The Step-By-Step Guide to New Hire Onboarding

June 13, 2016 Shrad Rao

Onboarding New HiresNew employees can be vulnerable, out of their element, stressed, and eager to please.

Instead of providing a nurturing environment and offering instant validation, however, many businesses expect their new hires to turn into genuine attack dogs in a matter of weeks, providing little training coupled with high expectations.

Given that the newest workforce generation will be in a state of constant flux (21% of Millennials have switched jobs in the last year), providing excellent onboarding is essential for retaining quality employees.

Onboarding, sometimes referred to as organizational socialization, is the process of introducing your employees to the expectations, skills, knowledge, and culture of your company.

According to Equifax data, more than 50% of employees who left their jobs did so within the first 12 months of their employment.

This fact, coupled with how expensive and time-consuming it can be to hire new employees, makes detailed and thoughtful onboarding more important than ever.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you do just that.

1. Identify Which Type of Onboarding is Better 

The first step to achieving effective onboarding is to identify the two types: informal and formal. Selecting the right approach for your company should be fairly easy, even if you’re a startup. (Hint: You should usually go with the formal option).

The scene is a familiar one: a new employee shows up for his first day of work and finds a chaotic atmosphere. He has no designated workplace. His supervisor and coworkers barely introduce themselves.

He sits around for an hour trying to make himself useful because his project manager doesn’t have any work set aside for him to tackle. Then he goes home, hoping the next day will be better.

The whole week unfolds like this, and the new employee begins to learn all the unspoken rules of his workplace while figuring out expectations and policies on his own.

A sink-or-swim mentality kicks in, and eventually he becomes acclimatized to his environment. A month goes by with barely a nod from his supervisor.  A year passes, and by then he either leaves to find a better job or becomes part of the system which was so unhelpful to him when he was a new hire.

In this scenario, the employee has fallen victim to informal onboarding.

Informal onboarding is when new hires learn the ropes of their job without structured assistance from their supervisors and human resources.

While some companies can get away with this, depending on their market niche, most simply have to provide an onboarding plan to be effective. Without it, new hires are less likely to connect and feel valued.

Instead of leaving your new employees to fend for themselves, organize a formal onboarding plan.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “Organizations that engage in formal onboarding by implementing step-by-step programs for new employees to teach them what their roles are, what the norms of the company are, and how they are to behave are more effective than those that do not.”

Formal onboarding just might mean the difference between unmanageable turnover and a healthy, thriving workforce and company culture.

2. Know What Your New Hire Needs

In order to form a great onboarding plan, you must first understand what your new hires need from you.

The guiding principles of your onboarding plan should address four main areas, beginning with the most basic of needs and ending with the most nuanced of needs.

Portland State University’s Talya N. Bauer refers to these needs as the Four C’s:

  • Compliance – The most basic aspect of an employee’s job. Compliance includes essential company rules, policies, and legal procedures. Dress code, clock-in procedures, and government policies (for instance, HIPAA requirements in the medical field) fall under this category.
  • Clarification –  Even the most qualified and experienced new hires need a specific breakdown of their job requirements. The Clarification process lets employees know exactly what is expected of them. You should also include in this process a summary of your company’s structure, providing information on who is in charge of what and to whom your new hire will be reporting.
  • Culture – Give your new hires a sense of what your company culture is like. What are the official norms of the workplace? What are the unspoken norms? How is work ethic valued? What kind of leadership can your new hires expect from their supervisors?
  • Connection – Networking is key to getting ahead in life. Your new hires know this, and they need to be able to network with other employees for information and cooperation. But more than that, your new hires need to be able to connect with others, forming relationships and giving human meaning to showing up at work every day.

These Four C’s cover the different needs your new hires have, but some companies are more effective than others at implementing each area. Bauer also outlines the three different levels of effectiveness:

  • Passive Onboarding – A business that covers Compliance and Clarification but neglects the other two achieves Passive Onboarding. Compliance and Clarification are basic orientation processes that all companies teach their new hires. If the business doesn’t go beyond these two steps, it’s missing out on crucial onboarding processes which help new hires transition into the workplace. Roughly 30% of all businesses fall into this category, according to SHRM.
  • High Potential Onboarding – The business which covers the first two C’s and is somewhat effective at orienting new hires to Culture and providing Connection has achieved High Potential Onboarding. About half of all businesses operate at this level.
  • Proactive Onboarding – The business which effectively covers all Four C’s intentionally has achieved Proactive Onboarding. Around 20% of all businesses achieve this most effective level. This is the level of onboarding you should strive to attain.

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan for successful Proactive Onboarding, there is a general formula:

Self-Efficacy + Role Clarity + Social Integration + Knowledge of Culture = Success 

 3. Begin Onboarding During the Recruiting Phase 

To achieve Proactive Onboarding, your onboarding must begin in your recruiting phase.

“Managers need to remember that onboarding is not a one-time event,” says Mike Haberman of Omega HR Solutions.  “It is a process that begins before the employee ever actually starts. Get them involved with the culture of the company early before they ever walk through the door.”

Look at recruiting as the widest end of an onboarding funnel. Your aim is to hire someone who can meet all the job requirements, who will be an asset to your company, and who will stay with your company for a good amount of time.

Have the end goal be acclimating potential hires to the Four C’s throughout the recruiting process.

While it may seem obvious that recruiting is the first step in finding a great new hire, many recruiting plans overlook one important detail in how the recruiting is accomplished: many times the recruiting process is so focused on getting a candidate through the door that it provides an unrealistic sales pitch.

Giving your potential employee a realistic idea of what their job will be like is essential to a solid onboarding process.

SHRM calls this the Realistic Job Preview (RJP). While you may drive away some potential candidates, you will ensure the quality of those who pursue the job after seeing what it is really like.

An unnamed firm discovered interesting results after conducting an experiment where one group of candidates was given a Realistic Job Preview, and the other group was not.

SHRM reported that in this firm, “The RJP group was more likely to reject a job offer, but they had 50% less turnover than the non-RJP group.”

Their conclusion: “Realistic previews help to prevent new employees from suffering unmet expectations. Past research has found that new employees receiving large amounts of accurate information about a company and their new job tend to adjust better than those who don’t acquire this information.”

Overall, providing a RJP helps build trust between new employee and employer.

4. Plan Ahead 

If you want your onboarding to be effective, you can’t jump straight from the recruiting phase into a new hire’s first day on the job without a little preparation.

According to Brandi Britton, district president of staffing at OfficeTeam, “Making sure a new hire’s first day goes without a hitch all comes down to a manager’s proper planning. If you don’t take the time to think through the necessary onboarding steps, you may overlook details along the way.”

Think of yourself as a teacher preparing a classroom for a student before the first day of school. When young students arrive on their first day of class, they don’t wait around for the teacher to find them a desk. They don’t fill out a bunch of paperwork, they aren’t thrown into a math lesson right away, and they don’t have to teach themselves how to use the pencil sharpener.

“Once a start date is established for an employee,” adds Britton, “ the supervisor should immediately start coordinating with all parties that will be involved in the person’s onboarding -- including the HR representative, front desk staff and relevant team members -- to make sure all the necessary meetings are scheduled, supplies and equipment are available, and access to network or security systems is provided.”

They arrive to a desk with their name on it – and the day continues with introductions, icebreakers, and other structured orientation.

In the same way, you must have a new hire’s day set up for them in an engaging and thoughtful way. Eric Siu, CEO of the digital marketing agency Single Grain, recommends four preparations to make before your new hire shows up:

  • Have all paperwork (forms) ready to go. Employee handbooks and nondisclosure agreements must be read and signed, tax forms and insurance paperwork must be completed, and direct deposit forms have to be turned in. In some companies, fingerprinting and drug screens must be administered. The overall objective of having the paperwork ready to go is to have your new employee become as official as possible, as soon as possible.
    The faster you can have them fill out the HR paperwork, the better. In many cases, you can have your new hires fill out some of these forms via email before they even show up. This keeps their first day from being swamped with boring paperwork – a task which is necessary, but which will not contribute to their sense of value to the company.
  • Team up with the new hire’s boss. You and their direct supervisor should form an onboarding plan that checks in on them at certain intervals. For example, you may want to have check-ins on Day One, Day Three, and at the end of the first week. Then, you may want to check in on them at the end of the second week, and again at the end of 30, 60 and 90 day intervals.
  • Make a checklist for your new hires. This will cover the Compliance and Clarification aspects of the Four C’s. Some good questions to put on this checklist are:

o   Who is my supervisor and who are my team members?

o   What tools and software are required? How does my team communicate?

o   What accounts need to be set up (email, servers, etc.)?

o   What is my first assignment and what are the expectations for it?

o   Is there any required reading for my position?

o   What are some smaller projects I can work on?

  • Have your new hire’s workspace ready. Being able to show your new employee to their work station on Day One communicates that you want them to be there. It also shows that your company is organized.

Their first impression in this regard is important. You want to leave your new hire feeling like there can be a symbiotic relationship between them and your company.

The Harvard Business Review has a checklist of their own, which includes more subtle items:

  • Send out an email to everyone in the office so they’re prepared to welcome a new employee.
  • Set up the computer and configure the new employee’s email accounts. Provide guides for any necessary software they will be using.
  • Set up the phone system, and provide instructions for using voicemail. And the copier. And the fax machine. And the Blackberry. And any other items of office technology.
  • Have a stack of business cards waiting.
  • Designate a workspace and provide a name plate on the desk or office door as a tangible sign that you’ve prepared the space.
  • Help the newbie learn names and jobs. Make an informal org chart of your department that spells out who’s responsible for what. Include your boss and her boss, too, along with any other people your newcomer is likely to run into.

Remember: the more detailed you are in welcoming a new hire, the better their first impression will be.

Ryan Farley, founder of on-demand lawn service LawnStarter, relies on checklists to make sure new hires can hit the ground running without having to wait for things like login credentials and software.

"We have a form that the hiring manager fills out that includes details such as start date, laptop needs, software needs and anything else." says Farley. "Then our office manager runs through a standard checklist of creating accounts, adding them to a lunch order, ect. That checklist is what we base our whole onboarding process on."

A great example of effective preparation can be seen in Purdue University Human Resources’ “Supervisor’s Guide to Effectively Onboarding a New Employee.”

In the first phase, “Preparing for the First Day,” the guide emphasizes the need to “create the new employee’s first impression.” Instead of throwing new hires into their first day without a thought, the supervisors control the environment on and even before Day One so that their employees have a good experience.

One of the ways the supervisor accomplishes this is by calling each new employee and welcoming them to the company before their first day. After that, HR reviews their benefits package to remind them of the perks of working for the company.

5. Create the Best Day One Possible 

As stated above, an employee’s first day is a pivotal one: first impressions matter. This is the time you really start imparting the Four C’s to them. You must give them structure and connection, and you must make them feel valued.

While training is going to be a big part of this, you should also create a program that will be an onramp to real projects. New employees like to know they contributed to the company in a real way on their first day instead of wasting time in “orientation.”

While you’ll need to communicate company policies and procedures, be sure to also communicate company goals.

Inform your new hires of what projects your company is working on and show them how they fit into the grand scheme of the company. This offers them a sense of identity and belonging.

Next, inform them of your expectations. For this, refer back to the checklist you and the new hires’ supervisor created. Tell the new hire what you will require of them at the end of the first day, the first week, the first month, the second month, and the third month.

Again, make this as personal as possible by telling them why you hired them in the first place. Inform them of the tasks they’ll be undertaking and let them know you chose them for that job because of their skillset.

Essentially, frame your expectations as a challenge especially designed for them to tackle, instead of a list of chores they have to complete in exchange for money.

To keep your new hires from becoming overwhelmed, assign them a mentor who can help them throughout the day. You don’t want to have to show them how to use the copy machine four different times in one afternoon, but chances are they’ll legitimately need more guidance than one explanation from you. Having a coach they can turn to with questions will help build their confidence.

This confidence on Day One is key to successful onboarding. SHRM cites, “To the degree that a new employee feels confident in doing the job well, he or she will be more motivated and eventually more successful than less confident counterparts.”

Building confidence and great first impressions should be the takeaway from Day One. You want your new hires to be excited about coming back to work the next day.

A great example of a business that uses successful first-day onboarding is Officevibe, an employee engagement platform.

Growth Manager Jacob Shriar says his company does several things to perfect onboarding preparation. “When [new hires] come in on their first day, their desk is all set up with a laptop, some swag, and a handwritten welcome note,” he says.

“They go around with the HR Director and meet everyone in our parent company, GSoft. We go out for lunch at the local restaurant to welcome the new team member. The new employee goes through a presentation of our “why” with our CEO. The new employee spends some time to meet everyone on the team and to learn more about what they do.”

“Another example of memorable and powerful first-day onboarding is SnackNation’s epic new hire intros, where the director of talent acquisition makes a production out of welcoming each individual — megaphone and all.” 

6. Make Week One About Identity

After making your new hires feel at home on their first day, focus on how they can discover and develop their identities in their new job.

Consider the experience of starting a new job from the perspective of your new hire. Joining a new company means a new role, new tasks and responsibilities, new co-workers, and new routines. It is an opportunity for them to contribute to a new company within the context of their talents, passions, and opportunities to impact the company most.

However, traditional onboarding processes indoctrinate new hires into the company culture as soon as possible, demanding that the company’s newest employees adopt its core values. While you do want your employees to adopt your company values, this immersion method may not be the best.

Francesca Gino, behavioral scientist and Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, conducted field research over the course of more than a decade at dozens of companies in a range of industries to learn how companies orient new employees.

Gino and her team found that most companies assume that organizational values are something to be taught to and adopted by newcomers. This creates a tension: When newcomers are ‘processed’ to accept an organization’s identity, they are expected to downplay their own identities, at least while they are at work.

“But subordinating one’s identity and unique perspectives may not be optimal in the long run for either the organization or the individual employee, because suppressing one’s identity is upsetting and psychologically depleting.”

In short, make your new hire’s first week about learning how to use their strengths for the good of the company.

In order to switch your mentality from indoctrinating new hires into fitting a preset mold to letting them use their skill sets productively, take a people-focused approach.

Gino and her team found that when the workplace was framed “as a setting where people can express their authentic best selves, work became a situation to which people wanted to bring more of themselves.

“This places organizations in a fundamentally different role: helping employees to achieve their basic human desires as opposed to providing paid employment that funds people’s ‘real lives.’”

Gino illustrates this with the example of W.L. Gore, a 54-year-old company with over 8,000 employees and revenues of $2.1 Billion.

When new employees are hired at Gore, they are not taught specific scripts and given tight job descriptions, because Gore believes in employees making commitments, not taking assignments.

In fact, employees at W. L. Gore are hired for very general jobs, and they spend the first few months getting to know different teams and different projects that are going on, and deciding what type of personal commitment they could make to add the most value to the organization.

They are coached to not take on too much at first, however, because their commitments become near-sacred oaths that they are held to and judged against.

As long as they are fulfilling these primary commitments, employees are encouraged to use a 1/2 day of “dabble time” – discretionary time – each week to work on topics and projects in which they have a personal interest, but that do not relate to the existing product portfolio.

In these ways, Gore becomes an opportunity for people to use what they do best, and bring something personal to the team.

The difference between these two outlooks is drastic, and creating an environment where employees find fulfillment will be increasingly important as Millennials continue taking over the workplace and strive to find a place where they can express themselves.

The best way to plug in new hires where they will be passionate is by helping them understand themselves. To continue the Harvard Business Review technique:

“Before introducing newcomers to fellow team members or even describing a specific job, it’s helpful to provide them with dedicated time to pinpoint and describe their unique strengths and best selves.

“One way to achieve this is to encourage employees to answer personalized questions such as ‘What is unique about you that leads to your best performance and happiest times at work?’ Employers can also help newcomers construct a ‘personal highlights reel’ made up of two or three specific events or moments when they were at their best.”

7. Introduce New Hires to Company Culture 

Now that your new hires are feeling good about what they can contribute to their new job, remind them of the purpose of their job by introducing them to company culture.

Having new hires embrace company culture is essential for the beating heart of your business.

Brandon Rigoni and Bailey Nelson, authors of Gallup Business Journal’s “Engaged Workplaces Are Safer for Employees,” emphasize the importance of company culture alignment, saying, “Many of the world's most engaged organizations maintain a purpose-driven culture. Their leaders know why the company exists and ensure that employees understand and identify with that purpose.

“When workers embrace the mission of an organization and connect with that purpose both personally and professionally, they are more likely to think "big picture" in all areas of their work.”

Having your new hires adapt to company culture is especially important if your business involves dangerous aspects or environments. When safety is a concern, a culture of safety is a must. Integrating your new hires into a culture of safety means integrating them into a culture of quality.

According to Rigoni and Nelson, “When employees are dedicated to quality, they go the extra mile to do things right the first time. By taking the right strategic action – for example, by holding employees accountable for quality – leaders can develop a workforce that makes smart decisions throughout the day and promotes a culture of workplace safety.”

Knowing when your employees have aligned with your company culture is easy. A few factors indicate whether they are on board with your culture or not. Ask yourself these questions to find out:

  • Do they understand the politics of the workplace?
  • Are they aware of the goals and values of your company?
  • Have they learned the terminology and special language of the workplace (a sign of adapting)?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, your new hire has a firm grasp of your company’s culture.

8. Encourage and Facilitate Connection 

Referring to the Four C’s of successful onboarding, the next step you need to focus on is having your new hires build relationships.

The way they are perceived by their peers is important to confidence and job performance. In addition, if they feel like they’re making valuable connections, chances are they’ll stick around longer.

Keep them informed on how the company is organized and how the sociology of the workplace flows. SHRM highlights the importance of this, saying:

“Meeting and starting to work with organizational ‘insiders’ is an important aspect of learning about any organization. In addition, new employees need to feel socially comfortable and accepted by their peers and superiors. Research has long found acceptance by peers to be an indicator of adjustment.

“According to one estimate, 60% of managers who fail to onboard successfully cite failure to establish effective working relationships as a primary reason. Integration into one’s work group is positively related to commitment and turnover. And high-quality relationships with leaders and other team members undoubtedly are related to favorable onboarding outcomes, including performance and job satisfaction.”

Keep in mind, however, the Harvard Business Review’s advice regarding employees and their best selves. You want your new hires’ social connections to be based on their true identities.

When helping your new hires make connections and introducing them to coworkers, “It’s important to structure those introductions so that the person has the opportunity to introduce himself or herself in a way that’s consistent with their authentic strengths.”

One effective strategy to naturally facilitate connections is having new hires shadow members of their team. Ross Hudgens, founder and CEO of San Diego-based content marketing agency Siege Media, views shadowing as a tool to drive home the tasks outlined in their formal process documentation.

“When onboarding, we have new hires read process documentation and then shadow several employees over the course of several days, then attempt the tasks themselves.” says Hudgens. “We find documentation helpful, but there are inevitably things that don't stick and/or don't resonate, that shadowing can make useful. When we didn't do this, there is a lot less productivity over the first couple months.”

9. Continuation

By now you should know that successful onboarding is a continual, long-term process. Frequently checking in with your new hires at certain milestones is key. There are a few other factors to consider as well in continuing the process:

  • Increase your new hires’ knowledge. Eager employees are always looking to hone their craft. Create a reading list to sporadically send out to your employees. This can be training material, articles related to their line of work, and even books about creativity or time management. Whatever the case, always give your employees the opportunity to grow. This also helps the mentoring process while preventing you from having to spend all your time mentoring. Just make sure you choose what to send them carefully, or your new hires may feel like you’re throwing reading material at them instead of investing time.
  • Give your new hires feedback tools. In an ongoing effort to perfect your onboarding system, listen to what your new hires are saying about the process they’re going through. Not only will this allow you to better your process, it also promotes a healthy relationship with the current hire by asking for and listening to feedback.
  • Use technology as much as possible. Whether you’re conducting a survey or including a new hire in a shared project, streamline the process with technology as much as possible. This communicates to your new hire that you’re willing to invest to make your employees’ lives convenient and up-to-date.
  • Be consistent. The worst experience you can give new hires is to allow them to fall through administrative cracks and be overlooked. Make sure your plan is set up in such a way that every new hire goes through the same process across the board. Their supervisors and specific on-ramp tasks will be different, but the experience should be the same.
    This will take coordination between you and the supervisors of each department of your business. If your business is smaller and one or two people comprise an entire department, make sure your new hire gets the one-on-one time they need.

New employees can be an incredible asset to your company. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can ensure that your new employees have the smoothest possible transition and can immediately begin providing value to your operation.

Do you know of any other tips and tactics for effective employee onboarding? Be sure to let us know about them in the comments below:

About the Author

Shrad Rao

Shrad is our Go-to-Market maverick. His passion and commitment to our company is evident during many sleepless nights as he ponders our next move. Some say he might be Batman – well, it’s really only him saying that so we don’t actually believe him – or do we?

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