What Improv Can Teach You About Holding On To New Hires

Your onboarding program sucks. Here are tips on keeping your new recruits on their toes, from the masters of improv.

What Improv Can Teach You About Holding On To New Hires
[Image: Flickr user Very Quiet]

Ask most leaders and they’ll tell you: Perhaps the only thing better than hiring great employees is keeping them.


And yet, pause a minute and look around: How many of your recent hires have their eyes on the door?

It’s often hard to tell, though, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; employee turnover rates are the highest in a broad swath of industries and leaders everywhere are familiar with the threat.

Of course, losing any good employee hurts, but watching new hires walk has a particular sting to it–especially when you add up all the costs of replacing them. Some experts say that numbers can range as high as two-times an employee’s annual salary considering what it takes to recruit, hire, onboard, train, and get an employee fully engaged and productive.

What’s more, top executives and HR leaders should heed the alarm sounded in a recent survey of more than 1,000 people, who were polled about their experience as new employees. A shocking 31% of those polled had left their new position within the first six months of employment–and the “exit rate” for new hires was as high as 17% for one week to three months after starting on the job.

A quick drill-down on those new-hire survey results sheds important light on a common culprit for why many new hires head out so soon: One out of every six new employees had considered quitting due to poor onboarding.

Which begs some important questions:


Are new hires experiencing a bait and switch?

After the courtship and dating of the recruitment process, what’s it like at your shop for new employees once they say “yes” and walk through the door?

When’s the last time your HR department won high marks for truly engaging all of your employees, including the new ones?

More specifically: Does your HR group have anything in the works that pushes the envelope, like Netflix’s hands-off vacation policy?

In fact, with the talent shortages and the pressure on retaining employees, HR should take a lesson from the marketing department. This is a battle for eyeballs and attention spans. It’s about authenticity and messages that truly engage people–breaking through the clutter by being genuine, more transparent, spirited, and even entertaining.

Some companies like Zappos excel at attracting the best and keeping them. Last year alone, Zappos had more than 31,000 job applicants and hired just 1.5% of them. And the company’s unique month-long onboarding program wins accolades for stressing both cultural fit and customer service–both of which are key to delivering the “wow!” that defines the Zappos brand.


Winning Audiences

One key challenge in onboarding employees–like many of the challenges around HR–involves winning them over. And from my perch, that’s about winning audiences–something that we know a lot about at The Second City, the world-renowned improvisational theater company.

For 55 years we have connected with audiences every night, and we do this with genuine, unique content that people relate to because it holds a mirror up to their world. A well-worn maxim around here is: “People laugh at the truth.” And when they do, we know we’re really connecting with them. It’s what the improvisational comedy pros around here call winning an audience.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: PowerPoint is not how you win your audience. So before you put the finishing touches on the last of the 200 slides in your “on-boreding” presentation, consider a few tips for developing powerful, engaging, relevant HR content and communications:

1. Go for Short, Relevant, Useful, Surprising

Attention spans are plummeting all over the world–and not just with Millennials. People bore easily–they always have–and now more than ever. Throw them a content curve ball: Get your crowd’s attention with something powerful, unique, short, and sweet! And then watch the buzz build–how people share it, spread it around, and talk about it.

2. Shelve the Business-Speak

Here’s the thing about people: They have choices. And audiences can choose to tune you out. We’re all pretty good about tuning out official-sounding stuff, so make it real, authentic, and grounded in everyday lives. These are people, right, vs. “human resources?” HR doesn’t always need to sound like HR.

3. Focus on Show vs. Tell

Talking heads tell us what’s going on. But real people set in real situations show us. And if you polled your people, no doubt they’d say they dread the former and love the latter. People get bored and tune you out, remember? Show them how things work instead. Go beyond the blah blah, drive some energy, set the stage, and create a great scene. They’ll love you for it. Even better: They’ll remember it.


4. Ditch Print: Go for Video

Ever see an HR manual go viral? Nobody has. Video rules today like never before–especially short, entertaining video content that’s easy to digest and makes people laugh. A few short years ago, what was called “the YouTube generation” is now everyone, everywhere. Don’t be the last to join the movement!

5. Make People Laugh

Funny stuff opens people up and gets them engaged. Truth is: People laugh at the truth and they know it when they see it. When we’re shaking our heads or nodding–we’re in it, reacting to it, connecting. Afraid you can’t be funny? Look around for who is and collaborate on something powerful.

Finally, a lesson from one of the greatest entertainers, the legendary Walt Disney: “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something, than educate people and hope they were entertained.”

Steve Johnston is president of Second City Communications, the business solutions division of The Second City and creators of RealBiz Shorts for business.