Employee Onboarding

A Complete Guide to Employee Onboarding

Your complete guide to employee onboarding. Employee onboarding affects the bottom line. Here’s how to implement a strategic onboarding approach. 

What is Employee Onboarding?

Employee onboarding involves everything from training to fully integrating a new hire into the workplace. 

If you’ve ever started a new job, you know about “onboarding.” It’s being welcomed to the team, getting set up with your hardware and software, and learning what you’re actually going to be doing. It’s a series of events that encompasses many components: cultural, technical, and everything in between. 

Areas to cover when onboarding new employees include:

  • Company culture and business background
  • Tools and resources to be a productive team member
  • Internal policies and documents
  • Workstation and equipment setup 
  • The people and how to navigate the hierarchy 

Onboarding employees should be a strategic process that can last up to a year. A strong onboarding approach reduces staff turnover and can result in more productive, content workers

Onboarding vs. Orientation 

Onboarding is not the same as orientation. Here’s a chart that shows the differences between the two: 

1. Onboarding

  • A series of events over a period of time, including orientation 
  • Tailored to your specific role within the company
  • A process, lasting up to a year, to integrate a new employee technically and culturally

2. Orientation 

  • A one-time event to welcome new employees to an organization
  • A chance to learn about vision, mission, culture, and history 
  • Might include a tour of the office, building, and workspace

What’s the Difference Between Employee Onboarding & Employee Training?

Employee training is one part of employee onboarding – they are not one in the same. You know when you start a new job and you get a bunch of paperwork to read and sign, a warm welcome (hopefully!), a job description, a tour of the place and so on? That whole process is onboarding. 

Aside from maybe the socialization aspect, learning the ins and outs of your role is often one of the most dreaded steps in onboarding. Training involves having someone you don’t know teach you how to do your job and practicing new skills and navigating (potentially unfamiliar) systems and software. It can be awkward and it takes time, and that time between cluelessness and proficiency can be a little uncomfortable. Training is all part of starting a new job though. 

There’s also ongoing training that employees must undergo. Whether it’s specialized skills or having to learn how to use new software, training and development is a never ending endeavour.

History & Background

Imagine starting a new job and the employee onboarding consisted of getting on a train for free, riding to the end of the track, being handed a pick, a shovel and a few other tools, and being told that your job is to add 10 miles of track a day. This is how it was back in 1863-1869 for those who worked on the First Transcontinental Railroad (the Pacific Railroad). 

That’s why research on “organizational socialization” – which is basically how people learn the rules of their job – started. In 1979, professors John Van Maanen and Edgar H. Schein began to delve into the concept of what would become employee onboarding. The pair wrote a paper discussing how new employees could learn the culture and acquire social knowledge – self-guided, trial-and-error, and even a period of education and training followed by apprenticeship. 

More formal onboarding procedures have since been formulated and implemented, based on this research. But, even still new recruits often have very negative experiences, like this one. This is partly because 22% of companies don’t even have a formal onboarding program, while 49% claim their onboarding is “somewhat successful”. 

With managers being busier than ever, there’s often little to no time to focus on proper employee integration. While 93% of employers believe that a positive onboarding experience is critical in increasing the rate of retention, 29% of employees feel their organization didn’t do a good job during onboarding to prepare them for the job. 

Though the majority of companies recognize the importance of structured onboarding, devising and initiating a strategy is one of those to-do items that regularly gets bumped to the bottom of the list. 

Why Is Employee Onboarding Important? 

Considering the cost-per-hire could be as high as $6,110, companies need to be diligent in their onboarding process. Take into account that the cost of losing an employee is around $15,000USD, and that workers who have a negative onboarding experience within their first 90 days are twice as likely to look for another job – it’s no doubt employee onboarding is of the utmost importance. 

When employees are effectively onboarded, retention is higher, which means turnover is lower and that translates into huge cost-savings for businesses.  

Not having a structured onboarding sequence is part of the reason why more than a quarter of employees quit their job within their first 3 months. New hires are more likely to be satisfied and stay at their job longer when there’s a solid process in place. 

Onboarding also has a lasting effect on performance, engagement, and employee retention. The Global Culture Report conducted by O.C Tanner found that successful onboarding can result in a 70% increase in sense of belonging, a 37% increase in their understanding of their purpose within the organization, and a 50% increase in their engagement. 

Types of Employee Onboarding

Informal 

With no formal procedure for onboarding, employees are thrown into their new work environment and left to learn the ropes on their own. There is no clear process and new hires must independently reach out for any help they need. Perhaps there’s a rough sequence that supervisors follow, but without a formal, strategic onboarding structure, employees have to navigate the workplace, policies, and hierarchy alone.

An informal onboarding process leaves new staff feeling uncertain and with low morale. Organizations that don’t have a formal onboarding program are less effective than those that do. 

Informal, unstructured employee onboarding is definitely not the way to go. 

Formal

You guessed it – formal onboarding involves a strategic step-by-step plan to get employees integrated into the company. The onboarding program consists of a series of actions and tasks that teaches a new hire their role, the business’ goals and expectations, and workplace norms. 

Formal onboarding reduces the stress inherent in starting a new job and getting to know coworkers. It’s a repeatable process that details every stage of getting acquainted with a new position and organization. This structured approach decreases the uncertainty and anxiety people typically feel when changing jobs and/or companies. Ultimately, a formal procedure for onboarding results in better, more productive and contented workers. 

Onboarding managers or supervisors should review this checklist prior to a new hire’s start date:

  • What tools and software do they need?
  • Are the other devices or equipment they might need available?
  • Has IT set up email address, log-in info, and given access to necessary accounts, etc.?
  • Where will they sit? Is the work station clean and equipped?
  • Are office keys, access cards, security codes ready for them to use?
  • Have they received a welcome package?
  • Have you or someone else from the company reached out prior to their start date?

Best Practices & Tips

There are four distinct levels in the formal onboarding process – the “building blocks” of good onboarding. Professor Tayla Bauer of Portland State University refers to these 4 main principles as “the Four C’s”. 

The Four C’s are:

  • Compliance

The lowest level, compliance involves familiarizing employees with the basic legal regulations and policies.

  • Clarification

This stage is all about making sure workers know their role and understand all expectations. 

  • Culture

A broad category, this level encompasses both formal and informal organizational norms, providing the employee with a sense of the company culture. 

  • Connection

Think interpersonal relationships, networking, and socialization with coworkers and colleagues. 

The ability of an organization to take advantage of these guiding principles determines its overall onboarding strategy. Most businesses fall into one of these three categories:

  • Passive Onboarding (Level 1) 

Naturally, nearly all companies cover Compliance during formal onboarding. For firms that practice Passive Onboarding, there might be some form of role clarification, but Culture and Connection aren’t addressed. Perhaps there are some informal ways, but there’s been no concerted effort by HR or anyone to streamline the task. Agencies at this level might have an onboarding checklist of tasks they need to complete. Passive Onboarding works to a degree, but it’s not systematic. 

  • High Potential Onboarding (Level 2)

Where an organization thoroughly covers Compliance and Clarification in their formal onboarding and Culture and Connection is touched upon, Level 2 – High Potential Onboarding – is achieved. Still, there is no established process across the board. 

  • Proactive Onboarding (Level 3)

In a Proactive Onboarding, or Level 3, firm, all four building blocks are formally handled. There’s a systematic approach to onboarding that involves a human resources management strategy. Not many companies are at this level. 

Certainly, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for onboarding, but there is a general formula:

Self-confidence + Role clarity + Social integration + Company culture knowledge = Successful onboarding 

With all that said, there are specific best practices – and yes, remote and on-site onboarding share most of them. Top companies, like Twitter, Microsoft, and Netflix follow these common best practices for onboarding and supporting new talent: 

1. Start early

Don’t wait until your new recruit walks through the door on their first day to initiate their integration. To reach Proactive Onboarding status, your onboarding program must begin in the recruiting phase. Onboarding is not a one-time event; it should start before the employee does. As CEO of BambooHR, Ben Peterson, says, “If we don’t worry about onboarding before the employee starts, then we’re way behind.”. Along with other necessary materials and fun swag, provide candidates with a realistic preview of the job as it helps build trust between employee and employer before they even walk in the office.

2. Prepare resources

Give the new hire what they need to succeed, even before they enter the office. Introduce them via email and provide them with all the resources they need – beforehand -to navigate the workplace and get a solid start on day one. Consider including a welcome letter and special tips on getting around their new environment. Create a work plan and schedule, and be sure they receive all the details on their new role, the hierarchy, etc. 

3. Welcome your new member

Beyond introducing a new team member with a nice email, think of other ways you can make them feel more welcome. 

  • Deck out their workstation and set it up with nameplate, business cards, and even a little gift
  • Throw a little welcome party/meeting for in-person introductions and networking 
  • Give them a swag bag full of company-branded merchandise 

4. Facilitate & promote connection 

As mentioned, connect new workers and schedule meet-and-greets with existing employees. If new hires are in a position to create meaningful connections, they’ll likely stick around longer and feel better about their workplace. Ensure you keep them informed on who’s who and how the company’s structured. Block out time for one-on-one with managers as 72% of new hires say this is very important during onboarding.

5. Set expectations for work & management style

A person may know their job, per se, but often the expectations and managing style are uncertain. Aside from providing a job description, have your new employee work toward some short-term goals in their first few weeks and discuss skills development, management style and advancement opportunities. 

6. Assign a buddy or mentor 

In a study by BambooHR, it was found that 56% of respondents felt that having a mentor in the workplace is very important, especially when starting out. A buddy can help bring a new hire up to speed more quickly, ease social integration, and offer support to make them more productive and satisfied. Think about scheduling monthly meetings in addition to informal check-ins. Having a buddy can boost productivity levels – by as much as 97%

7. Plan for training and development 

Employee engagement is the key to retention and employee happiness. Yet, according to a survey conducted by Achievers, only about 30% of employees feel engaged in their work. Creating a training and development plan starts with onboarding. Take an inventory of skills and outline opportunities for further education.

8. Give and ask for feedback

It’s best practice to sit down with your new hire and do an informal review where you give and receive feedback regarding onboarding. Be sure to talk about the positives, address any challenges, provide them with opportunities for feedback and make yourself available for questions. 

9. Customize the experience 

Your onboarding should align with your company culture and brand. Spice up the program by involving company products or team-building exercises. And remember, each person learns differently, so personalize the experience by catering to your new hire’s specific learning style, where possible.

10. Continue the process 

Don’t forget: onboarding is ongoing. It doesn’t just end after the formal sequence of events and tasks or when you feel your employee “knows the ropes”. Continue the process by expanding your new hire’s knowledge, giving them feedback tools, using technology when you can, and being consistent. 

If you already have a systematic onboarding approach in place but want to improve it, aside from the best practices we just mentioned, here are some quick tips to amp it up: 

  • Get to know the employee, don’t just get them up to speed
  • Facilitate networking and mingling of new and existing staff
  • Be clear on expectations and help new hires set goals
  • Provide extra learning and development opportunities
  • Set up one-on-ones between employee and supervisor 
  • Ask for feedback on how to improve the process 

Microsoft: Employee Onboarding Superstar 

A prime example of onboarding excellence is Microsoft. Their onboarding begins the day an employee gets their offer and continues for about 6 months. Microsoft understands that it’s an ongoing, long-term process. 

Aspects that contribute to Microsoft’s first-rate onboarding approach include: 

  • Ensuring a warm connection in the days before employees start 
  • Having a laptop, ID and other equipment ready for day 1
  • An energizing employee orientation
  • A buddy/mentor program 
  • Giving and receiving feedback throughout the program

Microsoft prioritizes that personal touch, but has had to pivot quickly with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As recent recruit Eran Samocha explains, his manager was going to fly to meet him as part of his onboarding, and Eran was preparing to go to new employee orientation. However, when stay home orders were issued, the whole plan changed. But employees still meet with their boss and coworkers – just digitally. 

Microsoft has had some hiccups along the way, as they try to reestablish their onboarding program in the virtual world, but they still focus on connection and friendships. New hires are encouraged to chat with each other and hold breakout groups to get to know each other. New recruits are assigned an onboarding buddy, who is usually local. 

With their virtual onboarding running fairly smoothly now, Microsoft sets clear expectations from the beginning – software versions to use, how to enroll for benefits, what the job involves, etc. They also send new employees the Microsoft device of their choice, with clear instructions on how to set it up.

Top-rated Employee Onboarding Programs 

Sapling listed Eventbrite, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn and Zapier among the best in employee onboarding. Their superior onboarding strategies have the following elements in common: 

  • Investment – A strong onboarding program requires investments of time and money.
  • Focus on company culture – Make new hires feel welcome and aligned with company values. 
  • Early start – Ensuring everything is ready before an employee starts is a key to success.
  • Team effort – Involve the whole team and emphasize communication.
  • Clear roadmap – There needs to be a clear and structured path for integration.
  • Training & development – Provide the right tools and practical skills for employees to learn their role.
  • Evaluation taskforce – A committee with diverse perspectives dedicated to creating the ideal onboarding solution. 
  • Goal setting – A robust onboarding program has clearly-defined objectives. 

Let’s look at one case in little more detail to get a better idea of what a “top-rated” employee onboarding program looks like. 

Twitter’s Yes-to-Desk 

As the name suggests, Twitter’s onboarding focuses on making the period of time between the moment a new hire says “yes” to a job offer and the point when they sit down at their desk as welcoming and productive as possible. Twitter obviously recognizes the effectiveness of preboarding.

Even before the first day, there’s a sequence of 75+ steps and handoffs between Recruiting, HR, IT and Facilities. During this time, new members are given an email address, a t-shirt and colorful PDFs outlining what can be expected on the first day. A bottle of wine is left waiting for them at their desk. Their desk is strategically situated based on whom they’ll work with. 

On the first day, new hires have breakfast with the CEO, (currently Jack Dorsey), followed by a tour of the office and group training on the tools and systems they’ll be using. 

Understanding the significance of socialization and the ongoing nature of onboarding, Twitter hosts a monthly Happy Hour for new hires that the Senior Team also attends. They even have presentations on Friday afternoons where recent recruits get to learn about projects underway and interact with leads, PMs, managers, etc. 

After a few months on the job, employees are asked about their experience thus far. These exchanges inspire changes and tweaks to enhance the process. 

Twitter’s desire to reduce first day jitters and discomfort inspired their Yes-to-Desk approach. There’s lots of work to do and Twitter wants employees up and running as quickly as possible, so they get them as comfortable and familiar with the organization as they can right away.

Employee Onboarding Software & Tools 

We’ve touched on some apps and software to aid in the onboarding process, but there’s a variety of products on the market. You can select tools based on your organization’s needs and the shape of your onboarding program. Options include software that’s comprehensive – covering every aspect of recruiting and onboarding – and solutions for specific tasks. 

The typical capabilities of onboarding software include: 

  • Electronic forms 
    • Digitize forms (W-4s, I-9s, etc) for easy copying, transferring, signing and storage.
  • Online document storage
    • Store completed forms in a secure online library that can be accessed as needed.
  • Automated workflows
    • Users can create custom workflows that new hires can go through the onboarding sequence automatically.
  • Background checks
    • Most products integrate with major background check services, so background checks can be made directly from the platform. 
  • New hire task management  
    • Progress metrics, task assignment and automatic notifications to keep all parties in the know and on track.

Some top-rated employee onboarding tools include: 

WalkMe

  • Real-time training for enhanced knowledge retention 
  • Self-service system with task-specific training
  • Cloud and web-based with 24/7 live rep support 

BambooHR

  • Cloud-based HR platform for small-medium sized businesses
  • Quote-based pricing so it’s tailored to your needs
  • Custom workflows, open API, easy interface 

Zenefits 

  • One of the best known benefit management platforms 
  • Suitable for any sized business 
  • Full feature HR solution that integrates with G Suite, Office 365, Slack and Salesforce 

Lessonly 

  • A full-blown training solution with more than video tutorials 
  • Integration with Slack and Salesforce 
  • A few subscription plans and quote-based pricing 

Helpjuice

  • Cloud-based knowledge management software 
  • Easy to use platform allowing new hires to self-serve
  • Strong analytics and completely customizable 

Trello

  • A free tool to manage almost any project 
  • Interactive to-do lists for task assigning and tracking 
  • A pre-made new hire onboarding template 

If you’re not sure where to begin, WalkMe has a guide on selecting the best employee onboarding software for your business

A Note on Onboarding Software Pricing 

There are generally two types of pricing: monthly subscription or perpetual license. Usually, the price will be dependent on the size of the organization or the average number of employees onboarded in a month. 

Perpetual License

  • Company pays upfront, one time for the software 
  • The software is deployed on the firm’s computers and servers
  • There might be annual fees for support, maintenance and upgrades

Subscription

  • Company pays a fee every month 
  • The software is typically hosted on the cloud, accessed through web browser 
  • Fees for support, maintenance and upgrades usually included 

Employee Onboarding Software Trends

Here are a few market trends to keep in mind when searching for onboarding software: 

Cloud-based

Onboarding software that’s cloud-based is becoming increasingly popular, as it allows individuals to access the system from anywhere with an internet connection. 

Focus on new hire experience 

Employee engagement is a growing concern, and as such, onboarding platforms are making the process more enjoyable. For example, some tools have a messaging feature where new hires can reach out to their supervisor before their first day. 

Training & performance management integration

Many platforms have the capability to train new workers and track goals, which helps new employees become productive more quickly. 

Employee Onboarding Visualized

Benefits of Formal Employee Onboarding

(source: https://blog.walkme.com/employee-onboarding-guide-hr-managers/)

(source:https://miro.com/guides/remote-work/onboarding)

ONBOARDING JOURNEY MAP

(source:https://www.hrvsvirushackathon.org/virtualonboarding)

Employee Onboarding Recap

All in all, a great onboarding journey can increase employee retention by 82%. Yet, only 12% of workers strongly agree that their employer has a good onboarding approach. When most organizations are only focused on the first week, it’s no wonder so many employees feel this way. Without a strategic onboarding plan, companies will likely leave their new hires feeling abandoned, confused, and dissatisfied in general. 

Considering it’s the most crucial period in an employee’s relationship with an organization, every company should make the investment in their onboarding process to make sure it’s successful. Employee turnover is expensive, yet, it’s almost entirely preventable. Over 75% of businesses are not properly applying onboarding practices, resulting in a broken process. Your company doesn’t have to be part of that statistic. 

By implementing the best practices we listed – from using onboarding software to assigning buddies and getting feedback to constantly improve the process – you can design a formal onboarding program for your business. The outcome will be more engaged and productive employees, lower turnover and reduced costs, and better recruits. 

A structured onboarding policy benefits both employer and employee. All of the top companies and most successful organizations acknowledge the power of employee onboarding. Sure, it’s an investment of both time and money, but it’s absolutely worth it – the stats clearly indicate the positive effects on employees and the bottom line. Constructing a robust onboarding program must be thought-out and done with care and intention. After all, your company’s reputation largely depends on how it treats its people.

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