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Survey: Onboarding Programs Are Too Short

Nearly 8 in 10 large employers' onboarding programs run under three months

A businessman working on a laptop in an office.

​About 77 percent of onboarding programs among large employers in North America last just three months or less, and 38 percent of employers report that their programs are only a week or less—much shorter than the 12 months many experts recommend.

Onboarding software firm SilkRoad surveyed 312 HR leaders in the United States, Canada and Mexico and found that employers increasingly view onboarding as a strategic imperative to support business success but that most programs are too short to meet desired goals.

Seventy percent of respondents said their companies will focus more on onboarding over the next three years, aiming to boost employee engagement and reduce turnover. The numbers were even higher among HR leaders in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (84 percent), and Asia Pacific (75 percent).

"It's more evidence that onboarding is increasingly recognized as a strategic opportunity within HR," said Lilith Christiansen, vice president of onboarding solutions for SilkRoad and co-author of Successful Onboarding: Strategies to Unlock Hidden Value Within Your Organization (McGraw-Hill Education, 2010). "The acquisition piece is still important. But if you only emphasize attracting and acquiring talent without thinking about retention, you will have to repeat the hiring process over and over again at great expense."

Organizations lose between one-third and two-thirds of new hires within the first 12 months on the job, said Vipula Gandhi, a managing partner at research and consulting firm Gallup. That metric varies from role to role, but one study found that half of all senior-level new hires jump ship within 18 months, and half of all hourly workers last only four months, Gandhi said. "With this kind of attrition, organizations are being challenged in a recruiting environment where having the right talent is absolutely critical," she said.

SilkRoad found that onboarding goals—if not outcomes—have evolved from transactional processing to improving employee engagement and retention. North American respondents said new-hire engagement (80 percent) and new-hire retention (68 percent) were the top business outcome goals for their onboarding programs. Simply processing new-hire paperwork, once the primary reason for onboarding, received the least responses (24 percent).

"Companies are putting that kind of transactional paperwork in front of new hires even before they arrive onsite, and onboarding is becoming more about early-development experiences," said Brian Kropp, group vice president of the HR practice at Gartner.

But onboarding programs tend to end far too soon to effectively support engagement and retention, according to the SilkRoad research. Talent management experts recommend new-hire onboarding programs last at least one year to increase productivity, help employees feel supported and create engagement. Objective performance data shows that the ideal ramp-up time for a new employee is generally from 12 to 15 months, Gandhi said.

One of the main reasons is that most organizations have a yearlong business cycle, Christiansen said. "One year gives the new hire and his or her manager time to hit all the work experiences that tend to happen over the course of a year, aligned to the business cycle."

Managers want to rush the onboarding process, thinking that if a person is spending one year to onboard, they are not fully contributing, Kropp explained. "A lot of managers just aren't patient enough," he said. "But onboarding doesn't mean not contributing. If the mindset around onboarding can shift to it being a blended approach of learning and contributing, employers can create an environment where you have an extended experience for people that helps them drive performance in the organization but still makes them feel like there are opportunities to learn and develop."

For some "very task-oriented and transactional" roles, maybe two or three months of onboarding is enough, Kropp said, but for "knowledge-based jobs, an onboarding program of less than six months will lead to performance and turnover problems."

That's especially true of much of today's work, which is more collaborative and social. "Having a short onboarding period doesn't provide enough time to develop the social connections to actually get work done," he said.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connect]

Biggest Challenges

Respondents said that their biggest onboarding challenges were providing a new-hire experience (67 percent) and new-hire engagement (61 percent), followed by personalizing the experience (45 percent) and holding hiring managers accountable (41 percent).   

Experts agree that a more personalized experience increases effectiveness and engagement.

"While you want to have an overarching experience that provides structure and consistency for all new hires, it is still important to remember personalizing the experience based on geography, business unit, role or even the individual," Christiansen said. "Think about what you want your new hires in sales to experience versus new hires on the factory floor. The personalization piece is particularly important to Millennials and Gen Z, who are used to having information delivered directly to them, tailored to personal preferences."

Recruiters and hiring managers can use information learned about new hires during the recruiting process to inform their onboarding programs, creating a more personalized experience, Kropp said.

Gandhi recommended that employers put more focus on involving managers in the process. "Managers are the linchpin in effective onboarding," she said. "When managers take an active role in onboarding, employees are 2.5 times more likely to feel that the process was successful."

Some of the key themes to hit upon when designing an onboarding program are:

  • Helping new hires thrive in the company culture.
  • Helping new hires understand how their role connects to the overall business.
  • Providing connections to key internal and external contacts who will work with new employees.
  • Assigning work that will produce quick wins and build confidence.

Kropp added that organizations should not limit their onboarding programs only to new hires, but they should also provide programs for employees after extended leaves and internal moves and promotions, if necessary. "If someone is shifting to another part of the organization or taking on a significant shift in their role, it is a mistake not to onboard them again," he said. "Not doing so will set those internal transfers up to struggle, underperform and potentially quit."


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