Building an Onboarding Program that Keeps Employees

By Les Shaver |

| Updated

9 minute read

By Les Shaver

Losing associates is costly. Here is how some companies are working to make a great first impression.

As an employee, your first impression of an organization matters.

A Glassdoor survey found that organizations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82 percent and productivity by more than 70 percent.
Unfortunately, many companies aren’t doing this right. Only 12 percent of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job onboarding new employees, according to Gallup.

Employee turnover can be as high as 50 percent in the first 18 months of employment, says the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). When those employees do leave, it can cost a company six to nine months of their salary to identify and onboard a replacement, according to SHRM.

These facts aren’t lost on apartment industry executives and human resource professionals. With a spate of new apartment openings during the past decade in many markets and a rise in hiring throughout the economy, onsite professionals (and those further up the corporate ladder) have had ample opportunity to leave their jobs for greener pastures before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many companies are taking a second—or in some cases, first—look at their onboarding program. Once they successfully identify problems in the process, they typically look for solutions that introduce their culture in a thoughtful, intentional way and then set them up with mentors.

Common Pitfalls

Tina West, CPM, Managing Director and Multifamily Practice Leader for CBRE’s Property Management business, doesn’t think organizations set out to provide a poor onboarding experience. “People are just so busy, more immediate deadlines are just so pressing,” West says. “We’re typically in a position of desperation. We have an opening, we finally find the right person and we throw him in the role and say, ‘OK, go.’ ”

By doing this, West says apartment operators are setting up new employees for failure. 

“We’re all trying to figure out how to step back and be more disciplined in our approach,” she says. “It takes discipline to not put your new team member on the frontline for five to 10 days because they’re in onboarding.”

Faced with this difficult labor market, FPI developed a recruitment department in 2017. “We now have six full-time recruiters and their focus is on retention,” says Vanessa Siebern, Senior Vice President at FPI Management. “We’ve improved our retention and our onboarding process, and we’ve really focused on enriching our employees.” 

Steve F. Hallsey, Managing Director for Wood Partners, thinks a good onboarding process begins with the right hire. “So many of us hire for needs,” he says. “When we hire a leasing consultant, we really have made every hiring manager know that the hire needs to have the 
right qualifications.”

Diane Batayeh, Chief Executive Officer of Village Green Holding LLC, agrees. She says it’s best not to think about onboarding as a singular event that happens when someone starts a new job.
“I call it a journey, and we take the approach that it begins with the interview process and making sure you’re hiring for the right competencies and the culture fit,” Batayeh says. “Some people may have this great skill set but they don’t assimilate well into the culture.” 

Once that person arrives, a company better provide a path forward. Pinnacle operates with a series of checklists for each position. Erinn Cassidy, Vice President of Human Resources for Pinnacle, says those checklists act as a roadmap for the training that they need to accomplish within the first 90 days. “People have found that if there’s not a plan and if there isn’t any real direction, the employee can get frustrated and leave,” says Cassidy. “Companies are looking to create a plan or a roadmap for onboarding.”

What they don’t want is to be given a desk and a computer password and told to get to work. They want a deeper, more thoughtful process. 

Taking the time to welcome and educate new employees also makes them feel welcome from the beginning. “We want them to feel like they’re on a real career path with us instead of just having a job and hopping around,” says Melissa L. Smith, Chief Administrative Officer for Fogelman Management Group. “We want them to feel knowledgeable about our company and feel engaged to fully manage an asset.”

Creating First Impressions

While the goal for many apartment firms is a good onboarding program that improves employee satisfaction and increases retention, there are different routes to get there. And the path you take could at least partially depend on your business strategy.

At Wood Partners, Hallsey wants a new hire in front of other people in their role as quickly as possible. “We’ve built a huge mentoring program by matching someone with that person from day one, following them through the first 90 days and then really making sure that there’s a lot of follow-up after that process,” he says. “I can’t bring someone up and have them learn as they go.”
What’s the rush for Wood Partners? It’s embedded in the company’s business strategy. As a merchant developer, Wood Partners is usually only holding most of its assets about 18 months after completion.
“My model is so different,” Hallsey says. “An employee will only be with me for 18 months, so the learning curve has to be very steep. We have made a full concerted effort to get these people up 
to speed.”

At the corporate level, Pinnacle wants new employees to know it is prepared for their arrival by setting them up with business cards, name plates, emails and phones so they can be effective and functioning from the beginning.

“We provide things that allow them to do their job more effectively,” Cassidy says. “What we know from experience is that the faster someone feels like they are part of the organization, the more satisfied that they are.” 

Village Green tries to introduce new hires to its culture right away. “We welcome people by personalizing their workstation with things we know they’ll enjoy and partnering them with mentors that will stick with them for their first year and beyond,” says Batayeh. “You can only educate someone so much in a new hire orientation.”
At Fogelman, new hires complete paperwork and training on their first day “Then, they can go back and get the training unique to their community, which new associates concur gives a good head start,” Smith says. 

By starting out at the corporate office, Smith says new hires can get a feel for the culture of the organization. “This gives them access to other contacts if they have questions,” she says. “They feel like they’re part of a bigger team.”

Blue Ridge Companies, also a third-party manager, sends new hires through an orientation program within the first 30 days of their hire date. 

“First, we train them on Blue Ridge policies and procedures,” says Gina Carter, Vice President of Portfolio Operations for the Blue Ridge Cos. “Then once they understand that, we invest in furthering their education through NAA designations, whether it’s a NALP, CAM or CAMT. And, we’ll pay for that. They have to obtain the applicable designation within the first three years of hire.”

After that new hires go through Blue Ridge’s E.P.I.C Leadership program, which is four stages. “By year seven, the team member is considered a Certified E.P.I.C. Leader and/or graduate of the program,” Carter says. “At Blue Ridge, we feel if we invest in training they grow into stronger individuals and we, in turn, grow into a stronger organization.”

Buddy Systems

As part of its onboarding system, Village Green also has a mentorship program, which is designed to help associates when they’re onsite and have a question. “They can go to their mentor quickly to say, ‘This just occurred, and I don’t really know how to deal with this,’ ” Batayeh says. “That has been very, very effective.”

Capstone, a third-party manager, also wants to get its new hires with their peers—after they go through a formal five- to 10-day onboarding process. “Then, when they get out into the field, they have a coach that walks by their side along the way to make sure that they’ve got it right and that they are getting the ongoing support that they need,” 
West says. 

Training is also embedded in the Capstone onboarding program, but West says companies need to tailor the training to the associate. “We need to train our people in much shorter snippets and in a variety of ways,” she says. “A lot of companies are also now doing personalized videos for orientation. Companies are recognizing more and more that our team members are really yearning for that training and education that we as an industry have a ways to go to create stronger platforms.”

Strong Results

While many apartment firms have made onboarding a real focus only during the past couple of years, so far, the results are good. “The more we engage our employees, the more our customer satisfaction scores are raised,” West says. “It’s so important to make sure that our team is engaged by ensuring that they have all the tools that they need to be successful. And when a team member feels prepared and supported, long-term partnerships are a reality.”

Given Wood Partners’ hold time, the goal is a little different. Hallsey says the biggest expectation he sees from incoming employees is wondering what the company, as their employer, is going to do for them and how the company is going to advance their skills.

“We’ve spent time on career development and building specific career paths for each position,” Hallsey says. “We’re not guaranteeing them that they’ll have a position to move into because of our model. But we do make a commitment that we’re going to give them the best tools and technology so that your value goes up if you ever decide to go somewhere else.”

While the purpose of an onboarding program is developing a committed employee who will stay, providing skills to help them throughout their careers is ultimately the way to cement true loyalty.

Les Shaver is the Director of Content for NAA and can be reached at lshaver

Finding Top Talent

Because the industry’s line of work has become an intentional career path, most leasing consultants and property managers who become top performers usually have had a couple years of successful, related experience, either at new or existing apartment communities. But there’s no single trajectory. 

Many colleges now offer courses that will give candidates interested in these real-estate areas a leg-up through an internship or help them land their first job. Ball State University, University of North Texas, Virginia Tech and other institutions offer property management and related programs. Others come through recruitment firms or ads placed on social media sites, such as LinkedIn and, says Steve F. Hallsey of Wood Partners. 

Job fairs are another avenue and the hospitality sector has also become a good hunting ground because of the similar services its employees perform. “They’re focused on meeting customers’ needs—often with a smile and a proactive approach to making their stays memorable so they return,” says Victoria Morgan of Greystar. 

Many companies also look within their ranks and elevate those they consider stars, often with extra training. Both Hallsey’s company and RKW Residential pair new hires with a company mentor. The NRP Group established its Community Manager Enrichment Property program two years ago to tap top managers and train them to help select the next high-performing staff, says Phillip Boatwright, Senior Regional Vice President, NRP Group. One direct effect is that the program has reduced property management staff turnover by nearly 21 percent. 

Some companies also reach out to outside specialists. Marcie Williams’ staff at RKW seeks help from apartment associations and stellar customer service organizations like the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain’s Leadership Center, which designs and delivers strategies to help brands gain competitive advantages. Luxury Living Chicago Realty is hired by many owners so it can focus on quickly leasing to start capturing revenue faster than if the owners had to handle that work themselves, says Aaron Galvin, CEO and Co_Founder of Luxury Living Chicago Realty. 

Asking current staff to make referrals and rewarding them is yet another way. This is the approach LMC has taken, says Samantha Keller. “We pay $1,000 for an hourly associate and $1,500 for a salaried associate,” she says. 

Written by Barbara Ballinger