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Don't Underestimate the Importance of Good Onboarding

A woman holding a cardboard box with plants in it.

​Onboarding is a prime opportunity for employers to win the hearts and minds of new employees. Don't waste it, experts say. 

"Onboarding is a magic moment when new employees decide to stay engaged or become disengaged," said Amy Hirsh Robinson, principal of the consulting firm The Interchange Group in Los Angeles. "It offers an imprinting window when you can make an impression that stays with new employees for the duration of their careers." 

Robinson laments the myriad ways in which organizations squander those precious moments. Instead of using the experience as an opportunity to connect emotionally with new hires, HR professionals often overwhelm them with boatloads of materials and information at the new employee orientation. 

When Anne Baughman, an employment experience manager with Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Lawrence, Kan., started her new job in December, she'd already experienced the kind of chaotic, disorganized experience Robinson calls "death by orientation."  

No one had told her where to park her car on her first day of work. Once inside the hospital, she was given materials that were outdated, along with a handwritten agenda that included what she called "irrelevant topics." For her, the experience was instructive because it showed her the significant changes the hospital's onboarding process needed (which she is now implementing.) 

New hires who experience such badly planned and executed initiations may conclude that the organization is poorly managed and decide that it was a mistake to take the job. Under uncertain circumstances, Robinson said, new employees are prone to jump to premature conclusions. As they make their way through the organization, those early experiences get magnified and calcified. 

This is particularly true of impressionable Millennials who may be new to the workforce and unclear about what to expect. Rather than setting new employees up for success, organizations with poor onboarding processes are setting the stage for an early exit. This is both a cross-generational and an intergenerational problem. As demographics continue to shift, Millennials are likely to make up a significant number of new hires. But premature leave-taking can happen at every level and at every age. Nearly one-third of all new hires quit their jobs within the first six months. At Lawrence, 28 percent of new hires leave at the half-year mark. 

To staunch the flow of new hires prematurely heading for the exits, organizations have to give more thought and attention to how they convert attractive job candidates into successful longer-term employees. Otherwise, they are wasting the time and energy they spend on recruitment and selection. 

Make the Business Case 

When designing and implementing a cohesive onboarding program or process, HR professionals need to engage with key stakeholders throughout the organization to ensure that all new hires have an optimal onboarding experience. Statistics compiled by Click Boarding, an onboarding software company in Eden Prairie, Minn., show the value of a structured onboarding process or program: 

  • 69 percent of employees are more likely to stay with a company for three years if they experienced great onboarding.
  • New employees who went through a structured onboarding program were 58 percent more likely to be with the organization after three years.
  • Organizations with a standard onboarding process experience 50 percent greater new-hire productivity.

The challenge is bigger than any one person or department. Convince managers of the importance of an inclusive onboarding process, and train them to participate.  

Baughman has been instrumental in making this an organizational priority for the hospital. Everyone (from front-line employees to senior-level executives) is held personally accountable for helping reduce the attrition rate among new hires by 10 percent. 

She works with managers in each department of the midsize hospital to make sure they know what is expected of them and to ensure that new hires have a consistent experience throughout the organization. The process has been so successful that many managers are volunteering to help with the training.  

Focus on the Experience 

The old adage still holds true: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." So give some thought to what kind of first impression you want new hires to have of the organization. 

But if you truly want to design an onboarding process or program that drives retention and performance, the new employee orientation is simply the first step in a journey that can take weeks and sometimes even months.

"Research and conventional wisdom both suggest that employees get about 90 days to prove themselves in a new job," said Talya Bauer, Ph.D., author of Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success, part of the SHRM Foundation's Effective Practice Guidelines Series. "The faster new hires feel welcome and prepared for their jobs, the faster they will be able to successfully contribute to the firm's mission." 

Bauer identified four distinct levels of onboarding, from least to most effective:

  • Compliance. At this level, HR teaches new employees about legal and policy-related issues.
  • Clarification. HR makes sure that new employees understand their new role along with the related expectations.
  • Culture. HR focuses on exposing new hires to the organizational values and norms.
  • Connection. HR connects new hires to personal relationships and information networks. 

Technology can streamline the administrative process. Rather than giving new hires mountains of information to memorize, show them how to use the benefits portal to find the information they need, and then let them absorb that information on their own time. 

However, technology cannot replace the one-on-one interactions between new hires and various members of the organization that elevate the onboarding experience.  

Concentrate on Culture and Connection 

"[Onboarding is] the perfect time to tell stories about the organization's history, values, people and big-picture vision for the future. It should come from the heart," said Robinson. 

She encourages employers to focus on the individual new hires. "Listen to their stories. Find out who they are. And then marry the two stories together." 

At Hulu, a subscription video-on-demand service in Santa Monica, Calif., new hires are shown videos of employees (who are called Hulugans) who demonstrate the company's character and commitment to fun. The profiles show how the company successfully merges its story with the stories of its employees.

Invest in Career Development 

While Millennials sometimes get a bad rap for constant job hunting, which some employers think is an act of disloyalty, loyalty is likely not the issue. In these early stages of their careers, many of them are focused on learning and growth. 

"They want to see a structured way forward," said Robinson. "They want to know what's expected of them and what they need to do to progress." 

Give new hires opportunities for growth in the form of rotational assignments, cross-training and platforms to showcase their ideas, she said. 

Companies that rely on younger employees as the lifeblood of their business can learn a lot from a small Southern fast-food chain called Pal's Sudden Service. The company has 900-plus employees in 26 locations. Ninety percent of its employees are part time, and 40 percent are between the ages of 16 and 18.  

While fast-food chains are notorious for high turnover rates and questionable customer service, the turnover rate for assistant managers at Pal's is 1.4 percent. And the company has only lost seven general managers in the 34 years that it has been in business. 

Pal's attributes this success to its commitment to continuous teaching, training and coaching, reports New employees (including part-timers) receive 120 hours of training before they are allowed to work on their own. Every employee has to prove his or her competence in his or her role through a certification (and recertification) process. The experience generates loyal employees who, in turn, are instrumental in creating loyal customers. 

Savvy employers can build career development into the orientation process by showing these newbies how they can contribute to the organization while also advancing their own career goals. After the initial orientation, survey new employees for feedback to ensure that their expectations are being met and, if necessary, tweak the process. After that, weekly check-ins allow for course corrections and send the message that the organization cares about them and is invested in their growth. 

Arlene S. Hirsch, M.A., LCPC, is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is

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