Employee Onboarding: Definition & Best Practices

In this guide, we cover what employee onboarding is as well as look at the benefits and best practices to ensure new hires thrive in your company.

Written by: Josh Brown

Published: August 09 2021

An illustration of employee onboarding

Having an effective employee onboarding process in place is key in retaining new hires and decreasing hiring costs.

Your employees are the lifeblood of your company. They’re what enables your organization to run like a finely-tuned machine. 

Without your employees, you simply would never be able to attain the goals you’ve set for your business.

Still, no matter how driven and talented a given employee is; no matter how easily they “gel” with their colleagues; no matter how “in tune” they are with your company’s mission:

It will always take some time and effort for them to truly become a vital part of your organization.

This is where employee onboarding comes in.

What is Employee Onboarding?

Employee onboarding refers to the collection of processes involved in fully integrating a new hire into an organization.

To be sure, there’s a lot to unpack, here.

First, employee onboarding is a collection of processes—not a one-off activity. In fact, Sapling found that new hires complete an average of 54 activities or processes throughout their onboarding experience.

(As a quick side note, “employee orientation” is not synonymous with “employee onboarding.” Rather, orientation is but one of the activities a new employee will engage in the course of being onboarded.)

Many of these tasks are more administrative in nature, in that they involve completing routine paperwork and similar activities to “officially” bring the employee into the organization. 

But, even after a new hire is “officially” onboard, there’s still the matter of aligning them with the overall culture, vision, and mission of the organization. 

That said, onboarding also involves all the processes and activities that aim to make new hires feel that they truly belong within their new company.

Overall, onboarding is all about paving the way for new hires to reach their full potential within their new organization as quickly and as smoothly as possible. 

We’ll talk more about what an effective onboarding process looks like in a bit. First, let’s discuss why having an effective onboarding process is so important in the first place.

Why is Employee Onboarding Important?

As we just mentioned, the main goal of onboarding employees is to get new hires to a point where they can thrive within your organization.

According to Nate Richardson from BambooHR, "each of your employees only gets to experience one first day on the job. 

Effective onboarding on day one (and through the weeks and months thereafter) can mean the difference between an employee who remains engaged for years to come or an empty desk after only a few months. 

Focusing your onboarding efforts on meeting new employees’ most basic needs for job clarity and personal connection will not only reduce new-hire turnover—it will also increase employee engagement. 

Through effective onboarding, you will be able to help new hires transition from excited recruits to engaged employees, and from their forward momentum, your entire organization will move ahead."

Let’s dig a bit deeper at the specific reasons that proper employee onboarding enables your new hires to be successful.

Onboarding Creates and Maintains Alignment

A huge part of employee onboarding involves explaining what tasks the new hire will be responsible for completing—and why completing these tasks matters to the company’s overall operations.

Failure to fully communicate either of these points can cause new hires to go astray from the get-go. 

Regarding the “what,” if a new employee doesn’t know what they actually need to be doing, they’re just not going to be able to do it. 

In terms of the “why,” employees who don’t see the value in their efforts will be less likely to perform to the best of their abilities.

(Unfortunately, data from Performance Management: Putting Research into Action shows that only 14% of companies say their employees truly comprehend and align with the organization’s strategy, goals, and direction.)

On the other hand, when a new employee understands exactly:

  • What they need to do
  • How they can go about doing it
  • Why their actions are vital to their company’s mission

...they’ll end up being much more productive. According to research published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, creating a more deep-seated alignment with new employees immediately creates a sense of mutual trust between parties. 

This, in turn, enables and motivates them to put their best effort into everything they do for the company.

Onboarding Spurs Engagement and Action

Speaking of action, proper onboarding also causes new hires to become more engaged and productive overall.

Case in point, a report published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization found that new hires that are exposed to proper onboarding processes are up to 50% more productive than the average new employee. 

Along with this, 54% of managers and business owners agree that proper onboarding is a necessary part of improving employee engagement over time.

Note the last part of that sentence: “Over time.”

Yes, effective employee onboarding does allow new hires to “hit the ground running” as quickly and efficiently as possible.

But proper onboarding also involves a gradual release of responsibility, as well as a gradual immersion into certain aspects of the position (and the organization). 

The focus is on enabling the employee to be as productive and engaged as they could possibly be at a given point in their tenure.

Absent this gradual approach, new employees can easily get overwhelmed when acclimating to your organization’s various processes. 

In turn, their engagement and productivity is likely to suffer at some point down the line.

Onboarding Fosters Communication and Collaboration

As we’ve discussed before, sharing knowledge is essential for optimizing your organization’s overall processes.

Of course, for teams to share knowledge and otherwise collaborate with each other, they need to:

  1. Have the means to do so
  2. Feel comfortable in doing so

A proper onboarding process allows new hires to be introduced to their colleagues on both a professional and personal level. 

It also introduces new employees to the tools and processes the team uses when communicating and collaborating.

Additionally, effective onboarding itself is often collaborative (as opposed to a one-sided series of lectures, for example). 

This sets the stage for new hires right from the start: It’s not just suggested that they communicate and work well with their colleagues; they actually have to be able to do so to complete their assigned tasks.

It’s not about forcing new employees to communicate, though. The goal is to show that communication and collaboration are essential parts of being an effective member of the team.

An effective onboarding process allows your organization to easily accomplish this goal.

Onboarding Attracts and Retains Quality Employees

According to a 2015 report by Glassdoor:

“Organizations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82% and productivity by over 70%. Companies with weak onboarding programs lose the confidence of their candidates and are more likely to lose these individuals in the first year.”

Adding to that, Digitate found that a poor onboarding experience leads new hires to be two times more likely to leave their position.

On the surface, the benefit of proper onboarding is obvious: You’ll keep your best employees around for a longer period of time. 

Digging deeper, since your employee turnaround will decrease, you also won’t be spending excess resources continually bringing in new hires again and again.

Ultimately, this brings us to our last point, here:

Onboarding Allows You to Grow Your Business

If your onboarding experience gets your new employees:

  • Aligned with your company’s mission
  • Engaged in their tasks and assignments
  • Invested in your organization for the long haul

They’re going to be a major asset for your company moving forward.

When all of your employees are working to their highest capacity, your business will truly be running like a well-oiled machine. In turn, you’ll be able to make the appropriate adjustments, additions, and enhancements to processes as you begin to scale your business.

And, well...you’ll likely be able to do so. As reported by Aberdeen Group, organizations that substantially improve their employee onboarding processes have shown to generate a 60% year-over-year growth in revenue.

Simply put:

A team of onboarded employees will allow you to attain the goals you’ve set for your business—and for your career, overall. 

Now, the question is...

How Do You Create an Effective Employee Onboarding Process 

So far, we’ve given a quick overview of what employee onboarding is, and why it’s so vital to an organization’s success.

Now, let’s dig a bit deeper into what an effective onboarding process actually looks like. While every organization's onboarding program will look different, there are several employee onboarding best practices that will ensure that you create a stellar onboarding program that helps your new hires succeed early on in your organization.

Without further ado, let's take a look at what makes for an effective employee onboarding program.

Effective Onboarding is Systematic and Proactive

For employee onboarding to be effective, it needs to be structured and intentional.

Unfortunately, it’s not exactly uncommon for managers to take a more informal approach to onboarding. That is, they do enough to get their new hires “set up” on the surface, then simply let them figure things out for themselves from there.

Note that, in many cases, this isn’t done maliciously—it’s often not meant to be the “trial-by-fire” type situation it turns out to be. Often, these are cases where the manager essentially tells the new employee to “let them know if they need anything”...and never checks in on them thereafter.

As we discussed earlier, this can lead the employee to quickly become overwhelmed or otherwise disengaged right from the start.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, you need to take a more formalized and proactive approach to onboarding your employees.

This involves:

  • Defining the specific tasks, actions, and goals a new hire will have in front of them as they begin onboarding
  • Providing the tools and other resources the new hire will need as they navigate the onboarding process
  • Providing the structure and scaffolding needed to guide the new hire to success, while still allowing them to do so in their own way

In the spirit of being proactive, you also shouldn’t wait until your new hire’s first day to begin the onboarding process. As Head of Americas at Frank Recruitment Group, Ian Clark explains:

“The most common mistake I see employers make is not realizing when the onboarding process starts-it's not their first day in the office, it's the moment you offer them the job. 

Instead of silence, use this time to provide introductory information on the company and answer any questions an employee may have—and be sure to actively stay in touch.”

The Society for Human Resource Management explains that the goal of systematic and proactive employee onboarding is to communicate to new employees “the Four C’s” of working within the organization:

  • Compliance: The policies and procedures of the organization
  • Clarification: Providing sufficient instruction and information to new hires
  • Culture: The formal and informal social dynamic of the organization
  • Connection: The importance of forging natural, authentic relationships with colleagues

You can use these categories of a rubric, of sorts, when creating your formalized onboarding plan. 

Once your employee onboarding experience checks each of these boxes—multiple times, on multiple levels—you’ll be one step closer to putting it into action.

Effective Onboarding is Comprehensive

We alluded to this in the last section, but it’s worth looking at a bit closer:

Effective employee onboarding is comprehensive.

By that, we mean that your onboarding process should leave no stone unturned, and provide literally everything your new employee needs to accomplish the task at hand. 

Moreover, you also need to provide explicit instructions as to how they’ll use these resources to accomplish said tasks.

Simply put:

Your new employees will have questions as they become acclimated with your organization. While you definitely want to make yourself available throughout this process, you also don’t want to feel like you’re holding their hand the entire time.

In lieu of doing just that, you’ll want to have a robust internal knowledge base prepared for your new employee to access as needed. 

Employee onboarding: a screenshot of Hotel Effectiveness internal knowledge baseWithin this database, your various teams can upload, amend, and improve internal documentation—allowing your new hires to find the exact information they’re looking for at any given moment.

This means less downtime for everyone involved in the onboarding process—and more focus on getting new hires integrated into your organization.

Effective Onboarding is Inclusive and Individualized

Looking at the more social and cultural side of onboarding, the goal is to bring new hires on in a way that makes them feel right at home within the organization.

CEO of Artemis Consultants, Chris Gardner, says the most important rule for employee on-boarding is to help people feel they belong and do so quickly. 

At a most basic level, this means getting the newbies introduced to the existing team, both professionally and personally. This is where your typical icebreakers, lunches, and happy hours come into play.

(We did say “most basic level,” didn’t we?)

All kidding aside, while these activities may work well enough to get everyone familiar with one another, you definitely want to dig deeper. 

Throughout the onboarding process, you need to allow your new hires to figure out exactly how they fit into your organization.

That said, the idea is not to get new hires to conform to the “ways of your organization.” Rather, the goal is to provide new employees the opportunity to prove their value to your company’s overall mission by allowing their true identity to shine.

This is why it’s important to provide your new employees with autonomy as they navigate the onboarding process:

As we discussed earlier, though you’ll have a general structure in place for each activity you have planned, it’s vital to allow for experimentation and creativity within these structures. 

This will allow new employees to put their specific skills and abilities into action for the good of the organization as a whole. 

Because they’ll quickly see how valued their unique efforts are to the company’s success, the door will be open for them to continue bringing their individual talents to the table.

Effective Onboarding is Progressive

The goal of any process within your organization is to progress in some way, right?

With regard to employee onboarding, we can take this notion of progressiveness in two ways:

First, managers should always be looking for ways to further integrate their individual employees into the organization. 

Throughout the onboarding process, managers will have had plenty of time to observe their new hire—and will have a much better idea of where and how they’ll fit within the team. 

In this way, proper employee onboarding should act as a foundation upon which the new hire will continue to hone their skills and provide more and more value to the company. 

It's essential to set a clear developmental roadmap for your new hires to get them headed on the right track.

As Root Inc’s Chris Williams explains, "more and more, employees are leaving organizations because they don’t see any development opportunities

The majority of graduates are looking for career advancement over anything else, yet instead of a clear development path, the journey feels more like a dirt track with a bunch of conflicting and poorly designed signs."

Additionally, proper onboarding is progressive in that managers are always looking to improve these processes. Again, continual progress is necessary for growing your business.

To begin making the appropriate improvements, managers will, again, need to look to the individual employee. 

Since their employees will have gone through the company’s onboarding process, they’ll be able to provide a ton of valuable information regarding their experiences.

You can generate this feedback and other such information through formal means (such as performance reviews, employee surveys and interviews), as well as through more informal ways (such as “on-the-fly” discussions and observations). 

From there, you can use this information and data to make improvements to your employee onboarding processes—and your employee’s overall experience with your company. 

In turn, your new and long-time employees alike will be able to work to their highest potential.

New Employee Onboarding Checklist

A new employee onboarding checklist will help with ensuring that you get new hires acclimated to the workplace as quickly and efficiently as possible while feeling like they are being taken care of. 

Igor Mitic from Fortunly notes, "creating a checklist will help you keep all these elements of a successful onboarding in hand."

Here is what his process looks like:

Before the First Day

  • Prepare all the paperwork
  • Prepare the desk or workstation for the new employee
  • Create accounts and credentials
  • Prepare the role description and make sure the manager(s) are on the same page

On the First Day

  • Introduction and welcome to the team
  • Office tour
  • Introduce company culture, history, industry
  • Explain expectations and assign a team member to help with onboarding
  • Do something special, like lunch

First Week

  • Assign the first task or two
  • Outline the following month
  • Go over paperwork and finalize it

First Month

  • Introduce the employee to long-term goals
  • Check-in on employee’s work and social integration to the team

For additional tips on how to successfully onboard new employees, check out the following checklist from TalentLyft.

Improve Employee Onboarding With Helpjuice

By properly onboarding your new employees, you enable them to get started on the right foot with your organization which ensures that they are setup for future success. And the more successful your employees are from the get-go, the more productive your organization will be as a whole.

Helpjuice's knowledge base software allows your organization to centralize all of your onboarding materials in a single, organized location.  Get a 14-day free trial and see how this can help with streamlining and improving the employee onboarding experience. 

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