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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 office.
In reality, employee onboarding is so much more. How an organization welcomes a new employee sets the stage for their long-term success in a role — and can determine 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 part of the hiring process. Basically, it’s 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 minimum, onboarding is that big stack of paperwork that you get on day one.
However, a pile of important documents 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 an employee’s first 90 days in a role.
Employee onboarding vs. orientation
Employee orientation is often confused with employee onboarding. The difference? Orientation is a much simpler process that consists of only the required new hire tasks. For example, the stack of paperwork we mentioned above. Employee orientation might also include setting up a new hire on company apps or providing a key card so they can enter the office.
Employee onboarding, in contrast, is all about the employee experience. For many businesses, it’s a comprehensive program that aims to integrate new hires into the company culture. This includes giving employees all the tools, resources, introductions, and answers they need to succeed.
For example, during employee onboarding, human resources might introduce you to coworkers relevant to your job — they might even schedule introductory calls for you. This is invaluable because you might not have a straightforward opportunity to meet coworkers outside your department, especially in the beginning. If you meet relevant stakeholders early, that can help you be more productive later on.
An employee orientation process, however, wouldn’t involve introductions or any other non-essentials. It’s very simple and unfortunately, often leaves new hires to search for resources and meet coworkers without any support.
Why is employee onboarding so important?
In 2021, Eagle Hill Consulting conducted a study of employees who started new jobs during the pandemic. A majority of new hires did not feel prepared to succeed after onboarding:
- 71% were unsure of who they should build relationships with
- 62% didn’t have a clear idea of the organization’s culture
- 53% didn’t have a clear idea of how to be productive in their job
These statistics show the importance of onboarding — confusion can harm a new hire’s productivity and causes a lot of unnecessary stress. Plus, a bad first impression can impact employee satisfaction and retention over the long term.
In contrast, a thorough onboarding program will do just the opposite, resulting in happier, more productive, and more loyal employees. Yes, employee onboarding serves many practical purposes, such as verifying employment eligibility and getting people paid. But it goes so much further than that by prioritizing the employee experience — not just the paperwork.
A well-designed onboarding process is even more important for remote and hybrid teams. Onboarding is a company’s opportunity to be explicit about what matters to them. For example, at BetterUp, our onboarding team is intentional about how each event or activity demonstrates and reinforces our core values. We also emphasize the high-impact behaviors that we value so that new hires are consciously applying both by the time they hit the ground.
Here are some additional reasons why employee onboarding is so crucial:
- Clarifies expectations: This goes beyond a new hire’s job description — most of the people in an onboarding cohort won’t share the same work in terms of tasks or responsibilities. Clarifying expectations is about getting everyone on the same page in terms of how work gets done, and why.
- Provides an overview of what new hires need: The systems, processes, and tools required when starting a new job can get overwhelming. Employee onboarding lays out an organized roadmap for new hires so that know exactly what they need and how to get it. This can streamline the transition process and make things easier for everyone involved.
- Creates time for the practical: Onboarding gives you the opportunity to make sure that employees have access to any specialized software or platforms they need to do their jobs. It also provides the opportunity to hand off oversight from HR to direct managers.
- Intentionally welcomes employees to the 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.” Rather than focus on “culture fit,” it’s more important to hire people who are aligned with the values of the organization.
High-quality employee onboarding boosts retention
Here are some incredible statistics to show you the importance of onboarding for employee retention:
- The Brandon Hall Group found that strong onboarding processes can improve an organization’s retention rates by as much as 82%
- Introducing employees to professional development opportunities during onboarding is shown to increase employee satisfaction
- 70% of employees who say they had a great onboarding experience agree that they have “the best possible job”
- Almost 30% of new hires who quit within their first six months of employment say they had barely any or no onboarding at all
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.
The onboarding phase lasts for approximately the first 60 to 90 days of an employee’s new role. Here are a few things to keep in mind during the onboarding phase:
- The goal should be to make employees feel welcome while helping them understand expectations. That means greeting them with a smile, sharing important information in engaging ways (don’t just email over a bunch of PDFs!), and being available for questions.
- This phase is crucial for cultivating a sense of belonging with new hires. In fact, 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.
- Don’t forget that onboarding should include preboarding. As soon as the offer letter is signed, your part begins. Keep communication open in the weeks leading up to their first day and try to check in over the phone.
2. Initial development
Once the employee settles into their new role, they’ll likely start looking for ways that they can contribute to their teams and make more of an impact. Here are some tips for this part of the onboarding process:
- Be there to support a new hire’s integration into their new team. Connecting with new coworkers can be intimidating so onboarding is the perfect place to help employees feel more comfortable.
- Share plenty of information about the company’s professional development opportunities and performance review processes. Career growth is key for employee retention, so making new hires aware of this information is always a good idea.
- Continue to encourage new hires to take part in company events. For example, if their team has a virtual happy hour every Thursday, remind them about it. If there’s an upcoming holiday party, ask them if they’ve signed up. Onboarding can help them have fun and succeed in their work.
3. 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. Though employee onboarding is technically over by now, remember this:
- Since their first day, there’s likely been company growth, a number of new hires, and they may even have received their first promotion. Employees are likely interested in growth opportunities and may start looking for a new job if they feel that their mobility is limited. This is another great time to remind them about career development opportunities.
- Get their team’s leadership involved. Remind managers to set quarterly professional goals and complete annual performance reviews with their employees. This will help employees stay engaged and feel a continued sense of growth.
- Use employee engagement tools to monitor employee satisfaction and happiness. This will give you a heads up if the company culture is starting to change in a negative way. It can even help you make adjustments before employees feel the need to look for a new job.
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 learn a new skill set. 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. Make sure you separate on a good note if they do leave — you never know if they might become a boomerang employee later.
What to include in employee onboarding
Now that you know why employee onboarding matters and what to avoid, where do you begin? Here are some quick tips for what you should include in your employee onboarding program.
- All the logistics: Yep, all the boring stuff, from signing documents to going over their new computer setup. Don’t take this part lightly though — new hires will have lots of questions, so take the time to answer them thoughtfully.
- A benefits overview: Please, don’t just email over a benefits packet and call it a day. Give new employees an engaging overview of what your company provides, whether that’s over a phone call or during an in-person new hire orientation.
- Welcome them on their first day: This should go without saying, but don’t leave a new hire in the dark on their first day. Greet them, answer questions, and if you can, give them a welcome gift, like a branded t-shirt.
- Introduce them to the team: Schedule welcome calls with everyone on the employee’s new team, especially the hiring manager (who can probably help with this part). For bonus points, schedule or encourage meet-ups with coworkers outside their team.
- Assign a peer mentor: There’s nothing worse than looking for someone to have lunch with on your first day in the office. Yes, there’s always your manager, but a new employee might not feel comfortable socializing with them yet. Assign a peer who can become an automatic work friend, at least for the first few weeks.
- Create a 30, 60, and 90-day check-in plan: This is the best way to ensure your ability to address a new employee’s concerns early. Instead of counting on them to come to you, be proactive and schedule check-ins — that will make open communication much easier for you and the new hire.
We’re sure there are dozens of other things you could include in your new employee onboarding process. Every company is unique, and onboarding is a great place to show that off. Customize your own process and prioritize for every new employee. Don’t forget to ask for feedback so that you can continually improve it!
6 steps for a successful new employee onboarding process
We shared some ideas for what to include in your onboarding process. Now let’s discuss the exact steps you can take to ensure an amazing employee experience — and a great first impression.
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 compensation, 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 there’s a plan for handing them off from recruiting to human resources.
2. Prepare before the first day
New hires should always have a point of contact with the company. After they sign their offer with talent acquisition, they should know who on the HR team to contact with any questions. Here’s what else to prepare before the first day:
- Consider processing their new hire paperwork prior to the first day so things move faster
- Provide an onboarding checklist of what they’ll need right away (for example, company email address, computer, employee handbook, etc).
- Set up a new hire portal with the names of key coworkers, contact information, information about what to wear or bring on the first day, etc.
- Prepare a welcome email from you and remind their new team to do the same
- Send them their onboarding schedule in advance so that they know when they’ll have meetings or other important obligations
3. Have an amazing first day
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. Don’t forget about these important tasks:
- Make sure the HR professionals that manage onboarding have a plan in place to connect new hires to their 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 onboarding. However, it is a case of going slow to go fast later. The way you set them up, from the first day through the first year, makes a difference in their long-term success at your company. Do it well, and you both will benefit.
BetterUp Staff Writer