The Complete Guide to Employee Onboarding

Here’s all you need to know about building, implementing, and refining your employee onboarding process.


Section 1

Essential points about employee onboarding

Employee onboarding is a vital step in building a healthy company with thriving employees. With the correct perspective, adequate preparation, and follow-through, you can make the process efficient and get great results. This guide will take you through every step from start to finish, providing tools, tips, and resources. By the end, you’ll be ready to begin your new employee onboarding process with expertise and confidence.

Before we jump in, let’s go over some essential points about new employee onboarding.

Essential points about new employee onboarding

Be prepared


It’s a process, not a single event


Keep the employee’s perspective in mind.


Get feedback and measure success.

Section 2

How to Pre-Board New Hires

The onboarding process in 5 phases

Many companies get better results when they approach onboarding as a process rather than a task to accomplish. However, it does require more planning and attention to detail. The process can be divided into 5 phases

The tasks and goals for each stage differ, as well as the amount of time required, because of factors such as: 

  • Company size and industry. A small company with a few employees and 1 location may require a shorter onboarding timeline than a larger, more complex business. Likewise, those in industries with many regulatory and compliance issues might require more time than others.
  • Role or position. High-level positions with many responsibilities demand a more intense onboarding process.
  • On-site vs. remote employees. Remote onboarding tends to be more challenging than on-site onboarding. Video conferences give HR professionals and hiring managers access to remote employees, but it’s still harder for all involved to stay engaged.

Planning helps a company avoid surprises and onboarding problems while giving employees advance notice of what’s to come. Here’s a look at how to structure the 5 phases of onboarding.

1. Pre-onboarding 

This stage begins after an employee accepts a job offer and before the agreed-upon start date. It often begins about a week before that start date. Pre-onboarding gives the new hire their first taste of the organizational culture and company policies. Companies can show that they are serious and well-organized while also displaying heart and concern. They do this in pre-onboarding by getting things done efficiently while also anticipating the questions and needs of the new employee.

Companies can mail or email a new hire letter and a welcome package that includes paperwork to be completed. The package might also include directions to a company portal that also provides much of the information and paperwork needed at this stage. In pre-boarding, the company can offer:

  • A new hire video, or welcome video, including greetings from the new team leaders and teammates.
  • An agenda for the onboarding process.
  • A schedule for the first day and week.
  • Information on company culture and the new job.
  • Maps and guides about parking and other facilities and features of the workplace.
  • Information to help set expectations and goals for the first few weeks and months.
  • Company swag.
  • Invitation to an ice-breaker lunch or dinner outside of work hours or during the first week of work.

At the same time, managers and other employees will be taking care of other pre-onboarding jobs, such as:

  • Setting up company email.
  • Setting up access to physical and network locations. 
  • Preparing the physical workspace for the new employee.
  • Gathering plant access cards, equipment, and tools for the new employee. 
  • Sending a new employee announcement email to the staff to let them know about the new employee, including some light, personal information and outlining the employee’s roles and responsibilities.
  • Preparing training documents and personnel. 

2. New employee orientation 

The orientation phase starts on the new employee’s first day and continues for another day or two. In this phase, the new hire gets more familiar with company culture, policies, and mission.

To feel oriented is to feel a sense of one’s relative position in a physical place or an organization. The trick is to not overwhelm the new employee with a bunch of chores, even though there might be much to accomplish. Make the first day memorable for good reasons. You might, for example, start with a greeting over pastries and coffee where the new hire begins to meet the team.  

Many companies assign an onboarding buddy, who is a trusted employee. The buddy establishes rapport with the new hire, helps them navigate the workplace, and introduces them to key team members. The buddy system minimizes the chances of the new employee feeling isolated.

Examples of what might await a new employee during the orientation phase are:

  • Review an agenda of the location, duration, and details of the orientation process. 
  • Meet new coworkers.
  • Tour the workplace.
  • Have lunch with the team leader, buddy, or entire team.
  • Be introduced to safety regulations, security protocols and workplace policies.
  • Learn more about the company culture, core values, and mission.
  • Complete new employee paperwork.
  • Receive onboarding learning materials, the employee handbook, and a list of contacts within HR, IT, and other relevant departments.
  • Accept company equipment (cell phone, access card, parking pass, tablet, laptop, etc).

At this stage, much of the responsibility of managers is to carry out the script for these first crucial days. They might also:

  • Set up meetings over the next few weeks with key team leaders and personnel throughout the company.
  • Add the new hire to the company calendar for the appropriate meetings and events.
  • Make sure the employee has access to email and communication software like iTeams or Slack.
  • Send a new hire survey.

One way to approach this phase is to allow a day or so for people-focused orientation. This is a somewhat “warm and fuzzy” time to converse with coworkers, get acclimated to the work environment, and receive necessities like laptop and parking pass.

Then comes a day or so to meet with HR or those in charge of their onboarding process to make sure all the paperwork is done. It’s also a good time to review essential safety and security measures. Employees might have lots of questions to ask, too. Many see this as the breather before the real work begins.

Depending on the work done by a company, these short-term and long-term training needs might be addressed at different stages:

  • Safety and security training. In some positions, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements must be met. In other companies, more priority will be placed on online security safeguards.
  • Sexual harassment training. Sexual harassment is a big issue in the workplace and needs to be addressed early. Employees who are not trained properly in the employee onboarding process may inadvertently get themselves into hot water with a joke or snide comment. Be sure to present sexual harassment as a zero-tolerance policy and set the highest standard of expectations. 
  • Job training and employee handbook discussion. New team members need adequate time to review the employee handbook — while they’re on the job. This resource contains vital information, but will likely go unread if the employee is expected to read during off hours. Some companies require a new hire to sign a handbook acknowledgment form.

As new hires are ready to get something accomplished and show their value, it’s a good time to review performance expectations, goals, and how success will be measured. 

3. Team-focused training 

Onboarding shifts from a broad company view to the new employee’s team and job duties. Depending on the company and the job, this phase could last a few days or a couple of months. Employees learn the “meat” of their roles during this targeted training period — things like using the tools required for the new job, communicating with team members, and understanding job expectations. The employee begins to enjoy being part of a unit and developing team spirit.

Managers might want to set up weekly one-on-one meetings with the new employee. The need for this will depend in part on how much daily contact the manager has with the new employee. The individual attention can help the new hires hone their skills, learn faster, and get clarity on expectations and opportunities for growth. 

Ways to approach training include:

  • Teach 1 task at a time.
  • Start with easy tasks and progressively build on them.
  • Host onboarding seminars.
  • Use training videos (especially good for new remote employees).
  • Offer interactive courses.
  • If a new hire buddy wasn’t assigned earlier, this could be a good time for it. Or, a different buddy could be named because of specific training needs.

4. Settling into the role

This is the transition period from “trainee” to “employee.” Employers lay out clear expectations and can anticipate the new employee’s ability to understand and complete their job responsibilities. Even so, employees might still have questions and need assistance with fine details and procedures at times.

Employees will have had time to digest the flood of the information that first came their way. They now can review the onboarding checklist they received to see if they have missed anything.

It’s now time for managers or the HR department to send out a post-training survey, to get feedback on the training process.

5. Ongoing development phase

The final phase of a structured onboarding program is ongoing employee development. Employees should be able to meet the goals set for them, feel like they’re part of the company culture, and understand what’s expected. Elements of this phase may include check-ins with the HR team for feedback on performance and progress. The employer may set up self-paced learning and other opportunities for the employee to continue expanding their professional development.

The new employees might still receive extra oversight from their manager during this period, along with frequent feedback on the employee’s performance.

About 3 months from the start date, the company should ask for employee feedback on the onboarding process. Besides asking new hires for this feedback, companies should survey their coworkers, managers, and perhaps even select customers or clients. Collection methods can include an onboarding survey, frequent check-ins, video chats, and real-time workplace conversations.

Your new employees may have suggestions for improving your onboarding program for the next generation. And the input from others can tell you things about not only your onboarding process but also your new employee’s performance.

Properly planned and structured onboarding helps new hires establish relationships, understand expectations, and get involved with the company culture. These elements build a better employee experience and a more engaged, motivated team member.

Many companies assign an onboarding buddy, who is a trusted employee. The buddy establishes rapport with the new hire, helps them navigate the workplace, and introduces them to key team members.
Section 3


Remote onboarding

Even businesses that haven’t shifted to a remote work structure find that virtual onboarding tools provide benefits to both employer and employee.

To make remote employee onboarding a success, use the best practices outlined in this section. Many of them apply to the onboarding experience for all new hires, whether they’ll be performing remote work or working in-house.

Virtual welcome package

You can’t communicate with new remote hires the same way you do with people on-site. Decide who will be responsible for sharing information with them regarding their first day, including providing a virtual version of your company orientation program. Get things off to a good, early start by sending a virtual welcome package.

You can stuff this with many practical items. But it’s just as useful to include things like company swag and maybe a gift card for lunch on their first day since you can’t take them out remotely. Another variation on that theme is to schedule a team lunch the first day and allow remote employees to order lunch and have it delivered to their locations.

Start early and hyper plan for the first week

If your new hire is starting remotely, work with your managers to hyper-plan their first 5 days, because they won’t have colleagues around to point them in the right direction. Consider using video conferencing and other digital tools to address these virtual onboarding tasks.

  • Set up a team meeting on the first day to allow for introductions to their teammates. This could include a remote team building activity like a trivia game or a happy hour where everyone joins with their own beverage — alcoholic or not — from home.
  • Presentation of an overview of company culture.
  • Team virtual lunch.
  • Introduction to leaders of their team and cross-functional teams.
  • Introductions to support teams.
  • One-on-one video chats with key coworkers.
  • Assignment of 2-3 tasks they can complete over their first week.
  • Team meeting on following days to discuss the team culture and expectations.
  • Introduction to a “buddy” who will help them get acclimated and integrated into the company.
  • Relevant group chats. Make sure the remote worker has a digital calendar set up and has been sent the invitations.  
  • Routine check-ins to reassure your new hire they aren’t alone in the remote onboard process.
  • An agenda for the employee’s first 2 weeks (or whatever period of time makes sense for your company) to lend context to the first days’ whirlwind.

Hardware delivery and setup

Since this new hire won’t be in the office on their first day, if ever, you’ll have to ship their laptops and/or other gear to their home. Teams leaders will need to address related issues ahead of time, including:

  • Some systems for the new employee will need to be configured before they are shipped. How long will it take to set up the hardware and ship it? The answer to that will affect the start date. Setting up systems over video conferences can be a painful experience for the new employees. The more you do in advance, the better.
  • Who will be responsible for shipping the hardware.
  • How will you share passwords and login credentials safely?
  • Is tech support lined up to address issues as they pop up?
  • Has a buddy and/or technical partner been assigned?

Shifting new hire paperwork to remote processes

Hiring managers and HR staff who onboard remote employees have a lot of essential HR paperwork to complete. Paperless onboarding makes it easy to welcome remote workers. 

Items you can shift online — for all new hires, not just remote workers — include: 

  • Signing tax documents and an I-9 form.
  • Choosing employee benefits.
  • Signing company-specific documents or agreements (including non-disclosure agreements and non-compete forms).
  • Signing the employment contract, along with other legal documents or company-mandated forms.

Virtual training

When a company is onboarding remote employees, virtual training is the go-to solution. There are many ways to accomplish this: Google slides, internal training videos, live video calls, and group online training sessions for good, old-fashioned collaborative learning.

However, an employer might not want to lean too much on slides and videos. For one thing, different people have different learning styles, so it’s important to offer remote employees different ways of receiving the same information. Furthermore, training sessions are a great way for remote workers, team leaders, and coworkers to get to know each other. These sessions can help the remote worker feel connected to and engaged with his new employer. One-on-one video conferences and group online training sessions provide extra value to remote workers.

Remote Onboarding Checklist

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  • A clear agenda of what to expect for their first few days, including a schedule for onboarding sessions.
  • Links to join video conferences and video calls. 
  • Instructions on how remote employees can prepare for work. (For example, they should have a strong WiFi connection, a quiet space to work, and a functioning camera.)
  • Shipment of all technology and/or access codes. It will save time to have IT set the new hire’s company email address before their official start date.
  • Assignment of a tech buddy to offer support as they try to get “into the system.” That same person could also be a continuing buddy who helps the remote worker get integrated into the company.
  • Descriptions of clear expectations on remote work practices and policies.
  • Other information, such as key team members with whom they’ll be working, job responsibilities, and virtual-meetings dress code.
  • Pre-recorded videos to help the new employee feel part of the team. Have veteran team members send short 15- to 30-second greetings via email, text, or chat.
  • Finally, a copy of the remote onboarding checklist, so new employees can follow their progress and know what to expect.
Section 4

Onboarding tips, ideas, and best practices

Now let’s look at some fresh ideas to incorporate into the processes we just outlined. An effective employee onboarding process flow begins before the new hire’s start date. You can try any of these beginning about a week before the official start date.

Try this before the first day (pre-boarding)

  • Set SMART goals for employee onboarding. SMART goals are specific (S), measurable (M), achievable (A), realistic (R), and timely (T). An essential part of an effective onboarding process is setting goals for the new hire and communicating them clearly. If new hires don’t understand what they should be doing, they can feel unproductive and disconnected from company goals. Conversely, empowering them to hit meaningful goals can help with employee satisfaction, comprehension, direction, and, ultimately, higher retention.
  • Set up their accounts. Set up new hires with their company email and grant access to the company onboarding portal. That allows them to access content on their own time and get up to speed quickly. Be sure to give them the ability to complete forms and HR documents.
  • Share team member photos and bios. Create a document with their team members’ photos, names, titles, and bios. Getting familiar with coworkers beforehand helps employees discover commonalities, which can heighten their excitement about working together. It might also illuminate positive elements of office culture
  • Don’t forget the swag. People appreciate pens, T-shirts, and coffee mugs with their company’s logo. Ship a care package with cool swag and a friendly note to the new hire. This sets the tone for a positive employee onboarding experience. You can even make it personal with a welcoming message from their new coworkers.
  • Use pre-onboarding for tedious work. Get the required new hire paperwork out of the way quickly. That way, your latest recruit can focus on meeting new team members and absorbing new information during onboarding. Orientation is also a good time to issue parking passes, key fobs, access to the company intranet, and role-related equipment.
  • Provide the detailed agenda. Walking into a work situation is better if you know what’s coming. Email the new hire an outline of the first few days of the onboarding agenda and any relevant information. This can be as simple as an onboarding checklist of topics, how long they’ll spend on each, and which team members will work with them.
  • Show the lay of the land. One of the most intimidating parts of starting a new job is navigation. Yes, you certainly should plan on giving the new employee a tour when they arrive. But it may help to send a map of the office park and your building’s layout. Comprehensive lists of other employees, their departments, and contact info help new hires find their footing.

Ideas for Day One

  • Ease into things. Learning new information all day — while trying to make an excellent first impression — can be exhausting. Consider starting your program on a Wednesday. This gives new workers the first part of the week to prepare. It also gives them the weekend to process before starting their first full week.
  • Make their first day festive. An effective onboarding program should showcase the company culture from the first touch. HR, hiring managers, a direct manager, and some team members should welcome the new hire to their new job. A sign, balloons, and delicious refreshments are nice touches, too.
  • Provide an office tour. Giving employees a tour lets them start getting a layout of their new environment and helps them feel more comfortable. Ensure they know where all the essential stops are — restrooms, break rooms, kitchens, conference rooms, etc.
  • Prep the “buddy.” Not to be confused with mentors, onboarding buddies establish more informal relationships. The goal is for the newcomer to feel comfortable asking questions and learning about the organization. This can be easier to achieve with someone on their level whom they don’t have to worry about impressing. The introduction will happen on the first day. However, be sure you have a conversation with the “buddy” long before the first day. Set clear expectations for their duties and ensure the employee accepts the role and understands how to follow through effectively.
  • Plan a scavenger hunt. You can get playful with some employee onboarding ideas. Try hiding a few things around the office for the new hire to find. This exercise helps them familiarize themselves with the office and their new team. Consider expanding the game to surrounding external places of interest. Perhaps a few favorite lunch spots, entertainment venues, and neighboring business associates.

Onboarding ideas for the first week and beyond

  • Create a company quiz. After the first few days, unofficially quiz new recruits about what they’ve learned. Include fun company information along with company policies. As applicable, take creative opportunities to inject new tidbits of related company trivia.
  • Invite them to happy hour. Get a few team members together and go out for appetizers after work. Being away from the workplace provides a casual atmosphere for getting to know one another. If the new hire is remote, set up a virtual happy hour.
  • Spring for a round-robin lunch. Ask the recruit’s new manager and select team members to take turns going to lunch with the new employee on the company’s dime. This time helps them start building connections. They can arrange a virtual lunch with remote employees by placing a local-delivery order. A department or team lunch can also be effective, especially with people the new hire will work with closely.
  • Have them shadow employees. Rather than arranging training sessions all day, every day, break up the monotony. Have your new hire spend some time accompanying or assisting other employees. Getting enmeshed in the day-to-day tasks lets them learn by doing. A good training plan is diverse.
  • Scheduled and informal check-ins. The new hire’s buddy and the person responsible for the onboarding program should check in with them multiple times weekly. Knowing they aren’t isolated will often enhance and strengthen the new employee experience. For an extended onboarding process, scheduled check-ins with the new employee can promote a smooth transition. HR managers and HR professionals can help to develop the optimal scheduling and agendas. The press of daily business makes it very likely that this won’t happen without planning.
  • Diversify your media. Use multimedia tools to create a memorable onboarding experience. With software services like TriNet Zenefits, your onboarding process will center on people rather than bureaucracy. Many of your new hire’s first encounters and experiences will come from your formal onboarding program. Make sure they see that people, not processes, are the focus.
  • Set the pacing for maximum comprehension. Employees must be well-versed in their positions, but they can’t be expected to learn everything in their first week. The pace of employee onboarding affects how new hires absorb information and get acclimated. Pacing is entirely individual in nature. Therefore team leaders and buddies should stay attentive to each new employee’s learning style, strengths, vulnerabilities, and natural aptitudes. Direct managers and others involved in the day-to-day processes might have to exercise patience. There might be an urgent need to get an employee working as quickly as possible, but rushing through onboarding will churn out employees who aren’t prepared to do that work well. And the employee might take months to catch up.
  • Assign mentors. New hires want to feel connected not only to their team, but also to their leadership. A mentorship program can be a formal system with goals and measures. Or, it can simply involve regular meetings between junior and senior staff more casually. A mentor can be someone on the same team as your new hire. It can also be a team leader, a direct manager, an executive, or even the CEO. It depends on the size of your company. The benefit of mentorship lies in intentionality. You want new employees to have a set time to ask questions in a more intimate setting. They can get a better feel for company culture, work-life balance, and opportunities for growth.
  • Use KPI to refine the process. Throughout the onboarding process, you should carefully evaluate what works and what doesn’t with performance metrics. Even if you think you have a perfect employee onboarding process, there’s always room for improvement. After the new hire has settled into their role, ask them about their experience. What did they like? What do they think needs improvement? Use key performance indicators to put tangible numbers to those areas of improvement.
Section 5

An employee onboarding Q&A

When does onboarding start?

For many companies, the onboarding experience begins as soon as a person signs an offer letter. Once a candidate accepts a job offer, they and the hiring manager or HR contact set the start date. Onboarding can begin somewhere around that date.

Can onboarding start before the first day?

It can, and it should. There usually is no need for a waiting period before onboarding can start. Before their start date, a new hire might participate in a meeting, visit the office, meet their direct manager or team, or begin the new hire paperwork

What is a probationary hire?

Many new employees confuse the term “probationary hire” with being “on probation,” which is not the case. Being a probationary new hire doesn’t mean the new employee is in trouble or perceived as “less than.” It is a time to acclimate to the workplace culture and work environment, complete training programs and achieve high performance. However, some companies delay health insurance and other benefits until after the probationary period. It’s also a time of evaluation for both the employee and the employer. 

Do new hires get paid for onboarding?

In a word, “yes.” Generally, employers should plan to budget money to pay their newest team members for onboarding activities. The U.S. federal government would consider many of them to fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act. That’s because most onboarding processes involve training and other mandatory activities as a condition of employment.

Employees expect to be paid for many activities they participate in before starting the job. For example:

  • In-person and online training.
  • Filling out certain types of new hire paperwork.
  • Time spent shadowing veteran employees as a form of training.
  • Pre-onboarding orientation.
  • In-person and online lectures.
  • Pre-employment “working interviews” (e.g., test-driving to see if the job is a good fit).

 A hiring manager should budget to pay a new hire for completing tasks they wouldn’t normally be expected to perform on their own time. However, this might not include those that are part of the application process outside the scope of a typical workday.

What parts of employee onboarding are considered “unpaid?”

Certain phases of being hired are not considered to be paid time. For example, the application, interview, background check, drug testing, and other pre-employment activities are not compensable.   

Even after an employee is hired, common unpaid activities occur during onboarding. Examples include:

  • Certain events that take place outside regular business hours.
  • Voluntary events for employees.
  • Events that are not job-related.
Section 6

Onboarding software

A good onboarding software program or service can go a long way toward helping HR teams overcome challenges while simplifying the onboarding experience for all parties.

Onboarding software helps to automate onboarding tasks and combine them into one platform. A company can buy a software package or enroll with a Software as a Service company. These services also update along with new onboarding trends and practices. Key onboarding features offered in the best employee onboarding software include:

  • A new hire portal
  • Welcome information (e.g. a knowledge base including new hire videos and guides)
  • Task management, reminders, and tracking of employee progress
  • Integration with existing HR software
  • Syncs with payroll and benefits data
  • Tracks compliance issues

In a nutshell, a digital dashboard creates a faster and more seamless experience for all involved because it eliminates the need for endless streams of paper. Since employee turnover is costly, creating the best employee experience possible for new team members can save you money. Integrating a new employee onboarding solution can help with retention and talent management at all levels.

For more in-depth information about the employee onboarding: