The Importance of Employee Connection Starts With Onboarding: How Debbie Gunning, VP of People at Human Interest, Makes it a Priority

When you work at a company called Human Interest, it would only make sense that employee connection is central to your company culture and employee experience. But for Debbie Gunning, VP of People, connection has been at the forefront of her career since she discovered the field of recruitment and talent acquisition. Connection has been a long-running theme in her jobs and life. That was the centerpoint of her conversation with Amanda Berry, Manager of Corporate Brand & Communications and Head of Internal Communications at Simpplr on the 18th Cohesion Podcast.

Human Interest is a unique company. They offer 401(k) plans for small and medium businesses that are affordable because they eliminate transaction fees for companies and their employees. With thousands of customers, they make saving accessible with end-to-end technology that is simple by signing employees up quickly with no paperwork and no confusion. Human Interest solves big business administrative and compliance issues for SMBs.

At Human Interest, Debbie doesn’t see herself only as the VP of People. She sees herself as a quarterback leading a team of pure HR functionality. Recruitment and talent acquisition touches every organization, department, and team. Learning and development, employee relations, and company culture are all rolled into one function that operates daily. As a quarterback, Debbie is instrumental in creating and calling plays by reading the field of employees.

“I consider myself the person that, like quarterbacks, the whole thing is to provide support to my team to impact all of those areas,” Debbie explained. “And then I see myself as the remover of blockers. I always tell people, ‘Call me when you need a thought partner, or you need a roadblock removed,’ because that’s what I’m actually here to do is help with.”

Employee Onboarding During COVID

During the COVID, every employer struggled with employee onboarding. As companies expanded, they also had difficulty maintaining connection, company culture, and improving employee experience due to the frequent changes every business was experiencing. Debbie and her team focused primarily on the onboarding process.

Human Interest began by concentrating on how people communicate as they transitioned from in-person onboarding to being entirely virtual. First, they needed to prioritize what tools were required for what function. For example, how the company used the phone and email as the main methods of communication versus Slack and Zoom. Second, they needed to plan how to onboard remotely. Lastly, they had to ask and answer how a company supports employees once onboard, if they could get them connected, and engaged and keep that in a continuous motion.

Unfortunately, a virtual environment can be highly complicated and stressful. According to Debbie, to minimize the burden, they put “a lot of energy into wellness benefits” to support people through the struggles of COVID. They realized that as the company emerged from the pandemic, the burden was still complicated, and people were not taking time off or breaks for self-care. But for the new onboarding employee, the stress is multiplied. That is where Debbie and her team recognized they needed to start at the beginning of the employee journey to create the right experience.

A Tactical Approach

Debbie shared an amazing statistic. An empowered employee onboarding process can improve employee retention by 82% and increase productivity by over 70%. Human Interest believes it is not only about creating an impressive onboarding process experience. It’s about completing it with class. Debbie stated that onboarding cannot be “some one-off of let’s just start this person here and this person over here.” The effort must be coordinated. Because the true cost of a bad hire is too great to not pay attention.

Additionally, they studied that there is “some correlation between exits under even six months and not being part of the full onboarding experience.” So, they set out to create a world-class onboarding process by hiring an individual to develop and lead the company culture. Together they understood that with the passion, energy, and mindfulness the individual brought to the company, they could build an onboarding program with meaning and intention behind every activity.

“I think onboarding starts from the moment you sign an offer, right?” Debbie shared. Human Interest wanted a program that was a high touch from the moment the employee signed their offer. Every contact from the company was purposeful without any surprises. “It’s stressful enough showing up for the first day of work, being the new person,” Debbie stated further. “And if you don’t know what’s in store for you that week, it’s not good.”

As a result, Debbie and her team constructed high-volume personal reach outs. They went beyond delivering corporate swag, too. They were creative, different, and unique. They wove a combination of FaceTime sessions with executive leadership, who presented an overview of their individual responsibilities and specialties, descriptions of their departments, and their overall company vision. The team also offered from the beginning a more tactical approach to HR, benefits, and enabled all new employees to understand who were the people-assets and resources they needed for support. 

It was not enough, however, to present employees with a core understanding of all that was required to accomplish. They connected each new employee with people and opportunities to meet together regularly, which they term a “buddy break.”

“We have people who volunteer throughout the company to spend 15 minutes having a coffee chat just about life, about whatever, getting to know each other. And people have said that this unique element has helped them on board, just knowing other people in the company when they start and having those contacts.”

Connection on the individual, departmental, and company levels from day one! Brilliant and successful. To hear the rest of Debbie’s success onboarding story and how they accomplished it at scale, go to Simpplr’s Cohesion Podcast page or listen to it also on Apple Podcast and Spotify.


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