Employee onboarding: How a great start leads to great results

October 18, 2021 - 15 min read

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What is employee onboarding?

Why is employee onboarding so important?

What are the phases of an employee onboarding process?

Employee retention is a part of the onboarding process

3 new hire mistakes to avoid

6 steps for a successful new employee onboarding process

Bottom line: First impressions are lasting ones

For a long time, the expectation on your first day of work was pretty straightforward. You’d come in, show your ID, spend a couple of hours getting “into the system,” and take a tour of the place. But employee onboarding is so much more than that. How an organization welcomes a new employee can set the stage for their long-term success in a role — and whether or not they stick around. We interviewed Gigi Saca, People Operations Program Manager at BetterUp, for the inside scoop on how to welcome successful people — at scale — while invigorating company culture.

What is employee onboarding?

Employee onboarding is the process of getting a new hire set up in their role, introduced to their team, and integrated as part of the company. At the very minimum, onboarding is that big stack of paperwork that you get on day one — but that isn’t what makes or breaks your experience at a new job. According to Saca, onboarding actually starts when the offer letter is signed, and continues well past the first 90 days in a role.

Why is employee onboarding so important?

Onboarding serves many practical purposes. For one, you can’t handle important legal and financial concerns, like verifying employment eligibility and getting people paid, without doing the paperwork. However, it’s more than just the tasks that you’re completing. You communicate something (to both your new hires and your team) by how you handle the process. 

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A thoughtful, well-designed onboarding process is even more important with teams working remotely or in hybrid models. It is a time to be explicit about what matters to the company, its values. At BetterUp, the onboarding team is intentional about how each event or activity demonstrates and reinforces the core values and high-impact behaviors so that new hires are consciously applying them by the time they hit the ground.

Here are some reasons why employee onboarding is so crucial:

Clarifies expectations

The onboarding process is the ideal time to get clear on what your new employee expects from you — and what you expect from them. That’s bigger than just the key responsibilities of their role (although that’s important too). It isn’t so much the what — most of the people in an onboarding cohort won’t share the same work in terms of tasks or responsibilities. Part of onboarding is getting everyone on the same page in terms of how work gets done here, and why

Eases their transition into their role

In a perfect world, everything would be set up and ready to go for them on day one — but that might not be the case. Onboarding gives you the opportunity to make sure that they have access to any specialized software or platforms they need to do their jobs. It also gives the opportunity to hand off oversight from HR to their direct manager.

Provides an overview of the systems, processes, tools, and organization

No one remembers everything they hear during their onboarding process. But a good onboarding process lays out enough of a map that new hires can know who to talk to and what to explore in more detail as they transition into their new role

Allows them to “feel out” company culture

In their early days of joining BetterUp, new employees meet with CEO and co-founder Alexi Robichaux. In this meeting, he says “We don’t hire people who ‘fit’ our culture. We hire people who make us better.” Saca underlines the importance of welcoming people into a company culture rather than making them fit it. It’s more important to hire people who are aligned with the values of the organization. Emphasizing the importance of a “culture fit,” while well-intentioned, can make people feel pressured to conform and makes it harder to root out potentially toxic issues.

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What are the phases of an employee onboarding process?

Peakon, an affiliate of human resources tech giant Workday, splits the employee journey into four phases: onboarding, initial development, ongoing development and retention, and separation.

Onboarding

The onboarding phase lasts for approximately the first 60 to 90 days of an employee’s new role. The most important part of this phase is making sure the employee feels welcome, secure, and understands what the expectations are. Saca notes that without this sense of belonging, it’s unlikely that the employee will stick around. Peakon’s data indicates that 30% of job seekers leave their new roles within the first 90 days.

Initial development

Once the employee settles into their new role, they’ll likely start looking for ways that they can contribute to their teams, make more of an impact, and start to take note of professional accomplishments with an eye towards growth in the future. This phase lasts from the 90-day mark to approximately 24 months into their role at work.

Ongoing development and retention

At this point, chances are good that your employees are part of a very different organization than the one they originally joined. There’s likely been company growth, a number of new hires, and they may even have received their first promotion. At this stage, people are usually keenly interested in growth opportunities and may start looking for a new job if they feel that their mobility is limited.

Separation

There are many reasons employees leave an organization, and not all of them are bad. They may be retiring, changing careers, moving to a new place, or ready to try out a different set of skills. Some employees may leave because of company culture or a lack of engagement in their roles. Separation — including thinking about leaving, looking for new jobs, and training people to take over their role — starts around one to three months before they actually leave.

Employee retention is a part of the onboarding process

Even though getting fired is a top fear for many employees (goodbye, sweet, steady paycheck) the fact is that most companies want you to stay. Saca elaborates that once you’re through the recruiting process and have the offer in hand, both parties are invested in making it work. “We’re not throwing people out,” she says. “But the onboarding process — how quickly you put the dots together — tells me how you’ll do here.” All a company can do is set the person up to thrive as much as possible. As the employer, your job is to make it easy for your new hire to want to stay.

3 new hire mistakes to avoid

Successful onboarding requires a mental shift. Many companies don’t take a broad enough view of the process. Here are the three most common mistakes that companies make when bringing new people onboard:

Waiting for the first day to get started

If you’re waiting for day one to let your new hire know what to expect, you’ve missed the boat. Getting them set up in advance and letting them know what will happen when they arrive communicates trust. You may have other things on your plate, but your new hire is thinking about and fielding questions about their new role well before they arrive. They’ll start their onboarding experience with much less anxiety if they haven’t been left wondering for weeks.

Skipping employee orientation

​Regardless of their job description, all employees should have an orientation to the company. This is a valuable opportunity for them to explore their work environment, connect with people from different teams, and ask questions they may not feel comfortable posing to their hiring managers. An effective onboarding program gets people excited about the company, answers common questions, and allows them to meet their new co-workers in a neutral environment.

Taking the “training wheels” off too early

Onboarding starts earlier and continues later than you would expect. It’s not enough to give an office tour and sit them down at their desk. Onboarding new team members should last at least through the first week, with check ins scheduled regularly after. This is important for all new hires, but especially for remote employees — who can feel disconnected when starting a new job and are more at risk for lower levels of employee engagement. If you leave them to figure things out on their own, they’re more likely to leave for clearer waters — or at least, clearer expectations. Plan to offer mentoring and support at least through the first six months.

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6 steps for a successful new employee onboarding process

1. Release their job offer letter

The employee’s understanding of how they’ll be treated as an employee starts when they receive — and sign — their offer letter. This is a great time to explain anything they’ll need to know before they sign, like any sign-on bonuses, stock options, and confidentiality agreements. Confirm their start date with them and reinforce how happy you are that they’re joining the team. Make sure you have a plan for handing them off from recruiting to human resources. 

2. Before the first day — prep

New hires should always have a point of contact with the company. After they sign their offer, they should know who on the HR team to contact with any questions. Consider processing their new hire paperwork prior to the first day. There should be an onboarding checklist of what they’ll need right away (for example, company email address, computer, employee handbook, etc). You could set up a new hire portal with the names of key people, contact information, what to wear or bring on the first day, and a welcome email from their new team. Send them their onboarding schedule in advance.

3. Have an amazing first day

You’ll want to communicate what to expect on the first day in advance — and you’ll want to use your employee's first day to tell them what to expect in the first month. Think about what you want someone to know, think, and feel on this first day at work. If this was the only day they ever spent with your company, what would you want them to take away from it?

4. “Complete” new hire onboarding

Do you think of your employees as customers? Gigi Saca says that in many ways, the employee journey mirrors the customer journey. The end goal is to have someone who’s satisfied with their choice to invest themselves in your company — but instead of getting them to buy, you’re getting them to “buy in.” Saca works with the program and content design team, bringing the same nuance and thoughtfulness to employee onboarding that BetterUp brings to personal growth. She utilizes insights from our research on how people learn and advance in their careers, bringing it to life with the guidance and support of Mekayla Castro, Head of Learning Experience Design at BetterUp.

5. Hand them off to their manager

Once they’re out of the formal onboarding process, they’ll be in their new roles full time and (most likely) anxious to start contributing. The HR professionals that manage onboarding should have a plan in place to connect them to their new team. If you use any type of employee onboarding software or check-in tools, ensure that they're connected with their teams so that nothing slips through the cracks. Touch base with their new manager to make sure they’ve had a chance to meet with their new hire one-on-one and have everything they need to do their jobs.

6. Set the stage for long-term growth

Support doesn't stop once the new employee is in their role and out of training. It's important to provide multiple ways for them to connect with and receive support from HR, management, and other teams. The most successful employees are ones that are able to work with their leaders, their colleagues, and cross-functionally with equal ease. BetterUp members who have access to their coaches through this process benefit from an additional touchpoint, easing the transition from new hire to seasoned leader. Coaching builds self-awareness and provides consistent feedback, making it more likely that employees will do the critical reflection needed to navigate difficult conversations and develop the skills needed to succeed.

Bottom line: First impressions are lasting ones 

Your onboarding process starts well before your employee walks in the door. The interview process is a courtship, and both parties are on their best behavior. But once the letter is signed, each party has made a promise to each other. Your employee onboarding process is your first opportunity to deliver on this promise. 

When your team is in need and you needed them yesterday, it can be hard to defer the contributions of your new hire for a few more days for onboarding. However, it is a case of going slow to go fast. The way you set them up, from the first day through the first year, makes the difference in their long term success at your company. Do it well, and you both will benefit.

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Published October 18, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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