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Onboarding best practices: from pre-boarding to the bottom line

Posted May 24, 2017 by

Without a strong onboarding program, retention and employee churn become significant, cost-averse problems at most companies. But research has shown only about 1 in 4 companies even have formal onboarding programs.

So what exactly is onboarding, and what are some onboarding best practices?

Onboarding Best Practices: The “pre-boarding” period

This is the period between offer letter acceptance and official first day.

From the time a new hire accepts a job, up until the first day on the job, top employers work diligently to make new hires feel wanted, welcome and part of the team. Onboarding doesn’t start the first day on the job; it starts as soon as the new hire accepts the job. That’s why these members of the team should be in touch with the new hire (assigning a point person is a best practice top employers follow). These are people within an organization who can assist with onboarding a new hire:

  • The hiring manager
  • Someone from human resources
  • A member of the team the employee is joining
  • A cultural ambassador from another department

Ideally the pre-boarding period sees a mix of those communicating to the new hire. Imagine starting on day one without having heard from the company for a month. Now imagine starting on day one where you already know three-four people in addition to your boss. The latter is far less nerve-wracking.

The other important aspect of the pre-boarding stage is technology. Most onboarding portals now have a pre-boarding tool, so new hires can access the portal even though they haven’t officially started. Many “first days” on a new job contain lots of paperwork, and if the paperwork can be slid to a pre-boarding portal, this allows the company to make the first day more special and less transactional. Forms such as tax information, NDAs, health care information, the code of conduct, and more can be put into the portal. They can still be discussed on day/week 1, of course, but it will still save time and reduce the crush of paperwork often associated with a new job.

Ah, the first day

There is a good deal to unpack about the onboarding best practices for the first day.

Start with this: a first day at a new job is the closest thing adulthood has to starting at a new school. It’s a time of great nervousness and excitement. Even if you came in on a referral and know lots of people (maybe former co-workers), the job and this culture will still be different and unexpected.

Onboarding is the true key to engaging and retaining talent, and the first day is a lynchpin of that. (Did you know 4% of employees quit on or after the first day?)

There are basic elements that should be set up for an employee’s first day:

  • All paperwork ready or in the pre-boarding portal
  • Desk set up
  • Network connectivity set up
  • Welcome package of some kind, ideally with a human touch (hand-written notes from co-workers)
  • Company-wide email sent by manager at some point during the day
  • Lunch scheduled with team/manager
  • Generally tight schedule of activities and meetings

Beyond the basic elements of a first day, there are some psychological aspects that come into play.

In the article Ideas for designing a meaningful onboarding process, we see that Wipro – an IT consulting firm – has managers ask new hires one simple question on their first day: “Who are you when you’re at your very best?” The manager and the new employee discuss the answer for much of a meeting. Through this process, Wipro has found much higher levels of engagement at the six-month mark than industry peers. While correlative, having such a deep discussion about personal productivity and work style on the first day is likely a factor in engagement/retention.

OC Tanner’s Great Work Study analyzed 10,000 projects (across different industries) where the manager/supervisor ultimately praised the team deeply. The study found that 88% of those projects also began with a simple question: in this case, it was “What difference could we make that the end customer would love?”

This has implications for first day onboarding too. A manager can ask a new employee, “Based on what you’ve seen today and what you know from the recruiting process, what difference do you think this company could make?” That might feel like putting a new employee too much on the spot, but it involves them more directly in forward-thinking discussions. That’s a stark contrast to filling out paperwork and popping in offices for 10 minutes all day.

Marathon, not a sprint

Michael Watkins, author of the best-selling The First 90 Days, has admitted in several interviews that the “hit the ground running” concept many managers claim to want is, in fact, a farce. Performance management consultant Dick Grote, in that same article, notes that “when you hit the ground running, you fall on your face.”

Point being: onboarding best practices means that onboarding is not just the first day or week. There need to be touchpoints throughout the first three months to continue to drive connection and engagement, including:

  • Frequent manager check-ins
  • Team lunches/bonding events
  • Abilities for the new hire to meet people from other departments
  • Cultural ambassador events (to learn about the bigger picture and mission)

Trello, the online task organizer, has a series of “Coffee Talks.” They’re aimed at hires within the first year, but veterans come too. Each talk is highlighted by someone from a different department presenting on an aspect of what they do, why they’re passionate about it, and how it ties to the business. And, voila:

“I try never to miss a Coffee Talk. While I attend mostly for the fun of learning, I’m often surprised by how much the topic will end up overlapping with what I do in my role. Even if there’s not a direct connection to my job, I often learn things that help me work with other teams and understand the context surrounding what they do,” said Caity Cogdell, a member of Trello’s support team.

Events like these are a great way to casually, socially, and professionally bring a new hire into the fold of the company across the first few months.

When it’s time for that review…

Different companies handle this differently, but after a body of project work has been completed, the new hire eventually needs to get a review. 90-day reviews are actually not that popular in most companies, but CEO Quint Studer argued in his book Hardwiring Excellence that they’re essential. In such a review, the manager should ask the now-not-as-new hire four questions:

  • Have we lived up to our promises to you?
  • What do you think we do best?
  • What have you seen in your other jobs that might work here?
  • Have we done anything in 90 days where you might consider leaving?

This is a much more respectful, two-way dialogue than simply the employee being assessed on three months of deliverables. Candor, Inc. co-founder and COO Russ Laraway calls these “career conversations,” which are much more powerful than a standard “performance review.” (That term likely has a negative connotation to most workers by now.)

The bottom line on onboarding best practices

You want to create an atmosphere for your new hire that’s logistically buttoned-up but also capable of becoming deep, transformative conversations about work quality from day one. Then, you want to remember that while day one is crucial, it’s not everything. Any new hire, even the very best, take time to get up to speed on what the company does, its processes, its revenue streams, and how their role fits. As that happens, check in and connect. Don’t hide behind email or management portals. Once the body of work accumulates, have a conversation — not necessarily a “review” — of how everything is going work-wise, connection-wise, what-they-thought-wise, etc. Manage each new hire as if you care greatly about their success and want it to be long-term with your company. From that place of managing the process, you’re well on your way to onboarding best practices. 


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