, specific fonts and/or colours could be easier to read than others.
Again, it’s a good idea to run your communications by people from the community you’re hoping to onboard because they’ll often provide feedback you may not have considered yourself.
There are also external resources organisations can call upon. That’s where organisations such as JobAccess come in.
“It’s one of the best examples of our taxpayer-funded money that I can point to,” says Pecoraro.
“It takes the financial pressure off organisations by funding specific technology or changes to property to employ someone with a disability. I’ve seen it work so many times.”
Pecoraro recalls supporting a new employee living with multiple sclerosis by utilising JobAccess. With the program’s funding, the worker was provided with an ergonomic mouse and speech recognition software for his computer – both easy requests to fulfill.
When she checked in with him a few weeks into the job, he said he felt like any other employee because he could access everything he needed from day one.
“I think one of the single biggest frustration of any new job is how long it can take to get up and running.”
“To be a new person in a role and find that your logins aren’t sorted, or your computer isn’t working, or not there, can be really disheartening. So make it a priority from the start,” says Pecoraro.
Something that was mentioned by all interviewees was the importance of making sure positive statements were followed by action.
“If you’re going to put a D&I statement on your advertisement, then you need to be able to follow through with the support and the service delivery at the other end,” says Braidner.
“And remember that D&I is a business capability discussion. It’s about what people can offer. It’s not about feeling sorry for those whose difference has meant historical underrepresentation; or solely believing D&I recruitment is simply ‘the right thing to do’.”
There isn’t enough time to encompass all of the necessary accommodations an individual could need. What might be a necessary process for one person could be a cumbersome barrier for another. When in doubt, just remember the crucial question you should ask all new starters: What do you need to do your job?
This article first appeared in the April 2020 edition of HRM magazine.
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