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Onboarding is a process designed to settle new hires into their role and prepare them to succeed in the business over the long term. Effective onboarding can set the framework for employees to feel invested in the company and enable them to become productive quickly.
Building a strong onboarding process can lead to big improvements. A 2015 report by the Brandon Hall Group found that organizations with a strong onboarding process improved new hire retention by 82% and productivity by over 70%. This is an important part of your employee’s work life cycle and should be carefully cultivated.
Onboarding or Orientation?
Onboarding is sometimes confused with employee orientation. Orientation refers to a portion of onboarding when employees are familiarized with company policies and the work environment. While important, orientation is only part of an onboarding strategy.
Onboarding begins long before an employee first sets foot in their new work environment. It continues for several months and lays the groundwork for an employee’s entire work experience.
Benefits of Great Onboarding
Given the time and money invested in recruiting a qualified employee, it makes sense to put effort into ensuring that that employee feels invested in the company as well. Unfortunately, many employers fail to create an onboarding experience that fosters invested employees. 2018 Gallup research found that only 12% of employees agreed that their company did a great job at onboarding.
Creating a strong onboarding process can lead to improvement in several areas.
- Consistency. When you want your employees to get a clear message about the company’s values and mission, it helps to deliver that right from the beginning of their employment. This is your first opportunity to tell the new hire what the company believes. Doing so will make reinforcing that message over the years more natural and consistent.
- Legal compliance. Completing legal paperwork—such as required I-9 forms—is not the most exciting part of onboarding. However, it is necessary and you should make sure to set aside time to gather everything that is required to keep compliant.
- Set clear expectations. Onboarding is the time to ensure each new employee fully understands their responsibilities and knows how to find help when they need it.
- Encourage a sense of belonging. Employees can often be nervous when starting a new job. Effective onboarding can help alleviate those nerves and help new employees feel that they are a part of the company.
- Re-enforce the employee’s decision. Nurture the new hire’s excitement about joining your business. Make sure your onboarding process highlights the value of being a part of your organization and reinforces that they made the right decision to join.
- Improve productivity. Productivity is one of the key areas improved by a strong onboarding process. There’s often an adjustment period before a new employee can achieve peak productivity in their role. Onboarding helps new hires understand their priorities and how to get help quickly when it’s needed—setting them up to be a productive team member faster.
- Improve retention. Retention is another key area improved by a strong onboarding process. You’ve gone to a lot of effort and expense to get this new hire here. Building your onboarding process to help them feel confident and able to do their best work is an important step in keeping them for the long term.
- Improve recruiting efforts. As social media use continues to grow, your reputation for onboarding is more likely to be broadcast. Employees who have a good onboarding experience often share that with their networks through social media platforms. This can turn into free marketing for your next hiring campaign.
How Long Should Onboarding Take?
Onboarding time can vary depending on the size of your business and the complexity of the job your new hire is taking on. Onboarding is too short if it fails to prepare the employee to do their job and leaves them feeling alone and disconnected. As a best practice, most onboarding processes last a minimum of 90 days and can last as long as up to a year.
How to Conduct Onboarding
Onboarding begins before the new hire’s first day and will continue long past it. Along the way are several checkpoints and moments where you can have a positive impact.
Provide a welcome letter
An initial welcoming letter should be sent to the new hire as soon as they have accepted the job. This can be sent via email at first, while any documents that need to be sent in hard copy are mailed. Typically, HR will send the welcome letter and coordinate access to new hire resources. However, having the initial welcome email come from the hiring manager is a great way to start things off positively and build the new hire’s excitement.
Be available before they start
Communication between when the new hire accepts the job and their first day is important for ensuring they know what to expect once they start. It is also a good way to demonstrate your investment in the new hire during a time when they may still be receiving competing offers from other organizations. Don’t let your silence be the reason they decide to back out and join a different company. Schedule at least one check-in call before their first day to answer any questions they may have.
On a more practical point, provide your new hire with access to any paperwork that they can complete before their first day. This means their first day can be focused on building connections instead of just filling out forms.
Be sure to provide them with a list of I-9 acceptable documents for completing their I-9 form process. Employee benefits enrollment information is also good to share at this stage so that they have time to look things over before their first day.
New hire gifts
You can also help build excitement by sending a new hire care package. These might include branded gifts like pens, a notebook, or a T-shirt. You can also include a welcome note from their new team, an employee newsletter, or a press release highlighting a recent business achievement. New hire gifts don’t have to be big gestures, but they can help your new employee feel that they have made the right choice in joining your business.
Set up technology
An employee who shows up on the first day to find that none of the tools needed to do their job are ready is sure to feel disappointed. To avoid this, you need to work with your IT department well before the new hire starts. IT will need lead time to secure and set up laptops, phones, and any tech accessories appropriately. There should be a set process for defining what new hires need and ensuring these needs can be met before their first day.
Prepare the workspace
In addition to technology, an employee’s workspace should be made ready before their first day—if they will be working in the office. Make sure that their workspace is clean and has all the stationery items they are likely to need. Consider adding welcome items such as an onboarding binder, a welcome sign, or a welcome basket with branded stationery, coffee mugs, or snacks.
Connect them with a buddy
Assigning an onboarding buddy can help alleviate first-day nerves and provide the support that a new hire can rely on in the months to come. To be effective, an onboarding buddy should work in a similar role and have the bandwidth to be a resource for the new hire throughout their onboarding. The onboarding buddy should reach out to the new hire before the first day to introduce themselves and give an overview of what to expect from them during onboarding.
Arrange for a welcoming first day
An employee’s first day can set their impression of the company for years to come. This is not the time to expect them to figure things out on their own. Start by making sure they have clear instructions on the basics like arrival time, where to park if they are driving, and who they will be meeting with first. The hiring manager should be there on the employee’s first day and relevant team members should make time to introduce themselves. Taking the new hire out to lunch with their new team is also a nice gesture.
Orientation familiarizes the new hire with company policies, as well as the workplace. This process usually takes place over the first few days of a new hire’s employment. While orientation should be comprehensive, don’t try to throw too much at your new employee all at once. It can be helpful to break from orientation in the afternoon and leave time for the new hire to connect with their manager or be introduced to team members.
New hire paperwork
Orientation is the time to complete any new hire paperwork that has not already been done so digitally. Documents that should be completed by the end of orientation include:
- I-9 form and check of I-9 acceptable documents
- W-4 form
- State tax withholding certificate—if applicable
- Signed employment offer letter
- Signed employment contract—if applicable
- Direct deposit authorization
- Emergency contact details
- Drug testing consent forms—if applicable
- Non-compete or non-disclosure agreements—if applicable
- Acknowledgment of employee handbook.
In addition to completing paperwork, orientation should be used to cover the company’s history and mission, explain policies and procedures, and provide general employee training.
Arrange for IT onboarding
In addition to ensuring that the new hire’s technology is ready for their first day, your IT department should hold an IT onboarding session. This session should ensure that the employee is comfortable with all of the provided equipment and answer any questions they may have. This is also a good time to go over cybersecurity and data privacy expectations and share the new hire’s initial login information.
Make connecting with employee resource groups simple
Many new hires can benefit from joining employee resource groups (ERGs). These groups help employees connect over similar interests and can demonstrate a commitment to diversity in your business. By giving a new hire visibility of ERGs and encouraging them to connect to those which appeal to them, you help build a more inclusive environment.
Set up check-ins
Include time for the new hire to connect with their hiring manager on their first day. From there, the hiring manager should set up recurring check-ins for the duration of the onboarding process. A commonly used cadence is weekly 1:1 meetings. During these check-ins, the focus should be on how the new hire is progressing and answering any questions they may have at this stage. The hiring manager can also help narrow priorities so that the new hire is confident in how they are taking on their new role.
A newly hired employee should have review meetings with their hiring manager at the 30-day, 60-day, and 90-day marks. The hiring manager should conduct these meetings in person if possible, and use the time to review the new hire’s performance and solicit feedback on their onboarding experience.
Some companies use onboarding questionnaires to easily share new hire feedback with HR and the hiring manager as appropriate. These are helpful to give the employee a chance to provide less filtered feedback, but should not replace review meetings entirely.
Tips for Taking Your Onboarding Beyond the Basics
Whether you’re setting up an onboarding process or guiding new hires through it, keep these tips in mind so that the process remains beneficial.
Avoid information overload
Throwing too much at a new hire too fast is a recipe for disaster. You want your new hire to be able to absorb new information effectively. By spreading out your onboarding goals, you will help ensure that your new hire feels supported and prepared instead of overwhelmed.
Help make culture connections
New hires often don’t know where they are welcome when they first start. You can help with this by expressly inviting them along or encouraging them to take part. For instance, if your new hire is joining a team that always plans lunch out together on Fridays, make sure they know that they are invited right from the start. If there are upcoming events or employee resource group meetings, give your new hire a heads up and invite them to join in where they feel comfortable.
Make sure the right training is provided
Every job has certain aspects that require training. This could be anything from how to operate the office phone, track time, or invite an executive to a planning meeting. Training for your new hire should take into account the specific requirements of their role and ensure that they are trained to perform that role successfully.
Be clear with goal-setting
Once your new hire has had a chance to get their feet underneath them, it is time to discuss performance goals. A good timeline for this is at your first weekly 1:1 meeting approximately one week after their start date. This will give them enough time to digest what they’ve learned so far and be ready to look forward to what they can accomplish.
Once you start talking about performance goals, keep it clear. Your new hire should know exactly what you expect them to deliver, and what they should expect from you in terms of support.
This is also a good time to start talking about career progression. Clarity around how to earn bonuses, gain new skills, and get promoted can do a lot to build motivation. It also helps them to understand what excelling in their role should look like.
Work on reducing stress
Starting a new job can be stressful, so try to avoid adding unnecessary pressure when an employee first joins. The initial phases of onboarding should focus on making connections and learning about the company. Then, after the new hire has had a chance to start feeling acclimated, starting discussions around work expectations and goal-setting will have more context and leave them feeling equipped to meet those expectations.
This tip is important across the onboarding journey. Early on, this means the recruiter or hiring manager should check in before the first day to ensure the new hire is feeling confident and not being swayed by competitor offers.
On the first day, make sure the new hire knows who their key contacts are and reach out to check on how they are doing regularly. For the hiring manager specifically, calendar in those 30-, 60-, and 90-day reviews, and commit to regular 1:1 check-ins. It can be easy to lose track of new hires amid other work requirements, but you don’t want your new employee to feel adrift and unable to connect during this crucial time.
How to Onboard Employees with Different Needs
Most onboarding can be standardized regardless of the role your new hire is filling. However, some customization may be required for certain types of employees.
Executive recruiting can be significantly more expensive than recruiting for standard roles. A 2017 benchmarking report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that executive recruiting costs averaged nearly three times the costs for non-executive positions. The last thing you want is to go through an exhaustive search only to have your new executive leave not long after starting.
When developing an onboarding plan for an executive, make sure to consider these adjustments:
- Expect a longer onboarding process. As a strategic leader, your new hire executive may need more time to develop the larger network of relationships that are key to success in their role.
- Prioritize onboarding meetings with the partners the executive will need to connect with most often. Maintain flexibility for the executive to adjust their meeting schedule if they identify other partners that should be a priority. This is a natural adjustment as they begin to identify projects where they want to focus their initial impact.
- Begin goal-setting sooner than you would with a standard employee. As executives set the strategy for the company, it is important to explain how their success will be measured so that they can have a voice in its direction from the start.
- Expect more self-directed work from the executive and fewer check-ins. At this level, your new hire will be unlikely to need weekly check-ins, but should still have monthly or quarterly reviews to ensure they are supported and clear on the wider company goals.
Veterans new to civilian work
Military veterans can be a tremendous asset for your company, but they may find the differences in work expectations overwhelming in comparison to their military experience. Your general onboarding plan will be very similar for these employees, but consider a few adjustments to help them feel confident in their new role.
- Assign a fellow veteran as their onboarding buddy if you have someone available. This provides some initial camaraderie and the common ground to make your new hire comfortable asking questions.
- Connect your new hire to your veteran’s employee resource group if you have one. This also helps build camaraderie and shows your commitment to supporting veterans in your organization.
- Clarify communication and management style expectations from the start. Veterans may be more likely to speak bluntly to coworkers and avoid questioning their leaders openly. Be clear about how you expect them to communicate so that they aren’t surprised by learning this on the fly.
Employees with accommodations
When an employee has disclosed a need for accommodation during the hiring process, this may impact your onboarding plans. As with all employee requests for accommodations, onboarding plans should take the individual needs of the employee into account and provide reasonable accommodations. Keep these guides in mind as you make adjustments.
- Make sure that you have the accommodation in place before their first day and have communicated expectations back to the employee in advance.
- For a physical accommodation—such as an accessible keyboard—make sure it is ready and usable for them on their first day.
- For any accommodation that impacts the time it will take the employee to complete various onboarding tasks, make sure that their onboarding plan doesn’t contradict those expectations.
Seasonal employees may need to be onboarded swiftly, and without the expectation that they will stay with the organization long-term. Consider having a separate onboarding process for these employees that provides in-job training quickly and connects them with their hiring manager and the employees they will need to work with regularly.
- Pair the seasonal new hire with an onboarding buddy who they can turn to with questions throughout their work season.
- Consider connecting the new hire with employee resource groups and company events despite their seasonal tenure. You never know when a seasonal employee may seek to become a long-term employee.
With the growth of remote-only employees across many organizations, onboarding plans may need to adapt. Remote onboarding often relies on online training and video calls, which can be far less personal than in-person options. As a result, it can be harder to build engagement with remote new hires and easier to leave them feeling disconnected and unsupported. Overcome these hurdles by keeping the following in mind.
- Make sure technical expectations for remote work are clear and give the remote new hire plenty of resources to ensure they can connect easily.
- Include remote new hires in invitations to company events located near them or which will be held virtually.
- Provide a virtual onboarding buddy so that they still have someone to reach out to with questions during the onboarding process.
Onboarding may look very different for freelancers or independent contractors. These individuals are not employees, but they still need onboarding to explain the expectations of how they should work with your organization. Freelancer onboarding should include some basic groundwork.
- Give context for how the freelancer’s work will be used by the company. This will help the freelancer align their work with the company’s needs.
- Explain all deadlines, milestones, and expected deliverables so that the freelancer is clear on what you expect to receive and when you expect to receive it. Plan to give feedback and engage in dialogue on any adjustments needed as they arise.
- Provide payment details so the freelancer knows how to invoice for their work, and is clear on when they should expect payment.
- Give access to communication platforms or contact phone numbers so that they can reach any employees they will need to interact with.
Once your onboarding plans are up and running, you will want to periodically evaluate them to ensure they are having the desired results. A few metrics are commonly tracked to evaluate onboarding plans. These include turnover, retention, time-to-productivity, and net promoter score.
Turnover measures how many employees leave an organization during a set period of time. To measure the results of your onboarding, you may want to consider the turnover rate for employees in their first year of employment. To calculate a turnover rate percentage, use this formula:
(Number of employees who left during their first year / Total number of new hires in the same time period) x 100
Turnover can be further evaluated by distinguishing between voluntary turnover and involuntary turnover. Voluntary turnover refers to the employees who chose to leave the organization. Involuntary turnover refers to the employees who were fired or laid off. If you have a high voluntary turnover rate, this may be a sign that your onboarding fails to give adequate support to new hires. If you instead have a high involuntary turnover rate, this may be a sign that your onboarding fails to prepare new hires to perform their job.
Retention measures how many of your employees stay with the company beyond a set point in time. Retention can be measured for any given period of time by first counting how many employees were in a role at the start of the period, then counting how many employees stayed in the same role throughout that period. Leave any new hires during the period out of the second count.
Here’s an example of what calculating retention rates as a percentage for one year would look like:
(Number of employees in the role on the first day of the year / Number of same employees in the role on the last day of the year) x 100
Retention can correlate to onboarding as an indicator that onboarding sets up employees to succeed in their roles. Low retention rates during the employee’s first year may indicate that your onboarding isn’t going far enough to support new hires.
Time-to-productivity measures how long it takes an employee to reach the point where they can work productively with little help. This metric will vary based on the expectations and learning curves associated with each role. Calculating this metric will require tracking how long it takes several employees in the same job to reach the independent productivity milestone.
Once you have enough data to analyze this metric, you can use this formula to calculate a time-to-productivity percentage:
(Total number of days for all new hires in the role to reach productivity) / Total number of new hires in the role.
Keep in mind that you may have outliers if you have hired employees with large differences in experience level into the same role. Time-to-productivity measures can help identify opportunities in your onboarding process to provide additional support or clarity around role expectations.
Employee net promoter score
An employee net promoter score in its simplest form comes from asking your new hires how likely they are to recommend your organization to others. The purpose of this metric is to gauge employee happiness based on whether they would recommend people they know to also seek employment in your organization. To begin measuring your net promoter score for new hires, you will need to ask each new hire to answer “how likely are you to recommend us?” at the end of their onboarding period.
Responses to this question fall into one of three ranges: promoters (scores of 9 and 10), passives (scores of 7 and 8), and detractors (scores of 0 through 6). Promoters are your most enthusiastic new hires and can be excellent ambassadors for your employer brand. Passives are unlikely to cause damage but are also probably not promoting your organization. Detractors are unlikely to recommend your organization and may be actively discouraging others from seeking employment with you.
Calculate your employee net promoter score with this formula:
((Total number of promoters – total number of detractors) / Total number of respondents) x 100
To evaluate your onboarding program, seeking feedback from both your promoters and your detractors can help highlight aspects of onboarding that are well-received and those that need to be reworked.
Onboarding helps prepare new hires to succeed in their role and integrate into your company culture. Developing onboarding plans can be an extensive undertaking and requires communication between HR and the hiring manager to build an effective plan. Remember that onboarding plans may need to be adjusted to account for different types of employees. Don’t forget to measure your onboarding success and make adjustments when your metrics suggest opportunities.