Making New Hire Onboarding a Strategic Talent Priority

Making New Hire Onboarding a Strategic Talent Priority

Charles Goretsky Charles Goretsky
16 minute read

Everyone who has worked at an organization has undergone the first week of employment with mixed experiences and levels of satisfaction and usefulness. While many experience new hire onboarding as boring and a mild waste of paid time, the impact of those first hours and days on employee perceptions, satisfaction, and, ultimately, motivation to perform at a high level is vastly underappreciated. A large body of research points to the negative impacts that poorly executed new hire onboarding has on employee retention, engagement, satisfaction, and even performance. This should serve as a wake-up call for HR leaders to reevaluate onboarding processes and proactively work to redesign them.    

It is critical to consider onboarding as a vital element of the employee experience (EX) that engages employees in a longer-term commitment to the company. A great onboarding experience creates a positive and constructive introduction to the company and continues the positive impression of their candidate experience (CX) throughout the attraction and recruiting cycle. It demonstrates how the company values them as employees and confirms to new hires that they made the right decision.  

When well-designed and executed, the onboarding process engages new hires in an efficient and seamless transition into what matters most to them: integrating into the culture, meeting new leaders and peers, and starting to make productive contributions. At the same time, a poorly run new hire onboarding process can blunt the new hire’s enthusiasm and slow the excitement and momentum built up during the attraction, assessment, and offer processes.

Defining onboarding

In its best and most impactful design, new hire onboarding is a process, an ecosystem, and an element of the corporate culture. Steps and best practices within a structured workflow define it as a process; integrated elements of recruiting, performance management, learning and development, career development, and employee engagement create an ecosystem; and linkages to the corporate mission, values, management culture, communications, and collaboration styles help define the culture.  

At Wowledge, we define new hire onboarding as a natural phase in the employee journey that introduces a new employee to the organization’s mission, values, culture, policies, systems, and processes while providing them with clarity about their individual role, responsibilities, team, co-workers, workflows, and performance expectations. It differs from new hire orientation as it is a longer-term induction into the company culture and operating model, typically lasting a year or more in best practice. 

It comprises three key stages, each focused on the timeframes between offer acceptance, the first day of employment, and the end of the first year (or more) when full role competency is achieved. 

  • Pre-boarding is the period between offer acceptance and the first workday. During this time, the new hire may receive personalized welcomes from manager and teammates; access to organization charts and company mission, vision, and values; request to fill out an employee profile with the ability to view those of teammates and bosses; benefits, payroll, compliance paperwork to complete; and corporate policies for review. 
  • Acclimatization typically occurs during the first 1-3 months of employment. This stage includes overviews of the company's mission, vision, and purpose; completion of required compliance-oriented training; formal introductions to teammates and key peer partners/departments; facility and amenity tours; and receipt of equipment, office space, systems access, etc.   
  • Post-boarding happens during the remaining 9-12+ months of employment. The focus is on setting goals, expectations, and standards; upskilling and development activities to achieve minimum operational knowledge; cultural socialization (organization values, behavioral expectations, network building); and linkages to the broader organization goals and objectives.

The goals of new hire onboarding are to 1) continue the positive engagement and enthusiasm from the recruiting process, 2) integrate the individual into the culture and get them to adopt corporate values as their own, and 3) accelerate their time to full role competency and productivity where their skills and capabilities can be optimized for the benefit of the organization.

Common issues with onboarding

Unfortunately, new hire onboarding practices and processes vary widely across organizations, ranging from first-day paperwork-only to incredibly elaborate and systems-enhanced experiences lasting months. However, we see some all-too-common issues that plague these and render their value to low levels of usefulness.

Lack of structure 

Only 64% of organizations report having a structured process for new hires. The remaining 36% of companies without a disciplined and repeatable approach report issues with lower employee productivity, engagement, satisfaction, trust, higher turnover, and missed revenue targets. 

Lacking a standard approach and links to other key processes, it is impossible to consistently provide the kind of information and guidance that new hires need to integrate into their new work teams and workflows quickly and successfully.

Poorly defined governance and process ownership

Some difficulties with new hire onboarding arise from the number of functions and departments that need information from and create outputs for the onboarding process. HRIS and Payroll need employee data for pay, taxes, and employment verification purposes. Security needs photos, job assignments, location, and often personal information to create appropriate badging and facility access cards. IT needs a job, function, manager, business unit, location, and equipment requirement information to provide needed access to systems, software, and data sources. These functions need to coordinate their efforts and centralize the data collection and resource allocation decision-making, which is further complicated by geographically dispersed locations and support teams.

Generates low satisfaction

Gallup research found that only 12% of U.S. employees feel that their organizations provide a good new hire onboarding process, with 20% of employees stating that their new hire process was either “poor” or not provided. Similarly, a Paychex study found that only 52% of surveyed workers were satisfied with the onboarding experience provided by their new employers.

Not meeting its purpose

The process is designed to successfully integrate an employee into the organization, with clear direction regarding the processes, people, and available resources they can leverage as they learn their roles and adapt to the new culture and working environment. However, too many employees report that the process and experience fall short of those minimum goals.  

For example, data suggests that after completing the new hire onboarding process, 56% of new hires reported being left “disoriented,” 52% felt “let down,” and 49% felt “devalued.” Furthermore, the experience itself left 32% of employees feeling confused, 24% bored, and 22% found it disorganized. Even worse, 80% felt unprepared to start their new jobs as they were undertrained after completing the onboarding process.  

These experiences left the employees with an extremely poor impression of the organization, to the extent that after onboarding, a full 50% stated that they were planning to quit soon.

Too short to truly integrate employees

The time it takes to incorporate a new hire fully is a function of adapting their skills and socialization. Given the estimates of 8-24 months for a new hire to reach full competency, they need guidance for close to a year or more. Unfortunately, most of the 64% of organizations that offer structured onboarding do so for only a very abbreviated timeframe.  

51% of employers provided new hire onboarding that lasted under 5 days (25% one day or less), while only 11% reported that their process/program runs for 3 months or more.

Contributes to new hire turnover 

The average process is failing as an engagement and retention method. Given that the length of time estimated for workers to get fully up to speed is as little as eight (8) months, and up to 12 months or higher, new hire employee turnover before that time represents an extremely poor return on investment in recruitment, initiation, and training efforts and expenditures.

New hire turnover is a consistent issue across industries and companies of all sizes. Research points to numbers like 20% of new hires quitting in the first 45 days, 21% in the first 3 months, 33% in the first six (6) months, 35% in the first 12 months of service, and as high as 50% in the first 18 months of employment.

Insufficient or poor new hire onboarding experiences have been shown to contribute to those numbers. One study by Digitate found that new hires with a negative onboarding experience were twice (2X) as likely to start looking for new jobs, with 20% of them unlikely to recommend the employer to others. Another study reported that 9% of new hires quit specifically due to such bad experiences, with 37% pointing at their hiring managers' poor onboarding performance as the reason for leaving.

Benefits of creating a great onboarding experience

Better onboarding helps new employees adjust to their jobs by clarifying their purpose and intended value, establishing better networks and relationships in ways that increase employee satisfaction, and clarifying expectations and objectives to improve productivity and performance. Other documented benefits include:

Supports early employee retention

Organizations with a good onboarding process improve their new hire retention by 82%. It supports retention by helping new hires with an increased sense of “I fit in here” and “I can excel in this role.” Gallup found that 70% of employees with “exceptional” onboarding experiences report loving their jobs and are 2.6 times more likely to be satisfied with their workplace and, thus, much more likely to stay with their current organization. Similarly, another study reported that 69% of employees with great onboarding experiences stated they were likelier to stay with the company for another three (3) years or more.

Increases time to productivity or competency

Data supports the notion that well-executed onboarding drives faster time to full competency and contribution. For example, new hires with longer onboarding programs report higher role proficiency at the 4-month mark and faster time to full productivity. It also better meets new hire expectations, as 75% of new hires said training during their first week on a job is critical to them.

Increases engagement and related talent outcomes

Unsurprisingly, employees who experience exceptional onboarding processes and practices report 49% higher levels of engagement, given first-year activities that often focus on tailored coaching, socialization, learning and development, and awareness of corporate purpose and mission. Research by Qualtrics found that of the new hires with comprehensive onboarding experiences, 45% were more trusting of the company, 42% had higher productivity, and experienced 31% lower turnover.

Similarly, SHRM research showed that 52% of surveyed organizations with effective onboarding improved their employee retention, 60% had better time to productivity (60%), and 53% enjoyed higher customer satisfaction.

Group discussing how to create an impactful onboarding experience

How to create an impactful onboarding experience 

Given all the challenges and shortcomings revealed above, it should be clear that the opportunities for an improved new hire onboarding process are numerous and that the benefits of doing so are substantial. Prioritizing the steps is key, as the number of functions and departments involved in the process can make identifying a starting point difficult. That said, there are some tactics to start with to create a better experience that drives enhanced retention, engagement, speed to productivity, and new hire integration into the company’s operations and culture.

1. Engage all associated departments in joint planning, design, and oversight 

The highest priority should be creating a joint task force and governance council to integrate the requirements and efforts of all functions/departments. Bring finance, payroll, procurement, security, facilities, IT, HR, hiring managers, etc., together to define their requirements for data collection, form completion, legal compliance, and lead times. Structure the onboarding process using employee experience considerations (e.g., journey mapping) to simplify and optimize the processes from an employee’s perspective. Understand who is involved and how each can integrate their systems and processes. Create a governance board with a membership of top leaders from each function to oversee the level of success and ongoing opportunities to refine and improve the processes over time.

2. Create a ready-to-start Day One experience 

Having everything ready for a new hire on their first day is a sure way to simultaneously meet and exceed their expectations.  While it can be a logistical challenge, providing a badge with all facility accesses, a computer pre-loaded with the software and apps (and instructions to create passwords for each), a workspace that is all set up, and a schedule of people to meet and meetings to attend send a strong welcome to the new hire. Provide access to the organization charts and a list of contacts in each key department with which they will interact or collaborate. Have a direct supervisor ready and available to help lay out key expectations and identify key processes, outputs, and departmental contributions to the corporate mission. And don’t forget to have formal introductions to co-workers who can act as mentors and advisors to answer questions about using work resources and tools and even where to park, local lunch spots, etc.

3. Leverage technology 

Online onboarding resources are key to a consistent, structured, and effective onboarding experience. These systems can effectively pre-board new hires with useful links and apps to new hire HR and payroll data collection, benefits enrollment sites, corporate history/mission/purpose information, and other non-task-related work (to avoid legal conflicts over uncompensated work time). Access to a range of information can give the new a head start on acclimation and avoid the first week being filled with administrative work unrelated to their job. These systems can (and should) also be used to track progress on required new hire activities with automated communication and tracking of checklists, reminders, resources, etc.

4. Structure the hiring manager's responsibilities

Creating a strong relationship between the new hire and direct supervisor is critical to success in new hire satisfaction, retention, speed to competency, and ultimately, performance and productivity. Gallup found that when a manager took an active role in the onboarding process, new hires were 3.4 times more likely to see the process as successful.  Managers should be trained and required (through tracking and new hire survey feedback) to perform three essential onboarding activities:

  • Clarify how and where the employee fits into the system. A critical element of employee engagement and retention is their perceptions of the meaningfulness of their work or how it contributes to company, function, societal, and customer value. Given that so few employees (25%) feel connected to a company’s mission, the opportunity to make them aware of that in the first week(s) is critical.  
  • Set goals for role contributions and personal development activities. Clarify how they will be evaluated and what they will accomplish (and learn) in the months ahead so they have a sense of purpose and direction. As 60% of companies do not set goals for new hires, this will accelerate their time to competence or full productivity.
  • Establish regular check-ins with the employee. Schedule weekly check-ins to create two-way sharing to understand where the individual is doing well or struggling in their first months on the job. Frequent feedback, coaching, and suggestions for resources, people, and developmental opportunities can enable a smoother transition. Recognition of the need for course corrections, clarification of job requirements and expectations, and proper methods and tools can create early successes and more confidence in the new hires.

5. Formalize a new hire development plan

All new hires should have a formal development plan that a) closes skill gaps identified in the hiring process, b) builds adaptation of skills to the new company-specific workflows, processes, and terminologies, and c) enables learning about company or industry-specific requirements and expertise related to ongoing or future strategic growth plans.  The criticality of this approach is supported by research that found that only 29% of new hires feel “fully prepared and supported” to meet or exceed expectations in their new job after onboarding.

6. Assign a buddy or mentor(s) 

It is important to remember the value of socializing new hires into the culture and network structure by consciously and deliberately welcoming them in and supporting the creation of strong interpersonal connections and relationships. The keys are to 1) have them quickly feel like a team member, 2) feel professionally and emotionally supported by relevant others, and 3) give them a head-start on building a network of colleagues and supporters who can help indoctrinate them and become collaborators. 

Data shows that 87% of companies found that a new hire buddy increases the speed to productivity, and 56% of new hires felt that having a formal work mentor was key to their early success.

7. Measure and track the success 

Finally, measuring onboarding and its outcomes is essential to successful implementation, given the well-established value of having a robust and complete process. With 55% of businesses currently not measuring the effectiveness of their onboarding processes, this represents a missed opportunity for many. Best practice calls for measuring outcomes including: 

  • Time to productivity 
  • New hire turnover and retention rates
  • Engagement scores
  • Completion of onboarding and development plan activities
  • Average tenure of new hires by role, function, location, demographics, etc.

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