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Case Study: Onboarding at the IRS

The IRS Audits Itself

In response to a potential shortage of managers and technical employees at the IRS, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) recently audited the agency’s new-hire onboarding processes.  The results of this analysis highlight the need for all organizations to have a strategic process for hiring, integrating, and retaining new talent.  This article reviews the IRS process, the barriers they faced and how those barriers were overcome.  Looking at the onboarding program at the IRS might help you understand some of the challenges you face in your own organization.

What is Onboarding?

Onboarding, or organizational socialization, is the process of helping new employees gain the knowledge, skills, and acceptable behaviors they need to succeed in their new workplace (Bauer, Bodner, Erdogan, Truxillo, & Tucker, 2007).  Onboarding transforms new hires from organizational outsiders to insiders who have an understanding of the company’s culture, its people, its customers, and its processes.  Research has shown strong links between onboarding and organizational outcomes such as (Bauer et al., 2007):

  • New-hire performance
  • Time-to-performance (the amount of time it takes for employees to become productive)
  • Turnover
  • Job satisfaction
  • Commitment to the organization

Onboarding at the IRS

The major goals of onboarding at the IRS are to provide a consistent and positive experience that result in decreased turnover and increased speed of transforming new hires into productive employees.  To accomplish these goals, the IRS established an onboarding program by developing a website and promoting a toolkit of industry best practices which managers were asked to follow.  Although all of the tools and best practices were easily available, the IRS struggled with implementing these practices because managers were not consistently following the new program.  Many managers relied solely on their institutional knowledge; this resulted in best practices being partially implemented or even ignored.  This ultimately led to widespread criticism of the onboarding program.  For example, TITGA found that 40% of new hires had no computer, email, or telephone available when they started work.  Also, 26% of new employees were never assigned to a senior employee for orientation.  Both practices were supposed to be implemented 100% of the time.

Lessons Learned

  • Problem:   The IRS did a good job of creating a website and filling it with best practices.  However, the agency did a poor job of making it easy to implement those best practices.
  • Solution:  Instead of simply listing out best practices, the IRS should have provided clear, step-by-stepon how to accomplish each item.  This could have been done using checklists, PowerPoint decks, training sessions, and templates for tracking progress.


  • Problem:  The IRS is collecting feedback from new hires on the onboarding process, but has not been able to use that information to make changes and improvements to the onboarding process.
  • Solution:  Put in place a well-coordinated, systematic approach to collecting feedback from every new employee.   Questionnaires could be given to each employee 6-months to 1-year after hire that address every aspect of the onboarding process.  This feedback could be used to target specific areas concern and help focus energy on changes that will have the greatest effect.  Also, open-ended questions asking new hires “If you could change one thing about the onboarding processes you’ve experienced over the past year, what would you change and why?”  Answers to this type of question provide ideas for improvement from the people closest to the process.


  • Problem:  Various aspects of the onboarding program were not being applied by managers across the entire organization, leading to inconsistent experiences for new hires.
  • Solution:  Instead of merely providing a list of best practices, the IRS could have created a “new-hire” checklist of onboarding items (including step-by-step guides for each) and required managers to confirm their completion.   While some may perceive it as “just another box to check off,” checklists work.  By integrating checklists with manager performance evaluations and surveys given to new hires, the IRS could have tracked the outcomes of onboarding and held managers accountable for owning the process.

The IRS onboarding program is an example of how good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes.  By learning from their mistakes, you might be able to say something not often heard – that the IRS made a positive impact on your organization!


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One Response to “Case Study: Onboarding at the IRS”

  1. Mohit Garg February 17, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

    Extremely pragmatic inputs to make new employee orientation effective. It is after all in the implementation.

    Happy to share our new hire onboarding blog.

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