New Hires Say 'Adios' Before Even Starting

Candidates are disappearing during onboarding, wooed by competing companies. Should firms rev up their processes?

The offer letter was put together and promptly accepted. An onboarding process for the first day at work was being prepared. And then … the candidate quit. “I have thousands of people in my hiring pipeline, and many are disappearing before their start dates,” says the talent acquisitions manager of a large firm.

It seems each week presents new wrinkles in the topsy-turvy world of corporate hiring and workers quitting. The latest is that the churn now begins before candidates make it to their start dates. In leaving before starting, experts say, workers are exposing a weakness in a traditionally slow onboarding process that has long plagued companies and employees alike. “It’s absolutely necessary for people to figure this out and speed up processes,” says Radhika Papandreou, sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Travel, Leisure, and Hospitality practice. “I don’t think they know how to hire fast and screen efficiently.”

Historically, large firms have taken months to hire, and then after making an offer, they may take several weeks to finalize various background checks and launch onboarding efforts. The hiring process itself began to speed up both as firms tried to staff up in the budding economy and as millions of people unexpectedly quit their jobs. Now, experts say, firms are trying to speed through the whole process. “It’s all about getting new hires to Day 1,” says Jacob Zabkowicz, vice president and general manager of global recruitment process outsourcing at Korn Ferry. “Right now, candidates interview with five companies and accept an offer, and a week later, a second company gives a better offer.”

To be sure, some industries, such as travel and manufacturing, are facing this more than other sectors. And some firms are not racing to change, opting simply to make do with a smaller staff. But experts believe the unusual degree of quitting may spur on permanent changes to onboarding, which to date has had little market imperative to improve.

The biggest holdup for many companies is background checks, which are particularly sluggish due to understaffed courts and short-staffed background check companies, says Kristy Steiner, vice president for RPO client services at Korn Ferry. She suggests avoiding this logjam by offering contingency hiring, where new employees are allowed to begin jobs provisionally, and employers can release employees if issues emerge. “Money talks, and speed to get to the job and pay makes a difference,” she says. The math is compelling: if two jobs offer the same salary, and one starts a month earlier, that’s an 8% annual pay boost for that employee.

Organizational psychologist Miriam Nelson, a leader of Korn Ferry’s assessment and succession solutions business, encourages firms to thoroughly evaluate candidates earlier in the process, sometimes before the offer or acceptance. In this market, it isn’t a waste of time, she says. “Even if the candidate is not selected, that person is potentially viable for other roles.”

The hiring boom, which started in the spring when the economy picked up as the pandemic began to subside, has had no indication of slowing down. Even so, the travel and leisure industry, for example, is in a pitched battle for hourly workers. Papandreou encourages firms to distinguish themselves by quickly showing new candidates their future career opportunities. A motivated new hire who sees the new job as a path to long-term success is unlikely to be wooed away by bells and whistles like signing bonuses. “It’s not, ‘You will be at this job for your whole career,’ but showing people with the ambition to move up their paths into the industry.”