Onboarding – an event or a journey?

Oftentimes we talk about onboarding as a one-off event where we welcome the new employees, play some games to help them network, talk about what we do for business, culture, and values, then we send them off. Good luck!

And most of the time, that’s what we leave them to – luck. Luck, that they will have a great manager to support and get up to speed and provide them with feedback. A buddy that helps them meet people. An organization that is mature enough, with established processes and ways of working so they will just blend in.

The problem with that – what if that does not happen?

Onboarding purpose

So, let’s break it down. The two main outcomes of onboarding (sides of the same coin) are:

Performance readiness.

Getting the new joiner up to speed so they can perform 100% against the expectations and responsibilities of the role. I like to call it the “hard” side.

The best way to help your new joiner is by ensuring they have clear goals and letting them know how success looks like in that particular role as early as they join. Even if those are as simple as “by the end of week 3 you have met all your team members and understand who is doing what” or “by the end of week 5 you have completed the online onboarding modules and understood the business model” (which then they would discuss with their line manager). What matters here is that those goals are crafted in a way that first, covers all the tasks and responsibilities that are part of the job, and second, that they expose the new joiner to collaboration with a relevant network of people, whether those are stakeholders, peers or their direct reports.

The line manager is the key figure in this journey and should be there to check in weekly, make sure the new joiner is progressing against goals, provide continuous feedback and support where needed. Depending on the complexity of the role you would plan for longer vs. shorter periods of time.

Many smart organizations use the pre-onboarding time for many of these activities, even before the candidate has joined. They use this period of time in order to get them up to speed early because… when is the candidate & prospective employee excited the most about your company? Right before they start – and this is why they signed the offer! Use that excitement to start onboarding them early on. Be engaging but not disruptive to their schedule (especially if the candidate is joining in more than 30+ days and still serve a notice period). Some quick wins can include:

  • A simple email from the line manager to the new joiner (some time before they join) with a quick note of how excited they are for them to be joining soon. Within that, you may include some helpful links, a sample of their onboarding plan, and other useful docs;
  • A (virtual) lunch break with the team so they can already form connections;
  • Have a couple of other team members check in on them and ask if they need anything;
  • Or, if you have an LMS/HRIS or even your career website, why not get them to start to engage with the content about the organization, its values, products/services, people;
  • Also, if you are organizing a team event and you have a pending new joiner – do invite them too.

All the above is of course optional and shouldn’t be mandated.

Employee experience.

How will the new joiner feel, will your EVP stay true to itself, how strong will you make the “social contract” with the new hire. I like to call it the “soft” side.

This is the “soft” side of onboarding yet the hardest to crack. One way to think about it is “how would a 5-star hotel do it?”. How would they plan the customer experience journey from the moment someone visited their website and booked the room (pre-onboarding) to actually visiting their hotel, checking in, entering their room. Was there a welcome drink? Were they engaged with all the customer touchpoints throughout the “stay”? Every interaction with your people and your process matters. All these interactions will not only be the key to the social integration of the new joiners but also their understanding of culture and “how things get done”, which will ultimately help them do their job.

Lenses for contextualization of the onboarding journey

Once you’ve got the above elements right, you would want to use some filters or “lenses”:

Lense 1

Talent segments you are onboarding: early careers/graduates/interns, mid-level professionals, or senior folks – depending on the seniority of the role, these groups of people might have different needs. E.g. A graduate for whom this is the first entry point to the “world of work” not just your company vs. A senior executive who needs to understand everything about governance, policies, strategy, etc. The rule of the thumb is – the higher the job grade, the longer it takes for a person to onboard.

Lense 2

Are your new joiners Individual Contributors or Line Managers? How could you better support your new hires to understand the needs of their team and what good leadership looks like at your organization?

Lense 3

Which function are they coming from?- A customer-facing job vs. product engineering may have completely different pathways and speed of onboarding.

Lense 4

What is your forecast – How many people are you hiring? (very important for scaling/growth businesses) Do you need to onboard people in a bulk way or you can personalize their experiences and provide bespoke support due to the manageable number of new joiners.

Lense 5

Is your workforce distributed globally or locally, and is it an entirely virtual experience or not (not just because of COVID).

Each of these lenses is important in crafting a relevant onboarding journey that leads to early performance and retention – and this is why good onboarding takes so much time and effort.

Engaging the Line Managers

The best way to engage the line managers is by showing how a good onboarding process makes their lives easier in the long run. Apart from that, many managers might not necessarily view their role as essential to the new joiners’ experience so L&D should seek ways of educating line managers on the importance of onboarding (especially in a high-growth company). You can do this through leadership development programs as well as company-wide comms.

In addition, co-designing onboarding journeys with the managers is one of the most powerful ways to get their buy-in. To help the managers maintain the quality of the onboarding experience, L&D should design simple checklists that would help managers track the onboarding process from start to finish.

Measuring the impact of your onboarding experience

Best indicators for the onboarding experience are (up to) 12 months retention rates and time to full performance which also informs your cost to onboard, as well as the quality of hire.

To help you measure the impact of your onboarding journey-here are a few prerequisites.

You need to establish what does it mean “full performance” & a time that you expect someone or a particular group/talent segment to “come to full performance”. L&D can do very little to define what “full performance” means because this may differ from function to function, job to job, level to level, etc.

What you can and should do is run a simple 360-degree survey at the 3 months point (especially if you don’t have a mature performance management in place that would enable you to track employee’s performance after a period of time).

This survey should be as simple as a few retro questions:

  • What went well? – asked of both the Employee and a Line Manager
  • What could be done differently moving forward? – asked of both Employee and a Line Manager
  • Few values/ behaviors that are important for the organization (e.g. culture attributes/competency framework) in order to get feedback on collaboration and how is the new joiner navigating the culture – asked of the employee, peers, stakeholders, manager.

And then a key question for both the lead and the employee.

  • To what extent is this employee performing against role expectations & responsibilities: 0-25%, 25-50%, 50-75%, 75%-100%
  • In case you responded with less than 75%, what would it take to get to 100%? What kind of support do you require?

Both the lead and the employee answer the questions. These answers serve as a great development conversation starter which will lead to set specific goals to reach the full performance.

In case you have a performance management process in place, it will help a lot. You would get an idea of how is this employee performing further down the line of their employee journey. If not, you can repeat the same survey again after 3 months. In this way, you will have an idea about how long it takes to have an “ROI” on the employee and when do they start fully contributing to the organization.

Onboarding as an organizational capability

Many organizations still do not invest enough time and resources in onboarding and this leads to negative financial impact. The cost to onboard a particular employee can easily be calculated by summing

  • Cost to hire;
  • Salaries of the employee for the first 3-6 months (assuming they are not 100% productive within that period);
  • cost of training;
  • Cost of time of all the people involved in the process. Line managers, buddies, L&D, HR, IT, or everyone who has spent time with the new joiner;
  • Cost to backfill the role or loss of productivity (in case a person leaves). The amount of investment will naturally depend on the level and complexity of the role in terms of time to full performance and the salary of the particular employee group, as well as the location due to different labor costs.

Furthermore, the cost to onboard, especially in high-growth organizations (with huge volume in hiring) can serve as a reminder to the business on the bottom-line impact of onboarding. That said, L&D plays a vital role in influencing the senior leadership to adopt the right mindset when it comes to onboarding and seek time and resources from the business to ensure the best new hire experience.

Moreover, as L&D we should be clear about our role in the onboarding experience. Rather than being seen as OWNERS of it, we can only ENABLE it. A useful “mantra” that encompasses the above is – Onboarding is everyones’ job!

Performance consultant and global learning & talent leader with 13+ years of experience in various industries and geographies. Passionate about ensuring the organization and its people have the right capabilities to deliver the business strategy. Future of Work advocate.

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