New employee onboarding guide and checklist

Starting a new job is daunting, but an onboarding plan makes new hires feel empowered to do their best work

Illustrations courtesy of iStock

So much time, effort, and money is spent on recruitment that fast-moving companies can sometimes overlook an even more critical stage of the employee journey: onboarding. Onboarding starts where recruitment finishes—with managers introducing new hires to the company culture, bringing them up to speed on projects, and ensuring that they’re ready to reach the full potential you saw in them when you offered them the role.

It may seem impossible to know if your onboarding process is doing everything it needs to for both your employees and the company, but if you’ve given any thought to the experience of new employees at your company in their first few days, you’re already ahead of the pack. More than a third of employers don’t have a real onboarding plan, and this can lead to lower productivity through higher turnover of staff.

This article will cover how onboarding helps new employees feel more confident in their roles, which in turn provides significant advantages to companies willing to invest in training, developing, and welcoming workers. We’ll also run through a checklist of some of the most important points to achieve in any successful onboarding plan.

But first, let’s define what we mean by “onboarding.”

What is onboarding?

Onboarding describes the process of introducing a new employee to a company and bringing them up to speed. It’s a task that can last weeks, months, or even years. The term generally encompasses every step required to help newly hired workers gain the skills and knowledge needed to work effectively within the organization, from initial introduction meetings and team introductions to mandatory and voluntary training sessions.

On a practical level, onboarding might include orientation: a guided office tour, the transfer of secure login details and equipment setup, as well as more detailed explanations of company benefits, compensation, and development opportunities not found in the original job posting. Important paperwork, welcome packs, insurance documents, and other pieces of company literature are also sometimes handed over during the onboarding process.

Onboarding has an important social aspect, too. In larger companies where more than one new employee joins at the same time, onboarding is a chance for these new hires to form bonds and create mutual mentorship opportunities. But even in smaller organizations—and especially when working remotely—a good onboarding plan will include opportunities to open lines of communication with new colleagues.

Why is it important to have a good onboarding process?

A bad onboarding experience—or simply a lack of one—can quickly undo all of the time, effort, and money a company spends on the recruitment phase of the hiring process. A successful onboarding experience, on the other hand, is beneficial to the employee and the company. A survey by The Wynhurst Group found that employees who went through a well-structured onboarding process were 58 percent more likely to still be at that company three years later.

Employees who feel supported and informed soon after joining a company are less likely to quit and are also happier, more engaged with their work, and better able to form meaningful connections within the organization. Bringing everyone up to speed not only helps the company to succeed in the short term, but also ensures workers feel confident in what they’re doing day-to-day and have all of the necessary tools to reach their own career goals.

Benefits of a successful new-hire onboarding

Increased productivity

There are many benefits of an effective onboarding process. The faster somebody can learn to do their job effectively, the sooner they can start contributing to the company at their highest potential. 

An onboarding process is more than just a branded pen and an invitation to the company pension plan: It’s a way to welcome new talent into the business, improve retention through ongoing support, training, and feedback, and ultimately secure and recoup your hiring investment.

Comfortable employees

Changing jobs is one of the most stressful things we do, and while simply “letting them get on with it” works for some people, for others it can feel like being left in the dark without a flashlight. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with new employees to check in with how they’re feeling and to ensure that they’re comfortable and confident in what their position entails.

Even if some of the practical aspects of onboarding aren’t relevant to every new hire—for example, maybe they’re already familiar with your finance platform or know certain processes inside-out—it still boosts confidence and employee satisfaction to know that a level of support is there if they need it.

Transparency

In an ideal world, job descriptions and their respective roles should match up perfectly. But in reality, there are fuzzy edges to some roles, and it’s only through a well-designed onboarding process that any unclear aspects or responsibilities can be ironed out and discussed openly. 

The opportunity to explain the role in more detail, to communicate your expectations, and to engage with feedback from new recruits helps to bring everyone to an agreement and avoid potential problems of miscommunication further down the line.

Sense of trust

It might seem obvious enough, but a friendly onboarding process that focuses on open communication and training helps a new hire to feel welcome and appreciated in the company. 

This early interaction with new employees is the most important one a company will ever have—it is your one and only first impression, after all—and by nailing the onboarding process, a company can foster the sense of trust and loyalty needed to turn newbies into seasoned employees.

Reduced workload for other teams

When new employees are given the tools, resources, and information they need to work independently, there’s less pressure on human resources to respond to individual inquiries, as well as a reduced workload overall for colleagues who might otherwise need to provide ad hoc explanations and training. 

For example, by incorporating a short tutorial on accessing IT services into the onboarding process, you can save that team countless hours of responding to each confused new hire who gets locked out of their inbox on day one.

New hire onboarding checklist

Make the offer

Sharing a formal contract and agreeing on compensation is just one part of extending a job offer. The rest can be considered laying the groundwork for onboarding. Be friendly and excited to make the offer, reiterate the key responsibilities of the role, and clearly express your expectations. This way, there’ll be fewer potential surprises for the new employee later on.

Manage the first day at work

How hands-on you need to be will depend on the seniority of the role that’s been filled, the experience level of the employee, and the type of company in question, but there are a few universal things to keep in mind.

Schedule a short welcome meeting at the beginning of the day, and use this opportunity to share things like welcome packs, security credentials, intranet links, company literature, and anything else they might need to gain a better understanding of the business and their role within it.  

In the workplace, give new hires a tour of the office—pointing out obvious information such as the location of restrooms and where to find supply closets, as well as things like how to get a pass for the parking lot doors, how to use the coffee machine, and where to store a bicycle.

After a welcome meeting and tour, give a new hire time to orient themselves on their own terms before checking in with them again at the end of the day to talk through any questions they might have.

Meet with the team

Connecting with a new team is especially challenging when working remotely, so be sure to create opportunities for new hires to engage with their colleagues on both a professional and social level. Depending on the size of the team, it can be useful to informally assign a buddy to the new employee; this will be somebody who’s at their level and in a similar role, and who can act as a point of contact for any small matters that a new hire might not deem important enough to send up the chain.

A giant wall of smiling faces on Zoom is no way to be introduced to colleagues; instead, focus on setting up meet-and-greets with one or two important contacts at a time. Then slowly open the meetings up to the wider team as the new hire begins to settle in. 

In a shared office space, departments and teams generally flock together in a physical space, making it simple for new hires to naturally engage and communicate with their team. Being able to overhear discussions around projects also serves as a kind of passive training.

Teach them about company culture

There are more opportunities to communicate company culture, many of which can be done in tandem with other stages of the new-hire onboarding process. Consider your new employee’s first contact with your training and development team, during which you might present them with a slide showing a sample list of available training sessions from the previous year. What kind of classes could you include in that presentation that would demonstrate how your company promotes its values?

Identify training opportunities

A lot of training happens informally throughout the workday. New hires learn by receiving feedback from managers, by observing the work of others in similar roles, and by making honest mistakes and correcting them. In more agile companies, relying on a mentor—whether they’re officially assigned or not—is a key part of on-the-job training.

Structured training is also important. New hires should have access to the classes they need so that they can learn to do their job more effectively, especially if your company uses proprietary tools and software that will be unfamiliar to them. 

New employees should be encouraged to take the time to attend these sessions. When starting out in a new role, workers can be cautious about spending time away from their responsibilities to focus on their development, even though the first few weeks of a job are the most valuable time to spend training.

One-month check-in

After a month has passed, set some time aside to check in with your new hire to make sure everything’s proceeding as smoothly as possible. By week four, a new hire will know enough about the role to be able to ask more serious questions about the details of the position, their expectations, and yours.

When onboarding falls apart, it’s often due to a mismatch of expectations that wasn’t corrected quickly enough. Studies also show that employees are more likely to leave a company shortly after joining if they feel they aren’t getting enough feedback from managers about their work.

What this means is that the end of the first month of employment is a critical moment when onboarding new employees. At this point the new hire understands their role; additionally, the expectations of both the company and the employee should be in alignment, opening the door for a positive and forward-looking conversation about their goals, productivity, and happiness, all with the aim of retaining your new hire and setting them up for success. 

What should you expect from a new hire?

Every new job involves a period of learning the ropes. While no hiring manager should expect a new employee to hit the ground running, they can expect that they’ve hired a skilled learner.   

A skilled learner has a natural curiosity, as well as the confidence to ask for help when they need it. They’re able to fully engage with the new-hire onboarding process and take complete advantage of any training and development opportunities offered to them. New employees with the ability to learn quickly can identify their own areas of inexperience or weakness, and work to improve them.

Onboarding vs. orientation

Orientation is just one tiny part of the overall onboarding process, though the two terms are often used interchangeably.

Orientation concerns all of the administrative and technical aspects of being set up as an employee at a company, including signing necessary paperwork, enrolling in optional retirement savings and health plans, learning what to do in case of a fire, creating a secure login profile, being assigned a desk, and activating a staff ID card. 

In a medium-sized company, orientation may take just a few short hours, but it can last for several days at larger companies or government agencies.

An onboarding process takes much longer and encompasses orientation, as well as every other phase of an employee’s introduction to the company. It describes the employee journey from recruitment to first meetings, to training and beyond. In some companies, the onboarding process can last weeks, but many organizations extend onboarding for many years into employment by using ongoing development and appraisal.

Onboarding process automation

Once a company becomes too large to effectively manage manual onboarding, most will turn to automated systems to track applicants, handle communication, and help structure the process of onboarding more efficiently and accurately.

This kind of automation typically improves the relationship between management and new staff. A manager in charge of onboarding large numbers of new hires by hand might find themselves overwhelmed by the administrative burden and may be unable to respond to requests, gather information, and process paperwork on time. 

This backlog creates delays in the hiring process and can lead to a lack of timely communication with new hires at a critical point in their employment. This situation leads many to happily walk away from the role if they feel they’re being ignored or overlooked before they’ve even reached their desk. By using an applicant tracking system, a hiring manager can free up the bandwidth they need for more personal one-to-one conversations with incoming employees, and ensure that the onboarding and orientation process is running smoothly overall.

Best recruitment and HR tools

Asana

Best known as a project management tool, Asana has all the features recruiters and hiring managers need to ensure that the path from application to first training session is smooth and hiccup-free.

RoboRecruiter

A helpful chatbot that can be customized to guide candidates through the recruitment process, RoboRecruiter is easy to implement and presents a friendly and approachable face to potential new hires.

TalentLyft

This is a candidate relationship management (CRM) platform with a suite of tools that enables applicant tracking, recruitment marketing, and employee sourcing all under one neatly designed dashboard.

Lever

Lever combines an applicant tracking system, an onboarding program, and a CRM into a single package, allowing companies to use real-time recruiting data to target talent with personalized communications.

Datapeople

A powerful analytics and reporting tool, Datapeople can optimize your job descriptions to ensure not only that they’re reaching the right people at the right time, but that the copy is inclusive and avoids some common pitfalls such as gendered language.

Steve Hogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the travel editor of City AM newspaper and the deputy editor of City AM Magazine, where his work focuses on technology, travel, and entertainment.

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