How to Build a New Employee Onboarding Process from Scratch

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An effective onboarding process can boost retention and productivity. This article details how to create one, recommended steps, potential costs and more.

You find an excellent candidate for an open position. You extend an offer. They accept. Congratulations!

Now what?

Unfortunately, this is where many businesses — large and small — get caught flat footed. It’s easy to get so caught up in the hiring process, that what comes after (aka “joining the company”) becomes an afterthought.

Maybe you’ve gone so far as to at least create a templated email to welcome new hires. But you’re realizing it’s time to create a more formal, thoughtful onboarding process for your new hires. Luckily, there are tons of resources — from checklists and templates to guides and research — many of which we share here.

But before diving into the details, the first step is to define what onboarding means.

What is onboarding?

Onboarding is the means through which new employees are introduced to an organization’s culture, values and resources. It isn’t a singular event, but rather a process that occurs over time and through multiple touchpoints.

In reality, the process varies from industry to industry, and even company to company. But regardless of the workplace environment, the companies that invest in a framework for instructing new hires on how to connect with colleagues, find and use appropriate resources, and understand the expectations for their role enjoy hire rates of employee engagement and retention.

A recent survey from Glassdoor found that organizations with a strong onboarding process improve retention of new hires by 82% and increase productivity from workers by more than 70%.

Put simply, gone are the days when a business can simply throw an employee into a job and let them “sink or swim.”

The goals of employee onboarding

According to a survey of HR leaders, the top ranked goals for onboarding in North America were 1) new hire engagement, 2) new hire retention, 3) new hire job readiness, 4) new hire time-to-productivity and/or level of productivity and 4) the ability to compete for and attract critical talent.

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While the goals of an onboarding process can vary from business to business, most organizations invest in onboarding in order to improve retention and productivity. If an employee’s experience is poor, the chances they’ll leave increases. This can be pricey: the average time it takes to hire a position is 36 days and the estimated average cost is $4,129.

Even with these crucial business outcomes tied to onboarding, only 12% of employees agree their company does a great job onboarding new hires, according to Gallup.

What is the difference between onboarding and orientation? 

A new employee orientation centers around one event vs a planned out onboarding process, which can take place over multiple days, months or even years.

At an orientation, the focus is often on paperwork and policies, while onboarding focuses on people, resources and connections. Yes, the employee handbook needs to be reviewed, but this doesn’t complete an onboarding.

Onboarding focuses on connections and relationships. Effective new hire onboarding creates pathways for employees to become part of the team faster and more quickly. Orientation paperwork is easily outsourced: onboarding is an in-house, ongoing process.

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How to create an onboarding process

Developing an onboarding process begins with a commitment to invest in their success even before the new employee’s first day, and time and resources during their first weeks and months.

The goal is to create a welcoming environment that helps the new hire assimilate themselves with the team and the company culture. It also provides information and survival tools they’ll need on day one and beyond. Onboarding sets initial and follow-up touch points to assure everything is going smoothly or correct if it isn’t.

Creating an onboarding process requires the HR team, owners and operators, and managers to think through the steps a new employee will experience at different points in their job, and to phase out those steps.

Of course, this needs to adapt based on your company’s needs: the products or services they provide, the customers they’ll encounter, the work they’ll be required to do, etc. But there are some example steps to include in an onboarding process. We outline four here.

Step 1: The Welcome

Before their first day plan an environment that says we’re excited to have you with us and we’re ready for you to join the team.

  • Ask team members (even before the start date) to send a welcome to the team email or message to introduce themselves, offer help, invite them to lunch or a meet-up in the break room.
  • Set up email and other accounts with generic passwords they can change so they’re ready to participate (remind them to notify IT of the new password, if applicable).
  • Populate contacts list with coworkers, vendors, and clients they may need.
  • Populate calendars with meetings, company events and activities and other pertinent dates. Don’t forget to include routine things, like payday and casual Friday.
  • Have a work station ready with all the supplies needed so they don’t have rummage through that nasty supply closet for a pen.
  • Plan lunch with the group on the first day. A best practice is to pay for lunch in the so they can start connecting with their peers.
  • Got swag? Use it! Set up their work area with company pens, tees, tote bags, cups, or any swag you have. A little bit of swag goes a long way to making a new employee feel like a part of the team.
  • For the paperwork – outsource! Online orientation/onboarding can get all the paperwork out of the way – an excellent resource for business.

Step 2: Cultivating Connections

On day one, offer a few minutes to put away their things and check out their new work space, then start the tour.

  • Make sure they can navigate to find rest, lunch and break rooms and supplies. It may sound trivial, but being comfortable in your surroundings is important.
  • Don’t stop at places; introduce people. Ask staff members to stop what they’re doing to say hi and welcome to the team. A fun practice can be to have everyone they’ve met send silly message to help the new hire connect the name with the face:  “I’m Lucy – you caught me eating a donut when you stopped by!”
  • Don’t limit the welcomes. New hires may get to know their immediate peers right away, but a quick intro to others they might not see regularly provides a sense of the larger team.  

Step 3: Plan Meaningful Meetings

You’ve already planned a first day lunch, but don’t stop there. Schedule meetings throughout the first weeks and months with others who have a stake in the new hire’s success – and isn’t that everyone?

Onboarding should be an ongoing process. Yes they’ll likely be working with a trainer to get them up to speed, but getting them involved with the culture is as important. Who to meet with and how often? Again it depends on the learning curve and the size of the company, but general guidelines: 

  • Team members and non-direct cohorts should meet at least once a week during the first few months. If the team meets routinely, you’re ahead of the game. If the new hire works more independently, plan on a half-hour meeting during the first weeks to keep them in the loop and in with the group.
  • Other team members who aren’t part of the immediate group (marketing that supports design, IT, etc.) should also be on the schedule to meet routinely: possibly once in the first week and then periodically over the next few months. The broader the connections a new hire makes, the more a part of the larger team they will become.
  • Managers who aren’t directly involved in training should meet with the new hire at least once a week for the first several weeks. Spend 15 minutes on a ‘how’s it going’ session. This can be critical to see if the new team member is getting the resources and help they need. You can also uncover whether expectations for the job, the company or the team are living up to what was anticipated. If they are, terrific! If not, now is the time to make any necessary adjustments.
  • HR should check in during the first week and month at least. Is everything going to plan? Are there any questions about benefits or paperwork that need to be addressed? Access to a learning module system (LMS) and other training and development options can be a generic touch point early in the conversations, but become more targeted as the new hire settles in. It’s never too early to start talking about growth.

Step 4: The Buddy System

It worked in preschool and it works in business. Having someone to provide training is important. Having a buddy you can ask silly questions without wondering if it makes you sound silly is critical. An associate assigned to take the new hire under their wing is yet another way to emphasize how valuable they are. A buddy brings the newest member of the team into the fold faster and more effectively than most other processes.

Assign someone who well-represents the company, is enthusiastic and has time and patience to devote to the process. You may need to ask others in the group to help with the buddy’s workload as they help the new hire. They’re stakeholders, too.

A new hire that lasts on the job benefits the entire group. Everyone has a vested interest to make sure they’re welcomed, learn quickly, and become productive. Some companies even offer ‘buddy bonuses’ to entice team members to become a part of the process. Is it worthwhile? Research shows 87% of companies that use a buddy program during onboarding say it’s effective in fast-tracking new hire proficiency.

How long should onboarding last?

Onboarding begins with the offer of employment and can end months after the first day of work. Consider onboarding as a process, rather than a project. It can take months or weeks, depending on the size of the company, the complexity of the work involved, the distribution of teams, and other factors.

A survey by SilkRoad found that 39% of HR leaders said their onboarding program was 1-3 months long, and 38% said it was limited single day or week.

The key is not to rush it. One study by HCI found employers who stopped onboarding after just a week left new hires short on resources, discouraged and confused. Some employees take less time to build relationships and get up to speed on the work than others. The length of the process has to be fluid to accommodate all new hires and their needs.

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How much should employee onboarding cost?

You can add up the actual or anticipated costs of onboarding: lunches paid for, the amount of time trainers and others take out of their day to connect with the hire, the swag you may offer. These costs can be increased or decreased, depending on your budget. Some estimates peg the average onboarding cost at $400.

How much time and resources went into bringing the new person on? The first months on the job are critical, particularly in a tight job market. Some data points to 28% of new hires quitting after the first month, others say a third won’t make their 6 month anniversary. The cost of onboarding may be minimal against the cost of restarting the recruitment and training process to get another new hire up to speed.

Don’t ignore cross-boarding!

When an internal candidate moves into a new department or position, they may need a bit of onboarding — or cross-boarding — as well. While it might not be as in depth (hopefully they’re already immersed in company culture), a mini process can be essential.

Data from HCI reports shows 81% of businesses agree onboarding internal hires is just as important as onboarding externals. Taking the time to tailor onboarding for cross-boarding can help promoted or transferred employees get up to speed faster and be more successful.  

How do I measure the impact of onboarding?

The impact of onboarding is easily measured. Is the new hire assimilating into the team quicker? Are they productive and independent sooner? Are attrition rates lower? Effective onboarding will show improvement in all these areas.

However you measure the results, it should align with your organization’s expectations. A study by the Vlerick Business School found the following goals for onboarding:

  • 86% making new employees feel at home in the company more quickly
  • 74% have employees up and running sooner
  • 53% have employees stay with the company longer
  • 41% save money

Creating an onboarding checklist and template

Starting an onboarding process from scratch is daunting. Onboarding checklists can be invaluable. They can help with planning and assure items have been accomplished. They can also provide a conversation starter for some meetings. Did this step in the process work well for you? How could we improve that one? Was that a bit of a time waster?

The checklist can become a template for what worked, what needs more work to work better, and what didn’t work at all.

Each organization should customize the template to their needs. This onboarding kit contains templates and checklists, and can be customized based on your overall industry.

This article is intended only for informational purposes. It is not a substitute for legal consultation. While we attempt to keep the information covered timely and accurate, laws and regulations are subject to change.

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