On-boarding employees – why don’t we do it well?

Employment concept image

Employment numbers down in last quarter.

Some organisations recognise the importance of executing a well planned on-boarding process. The financial benefits are obvious. The sooner an employee is productive the sooner the return on investment.

Yet in my experience many organisations fail to understand the importance of on-boarding and how hard it is for new employees to assimilate into an organisation.

On-boarding and orientation/induction processes are confused. Orientation/induction are a series of discreet “housekeeping” tasks, for example setting up a new employee’s desk, computer, paying the employee on time etc. Many organisations believe this is all that is required. Like a “tick and bash” audit, a checklist is ticked off and the process is over.

On-boarding incorporates orientation/induction activities but it is so much more than this. It’s a process over a longer period of time. On-boarding is a purposeful and targeted process to ensure the new employee:

  • Understands the organisation’s values and expectations.
  • Acquires the knowledge and skills to be a productive team member.
  • Develops long lasting working relationships with colleagues.
  • Identifies relevant professional and career development plans.

A common on-boarding experience

I have firsthand experience of a poor on-boarding process. I was offered a HR job working for a large organisation several years ago. Like most new recruits I was keen to make a good impression so I arrived early at reception on my first day. Oh dear, that’s when things started to go downhill. The receptionist did not know I was starting, nor did my colleagues. I was allocated my predecessors desk. No one bothered to remove her lunch time supply of instant soup and tins of tuna from the desk drawer. I felt rather foolish asking my colleagues the simplest of questions. “How do I make a phone call”? “Where are the toilets”? The weeks that followed did not get any better. My manager left me to fend for myself. I had no understanding of the business issues or where I fitted in. I did not understand the organisation’s values or culture. Consequently I was completely overwhelmed and disengaged. Friends and family asked me “How was the job going”? My response was no surprise. I told them that if things did not improve, I would be looking for a new job.

The cost of poor on-boarding

Why don’t we implement a good on-boarding process? It makes no financial sense not to. The costs of turnover are significant for example, lack of productivity, training and replacement costs etc. In general, new employees only become really productive after six to twelve months in the role. So if it takes six to twelve months for an employee to be productive, why do we spend minimal time on-boarding employees? We certainly don’t treat new customers this way. We treat them with the utmost respect. We roll out the red carpet. We schmooze with them to ensure we retain their business.

At best a poor on-boarding process means employees are unproductive, unappreciated and disengaged. At worse, employees seek employment elsewhere if their needs are not met.

Ironically we are better at celebrating the departure of an employee. We buy a leaving present. We have a farewell lunch. A sharp contrast to when an employee joins an organisation!

What does a great on-boarding process look like?

One size does not fit all. Depending on the size of the organisation, the employees experience and the complexity of the job, on-boarding is different for each organisation and each employee.

Small things matter and first impressions count

Here are some ideas to make a new employee feel welcome:

  • Contact them prior to commencement to check there are no questions.
  • Take them out to lunch on the first day.
  • Set up the desk including stationary, business cards etc.
  • Introduce them to others on their first day.
  • Have a welcome morning tea.
  • Schedule on-boarding meetings and provide an itinerary.
  • Buy a gift for them.

Involve a number of stakeholders

Involve stakeholders to assist the new employee in understanding workplace rules and specific tasks.

Besides the new employee’s manager and team members, examples of stakeholders include:

  • A buddy who is an ambassador for the organisation. The new employee can ask questions which they ordinarily don’t feel comfortable in asking their manager. A buddy helps the new employee understand unwritten rules, idiosyncrasies and jargon.
  • If you have a HR representative involve them in the process.
  • Customers to understand their requirements.
  • Other departments the employee interacts with.

Provide timely and relevant information

One of the biggest failures with on-boarding is overloading the employee with too much information too soon.

To minimise information overload:

  • Provide a written on-boarding itinerary/checklist. It outlines what and when activities will occur and what is expected.
  • Send out essential workplace policies prior to commencement.
  • Provide a position description to ensure an understanding of role and expectations.
  • Train soon after commencement to ensure early productivity.
  • After being thoroughly trained in the job, provide information for greater organisational context. Topics include for example: the history of the company, the values, business strategy overview, and organisational structure.

Identify objectives and development plans

Set short, medium and long range objectives and development plans specific to the new employee. This assists in accelerating productivity and lays the foundations for longer-term career success.

Solicit feedback

Solicit feedback to increase self esteem. Ask what’s working, what’s not working and what’s missing. Checking how the employee is going ensures problems are dealt with promptly.

Management ownership

There is one last and fundamental point worth mentioning. The biggest key to success to on-boarding is the involvement of the employee’s manager. Remember my awful on-boarding experience? Well after 3 months in the role, my manager left. My new manager really supported me through the key challenges of the job. I stayed with the organisation for a further 7 years and I look back on my experience with fondness.

Whilst I have espoused the virtues of a good on-boarding process, it’s only as good as the people that are responsible for it. On-boarding doesn’t need to be complicated. It needs to guide employees through the various on-boarding stages. On-boarding requires ownership and engagement from key stakeholders if it is to succeed.

By Angela Godfrey


Angela Godfrey and her business associate, Gabby Sken have been helping business leaders manage, motivate and optimise performance of their staff for over 20 years. They have gained experience as internal HR professionals predominately in financial services and have consulted to sectors such as education, telecommunications and professional services. Should you require HR consulting or coaching, please contact Angela Godfrey.

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