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Designing and Implementing an Effective Onboarding Strategy


​Onboarding is getting a much-needed makeover.

Traditionally, onboarding has been treated as a single event rather than a process: New hires are passive participants in a one- or two-day orientation. They receive information about policies and procedures, sign lots of paperwork, and are perhaps given a tour.

Current changes in the workplace and the workforce require forward-thinking organizations to reassess how they assimilate new employees into the company culture and get them up to speed so they can be productive as quickly as possible. 

"Effective onboarding of new team members is one of the most important contributions an HR professional or hiring manager can make to the long-term success of the organization," said George Bradt, founder and managing director of PrimeGenesis, an executive onboarding company headquartered in Stamford, Conn., and co-author of Onboarding: How to Get Your New Employees Up to Speed in Half the Time (Wiley, 2009). "It can drive new employee productivity, accelerate learning and significantly improve talent retention."

​HR has a crucial role to play in the development and implementation of any structured onboarding program or process. But successfully taking on this role may require a different way of working in the HR space.

There are two kinds of HR professionals, Bradt said. There are administrators who police policy and leaders who are true strategic business partners. While both roles are valuable, leaders are more visionary and future-oriented. When you see onboarding as part of an overall talent management strategy, you position yourself as a real leader. You need to see the big picture, understand the company's long-term vision, and then align HR programs and processes with the company's overall strategic plan.  

Define Your Objectives

​A 2009 study of senior executives and HR professionals conducted by the Aberdeen Group reported that 66 percent of companies with onboarding programs had a higher rate of successful assimilation of new hires into company culture, 62 percent had higher time-to-productivity ratios, and 54 percent reported higher employee engagement than companies without an onboarding program.

The first few weeks or months are a critical period in the employee life cycle because this time period lays the foundation for future success. 

"We try to set all new hires up for success right from the start," said Tess Fyalka, director of employee development and engagement at O'Shea Builders, a midsize commercial construction company in central Illinois. We want to make sure they have the tools, resources and information they need to be successful."

Program objectives help determine the structure and content of the onboarding program. So give some thought to what new hires really need to understand about the organization and the role; then you can create content that aligns with those objectives.

Before Fyalka signed on, the company's onboarding process was piecemeal and somewhat haphazard. She envisioned creating a structured program that accelerated learning, integrated new hires into the company, and inspired them to "carry the flag" for the organization and the brand.

O'Shea is a multigenerational family-owned business. It was founded in 1902 as a one-person carpentry shop and has since swelled to nearly 150 employees. When they opened a second office in a new city, they were concerned about losing the characteristics that distinguished them from the competition.

 "A company that is growing rapidly runs the risk of losing what makes it exceptional. We needed to be intentional about preserving what makes us excellent," Fyalka said.

Fyalka's mandate is directly tied to the second point of the company's 2012 strategic business plan, namely: "Protect the core and maximize the talent."

The core is what they call the "O'Shea way"—the systems, processes and culture that define them. Their employees are the engine and the heartbeat of that core. They believe that a commitment to growth and a learning mindset are essential to their culture and that it translates into more value and better service to their clients. 

Build in Automation, Where It Fits

​The availability of affordable onboarding software has made it possible to automate most of the administration of onboarding. However, successful programs usually go beyond simple compliance to create an exceptional experience for the employee.

O'Shea starts pre-onboarding new hires two weeks prior to their start date. Once they are set up on the O'Shea online employee portal, new employees can complete paperwork and read through the employee handbook on their own time.

The portal is designed to humanize the organization. It provides information about O'Shea's history, culture, mission and values, as well as profiles of the people they'll be working with. 

New hires also have access to their training itinerary. They know who they will be meeting with, what they will be learning, and what is expected of them at 30, 60 and 90 days. The portal is like having their own virtual assistant.

Identify Key Players

​The software is a tool. But it is most effective when the content mirrors the human experience in meaningful ways. This means that people throughout the organization need to take ownership of their part in the process.

"It doesn't happen unless the leadership 'gets it,' " Fyalka said. "It helps that we're a culture where people are committed to helping each other. It makes it easier to get everyone involved."

Hiring managers often have key roles in the process, and HR may need to sell them on the benefits of onboarding.

"It can't sound like it's an HR initiative," Bradt said. "Managers need to recognize how it will help new team members become more productive faster."

To ensure that the onboarding content works well, O'Shea's managers and professional staff serve as subject matter experts. They provide input into the training modules, present webinars, and serve as mentors and coaches for new hires.

Other organizations rely on "buddy mentors." These peer mentors are actively involved in helping new employees get the tools, information and resources they need to be successful. 

Make It Long Enough to Make a Difference

​"A few days of orientation is not sufficient to adequately engage new hires and set them off to a fast start," said Steve O'Brien, vice president of marketing for Chronus Corp., the company that provides O'Shea's onboarding software.

O'Brien believes that new hires need a more extended learning window that allows them to anchor what they're learning through on-the-job experience. He also recommends customizing the learning to the role and incorporating learning through others.

An onboarding process can last from a few weeks to over a year, depending on the complexity of the role and the availability of resources.  At O'Shea, each role has a standardized template that is designed to structure the learning process. Each new hire receives a schedule with discrete learning modules that are completed according to predetermined timetables. They also meet regularly with subject matter experts in each learning module. Webinars created by subject matter experts reinforce the learning.

The length of the onboarding program varies by role. Project managers and project engineers, for example, participate in a 90-day program; programs for less technical roles (which require less complex learning) generally last three weeks. Throughout the program, new hires meet regularly with Fyalka to share their experience, ensure they are on track and suggest improvements.

 "We use their feedback to continuously tweak the program," Fyalka said. "It's an iterative process. We're always trying to make it better."

What’s Next?

​Although an onboarding program needs to have a definite end date, you also need to consider how to help employees continue to develop throughout their employment journey.

In phase two, O'Shea employees transition into an ongoing career development program they call "player development." SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, timely) goals are a key feature of the program. Each employee is expected to set strategic, functional and personal development goals that are beneficial to the company as a whole, their specific department or team, and to them personally.

An abbreviated reboarding process has been developed that is customized to meet the needs of employees who change positions within the company.

"Though an internal employee isn't new to the organization, a role change often comes with a change of team, new leaders, team members and cultural norms," said Matt Hoffman, vice president of people at DigitalOcean, a cloud computing company in New York City.  "Preparing employees with the connections, confidence and support they need to be successful in the new role is a key part of internal onboarding."

Hoffman recommends that HR professionals connect the employee's former manager and new manager, along with the employee, in a discussion about how to best help the transitioning employee succeed.  "Regardless of how knowledgeable an employee was in their previous position, every hire needs some level of guidance when taking on a new role."

He also suggests creating a new development plan with 30-, 60- and 90-day goals around the role to ensure that the internal hire is acclimating to his or her new position and getting up to speed as quickly as possible.

As the competition for talent heats up, it is increasingly important for employers to give more thought to how they can integrate new employees and keep them productively engaged from the get-go. By focusing on developing an effective onboarding program, they can set their employees up to be successful, which, in turn, sets the organization up to be successful as well.


 Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.  

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