Over the past year, Big Fuel has seen its revenue more than triple, to $40 million, and its head count swell, from 70 employees to 140. But with growth comes growing pains. Like many start-ups, the New York City-based social-media marketing agency had never bothered with a formal orientation program and was finding it difficult to train all these new staff members—many of whom came from disparate industries and lacked experience in social media. As a result, Big Fuel began to experience a problem it never had: employee turnover. As the churn mounted, Avi Savar, the company's founder and chief creative officer, grew concerned that the company would lose its competitive edge when pitching clients. "It's a matter of staying ahead of the curve," he says. So last June, Big Fuel unveiled an onboarding process for new hires. Here's how the system worked for one recent hire.
Step 1: Meet your colleagues
Taylor VanAllen joined Big Fuel in November from PicsCliq, an online sales platform for photographers, where she managed the company's content on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. She was hired as a community manager to work on Big Fuel's T-Mobile account.
VanAllen's first day at Big Fuel began with a visit to human resources, where she met with Yashira Guzman, the company's HR generalist. But VanAllen was quickly handed off to her new colleagues on the T-Mobile team, who walked her through the client's current projects and explained Big Fuel's best practices and communications processes. VanAllen, who was accustomed to the largely unstructured work environments of start-ups, appreciated the rigor of the orientation. "It helped me feel comfortable working with people from so many departments," she says.
Step 2: Back to school
VanAllen's orientation didn't end there. Because Big Fuel's employees come from a range of industries—from public relations to television production—they often bring vastly different approaches to social media. To get people on the same page as quickly as possible, the company developed a curriculum for new hires called Big Fuel University, which is designed to teach the company's approaches to social media, business and client strategy, and values. In November, the curriculum was expanded to a series of 12 courses and made available online. It now includes videos from each of the company's department heads and case studies of clients, as well as short quizzes at the end of some units.
Employees go through the curriculum at their own pace; it takes most people about a week and a half to complete it. VanAllen still finds herself going back to the material during breaks in the workday. It has helped her quickly understand the workflow between departments, she says. For instance, she may work with someone from analytics or strategy to evaluate selected content on T-Mobile's Facebook page. "It's a great social-media dictionary to have on hand," VanAllen says.
Step 3: Watch and learn
The company also has begun an informal apprenticeship program, in which senior employees mentor new hires within their departments and on their project teams, which include staff members from a number of departments. VanAllen has been working closely with Ross Sheingold, one of the company's channel managers, who leads brand management for T-Mobile's account. Under his wing, she says, she has become more aware of new platforms—such as Pinterest, a site on which users can compile and share clippings from other websites—and their impact on social-media strategy. Plus, VanAllen says, consistently working alongside senior employees has given her more opportunities for career development. "I wanted to do community management from a different angle," she says. "This is not only a professional match but a personal match."
Step 4: Face time with the bigwigs
As Big Fuel's head count rises, the company's senior partners have fewer day-to-day interactions with rank-and-file employees. So the firm's three partners take turns leading a monthly session known as "drinking the fuel," in which they meet with a randomly chosen group of eight to 10 employees, both new and old. The partners generally talk about how to apply Big Fuel's three core values—humanity, innovation, and collaboration—in the real world and ask employees about their experiences at Big Fuel. They try to keep it informal; the sessions are usually held off-site, at restaurants. "We're still a people-based company," Savar says. "We want to make sure the human connection is still there."
Because of the company's brisk pace of hiring, it has taken some time to get around to every employee. VanAllen, for instance, has yet to "drink the fuel." Even so, she says, she hasn't had any problems getting access to the company's leadership team. "They have a true open-door policy here," she says.
Step 5: Tell us how you really feel
After a month or so on the job, new hires meet with the company's vice president of talent and operations, Anthony Onesto. He hasn't had a chance to debrief VanAllen, but Onesto says the feedback he receives goes right back into the orientation process. Several employees suggested periodic refresher courses in Big Fuel University. Others asked for more in-person discussions with senior employees—something the company plans to initiate. "This is an iterative process," Onesto says. "We're always building more into it."
And the verdict?
Although it is too soon to assess the onboarding process's impact, Onesto says the company's turnover rate fell to about 10 percent in 2011, compared with 15 percent in the previous year. And employee response has been so favorable that Big Fuel is developing additional courses that will cover each of the company's functions in more depth. The process has also impressed would-be clients and potential employees, says Big Fuel's CEO, Jon Bond. "Social media is a very complicated subspecialty, and there's a lot to learn," Bond says. "Formalizing a training program has been very valuable for us."
Turn, Turn, Turn
Employee turnover has been falling over the past five years, and it’s no surprise—in a recession, people who have jobs tend to cling to them. But that may be changing. The percentage of workers leaving jobs voluntarily has been rising in recent months, according to John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “That’s a sign that people are more open to being wooed by other companies,” Challenger says. What does this mean for employers? You can’t count on a tough economy to keep people in their seats anymore.