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Onboarding & Retention: Strategies from Industry Experts

Thank you to the following HR professionals for their feedback and contributions:

Satoko Baba, HR Director

Danaher Japan

Akeo Masuda, Senior HR Manager

Thermo Fisher Scientific

Ryuichiro Sugimoto, Head of Talent Acquisition for APJ North - Japan, Greater China and Korea

Adobe Incorporated

Suwami Hayashibara, Director, HR, Business Administration & IT

Microport Orthopedics

Senior HR Director

Global Medical Device Company


Onboarding and retention are critical components of any successful hiring strategy, yet they are becoming increasingly challenging in today's fast-paced and competitive job market. With employees changing jobs more frequently and companies struggling to keep up with the latest trends in employee engagement and job satisfaction, it's essential for you to understand the current challenges facing onboarding and retention.

This report will provide a detailed overview of the key challenges facing onboarding and retention in the Japanese job market and offer practical strategies for addressing these challenges. From understanding the changing values of employees and the impact of remote work on engagement, this report will equip you with knowledge and tools you need to improve your onboarding and retention efforts.

Onboarding and Retention Challenges

1. Competitive market

In Japan, it is still a candidate-driven market despite layoffs in various industries. Therefore, professionals with certain qualifications are less worried about changing jobs frequently, as they know that there are many companies that will compete for them due to the lack of candidates in the market.

2. Speed and ease of interviews & visibility in the market

Interviewing has become quick and ‘easy’ with virtual meetings. This means that the employee has engaged with more companies and recruiters before they have joined your company. Also, with more professionals changing jobs, candidates have an increased network of ex-colleagues who can help connect them to new opportunities.

3. Emotional moves are increasing 

There is a trend in the market, that among candidates who leave a company in the first 2 years, a large majority are leaving within 0-6 months before they get comfortable and accustomed to the new position. Values for many professionals have changed and many companies have not accommodated these changes. An emphasis on job security shifted to job satisfaction. Satisfaction is an emotion and that is where many companies are missing out in onboarding and retention. 

Past: Employees might choose to stay in a tough situation in favor of stability and security. They were more ‘connected’ to the company as well. Remote work has its merits but employee engagement is not one. 

Present: When an employee is not happy with anything related to the work content, culture, or expectations after joining a company, they more often make a quick move within the first 3-6 months. Candidates with even moderate qualifications have more job opportunities and less of an aversion to change.

4. Job-hopper stigma is changing

We experienced the Lehman shock in 2008-2009 and then the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, now Coronavirus. These events have led to companies downsizing and a natural 1-3 job changes on many candidates’ CVs. Professionals have recognized that job change is not so severe and companies have accepted more job change frequency as a norm. Additionally, freelance, contract, and advisory work is now more popular for professionals.

5. More immediate options

The employee may have rejected other opportunities but these companies (and recruiters) will continue to court them. This is also true of their past employer. “Boomerang” employees who return to their former employers have become far more numerous in recent years.

The costs

Losing candidates late in the recruitment process and during the first year (or more) of employment is a drain on resources, brand, and efficiency. Also, operationally and commercially, losing capable employees is demoralizing. A few bad experiences can quickly tarnish a company's reputation and make it increasingly difficult to attract top talent in the market.

Onboarding and Retention Solutions

1. Process and presence

Build a system that encourages access and communication between the employee and HR, hiring manager and direct supervisor, and possibly, the stakeholders present in the interview process.

2. Compete and customize

Consider what factors are most important to your employees and what other progressive companies in the market are doing to attract and retain talent. What merits and incentives can be tied to a longer duration of employment? (i.e. RSUs, Deferred bonuses, and incentives)

3. Feedback

Actively check in with the new employee at scheduled points to learn from them about their thoughts and feelings in the first few weeks and months.

4. Alignment

Ensure the employee is getting the right training aligned with what is being asked of them by their boss.

5. Awareness and action

Track your successes and failures and take action alongside company stakeholders to continuously improve your onboarding and retention program.

How Your Recruitment Strategy Can Affect Onboarding and Retention

Hiring Manager and Talent Acquisition alignment

Any new hire should have an objective or a purpose. What is success in 6 months, 1 year, and beyond? How does your company track and communicate this with the employee transparently - and frequently? These are considerations to be discussed when adding headcount. Share data-backed insights such as certain positions and functions where talent attraction and retention have been challenging and propose individual solutions to these challenges.

Plan for the ideal candidate experience during the interview process

First impressions count. They can establish personal feelings of trust and commonality of purpose or they could raise small red flags.

  1. Scheduling: Over-communicate with your recruiter or the candidate directly to ensure scheduling is done smoothly. Set expectations with all parties involved on the interview process and timeline. Minimize rescheduling (global interviewers are often guilty of this).

  2. Sell-side: Be on the sell-side and train every interviewer to do this well. The candidates are also interviewing you. Be optimistic, engaging, passionate, and personal.

  3. Qualifications and requirements: Have clear qualifications and requirements and a prepared, concise method on how to assess these. Does each interviewer have a clear agenda on which areas they are to assess and which questions to ask to do so?

  4. Competitive interview processes: 3-5 interviews is ideal for mid-senior level candidates. Some companies feel that technical assessments/tests, case interviews, and/or presentations are the best way to assess (and quite often they are). If you have these steps, it is important to consider the candidate’s feelings and time as well. Get them done in a timely manner and provide feedback soon after these steps. 

Replicate and improve on success

What stories of success do you have within the organization (i.e. new joiners who have done particularly well in a similar role or area) and how can you replicate this and improve on it? Could this person be a mentor or a part of the onboarding process?

Tips for Improving Your Onboarding Process

Culture and values are a great place to start

Within week 1 of onboarding (the earlier the better), schedule meetings with key managers, team members, and executives who can welcome the new employee(s) with a unified vision and purpose. This is an important part of early engagement and can frame your company's culture and values ahead of many of the other protocols and processes that the new employee will be expected to learn. A few examples are brief introductions to the below:

  • Employee Engagement Strategy

  • Promotion process and providing clear milestones 

  • Explanation of a transparent incentives program (RSUs, incentive, and bonus payout and timelines)

  • Career development training (internal and external opportunities)

  • Team building activities

  • Family engagement  

  • The company's CSR plans including SDGs (if applicable)

Announce your new hire(s)

A simple email letting existing employees know about the new hire is enough to involve everyone in making the new employee feel welcome. This can sometimes be done ahead of the start date or can be done during company meetings during the first week or month. This does not have to be a big announcement, but it is important that the new employee feels welcomed by the company, not just their team.

Have a mentorship program

An effective mentorship program can foster engagement, enforce positive culture, and allows you to empower future leaders in the company by being a mentor to new joiners. This does not have to be someone on the same team. The mentor should go through some type of training with HR on how to focus on encouragement, provide solutions, and navigate within the company. They should also know how and when they need to report issues to HR and upper management. It is often a good idea to introduce them during the early stage of your onboarding process.

Discuss job objectives, expectations, and reporting

While the job description should not have changed from the initial recruitment to the first day, some business situations and/or company processes may have changed. This is natural. These may affect some expectations and priorities. It is important that the manager communicates the up-to-date state of affairs and sets clear expectations, objectives, and milestones. This should include how to report on each matter. 


First off, in regard to probation periods, HR and the Hiring Manager should be well aware of Japan Labor Law and consult their legal team if they do not. Probation terms should be clearly outlined in the Offer and Employee Handbook and discussed during the offer process. This is a sensitive topic where HR should lead the conversation and process and ensure that hiring managers are aligned. If performance metrics such as KPIs are attached to probation, this should be discussed again during the above discussion of the first 3 months' goals and objectives. 

Create a robust immersion onboarding program for Japan

This takes stakeholder commitment and participation. HR and onboarding teams can drive the process only as far as the company's infrastructure and management support. Management should not only support the onboarding program but should understand and be prepared for the work expected of them throughout. Content should be localized in Japanese as much as possible. Several HR Directors commented that hiring managers are far less likely to follow the process of an English language content-heavy training module. 

One HR Director told me how he recently implemented a system where the Talent Acquisition Inhouse Recruiters are assigned a KPI for the new joiner's completion of the full-onboarding process. This involved having them follow up with the new hire ahead of joining to ensure they had all the onboarding documents as well as with the hiring manager throughout the onboarding and integration period. The HR Director noted that it is important to have a seamless process and joint accountability between Talent Acquisition and HR operations/business partners rather than simply a hand-off.

In a previous company, one of the HR Directors assigned an HR employee to be the Experiences Driver with a focus on improving Candidate Experience, Onboarding Experience, and Employee Experience. This was referred to internally as "3X". The HR employee was relieved of traditional TA duties such as scheduling interviews and agency communications so that she could focus on improving 3X. During the interviews, the Experience Driver would ask interviewers to report their impression of the candidate. If the interviewers were overall positive, the Experience Driver would then join and lead the final part of the interview to further engage the candidate. After joining the company, the Experience Driver then served as a mentor through regular 1on1 meetings, creating a consistent point of contact and fostering psychological safety for employees to express their honest feelings.

Another HR Director told us that their company has a 90-day onboarding program where the new hire is focused on learning and is not responsible for performance (learning of business, people, organization, core values and behaviors, and themselves). This is a notable investment by the company so the impact and usefulness of the onboarding curriculum are very important. Additionally, early on during COVID remote work, its group company saw a dip in engagement scores for new joiners. Quickly they set up a creative meet-and-greet virtual engagement plan that entailed having the General Manager lead radio/vlog-style interviews with employees. This helped new joiners understand the sense of community while also being a powerful display from the top about the stakeholder commitment.

Check-in regularly

Employee satisfaction and performance require continuous communication. Build a process for checking in regularly and collecting feedback on their experience. A good rule is to check in on days one, seven, 14, 30, 60, and 90.

One HR Director commented on the fine balance between the feeling of micromanagement (a negative feeling) and “teach me what I need to succeed and meet company expectations”. An effective onboarding process should be built with messaging the latter.   

1on1 by managers: While the expectation to carry out 1on1s might be a part of the company's policy, the efficacy can vary - often depending on the managers skill at managing new joiners and their commitment to new joiners success. Particularly during onboarding, HR/Onboarding teams should build a policy and process that all managers follow.

Elicit feedback and contribution 

Empower new hires to contribute to the interview and hiring process by sharing their experience and areas for improvement. This can be customized for the type of hire and can be done at different stages and timelines. It is important, however, to elicit feedback from all new hires.

Fast-track leadership:By eliciting feedback and encouraging contribution, you are also opening a door for employees who might be fast-tracked into larger leadership roles. The fast-track concept should be discussed with all stakeholders while revamping your onboarding and retention program.

Recognize influencers: This is different from moving an employee to a fast-track. An influencer might be positive or negative. It is important for HR and stakeholders to recognize influencers to best understand how to address their comments and ideas. 

Use analytics and monitoring techniques

Several HR Directors shared how they used analytics to help guide them in making continuous improvements to both onboarding and retention.

One example that an HR Director gave me is that her company struggled to retain 2nd-year employees. Through analysis of employee engagement surveys, they found that 2nd-year employees had overall lower scores. 1st-year employees' and 3rd-year employees' scores were up, however. They decided to build further engagement with 2nd-year employees by implementing a learning system where they would learn about other departments, business divisions, and functions.

Very often, HR and hiring managers experience new joiners leaving them suddenly without any indication or explicit warning signs. One HR Director shared the importance of Monitoring to mitigate these 'sudden leavers'. He proposed having hiring managers report on new hires monthly using tools to visualize.

One tool that was suggested was the "Flow Matrix". The horizontal axis can be changed to internal job grades and the vertical axis to results from a stress assessment. OK, let's replace the word stress with pressure, or responsibility or accountability…Higher Skilled workers should be expected to take on higher pressure. This should stimulate them and motivate them. If the work is not at this level, the company risks losing engagement. (e.g. the employee is bored). On the other hand, when we give Low Skilled Workers too much pressure and responsibility they are more prone to disengage for risk or implicit failure. This matrix suggests tracking and dosing out pressure and responsibility based on the person's ability and then increasing it as they develop skills.

Have the manager plot their members on this matrix, and ask them to explain the movements, insights, and actions monthly.

Employees who are at risk for leaving sometimes do show signs. HR teams can coach hiring managers, mentors, and other stakeholders on certain 'red flags' showing a lack of engagement. These might include: Change of attitudes, frequency of PTO, not showing faces in VC, etc.

The cost of retention

Good retention programs will be a cost. Not having them will be a greater cost.

Additionally, a good retention program is a worthwhile investment that should be tracked into a profit center.

Some companies drive talent acquisition KPIs on new hires, leading to signed offers but fail to recognize the cost of a new hire who leaves the company shortly after joining. When speaking with several HR Directors,  they acknowledged this gap and shared how important alignment is with global and regional talent acquisition initiatives. We have been seeing many tech companies lay off large amounts of staff, often with the CEO doing an about-face that the company hired too quickly. 

HR Directors suggested that on average, it will take 2-3 years of employment for the employee to contribute over the cost of a new hire. Consulting companies often have a good grasp on this as many of their employees are closely tied to revenue from an early stage. Hiring managers at consulting firms, in turn, tend to have a high participation rate with onboarding programs and ensuring early success.

One HR Director suggested a sliding scale of 3 years starting with Input and leading to Output.

Year 1: Learn (input)

Year 2: Build Relationships (input)

Year 3: Contribute (output)

ATS and workflow software

This was a topic of discussion that was important to all 5 HR Directors I spoke with. We agreed that an optimal workflow software that was built to engage with parties closer to human communication rather than automated workflow reminders and checklists could be very useful. I would like to spend more time on this after further research and discussions with HR professionals and vendors who can provide novel solutions to reinvent the way we solve onboarding and retention challenges.

One important challenge we noted was that there is an apparent gap in offering or solution:

  • Global ATS and HR Workflow technology struggle with localization in Japan. This is true with both the language and the overall UI/UX. 

  • Software created locally in Japan probably will not align with global ERP standardization at most foreign-capital companies

Chronological Onboarding Checklist

Pre-start date

  • Send a welcome email shortly after the candidate signs the offer (ideally within 24 hours). Make this personal and welcoming. Remember they may be going through the resignation process and have just rejected other offers.

  • Send a schedule of what to expect from now until start date (i.e. documents they need to complete, welcome package, employee handbook, etc.)

    • Follow this schedule

    • If you can, have the onboarding documents signed electronically before the first day

  • Get the new employee engaged in your company’s content (This can be in-house curated content like employee stories, pictures of recent company events or online corporate content such as Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, press releases, etc.)

  • Encourage questions and have an open line to both HR and the Hiring Manager

  • PLUS - Introduce them to the team through a video call or team lunch/dinner. 

  • PLUS - Schedule a call with the Hiring Manager/Direct report line a few days before the start date to welcome them and set their nerves at ease ahead of the first day.

Start date

  • Prepare a space for them. This is the place they will spend much of their time and it is impactful for the new employee to feel welcomed and comfortable in this space.

  • Set up their workspace including computer login, email, collaboration platforms, CRM, phone, laptop, iPad, etc.

  • Ensure the area is clean and does not have other employees' effects in the area

  • Provide them with an itinerary for the training process and what to expect in the first week/month

  • PLUS - company branded items or perks (mug, pens, notebooks, bag, clothing, etc.) 

First 30 days

  • 1on1 review meeting between new employee and manager and manager and HR

  • Training check-in: elicit feedback from new employee on training, expectations ahead of joining vs. reality of the first 30 days

  • HR/Onboarding team record actions to take based on meetings

Disclaimer: The views and opinions shared in this report are the personal views of the individuals. They do not represent the official views of the companies they work for.

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