Numerous studies and surveys over the years have shown the importance of successfully onboarding new recruits.

Employees are at most risk of leaving their job in those first months when they gain a sense of whether they fit with the job itself, with their colleagues, and with the culture of the organisation.

Successful onboarding is also crucial in helping employees to hit the ground running and be productive members of the organisation as quickly as possible. It provides them with an understanding of the processes involved in their work; the key people they will need to work with; the systems that will support their work; and the formal and informal culture that dictates how things get done.

With the costs associated with replacing employees who aren't able to successfully embed themselves into the organisation running to tens of thousands of pounds, it's vital that organisations are able to take a personalised approach to onboarding so that not only do they get information that's relevant to them but they receive support in a way that's best suited to their personality.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made successful onboarding that much harder, with surveys revealing new recruits being less able to acknowledge company values and appreciate the culture of the business they're entering.

This situation is compounded by the likelihood that organisations adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to onboarding employees that fails to take into account the personality differences of each individual recruit.

Onboarding can often be broken down into either institutionalised onboarding, where processes are formal, structured, and sequential; or individualised, where processes are far more unstructured and ambiguous. While this distinction is more of a continuum than a black or white divergence, it does nonetheless reflect differences in approaches to onboarding quite clearly.

The success of each approach for each employee depends to a large extent on the locus of control for each individual.  The locus of control is defined as the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of their lives. People with an internal locus of control tend to feel they are largely the masters of their own destinies, whereas those with an external locus of control tend to believe that outside forces determine whether one succeeds or not.

After gathering data from 676 new recruits over a 12-month period, the importance of understanding the locus of control of each recruit before offering a personalised onboarding programme became evident. 

For instance, those with a high external locus of control showed higher social integration, higher embeddedness and lower turnover when exposed to more formal and institutionalised onboarding tactics. Equally, these individuals were onboarded less effectively when exposed to more individualised onboarding mechanisms.

How testing for the locus of control helps onboarding

By contrast, those employees with a more internal locus of control weren't as heavily affected by either an institutionalised or an individualised approach to onboarding, whether in terms of their social integration, their embeddedness, or their employee turnover rate. These individuals were found to be more likely to take their onboarding into their own hands and look to both craft their job to their liking while also developing clear mastery of their work.

Of course, while the underlying preferences towards an external or internal locus of control are relatively stable throughout our lives, they can nonetheless be worked with. For instance, as we become more experienced we will inevitably become more adroit at onboarding in a range of different circumstances and therefore become more skilled at ensuring we have both the information and the relationships required to succeed in our jobs regardless of the onboarding approach taken by our employer.

Indeed, with many experts on the future of work predicting that we will not only work for considerably longer than previous generations but that we will also have many more jobs throughout this elongated career, the ability to successfully onboard and get up to speed will be a crucial skill to develop.

While these findings came from a largely culturally homogenous sample of Japanese employees, albeit from a range of industries and occupations, the importance of providing personalised onboarding is likely to be even more valuable for more diverse and international teams.

There is a significant understanding of the power distance spectrum - which defines how people from different cultures view power relationships, such as that between employer and employee - and how that might influence the functioning of individuals and teams within the workplace, and this applies just as much to the onboarding process as it does to other aspects of working life.

Despite there being a general understanding of the importance of adapting onboarding of new recruits according to things such as power distance and locus of control, there is less evidence of employers actually taking the time to both understand the personalities of each new hire and then adapting their onboarding accordingly. Instead, perhaps due to financial considerations, it is far more common to apply the same approach to every employee.

This reticence is not due to the lack of easy and effective means of testing for recruits' locus of control, with Julian Rotter’s Locus of Control test developed in the 1960s and widely used around the world during the intervening period.  While administering such a test would not be without cost, this pales into insignificance compared to the costs associated with the higher employee turnover and lower productivity found when employees are not onboarded effectively.

Further reading

Peltokorpi, V., Feng, J., Pustovit, S., Allen, D. G. and Rubenstein, A. L. (2021) "The interactive effects of socialization tactics and work locus of control on newcomer work adjustment, job embeddedness, and voluntary turnover", Human Relations.

Liu, X., Greenbaum, R. L., Allen, D. G. and Zhang, Z. (2021) "A newcomer socialization perspective on the proliferation of unethical conduct in organizations : the influences of peer coaching practices and newcomers’ goal orientations", Journal of Business Ethics.

David Allen is WBS Distinguished Research Environment Professor at Warwick Business School and Associate Dean and Professor of Management and Leadership at TCU Neeley School of Business.

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