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What Is Employee Onboarding? A Complete Guide

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    Employee onboarding is the process of acclimating a new hire to the workplace and introducing them to their role. Despite how vital this process is, very few employees believe their company does it successfully. Read a comprehensive overview of onboarding’s five stages and what you can do to create an engaging and renewable new-hire experience.

    Employees get an impression of their workplace before they start working. Seriously. If applying gives talent a taste of their employer’s brand, then employee onboarding sets a tone for their experience.

    While onboarding technically isn’t a new hire’s first impression of their organization, it is their first as an employee. And for most workers, their initial vibe isn’t promising. Only 12% of employees say their organization does a great job at onboarding, according to Gallup.

    Ready to turn off lackluster onboarding and give your organization a competitive edge? Let’s start by examining what employee onboarding is at a fundamental level. We’ll then explore how the right strategy and automated HR software transform the process into a catalyst for engagement.

    What is employee onboarding?

    Employee onboarding is the process of acclimating a new hire to an organization by introducing them to company:

    You can think of it as onboarding a cruise ship — the smoother and more informative the process is, the better. Poor onboarding, however, can leave an employee questioning why they came aboard in the first place.

    Employee onboarding extends from the moment someone accepts a job offer through orientation and even across their first year of employment. HR has a deep involvement in each of these phases, so the department is ideal for managing and adjusting onboarding practices.

    However, keep in mind that while HR may manage the process, the responsibility of a successful onboarding experience falls on everyone in the organization. This includes company leaders, trainers, senior employees and even other new hires.

    What are the stages of employee onboarding?

    Employee onboarding is divided into five stages:

    1. preboarding
    2. orientation (first day)
    3. first week
    4. first three months (quarter or 90 days)
    5. end of the first year

    While a new hire might need the most hands-on guidance in their earlier stages, it’s still vital for companies to carry that positive momentum throughout an employee’s first year and beyond. After all, if your company exhibits apathy after the new job luster wears off, employees will likely reciprocate it.

    Let’s examine these five stages in detail, including best practices to create an engaging — and renewable — employee onboarding experience.

    1. Preboarding

    Preboarding is everything that takes place prior to an employee’s first official day. It covers the basics, like:

    • tax forms
    • benefits enrollment
    • direct-deposit authorization
    • and anything else that can be handled electronically

    Few organizations will have an identical approach to preboarding. Some may effectively see it as checking basic boxes, whereas others capitalize on the opportunity to establish a strong, welcoming precedent.

    Here are just a few ways a business can use preboarding to prime new hires for success.

    Create a plan

    First, organizations should understand what makes up their current preboarding process and look for ways to enhance it. Some may not even realize that preboarding is separate from orientation.

    While the best approach will shift between companies, it may be wise to determine how much can be completed before an employee’s actual first day. This will allow them to focus less on basic items and more on substance of their work.

    Inform all team members

    Don’t catch your staff off guard with a new hire. Make everyone in a department aware of your recent addition, and spend extra time with the incoming employee’s closest team to:

    • consider goals and expectations
    • outline a training and mentoring path
    • discuss the new hire’s first assignments

    This may also be an ideal opportunity to identify a mentor for the new hire. This person doesn’t have to be a leader, but they should be engaged and experienced enough to help the new hire comfortably learn.

    Welcome video and email

    Employees want to feel welcomed. An initial video or personalized message from the CEO or another leader can help them understand the organization’s overarching goals and beliefs.

    This video shouldn’t try to pack in too much information, but basic history and a concise, accessible description of what the company believes and works toward can help steer new hires in the right direction.

    If you opt for an email instead, make sure it’s free of unnecessary jargon or platitudes. The message should be direct, honest and meaningful.

    Invitations to meetings and events

    No new hire wants to be excluded. But the path to becoming an impactful contributor isn’t always clear. Make a point to include fresh employees in meetings and other discussions. Introducing them to the department is a given, but companies should also make a point to involve them in work, even if they don’t have a clear path to assist yet.

    This small action can be enough to let them know their input and participation matters.

    Set up email access and network channels

    To avoid lost time during the employee’s first day, make a point to set up their email and other forms of communication, like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. New hires should never feel like they have to fend for themselves when it comes to basic communication.

    This would also be a suitable time to provide new hires with an email signature template, as well as any tutorials to help them effectively use their email client and chat software.

    Set up work environment and equipment

    Like their email and network access, an employee’s workspace should be prepared before they arrive for their first shift. Make sure IT understands their specific needs and when the employee will start. This will help circumvent wasted time as the new hire waits for the equipment to be ready. Doing this early can also help get ahead of unexpected problems.

    Create an open mode of communication

    As you prepare the new employee’s workplace, empower them with multiple points of contact. This could be their immediate supervisor, a representative from HR or another combination of peers. Regardless of who serves in this role, the new hire should know exactly who they can communicate with to address any needs.

    2. Orientation

    Once you’ve ironed out preboarding, you’ll need to set the stage for a strong first day. With the basics out of the way, you can give your new hire a welcoming and empowering start. Here’s how.

    Set up day agendas

    Shortly before the new hire arrives, take time to outline what their first day will look like. Give them a heads up about the schedule a few days in advance, and be sure to field any questions they may have.

    Most importantly, try not to overwhelm new hires with too much material. Orientation will help them understand their jobs, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be an expert by the end of their first shift. We all need space to absorb and process material, and your first-day agenda should acknowledge this.

    New-hire welcome

    Few things are less exciting than waiting for someone to get you from a lobby or tell you what you’re supposed to be doing. Periodic breaks are one thing, but unnecessary downtime could ruin your new-hire orientation.

    If, for whatever reason, a new hire does need to wait to formally meet their team, the individual leading their orientation should make them feel welcome. If a company is onboarding multiple new hires, this could be a great time for them to get to know each other and discuss what motivates them professionally.

    If possible, bring in a member of the C-suite or another company leader to formally welcome the new employees. This should be even more personal than your introductory email or video, so consider someone in your company who’s great at meeting employees at their level.

    You could even consider someone who started at an entry-level position and worked their way into upper management. Doing so could have a secondary effect of making advancement in your company more achievable.

    Give a tour

    Once new hires understand what the company is like ideologically, you can start introducing them to where they’ll work. It’s also a best practice to show them (within reason) the places they may rarely visit but should still be aware of.

    The tour should also include where employees can find:

    • break rooms
    • counseling
    • conference rooms
    • areas of privacy
    • on-site perks, like the gym and cafeteria
    • and any other locations that could help them

    Be as open to questions during the tour as you are throughout the entire orientation. This process should make employees as comfortable and familiar with their workplace as possible.

    Explain weekly and monthly structures

    New hires should immediately grasp weekly and monthly obligations, such as stand-up meetings and status reports. Some of this may be specific to a new hire’s individual teams, but they should still be made aware of any recurring, companywide expectation.

    If it wasn’t already clear, you should also outline when employees should expect to get paid. If necessary, give them a chance to familiarize themselves with their meeting and scheduling software. At a bare minimum, new hires shouldn’t be caught off guard by any recurring event.

    Team introduction

    Once a new hire understands the business broadly, they should connect with their team to conclude their orientation. This doesn’t necessarily mean every basic step is out of the way, but they should have enough smoothed out to see where they fit into the big picture.

    Make certain at least one team member — ideally the manager — knows when they should receive the new hire. It’s not a bad idea to encourage the team to set up a welcome package or craft personalized messages welcoming their latest contributor.

    Set up all practical and training information

    It’s likely new hires will need to go through some extensive training before they can feel confident in their roles. Make sure all their technology is ready for them to use and they know the exact training they need to complete.

    Versatile learning management software (LMS) can make it easy to automatically assign training and follow up on past-due modules. The best options will even allow new hires to complete introductory material on their mobile devices.

    3. First week

    After orientation, a new hire will need a bit more guidance to find their rhythm within the organization. Here’s how employers can stoke their development and get them up to the appropriate speed.

    Training on company processes

    Digging a bit deeper than orientation’s overview, this is when new hires should learn how the business operates on a fundamental level. Any consistent process or procedure the company requires should be clear. For example, this could include learnings on:

    • waste disposal
    • cybersecurity
    • bias and harassment
    • compliance certifications
    • and more

    None of this should be specifically about an employee’s role. Rather, it’s about instilling a sense of responsibility and accountability that every contributor should share.

    Training on work requirements

    An employee should learn about the basic requirements of their unique role during their first week, too. This should include training around:

    • best practices
    • specific responsibilities
    • software and other tools
    • how individual efforts support the organization

    While an LMS can deliver this efficiently, it may be best to meld e-learning with personal, hands-on training as well. New hires should have an opportunity to shadow members of their team and get a feel for how their average day might unfold.

    Opportunities to bond with colleagues

    Shadowing and mentoring don’t have to be all business all the time. After all, most won’t feel attached to their work if they don’t feel connected with their team.

    Give new hires space to learn about their team and ask questions, even if they’re not directly related to work. The mentor you assign should know when to comfortably veer from the task at hand and keep the new hire’s training on track. In some cases, it may be more important for the recent employee to understand how their team works before they pin down the minutia of their job.

    4. First three months

    The initial three months of a new hire’s experience often represents a tipping point. By now, they should actively contribute to the workplace and demonstrate at least some independence. Not everyone will develop at the same rate, but gross under-preparation at this point could reveal a deeper issue with employee onboarding.

    Here’s how to make the most of a new hire’s 90-day checkpoint.

    Training and development

    Consult with the new hire’s direct supervisor to gauge how far they’ve come. This should be a candid conversation that reveals the true extent of their progress. At the same time, all stakeholders should know that development is ongoing and the new hire may need more time to reach their full potential.

    Consider speaking with the onboarded employee directly to learn how they’re getting along. Ask them if they need any additional support or if there’s any training they wish they had sooner. At the very least, this may help you create a more informed onboarding process later.

    Value addition and employee integration

    Take time to assess everything the employee has done so far. If possible, compare to any historical data you have about previous employees in similar roles. Ask yourself questions like:

    • Is the new hire where they need to be? If not, why?
    • Is the new hire exceeding, meeting or falling below expectations?
    • What challenges have hindered their development?
    • Is this employee already showing potential as a leader? How can we encourage that more?

    In addition to your talk about their development, you should also determine how well they’re integrating with their team. It may be helpful to inquire with some of their peers as well. Ultimately, no employee should feel like they need to work in a vacuum.

    Work transitioning

    By this time, the new hire should have established a regular routine with their work. This should be evident by how well they operate and a decline in basic questions. You may be able to observe this directly in a close enough setting, but more than likely, you’ll need to rely on who they work with and under most.

    If the new hire still seems to struggle, don’t assume they’re a lost cause. Ask them what additional support they need. If it’s reasonable, do what’s possible to facilitate that help.

    5. End of the first year

    By the end of the new hire’s first year, the term “new hire” shouldn’t be attached to them at all. With an effective onboarding process, this employee should be an active and meaningful contributor.

    Even so, you may encounter a few loose onboarding ends to tie up. Here’s what you can do to round out an employee’s first year and improve your process down the road.

    Performance evaluation

    By this time, the recent employee should have at least one sincere performance review. Even if your company conducts them more frequently, their first year should provide a substantial glimpse into their progress overall.

    Identify where they can improve, and be sure they know how they excel, too. Allow them to conduct a self-evaluation as well. While their supervisor may have invaluable insight, they won’t likely know how the employee in question feels about themselves.

    Company and team feedback

    Gather input from immediate peers and other employees who regularly work with the newer team member. All feedback should be considered and provided in a way that the employee can actually use.

    And try to channel this feedback into something that’s actionable. While signs of a personality clash among the team is important to know, it may not reflect how well the employee performs. In other words, keep the feedback you process and deliver substantive and relevant advice.

    Adjustments and changes to the workplace

    Take time to identify what veered from your expectations. If the employee had to overcome an unprecedented challenge, take note of it and consider the possibility for future onboarding. If something was missing from their experience — like more relevant work — take note of that, too.

    Be open to pivoting your strategy and accepting inevitable changes. No onboarding approach should be set in stone because the experience itself is fluid.

    Future planning

    Take everything you’ve gathering across the onboarding experience into consideration and address your blind spots. If enough new hires asked for something specific, heed their advice and adjust accordingly. If a new tactic failed, try to understand why.

    Onboarding is an ongoing experiment. Don’t get hyper fixated on a specific result or too attached to a single aspect. With a willingness to adapt, onboarding will transform from just a routine to a truly renewable process.

    Employee onboarding best practices

    No matter where your new hires are in the onboarding process, it never hurts to continually maintain certain best practices. Consider these tips to give your onboarding approach a fighting chance.

    1. Set up and align goals

    Discuss the onboarding process with everyone who’s involved. Take time to understand where employees should be after their first year, and work with your team to write those expectations. Every stakeholder should know the best-case scenario for onboarding by the time you’re done.

    If your business is new or on the verge of significant growth, it may help to host regular meetings around onboarding. Even the best processes aren’t timeless. Be prepared to realign goals and adapt your approach as needed based on your company’s trajectory.

    2. Use an onboarding checklist

    Never go into onboarding dark. Write a reference that clearly outlines elements every new hire should encounter. You could even adjust your checklist so it’s specific to certain roles.

    Regardless of what your checklist entails, it should at least cover the foundational pieces every employee benefits from. (If you’re unsure where to start, you could draft out the basics from what you’ve read in this blog post.)

    3. Create an effective workflow

    Again, onboarding is a process. It entails multiple moving parts that need to work in tandem with one another. Anything less can risk disengaging and underpreparing an employee.

    Like your checklist, consider what the ideal path would be for a new hire. It doesn’t matter if you can’t deliver it now. Knowing what that vision is will be enough for you to make realistic adjustments. If you need to rein yourself in that’s fine, but always shoot for an experience that grossly exceeds expectations.

    Even if you have to dial it back and compromise on some ideas, you’ll probably find that where your process lands is still better than expected.

    4. Consistency and communication

    Always be open to speaking with the new hire whenever they need it. Even if they don’t regularly reach out, you should make it a point to check in.

    At a small enough operation, it may be easy for HR to shoot an email or check indirectly through the new hire’s supervisor. Larger enterprises, however, may need to host periodic check-in meetings with several employees. Either is fine depending on what’s feasible, but new hires should always know they have an open channel to ask questions and share their thoughts.

    5. Evaluation and performance management

    While performance reviews are hopefully a regular part of every employee’s life cycle, they can be especially useful to new hires. Even if your company only conducts annual performance reviews, consider softer evaluations that happen more frequently during a contributor’s first year.

    While your primary performance reviews should be structured, your periodic evaluations don’t need to be quite as formal (as long as they’re still documented). Consider establishing regular one-on-one meetings between the new hire and their supervisor or manager to help make performance management a regular part of their growth.

    6. Delegate HR tasks

    Onboarding shouldn’t fall entirely on one person. Consider investing in self-service HR software to alleviate the burden of manual data entry and empower employees.

    At the same time, HR should feel comfortable breaking out portions of the onboarding process among their team. Leaving a single individual responsible for the entire process could spur issues if they resign, retire or need to be out temporarily.

    How to evaluate and enhance employee onboarding

    Employers should regularly evaluate and analyze the effectiveness of their onboarding strategy. Host discussions with HR and managers involved with training new hires. Never assume a good process will work forever.

    This doesn’t mean you need to arbitrarily change practices for the sake of something new, but you should pay close attention to how new generations of employees work effectively.

    And while this might be uncomfortable, your organization should also discuss where onboarding fails. Did new hires quit after a few days or months? Have you noticed a significant dip in performance after your organization expanded?

    Finding the solution to these issues may be tough, but candidly discussing them with stakeholders will eventually illuminate a better way forward. No onboarding problem is too difficult to address. At the end of the day, new and existing employees allow the company to succeed, so look for ways to improve their experience at every level, including onboarding.

    What is HR’s role in employee onboarding?

    While HR isn’t the only party involved with onboarding, the department is tasked with building, maintaining and enhancing the process. Managers and other stakeholders play a part, but HR pros will be the ones:

    • generating and deploying new strategies
    • gathering and assessing feedback
    • serving as points of contact
    • answering fundamental questions
    • outlining onboarding’s workflow
    • using technology to ensure steady new-hire development
    • adapting onboarding as needed for it to be continually effective

    This also means HR and any other participant needs to know where their responsibilities lie. This may not be consistent for every organization, but these expectations should be clear up front and before differences disrupt a new hire’s experience.

    How does automation simplify employee onboarding?

    HR automation can streamline many of the tedious processes associated with onboarding, from gathering basic employee info in preboarding to assigning necessary trainings during a new hire’s first week.

    For example, few (if any) aspects of onboarding should be handled on paper unless legally required. Recent employees should have access to a self-service experience to gather their initial data. And once they provide their info, it should flow seamlessly from one tool to the next, such as through payroll, benefits enrollment and more.

    With the right onboarding tech, new hires should be able to complete all basic steps during preboarding. That way, they can focus on learning the ropes and making an impact on their first day.

    Explore Paycom’s resources to learn about onboarding, employee engagement and more!

    DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.