Original Onboarding Options from 4 HR Leaders

How HR leaders are taking onboarding to new heights by creatively engaging new hires in their companies’ cultures and teams.

By Daniel Bortz Nov 30, 2017

​The war for talent isn’t won when employees walk in your company’s door. The challenge simply changes from hiring them to keeping them—and that battle begins on day one with effective onboarding.

Indeed, smoothly integrating workers into their positions—and the company’s culture—is critical, given that up to 20 percent of employee turnover occurs within the first 45 days of employment, according to research by O.C. Tanner, an employee recognition company based in Salt Lake City. 

The stakes of going back to the drawing board are high, especially at small companies that can least afford the vacancies. It now takes a whopping 68 business days to fill a white-collar job in the U.S., compared with 42 days in 2010, according to a 2017 study by CEB, an Arlington, Va.-based management and technology consultancy. And the average company loses roughly $407 each day a job remains open, CEB found. 

​Unfortunately, many companies struggle with onboarding. Over a third of employers don’t have any structured process in place to assimilate new employees, according to a 2017 CareerBuilder survey. “If a company doesn’t have a formal onboarding process, it says to new employees, ‘We don’t care about you,’ ” says George Bradt, managing director at PrimeGenesis, a Stamford, Conn.-based onboarding and leadership consulting firm. That message can lead new employees to adopt a bleak sink-or-swim mentality, Bradt says.

Of companies that do have structured programs, many mistake orientation for onboarding, says business consultant Doris Sims Spies, author of Creative Onboarding Programs (McGraw-Hill Education, 2010). Orientation entails the basic steps of getting new employees acclimated to the office—that is, “Here’s your desk. Here’s the bathroom. Here’s your benefits paperwork.” Although providing that type of information is important, onboarding is much broader than that. 

It’s about showing new hires how the company operates and how their positions fit within the bigger picture. It’s a way of introducing people to your company’s culture and integrating them into teams. “Orientation should only be one piece of your onboarding program,” Spies says. 

Done well, onboarding enhances retention. According to a 2013 survey by the Aberdeen Group, companies with an engaging onboarding program retained 91 percent of their workers through their first year. 

That’s why a growing number of employers are using innovative practices, such as games, video and team-building exercises, to get new hires excited about joining the company. They’re also working to make sure people can hit the ground running with functional workstations and equipment. 

Facebook, for example, has a “45-minute rule,” which means all new employees can begin to work within 45 minutes of arriving because all of their systems and devices have been set up before they report for their first day. 

But you don’t have to go to Silicon Valley’s major players to find businesses with unique onboarding programs. Leaders at Suffolk Construction, a national construction firm based in Boston, invite entry-level hires to participate in a variety of team-building exercises, including rowing the Charles River together. New employees at Bedgear, a Farmingdale, N.Y.-based manufacturer of performance bedding, take a walking tour of downtown Manhattan to visit other retailers that sell customized products, including Warby Parker and Samsung.

These kinds of group activities can enable new employees to work together more effectively, Bradt says. They also help co-workers bond—and studies show that workplace friendships can increase job satisfaction, boost productivity and strengthen commitment to a company, while decreasing stress and turnover. (A 2013 Gallup poll found that close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50 percent and that people with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to engage fully in their work.)

The four case studies highlighted here show how smaller companies are rolling out the red carpet with creative practices for engaging new hires in their cultures and teams. Use their stories as inspiration—and a source of ideas—for creating or reshaping your own program. 

[SHRM members-only resource: New Employee Onboarding Guide]

FORUM Credit Union: Games People Play

Location: Indianapolis

No. of employees: 350

Business: Financial services

Before—Orientation, Not Onboarding

Four years ago, new hires spent their first two days at FORUM trudging through a tedious orientation. “It was a lot of lectures and a lot of paperwork,” says MeChelle Callen, SHRM-SCP, vice president of organizational development. “It had nothing to do with our culture.” 

Pivot Point

In 2013, company leaders decided it was time to change. “We wanted to reiterate, ‘This is who we are, this is what we do, and this is the culture you’re joining,’ while making the process fun and interesting,” Callen says. They devised a seven-day program called “Connections” that incorporates games designed to engage new hires while teaching them about the company and building relationships with their peers.

Playing Around

The Game of (Financial) Life

Teams face off in a life-size board game that teaches them about the credit union’s products and services. New hires must make financial decisions based on where they land on the board. For example, one space gives a team the option to put $100 into a health savings account. But before the team decides, one member reads aloud the definition of a health savings account. “It lets employees learn about our products in a fun way, and we’ve found they’re able to retain the information better than if we just handed out brochures,” Callen says.

‘Project FORUMway’

New hires play “Project FORUMway” to learn about the company’s dress code. They are presented with a rack of clothing and must assemble what they believe to be appropriate outfits for work and present them before a “panel of judges” from HR to get feedback.

The Amazing Headquarters Race

This is a one-hour scavenger hunt throughout the building, where “teams have to actually go out and talk to employees,” Callen says. “It’s a bonding experience.”

Winning Results

“We have employees who have been here [for years] who want to go through onboarding again. That’s an indicator of success.” 


Bazaarvoice: Instant Teamwork

​Location: Austin, Texas, with additional offices in New York City, Chicago, Europe and Australia

No. of employees: 760 

Business: Business-to-business software

In It Together

“We want an interconnected workplace,” says Kathy Smith-Willman, senior director of people and talent. “We want our employees to build relationships with people in other departments.” 

To make that happen, new hires from around the world go through onboarding together at Bazaarvoice's headquarters in Austin, Texas. Onboarding classes—which range from five to 25 people—usually have a rich mix of employees, from entry-level hires to middle management and C-suite executives.

Team Tasks

New hires take part in a scavenger hunt related to the company’s culture and products, which Smith-Willman calls “integration therapy for the shy.” Tasks include shadowing a call with a client, setting up a video meeting with a remote co-worker and answering trivia questions.

Employees also work together to organize a snack break for the entire Austin office. “They’re in charge of ordering and picking up food, e-mailing the company, and inviting [employees] to the cafeteria to grab a snack and meet the new-hire class,” Smith-Willman says. “[It’s] a fun, low-pressure way for them to network and familiarize themselves with other employees.”

The program culminates in a global videoconference call, where the newbies introduce themselves to the rest of the company and ring a gong, one of the company’s long-standing traditions. “You’re putting a face to a name for everyone in the company to see,” Smith-Willman says. 

Feedback Loop

“Our company is all about metrics, so we get quantitative feedback from new hires, and our new hires also give us ideas on how to improve the process,” Smith-Willman says. For instance, the onboarding program started as a full week, but the company scaled it back to three days based on participants’ input.

MaidPro: Show, Don't Tell with Video

​Location: Boston

No. of employees: 65 (plus more than 225 franchisees)

Business: A housecleaning franchise

The Tech Touch

A year ago, MaidPro’s HR team decided to create onboarding videos that teach franchisees throughout the U.S. and Canada everything they need to know about the company. “We wanted to capitalize on digital technology and capture people’s attention,” says Kay Lynch, vice president of human resources. 

In many respects, MaidPro sees itself as a technology company, since it offers its franchisees MaidPro’s robust property management software, a cloud-based system that lets them manage customer interactions, including scheduling, billing, employee routing, payroll, invoicing, marketing and other tasks.

​Video onboarding reinforces the high-tech approach. “We’ve tried to capture our entire community,” Lynch says. “You can tell people about your company, but it’s more powerful when you can show them visually what the company does.” New franchisees also attend a one-week training seminar at the company’s Boston headquarters. 

Three C’s

The videos focus on culture, community and commitment. “They’re fun and lighthearted,” Lynch says. For example, one video shows Chief Operating Officer Christopher Chapman making a bowl of his famous guacamole for the office. Another showcases MaidPro’s “Adventure Trip” to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, where headquarters employees and franchisees gathered last year to share ideas, socialize and enjoy the beach. Yet another highlights MaidPro’s 2016 rodeo-themed convention in Colorado Springs. 

Support from the Top

MaidPro’s HR leaders couldn’t have reshaped onboarding without support from the executive team, Lynch notes. “At our company, the attitude is, ‘If you want to try something new, go ahead and do it,’ and that’s what we did,” she says.

[SHRM members-only policy: Onboarding: Employment Offer Policy and Procedure]

The Motley Fool: Red Carpet Ready on Day 1

​Location: Alexandria, Va.

No. of employees: 305

Business: Financial services and advisory firm

Before Day One

Prior to coming aboard, new hires at the Motley Fool are asked to complete questionnaires about their favorite color, snacks, music, sports team and other interests. The company then uses that information to “deck out” each employee’s desk with items they love, says Cheryl Palting, Motley’s director of first impressions. “We want people to feel welcome right away,” she says.

Culture Friday

New hires start on Fridays, and each person receives a “First Day Survival Kit” with Uno cards, Silly Putty and a Nerf gun. Day one is focused squarely on culture. It begins with an unconventional office tour (“Want to know why there’s a hole in that wall?”) and concludes with a team party with food, drinks and games. The company also gives new employees $100 per person to celebrate their new job over the weekend. (The business calls it the “Treat Yo’self” fund.)

​Fools’ Errands

On the following Monday, new hires take part in a scavenger hunt that pushes them outside their comfort zones. For example, “you have to take a selfie with [an employee] who has been here for over 10 years,” Palting says. New employees also get paired with a “Fool Buddy,” a seasoned employee who helps them get acclimated to the culture. 

More Money

The company also gives each new employee $1,000 to open a brokerage account. “We connect them with our investment team, which helps them decide how they want to invest the money,” Palting says.

Their ‘Foolosophy’

“Onboarding at any company is about making employees feel welcome, but we want our employees to feel confident,” Palting says. “When we’re hiring you, we are hiring you for life. That’s why we put so much time and effort into our onboarding.” 

Clearly, it’s working: The typical employee stays at Motley for roughly 7.7 years—well above the national average tenure of 4.2 years. 


5 Ways to Improve Your Onboarding Program

You only have one opportunity to make a great first impression. Here are five strategies to enhance your company’s onboarding process: 

​1. Start early
Don’t wait until an employee’s first day to start onboarding, says business consultant Doris Sims Spies. Instead, give new hires as much information as possible in advance (for example, the employee handbook and benefits paperwork) so you don’t have to waste time with it in person. Just make sure you give employees the chance to ask questions about these documents on day one.

2. Preview the program
Provide employees with an “onboarding road map”—a brief overview of the weeks and months ahead—so they’ll know what to expect, says Sharlyn Lauby, president of ITM Group Inc., a South Florida-based training and HR consulting firm.

3. Make it fun
Rather than lecturing employees, use games to jazz up standard company walkthroughs and less interesting compliance-related topics, Lauby recommends. For example, turn a tour of the office into a scavenger hunt, where new employees have to take selfies with certain people or in particular rooms. 

4. Create informational videos
Give new hires a taste of your company’s culture through videos, such as footage of employees volunteering or bonding at a company retreat. You don’t need a big production budget—just a creative spirit. At MaidPro in Boston, company leaders decided to hire a videographer to shoot one onboarding video showcasing an important company outing, but the other 11 videos were shot and edited by MaidPro’s franchise marketing coordinator Madeline Park. 

5. Solicit feedback

Continuously improve your company’s onboarding process by collecting feedback from new hires. Share their insights with the executive team so leadership is invested in the process.

Daniel Bortz is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

Illustration by James Fryer for HR Magazine.

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