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A Sweet Onboarding Treat: DQ Serves Up an Improved Onboarding Experience

LAS VEGAS — The employee experience is getting more and more attention these days, as a tight labor market means organizations must engage workers immediately – even prior to their start date.


It wasn’t all that long ago that Minneapolis-based Dairy Queen realized its employee experience was missing one key element: a stellar onboarding process.

In his session, “The Forgotten Onboarding Experience: Dairy Queen’s ‘Sweet Experience’ for Employees and Managers” at Human Resource Executive’s 2019 HR Technology Conference and Exposition, David Wheeler, executive vice president of HR, shared how DQ went from bland to savory.

“When you show up on your first day, you should be treated as the most important employee they’ve hired,” Wheeler said. This starts both the employee and the organization on the right foot. It also aligns with the organization’s mission: to create positive memories for all who touch DQ.

But it hasn’t always been that way at DQ. For one, the organization’s 550 corporate employees were “geographically dispersed,” which often caused onboarding hiccups. Additionally, the organization’s onboarding process was a paperwork nightmare, more focused on compliance than anything else.

“If your onboarding experience is really just paperwork and compliance, what really is it?” Wheeler said. “First impressions make lasting impressions.”

So, DQ realized it needed to re-evaluate the way it approached onboarding. Was it really necessary to have a new employee spend an entire day listening to boring presentations on benefits and filling out mountains of paperwork – paperwork that would later be entered into a HRIS system by hand? Where was the “value add” in the process?

DQ’s HR got to work, establishing their objectives:

  • Engage employees from the acceptance of the offer.
  • Enable employees to immediately start work on day one.
  • Give managers back time – both their own and the new employee’s.
  • View employees strategically.
  • Create a partnership with HR, managers and new hires.

Once the team figured out what they wanted to accomplish, they looked at how they would approach the task.

The first step was easy, relatively speaking: turn the paper-based system into a digital experience. Automating that part of the process meant less time spent by HR manually entering the information into a system, which in turn reduced the possibility of errors. In fact, Wheeler noted that this switch alone turned a days-long process into an hours-long endeavor.

Part of the switch to an automated process also included a change in how the necessary forms were delivered and received from the new hire. Instead of having the new employee fill out all the paperwork on their first day, they were sent an email prior to their start date that included links to a new hire portal, which could be accessed via computer or mobile device. It also included a welcome video that served to give an overview of the organization’s culture – an element aimed at getting the new hire aligned with the organization sooner than later. And, by getting the administrative tasks done ahead of their start date, the employee was able to jump into their job on day one.

Another critical element of the automation process was setting up a “task list,” of sorts. This list, managed by HR, would show where the new hire was at in the onboarding process and what tasks need to be completed: forms, background check, getting any needed equipment, etc.

The second step in creating the new process focused on the role of the manager. What role should they play? The answer was getting the employee assimilated and helping them create an internal network.

DQ also established a manager task list for onboarding, laying out exactly what managers need to do and when to ensure a consistent experience for all new hires.

The third step — alignment and development — really showcased the partnership between HR, managers and employees, or the “three-legged stool,” as Wheeler put it.

“If one of us fails in our responsibilities, the whole thing comes crashing down,” he said.

During this step, HR can assess data from its HRIS system to determine if the new hire has any skill gaps that may need to be addressed so that the employee can do their job better. All new hires are also required to complete immersion training, where they spend a day at one of the organization’s two corporate-owned stores. Wheeler notes that this hands-on training goes a long way in aligning the employee and the organization, helping them understand how decisions made at corporate effect franchisees, as well as how their specific role can have an impact.

This is also the stage in which both managers and new employees discuss goals, both from the organization’s standpoint and the employee.

And, to add the cherry on top of the sundae, DQ also assigns a “Blizzard Buddy” to the new employee. The buddy is typically outside of their specific team, though they may be somewhat connected. The buddy helps in network creation and can serve as a go-to for the employee when they have questions they don’t want to ask their manager.

Wheeler noted that “Blizzard Buddies” is not a volunteer gig. “But it’s a position people aspire to because it shows the company believes in them and trusts them,” he said. He also pointed out that by pairing up the employee with another employee outside of their core group, it helps “break down organization barriers” and gives the office a smaller, more family-like feel.

The Results Are In
Once DQ had launched its new onboarding process, it did what any self-respecting organization would do: It looked for data. It sent out a survey to recent new hires, asking how the experience was. 100% said, “I had all the information necessary for a successful first day.”

Using other trackable metrics, DQ also found that all new hires had all necessary equipment on day one – no more missing laptops! The organization also received positive feedback on getting the paperwork done ahead of time and also saw an increase in compliance.

And while the results have been good thus far, DQ isn’t calling it quits just yet. It plans to continue to refine and enhance its onboarding tools and further integrate the process with its learning management system. The organization also wants to rollout the new process to its international employees, as well as expand the process for promoted new managers. Wheeler said he expects that more tasks will be automated, such as new hire surveys and pulse check-ins.

“Our employees are the significantly most valuable thing we own, but we weren’t necessarily treating them that way,” Wheeler said. By looking at the new employee as a “customer,” the organization was better able to align them to the organization’s strategy and culture.

“The manager really wins, as they have an employee who has a great onboarding experience.”

About the Author

Stephanie N. Rotondo is managing editor of Workspan magazine.

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