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Welcome Onboard

Online tools help ease the way for new hires and get them up to speed.

May  CoverWhen it comes to adding tens or thousands of employees each year, it can be easy for people to get lost in the paperwork. Web-based tools can simplify the onboarding process, making for a better employee experience and freeing up HR staff for higher-level functions, rather than spending time manually keying data into a human resource information system (HRIS).

"We wanted the ability to onboard 50 to 250 people a week without blinking an eye," says Chris Holmes, senior associate of corporate learning and development for Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. in McLean, Va. After the consulting firm launched its web-based onboarding system, "we were able to free up HR staff from handling the paperwork, which allows them to be more strategic."

Booz Allen has more than 25,000 employees. Yet, the benefits of web-based onboarding solutions are not limited to large enterprises. With the advent of low-cost online tools, even HR professionals at small companies can ensure that they comply with the dizzying array of employee recordkeeping requirements.

Another benefit: "Web-based tools allow employees to view information at their own pace, and from wherever they're located," says Linda Duffy, president of Ethos Human Capital Solutions in Irvine, Calif. "The systems ensure that all employees receive the same information, and that may not happen if different trainers or managers do the onboarding."

Benefits of Onboarding

Companies take different approaches to onboarding. At the bare minimum, the process requires getting new hires to fill out W-4s and I-9s, introducing them to their bosses, and preparing their workspaces. But a full approach involves engaging new employees before they arrive in the workplace and overseeing their progress through the first year.

The "turnover an organization experiences is attributed to the onboarding experience," says Robert Jordan, chief executive officer of onboarding service provider KMS Software Co. in Los Angeles. "Onboarding is vital in making sure they stay."

He says HR professionals automate onboarding for four major reasons:

Document management.

They want to ensure that all federal, state, local, union, benefit provider and corporate forms are filled out correctly and efficiently.

Provisioning and notification.

They want to give new hires required resources from day one, including uniforms, computers, workspaces, building access and e-mail addresses. A web-based onboarding system can automatically notify staff in internal departments (such as security and information technology), as well as at external service providers (such as background screening companies or uniform vendors), of new hires' needs.


Often, particularly with salaried employees, there are several weeks between the time a candidate accepts a position and the time he or she starts the new job. During that period, it's important to keep new hires' interest and engagement high. "Engage that new hire," Jordan advises. "Deliver messaging around company ideals or values or culture, as well as benefits information, before the employee has access to the intranet."


Some larger companies have compliance departments, but many still automate their processes to ensure that all rules and legal regulations are followed. Smaller companies may lack in-house legal expertise, so working with a software vendor to track and monitor compliance can be an advantage.

Different companies need different components in onboarding tools. For some employers, engagement is the focus. For others, it's training or paperwork. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit with 7,000 employees throughout the state, typically onboards about 800 staff members each year.

Better Onboarding

The organization uses PeopleSoft's HRIS and software from Taleo for its recruitment portal BlueTalent. In 2009, Taleo's onboarding module was added for about $10,000 per year.

"We wanted a seamless, paperless, highly customized onboarding process, and wanted it to be user-friendly with that high-touch feel," says Stefanie Thornton, director of talent management. "Most importantly, we wanted to make sure it was integrated directly into our HRIS."

New hires used to receive a thick folder of forms by overnight mail. Employees completed the forms manually and brought them in on the first day. The first four hours of the first day would be spent checking the forms and turning them in to someone in HR who would manually key all the information into the HRIS and payroll system.

"It was painful, and the margin of error was high," Thornton says.

It took about three months to design, implement and train staff, and to test the onboarding software. Now, new hires access an onboarding portal and fill out forms remotely. Forms are front-loaded with information from the staffing module, so new hires don't have to re-enter their names, addresses and Social Security numbers. Taleo automatically populates that information into the HRIS and payroll system, thereby triggering computer access, e-mail addresses, badges and benefits information upon employees' arrival.

With automation of the onboarding process at Scottrade, ‘we have been able to repurpose our HR staff.’

"We have revamped our orientation, and it is no longer a paperwork mill," Thornton says.

Dynamic Tool

HR professionals at the investing company Scottrade Inc. use software-as-a-service from KMS Software to onboard employees. Headquartered in St. Louis, Scottrade has 4,700 associates at more than 500 offices in 48 states and onboarded almost 900 employees last year.

"Our philosophy is to make sure all new associates, regardless of their level, feel part of the company right away and they are given the necessary tools to do a good job and get up and running as quickly as possible," says Sue Pyke, Scottrade's HRIS manager.

Scottrade conducts two-day onboarding training at headquarters. At branch offices, the process takes several weeks. Employees are given access to the KMS software to fill out forms authorizing former employees to release information regarding their employment. Before they start, new hires are sent an e-mail with a link so they can go into a portal to review data about the company and complete tax and direct deposit forms.

"The tool is dynamic. Based on the associate's location and their job function, the panels they see will change," Pyke says.

The software has a built-in compliance function. For example, Scottrade's employees are required to get fingerprinted, and the software tracks this process. For certain positions, such as nurses or truck drivers, the system can verify an individual's certifications and licenses with the appropriate regulatory bodies.

"With automation, we have been able to repurpose our HR staff," Pyke says.

Homegrown Solution

Booz Allen onboards about 5,000 employees per year and overhauled the process in a collaborative, yearlong effort involving recruiting, HR, learning and development, legal and IT staff members.

"We looked at onboarding as the entire first year—from the time an employee signs an offer letter to their first annual assessment," Holmes says.

That first year is divided into three phases:


encompasses the first few weeks.


occurs with the local team and involves providing the employee with all the necessary resources.


covers from three months through the end of that first year.

Booz Allen uses custom software to guide employees through its onboarding process.

"We did a thorough review of off-the-shelf software," Holmes says. "But we decided to go with a homegrown new-hire portal integrated with our HR systems."

Once hired, staff members are given access to the portal, where they complete paperwork and get information about the firm and about the four-day orientation held weekly near headquarters. All new hires, regardless of level, go through this orientation. New hires also automatically receive 12 monthly newsletters covering relevant and timely topics such as core values, employee resources and information, ethics, and compliance. There are also tools for managers, such as sample welcome e-mails they can use as well as guidelines on what to cover in periodic meetings with the employees.

For HR, one of the biggest benefits has come from letting employees fill out forms electronically. This saves time spent manually entering data and results in fewer errors.

Consistent Process

Workforce provider Kelly Services Inc. placed more than 550,000 employees in temporary positions worldwide last year. It didn't need to change its onboarding paperwork, but it lacked a consistent procedure. Some managers were doing employee onboarding quite well, but others were not.

"We found that onboarding impacted turnover and productivity," says Julie Curtin, director of global learning. "Within the first couple weeks, employees have made the decision on whether or not they are going to stay with the company long term."

To help reduce turnover and improve productivity, Kelly's leaders put in place a consistent onboarding process. The company had a well-established training system with Cornerstone OnDemand Inc.'s learning management system and Microsoft LiveMeeting, and it added the onboarding process as an extension. In 2009, it conducted a three-part pilot that included:

Providing live onboarding at the Troy, Mich., corporate headquarters.

Sending personnel to regional headquarters to conduct the onboarding.

Offering onboarding entirely on the intranet.

The pilot reduced new-hire turnover from 15 percent to about 3 percent during the six-month period. The pilot was also credited with increasing productivity: New recruiters who had gone through onboarding had a 27 percent fill rate in their first 30 days on the job, compared with a 0 percent fill rate for recruiters who did not participate. Fill rate measures a recruiter's ability to fill job vacancies.

Based on this, Kelly implemented online onboarding for all new employees in 2009 through a program called The Kelly Experience. At an appointed time, employees log into the portal and a trainer at headquarters guides them through the process of learning about the company and their roles using LiveMeeting and WebEx for three two-hour sessions. The senior vice president welcomes them in a video and talks about corporate strategy and their roles. Employees learn about the organization's structure, culture and history; get to try out the technology available to them; and can explore the company's intranet.

Measurable Results

Sometimes it is hard to provide exact metrics for the benefits software provides, but with onboarding software the results are measurable. Kelly still reports the same low turnover scores it achieved in the pilot, and employee survey results have been positive. For example, when asked "Overall, would you recommend this program to a friend or colleague?," about 76 percent of new hires consistently say they would. And, more than 90 percent of employees strongly agreed with the statement "After reflecting on The Kelly Experience, I feel confident about my decision to join Kelly."

Michigan's Blue Cross Blue Shield reports similar results from employee surveys.

"Survey results have flipped since we implemented the onboarding portal," Thornton says. Before, onboarding "was painful and confusing; many now say it is by far the smoothest they have ever experienced."

And HR staff members have enjoyed significant time and cost savings from going paperless.

"This morning, I was looking for a file in one of my cabinets and I happened to pull out one of our old new-hire paper packets," Thornton says. "I couldn't believe how much paper was there."

The author is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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