Talent Management Rankings: Our Kind of Olympics

With Rio in full swing and the country getting competitive, what better time to take a look at the all-stars dominating our favourite sport, Talent Management? Time to find out who won big in the categories that really matter; Onboarding, Performance Management, and Learning Management.


Talent Management rankings - Medalllists


Those of you who read my article on onboarding and employee success will know that well-designed onboarding practices are key to ensuring new hires integrate quickly and perform at their best. Amazon-owned retailer Zappos took the gold in this category for its focus on protecting and promoting company culture above all else.

Landing a job at Zappos isn’t easy. The retailer puts the same emphasis on personality and cultural fit as skills and experience, applicants have a 1.5% chance of receiving a job offer¹. But an offer doesn’t mean new hires can breathe easy. Whatever their level or department, everyone goes through the same four week course, receiving extensive training in customer service and company values².

At the end of the four weeks, new hires have two options; head to the office and get started, or take a $2000 payout and leave if they don’t fit the company culture. Less than 2% opt to take the money and run³, with 98% starting work on Monday engaged and committed, knowing exactly what to expect.


Facebook scooped silver for an onboarding process that is fast and engagement focused. New hires arrive to find their requested PCs, personal devices, and systems all set up and ready to go; but it’s the developers’ boot camp that really won the day for the social media goliath. Developers aren’t hired for specific teams and departments. Instead, they spend six weeks training at HQ and get to choose which department to work in when they graduate⁵, cherry picking the projects that most excite them.


These guys are secretive, but rumour has it Apple is a find your own feet kind of employer. New hires are greeted on their first day by any specialist tools they need, a new iMac, and a t-shirt with ‘class of’ and the year of joining. They are expected to dive right in, set up their own computers and introduce themselves to co-workers⁵. It isn’t for everyone, but this ‘do-or-die’ approach certainly means employees hit the ground running.

Talent Management rankings - Medalllists


I’ve spoken before about Google’s performance management process, so it should come as no surprise that it romped home in first place. This well-deserved gold was awarded for the search giant’s extensive research and the resulting unbiased, 360-degree performance management processes.

Google’s research into employee performance identified two main factors influencing success; clearly written goals, and frequent conversations between individuals and managers⁶. These findings form the basis of a complex, 360-degree feedback cycle that begins with self-evaluation before peers review an individual’s fit with the company culture (a.k.a Googleyness), analytical abilities, execution, thought leadership, leadership, and presence. Peers grade based on strengths, weaknesses, and contributions⁷.

This feedback is used by managers to provide a draft grade, a non-numerical evaluation on a five point scale that ranges from ‘needs improvement’ to ‘superb’. All performance data then goes through a calibration stage, where heavy-handed or lenient graders are identified and employee scores adjusted⁷; giving employees an accurate, unbiased view of their performance.


Beauty subscription service Birchbox has a dedicated People & Culture team that manages the complete employee experience, with a focus on aligning individuals to organizational goals⁴.

Bi-monthly pulse checks and two yearly, quantitative studies mean they can guide managers and board members on how best to align employees and skills to developmental strategy and initiatives⁴. This integrated approach to business growth and performance management was well-deserving of a silver medal, don’t you think?


Goldman Sachs is breaking the mould with its recently overhauled performance management system. Designed to improve staff retention, the Wall Street stalwart has swapped its traditional numerical grading system (complete with automatic layoffs for the bottom 5% of performers) for a qualitative approach almost unheard of in the financial sector⁸.

Now, the focus is on providing high-quality, continuous feedback. Reviews are conducted earlier in the year, giving individuals a chance to improve before bonus time⁸. To reduce grading bias, the new system even uses a similar calibration method to Google⁷.

Talent Management rankings - Medalllists


Global consulting firm Cognizant was streaks ahead of the competition and landed gold for its Millennial-friendly approach and focus on integrated learning.

With a predominantly Millennial workforce⁹, many who work on-site with clients, the Cognizant learning and development (L&D) strategy needed to be agile, mobile and engaging. The company rose to the challenge, producing multiple learning platforms such as blogs, customized portals, live webcasts, and discussion forums⁹. But the jewel in its L&D crown is ‘One Cognizant’ an app store boasting over 50 learning apps. From gamification to ebooks and progress planners, individuals can choose the tools best suited to their learning style⁹.

Recognising that L&D is an essential element of organisational grown, Cognizant’s ‘5D’ approach to content focuses on aligning learning with long-term objectives. The senior team establish organisational goals first, identifying potential impediments and their solutions, and provide a mix of informal, formal, and collaborative learning initiatives that enable staff to deliver on those goals⁹.


Like Cognizant, silver medal winner Hilton Worldwide delivers a suite of learning tools to a global workforce. Its L&D strategy is focused on maximising employee performance with self-guided tutorials, interactive workshops, one-to-one training and courses. Learning is typically tailored to the needs of the individual, with employees identifying their own skills gaps and receiving the training and support they need to address themⁱ⁰.


Healthcare provider Virgin Care has recently been shortlisted for the Employee Engagement Award thanks to its ‘People Flourish’ learning management system. In a sector known for its apathy to learning and development, this revolutionary program provides staff with leadership training; delivering four modules on people, personalities, and behaviours that are designed to help individuals progress to management positions. It’s an investment that’s paying off, with the program delivering a 22% increase in employee retention¹¹.

To Sum Up…

The tech sector dominated our talent management competition, scooping gold in both the learning and onboarding categories. However, we’re already starting to see Silicon Valley’s innovations trickle into more traditional sectors, as demonstrated by both Goldman Sachs and Virgin Healthcare. These guys are rejecting the typical model of Talent Management in their industries and are already reaping the rewards. Let’s hope more employers follow suit – by 2020 this is likely to be a far more hotly contested race!

Any ideas here you could borrow? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these approaches. Would any work in your office?


1Michelle, J. 2011. The Zappos Experience. Inc.com
2Zappos. 2016. Onboarding Fact Sheet. Zappos
3Reynolds, 2016. 3 Companies With the Most Unique Employee Onboarding Process. TinyPulse.
4Doshi and Gregor. 2015. The secret to an ideal work culture. Time Magazine.
5Bhattacharyya, 2016. Employee Onboarding at Facebook, Google and Apple. The Qustn Cafe.
6L&D, 2016. How performance feedback is evolving. L&D.
7QCulture, 2015. Google’s Performance Management Practices. QCulture.
8Shen, 2016. Goldman Sachs is about to make life a bit less stressful for employees. Fortune.
9Meister, 2014. Cognizant Academy: Lessons from a 2020 Learning Organisation. Forbes.
10Association for Talent Development. 2014. Hilton Worldwide. ATD.
11Virgin Care, 2016. Virgin Care Shortlisted for Employee Engagement Award. Virgin Care.

New Research on Onboarding and Employee Success

A recent study shows that a structured onboarding process doesn’t just prepare employees for their new position; it improves employee engagement and confidence at arguably the most crucial and sensitive point in their new career which in turn directly relates to an employee’s initial performance.

Why is Onboarding Important? 

Think back to when you once joined an established sports team or watched your children in their first matches. While the new jersey and team badge look impressive the awkwardness caused by playing with unfamiliar team members, uncertainty about ‘exactly what is it I am supposed to contribute’ and the overall ‘newness’ of the team rarely brings out the best in anyone’s performance.

Onboarding effectively

Next thing you know someone is sitting on the reserves bench feeling frustrated with themselves, their talent unrealised and maybe their confidence depleted.

Had the new player been given a ‘team welcome’ with introductions to everyone at the club, tactics explained and participation at training sessions that improved their individual skills before the first game they could have had a positive debut.

So if we take this simple analogy into the workplace, what should an onboarding program look like?

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, a well-structured onboarding process will:

  • Include one-on-one “jumpstart” coaching with intensive feedback and support.
  • Introduce new employees to their work family so they know co-workers and feel comfortable reaching out for resources.
  • Follow up, follow up, and follow up
  • And, make use of technology.

Introducing and improving onboarding contributes to an employee commencing with confidence, feeling supported, becoming productive and realising their value sooner.  Conversely employees who spend weeks and months finding their feet in an organisation are likely to be returning to the online career sites earlier than anticipated.

And with an average $11k per employee recruitment cost, getting on board with onboarding has never been more important.

It’s about equipping not just engaging

You can’t force engagement, particularly with new employees. New employees should be given the opportunity to ‘buy in’ rather than expected to ‘swear an allegiance on their very first day.’

Through onboarding, an organisation can equip people with the knowledge and orientation that will help them settle, understand their surroundings and contribute sooner, and that will be gratefully received.

Equipping is empowerment.

Learning begins with joining

Unaddressed skill gaps cause employee discomfort and contribute to early departure whereas a report on the effectiveness of onboarding programs by the Aberdeen Group revealed that 77% of employees that participate in a formal onboarding program meet their first performance milestone.

New Hires milestone

Few employees will possess one hundred percent of the skills required to excel in their position the day they commence, and neither the employee or their direct manager are likely to know what all those missing skills are.

An onboarding program contributes to establishing a trusting relationship between the new arrivals and their manager enabling open discussion about skill gaps. During onboarding, these might occur during one-on-one catch up’s and immediate action could be taken rather than the ‘too little, too late’ output of a probationary review.

Like educational institutions supporting new student intakes, organisations are embedding mentoring or ‘buddying’ programs that support the newly arrived employee as part of onboarding.

How long should the onboarding process last?

I believe that the structured process should support the employee to at least their probationary review and in most cases for six months. There should be a seamless transition to other HR initiatives and Performance Management should take over the baton. This ‘handshake’ transition between arrival and ongoing HR initiatives will increase the likelihood of creating highly functioning team members as I describe in cherish and challenge.

You can familiarise yourself with the developments in onboarding programs by joining groups on social media such as on LinkedIn Onboarding Best Practices, and Onboarding Groups like these provide a varied and revealing understanding of what organisations have and are implementing from around the world.

What kind of onboarding do I need? 

Does your organisation have any formal orientation?  If the answer is no, the goal should be to create a well-planned onboarding program that ensures a positive, consistent new starter experience and sets them up for success, even before Day One.

Imagine your new people already having established social networks in your organisation, being visible throughout the business, being ready for collaboration, and up to speed with organisational purpose and compliance before they pull up their chair to the new desk. Day One then looks very different. The series of practical ‘this is how you perform your role’ sessions and guidance commence immediately.

‘How’s the new job?’. ‘Its great! I am flying’.

For organisations that have already implemented an induction or orientation process I recommend an ‘Onboarding Audit’ with the objective of ‘how can we improve our new starter experience’ and ensure:

  • Faster speed to productivity for new hires
  • Higher retention rates, and
  • Better integration and acculturation

Clear explanation of the person’s role and orientation and training must occur as well as socialisation during onboarding.

I’d love to hear more about what your organisation currently does to engage and support new employees.  What are the best practices your team has found for optimising orientation and building socialisation into new-employee training?

My Top Takeaways of 2015

With the year drawing to a close and the festive season almost upon us, I thought now would be a good time to take stock of everything we’ve learned in 2015.

Agile Performance Management

The annual reviews and performance metrics of traditional Performance Management (PM) have been slowly giving way to an agile (APM) approach. This trend became increasingly obvious in 2015, with the publication of numerous papers and case studies all highlighting the benefits APM offers. Add to that the fact that major companies like Adobe went on record crediting this new approach (they went agile in 2012) with the rocketing share price they’ve experienced since adopting it, and it’s little wonder that APM is picking up pace.

The increasing popularity of the agile approach doesn’t surprise me. Agile Performance Management strategies are an integral part of Cognology’s solutions, and regular readers will know I’ve long been an advocate of real-time reviews and 360-degree feedback. I’m not the only one to note the accelerated change in PM this year and, while companies like Accenture announce plans to adopt it, others warn of the potential pitfalls of an accelerated change.

Tom Hakk, the founder of The HR Trend Institute, believes organisations are failing to recognise the difference between performance ratings and management. He worries that companies are so keen to jettison the traditional annual reviews and performance metrics, that they are abandoning PM altogether. I’m not sure I agree with his observation (the number of HR managers citing PM as ‘important’ or ‘very important’ rose to 75% in 2015), but I do recognise his concern. If we fail to implement this new approach properly, it could cost us more than it’s worth.


With poor onboarding contributing to the failure of 50% of new hires, doing it properly has the potential to save organisations thousands (and some, much more). I covered the science behind onboarding earlier this year and discovered that 35% of companies spend nothing (as in $0) on onboarding. Of the rest, 40% think their programmes are ‘less than moderately effective’.

Innovations and trends to revolutionize performance management, employee engagement, L&D, freelancing and onboarding in 2015
In October, Google gave us a lesson on how to tackle this sticking point. Their analytics team experimented with multiple approaches before hitting on the Just-in-time option. Characterised by an email to a manager the night before a new hire starts, onboarding is left entirely up to managers providing they perform five key tasks:

  1. A role and responsibilities discussion.
  2. Match new hire with peer buddy.
  3. Assist new hire to build a social network.
  4. Conduct onboarding check-ins once a month for the first six months.
  5. Encourage open dialogue.

It might not sound particularly innovative, but Google’s data suggests this approach reduced new hire time to productivity by 25%.

Imagine how technology can improve this by starting the onboarding process from contract stage through to Day 1 and the first six months. Incredible.

Learning and Development (L&D)

I’ve delved into L&D topics many times this year. By far the most important takeaway was the benefit of aligning learning with strategy, and its ability to increase ROI, enhance engagement and speed organisational progression.

Like PM, L&D has been driven by technological advancement, with gamification and social learning taking centre stage in 2015. Offering benefits across the board, a recent study by PWC suggests the technological innovations in this field will become increasingly important as more Millennials enter the workforce. Statistics published this year indicated that L&D is more important to this group than any other, with 52% stating that fast career progression is more attractive than salary.

Employee Engagement

Arguably one of the most notable takeaways of 2015 was the discovery that work engagement and employee engagement are two separate entities, often operating independently of each other. This, coupled with the finding that individuals engage differently, goes some way towards explaining why employee engagement initiatives traditionally produce poor results.

Newly published data suggests that engagement is an increasingly important issue. The average employee is 6% less satisfied with their role in 2015 compared to 2014; experiencing a reduction in enablement, autonomy and a sense of accomplishment.


You probably don’t need me to tell you that freelancing is the new workforce megatrend. Driven by economic pressures and an increasing focus on lifestyle over work, this trend is particularly popular with Millennials, 38% of whom work freelance.

This isn’t a number that is likely to decrease anytime soon. PJMorgan’s Chauncy Lennon is studying the rise in freelancing and flexible work initiatives. His findings suggest that this new megatrend will change the business landscape. In the future, we can expect to see operations organised around workers, instead of workers organised around companies.

To sum up…

As research continues to offer us greater insight, and technology gives us new metrics and opportunities, it seems likely that the changes we’ve seen this year in PM and L&D will be mirrored in other areas, including employee engagement and onboarding, which are currently poorly managed in a number of industries.

It’s been a year of learning and discovery, improvements and advancements in the HR field this year. At Cognology, we’re excited about what 2016 will bring. If there are topics you’d be interested in hearing from me on next year, drop me a line. In the meantime, have a wonderful Christmas and festive season.


Up to 20% of staff turnover happens within the first 45 days of employment. Source: Urbanbound

Candidates are customers too: why onboarding matters

You might have heard that good talent is getting harder to come by. The causes include broadening employment opportunities, more frequent job-hopping, growth in the freelance workforce, and worsening talent shortages in specific markets and disciplines.

Not that everyone realises – in an earlier article, I revealed that ‘people risk’ is one of the most overlooked factors, with only 20% of the ASX 100 recognising that talent retention and attraction is a key business risk.

How could organisations best address this problem? Everything else being equal, it comes down to employee engagement, which in turn leans on whether employees feel respected, supported, recognised for their contributions and an integral part of the company culture.

The onboarding phase, the importance of which I began to delve into in an earlier article, is particularly crucial.

Ultimately, this is about adopting a certain attitude to your employees, and it begins with treating your candidates as you would your customers.

What does it mean to treat candidates as customers?

Before I get more abstract, it’s important to remember that your candidates are your customers – literally. According to a recent Candidate Experience report, more than 21% of candidates said that they were or have been customers to the places they applied for a job.


Onboarding matters

The ease with which candidates can now put themselves forward for roles means that many job adverts attract hundreds of hopefuls – all about to have their first real and personal interaction with your organisation. They will form an opinion about your company based on the impression you convey, and it’s up to you to make sure it’s a positive one.

It doesn’t make sense that companies will bend over backwards to ensure no disgruntled customer remains that way, yet expend only minimal effort in their recruitment or their onboarding programs (if they offer one at all.)

Just as nurturing a favourable company brand is important, developing and maintaining a great employer brand has become critical to your company’s overall image in the market. Word travels fast these days, and bad news always wins the race.

Think of onboarding as after-sales support

Top-notch transparency and crystal-clear, amiable communication are critical during the recruitment phase. But when it comes to building an outstanding employer brand, it’s onboarding new folks successfully that establishes an enviable company culture – one that will attract the best talent.

I wrote earlier article about the importance of a structured, ongoing, relationship-focused onboarding program and its benefits to employee retention and productivity.

That’s because after you select your candidate, they agree, and all the forms are signed, a critical judgment period begins. From this point until at least six months down the track, new recruits will make up their minds whether they’ve made the right decision or if they should prepare for a rapid abort.

Onboarding in the first 6 months

It’s common knowledge the damage a single bad online review can wreak, so why skimp when it comes to the new recruits? Offering expert after-sales support is a no-brainer, so it’s useful to think of onboarding similarly. When the product is trivial, buyer’s remorse might not lead to much; when it’s a person’s career choice they’re second guessing, any regret is likely to escalate into severe animosity.

And it’s not just a matter of avoiding bad press – the best onboarding programs generate powerful and attractive company cultures that employees rave about.

Word gets around – once your organisation is known as a great place to work, top talent will start to seek you.

Good onboarding pays employee attraction & retention dividends

Forbes reported on the great PR benefit that emerges from a sophisticated onboarding program. Again, this is about building up an excellent reputation in terms of your employer brand. Ideally, you want your reputation for care and generosity to go viral through the professional and social networks of your talent pools.

According to Forbes, tech giant Red Hat’s great onboarding program, which begins with a multi-day extravaganza of team building, matching mentors, and the final symbolic donning of their very own actual red fedora, has paid enviable dividends.

The company has 4/5 stars on Glassdoor.com from past and current employees, won Computerworld’s coveted ‘Top 100 Places to Work’ award and was recognised by Forbes as one of ‘America’s 200 Best Small Companies’.

It’s lauded for its workplace flexibility, culture, the quality of its employees, and its challenging, interesting work.

Employer brand visibility

With increasing visibility of employer brand through sites like Glassdoor and LinkedIn, candidates have easy access to the resources needed to broadly survey the employer landscape. And with company success strongly correlated with both the calibre of employees and employee engagement, this is absolutely the time to start thinking about these aspects – if you haven’t already.

Critical first impressions are made during the early days, so excellent onboarding is a must, and I’ll be taking a closer look at how to do employee onboarding the right way in a future blog – stay tuned!


Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.


We’ve got the Science on Successful Onboarding

Statistics suggest that poor hiring and onboarding leads to failure rates of over 50% of new starters.

While there is growing consensus about the importance of onboarding, I can’t help but notice a lack of understanding about what an onboarding process is supposed to achieve. Not only that, but it seems there’s plenty of uncertainty about how long and how involved it should be.  We’ve previously discussed onboarding as an aspect of managing under-performing staff. But its true purpose – and value – goes much deeper.

Research shows that it is the onboarding process, rather than any level of talent or experience, which determines whether a new employee becomes a productive, long term member of the organisation – or not. And with an average $11k per employee recruitment cost, getting on board with onboarding has never been more important.

I want to discuss how a strategic six month (or more) onboarding program can deliver a range of quantifiable employer and employee benefits including:

  • improved productivity,
  • faster acculturation, and
  • greater employee retention.

What’s going wrong with onboarding?

There’s a universal problem with employee retention, and in many cases it can be traced back (at least in part) to inadequate (or non-existent) onboarding programs.  Recent statistics show that half of all senior external hires fail within 18 months, half of all hourly workers leave new jobs within their first 120 days and that companies are losing up to 25% of all new hires in the first year.

Well-planned onboarding is critically important, and despite growing awareness of this issue, the process remains sadly under-developed.  In fact, around 35% of companies spend a grand total of $0 on onboarding (that $0 figure is not a mistake).   Even among organisations that do have onboarding programs, 40% rated their programs as ‘less than moderately effective.’

What should onboarding achieve?

The most important factors in successful onboarding are socialisation and cultural acclimation within your organisation. Everything else being equal, an employee’s effectiveness is strongly related to how well they can:

  • figure out the real issues that need to be addressed, and
  • identify who the important people are for a particular issue.

It takes a relational approach to the task of onboarding. Put your focus on establishing your new starter within the broad network of social relationships within the organisation. This will give them the capacity to work successfully within the company’s policies, routines, and technology and, as a result, with their subordinates, peers and superiors.

A six month timeframe for onboarding

Addressing the socialisation needs of new employees takes time. Relationships form slowly when left to grow at their own pace, so a robust onboarding program should ideally include short and long-term goals and measures as well as regular, ongoing review.

Opinions differ on the ideal length of an onboarding program, but they usually range from 90 days to nine months. A case study of First Horizon National’s HR policy, released by Forrester Research Inc, showed quantifiable benefits in employee retention from a 90 day schedule:

‘the overall voluntary turnover rate shows a decline from 19.5% in 2008 to 10.96% at the end of 2009.’

But if you consider that 70% of new hires make the decision to stay or leave an organisation within their first six months, it makes sense that your onboarding process covers that timeframe.

Research from The Aberdeen Group comparing companies with above-average employee retention rates (Best in Class) to those with below average retention (Laggards) also suggests that six months might be ideal.

  • 30% of Best in Class companies extend onboarding to the first six months compared with just 10% of Laggards
  • 90% of Best in Class incorporate socialisation compared to 75% of Laggards.

The quantifiable benefits of onboarding 

It’s important to remember that the onboarding process isn’t simply to improve employee comfort. It’s also about maximising the benefit of the first few months on the job and increasing the speed to full productivity.

In fact, according to the Brandon Hall Group, ‘organisations that have invested time and resources to improve the quality and scope of their onboarding process—the 27% that rated their onboarding process as more than moderately effective—are consistently outperforming the rest:

  • 78% saw increases in revenue in the last fiscal year (1 in 3 saw increases of more than 10%).
  • 64% saw positive gains in the majority of their organisational KPIs.
  • 54% saw significant gains in employee engagement metrics, including employee turnover, absenteeism, productivity, and employee satisfaction.’

In conclusion

Consider the true cost of current hiring practices – high cost of recruiting, lower than ideal employee retention, and lost productivity due to slow employee acclimation. If you had to put a dollar value on the cost of hiring every new employee, my guess is it wouldn’t be a pretty figure. With the facts to support it, there’s no longer any doubt that a comprehensive, well-defined, six-month onboarding process presents a smart and valuable investment choice for progressive companies today.


Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.