Employee onboarding is broken. Here’s how to fix It.

Every company wants the best possible talent.

They build elaborate and expensive recruitment strategies. They invest in lavish perks and benefits to attract and then keep people around.

But many companies seem to overlook linchpin that can bridge the promises of recruitment to the likelihood of high employee engagement and retention—employee onboarding.

A quick review of common onboarding schedules and checklists reveals how most onboarding plays out:

Over the course of a few days, employees fill out paperwork, take a crash course on the company and its culture, and walk through internal IT, HR, and other processes and procedures.

Typical employee onboarding schedule

Then it’s into the trenches. After those first few days, onboarding is considered “done.”

There’s no focus on meaningfully integrating new employees into their roles and teams. It’s a short-sighted approach and a huge missed opportunity.

Plus, employees never remember all the information that got thrown at them during those first few days. So when they inevitably need help or have a question, do they know who to ask? Do they know where to go to get the information or support they need?

They’ll probably just ask someone on their team or the person who guided them through onboarding. If that’s you, they feel bad for interrupting you with something that might not belong on your plate.

This typical experience isn’t good for anyone. Employees don’t feel empowered and integrated. Support team productivity suffers due to avoidable interruptions. And companies forego better employee engagement and retention.

It’s no one’s fault in particular. This process has evolved out of corporate work environments over the last century or so. It’s just how you do onboarding.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Starting a new job can be one of the most exciting times in someone’s life. Companies should structure employee onboarding to capitalize on that excitement.

Employee onboarding can evolve beyond an administrative checklist to a strategic advantage that helps companies attract, engage, and retain the best talent.

That starts by understanding the critical role onboarding plays in the employee lifecycle.

Employee onboarding can help keep employees around… or drive them away

Hiring a new employee and getting them into the office for the first day is no guarantee that they’ll stick around. First impressions matter—a lot.

A survey conducted by BambooHR found that nearly one-third of respondents had left a job within 6 months of starting. Even more shocking, about half that many said they had left a job before the end of their third month.

Employees that leave shortly after being hired often cite a poor onboarding experience as a contributor to their quitting.

Whether an employee goes on to work at the company for 10 weeks or 10 years hinges largely on the process of bringing them into the team.

New hires are still forming their opinion about your company (and whether they want to stay there) for up to 6 months after being hired.

And that’s not terribly surprising given that most employees don’t feel comfortable for 2-3 months after starting.

Probably because during their first few days, weeks, or even months on the job, employees are trying to learn and navigate a huge amount of information:

Your onboarding checklist may be long, but the process from the perspective of a new employee is even more complex.

Companies need to take these timelines and complexities into consideration when designing onboarding programs.  

Let’s talk about how to do that.

Reimagining the approach to employee onboarding

In its ideal form, onboarding goes well beyond providing employees with the knowledge and procedures they need to operate within the company.

To reimagine employee onboarding with an eye towards long-term employee engagement and retention, consider these three key shifts in approach:

  1. Take the long-term view – As we’ve already indicated, the first step is getting out of the mindset that onboarding only takes a few days. The employee experience is complex, and truly integrating a new employee into your company is an ongoing exercise.
  2. Put connection before compliance – Off-the-shelf solutions can make the necessary administrative tasks associated with onboarding a lot less painful for both employees and administrators. Once administrative paperwork and procedural overviews no longer dominate the onboarding process, there’s more time to focus on exercises that deepen employee engagement right away.
  3. Personalize – Rather than take a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to introducing an employee to the company, use this important time to concretely connect the employee’s specific strengths to how they’ll contribute to the company’s success.

By restructuring onboarding in these ways, you change the message you send to new hires.

You signal that the company wants to set employees up to succeed. To realize their potential at work, and to feel meaningfully connected to their teams. To feel empowered to make an impact. To focus on the things that move the company forward instead of on the little logistical stuff.

In other words? You cultivate the environment for healthy employee satisfaction and retention.

Putting connection before compliance

In a study published by the Society for Human Resource Management, Talya N. Bauer, Ph.D outlines the four components of employee onboarding:

  1. Compliance – Traditional onboarding paperwork and administrative tasks
  2. Clarification – Discussion of role, expectations, and goals
  3. Culture – Assimilation into the company’s way of thinking and doing
  4. Connection – Social integration within the team

Based on these four components, Bauer categorizes a company’s employee onboarding into one of three levels:

Most companies have a “passive” onboarding strategy. They focus on getting the necessary paperwork and administrative tasks out of the way, providing some basic context, and then sending new employees into the field.

But the companies with the most successful onboarding practices–“proactive” companies–focus heavily on role clarification, cultural fit, and social connection. Bauer found that only about 20% of companies have an ideal, proactive onboarding strategy.

IBM represents a shining example of proactive onboarding practices. The firm has a three-part process that lasts for the employee’s entire first year.

  1. Affirming (prior to starting) – Employees are welcomed to the company, provided necessary materials, and assigned a peer coach
  2. Beginning (first two weeks) – Employees are introduced to the team, provided any necessary resources, and enter into discussions that clarify their roles
  3. Connecting (first year) – Coaches connect with new employees on a regular basis, help them form social connections, clarify their role, and reinforce company culture

IBM’s approach flips typical onboarding on its head and represents the onboarding ideal for other companies that want to place more emphasis on employee engagement and retention: connection takes precedence over compliance.

So how do proactive companies manage the necessary-but-tedious “compliance” work in a way that makes more room for culture and connection in the first, important few days of a new hire’s employment?

They rely on the right technology.

Technology that takes the ‘bored’ out of onboarding

Using technology to remove or reduce administrative and knowledge-sharing overhead creates a lot more bandwidth during early onboarding to focus on meaningful culture and connection activities.

Handle onboarding administration without the paperwork

Solutions like BambooHR’s platform allow companies to streamline the administrative parts of employee onboarding.

BambooHR's platform

Employees can complete paperwork and sign documents before they even get to the office, freeing up time for other activities on the first day.

Solve the knowledge management paradox

Internal support teams like IT, HR, and Operations want to get people up to speed as quickly as possible during onboarding.

Ironically, when you overload an employee with information on their first day, it’s more likely that they’ll have questions later on. It’s a paradox in the way a lot of companies handle knowledge management.

Throughout IBM’s year-long onboarding process, new hires use a portal called “Your IBM” that introduces them to policies, processes, and procedures in a naturally-paced way.

But you don’t have to develop your own in-house tool to facilitate sharing of knowledge with employees.

Applications like Spoke make the transfer of knowledge a natural and convenient process. Instead of being overwhelmed, employees can learn what they need to know when they need to know it.

atSpoke gives employees a one-stop-shop for any information or help they need. It uses a friendly AI bot to answer common questions over Slack, email, SMS, and the web. When atSpoke doesn’t yet know the answer, it assigns a service ticket to the right team in the organization so a person can help.

atSpoke employee self-service in Slack

So if your new hire forgets the guest WiFi password or needs to update their insurance, they won’t need to rifle through their onboarding documents or have to interrupt you or another coworker.

Even long-time employees can get answers to their questions without feeling awkward about asking something they were supposed to remember from three years ago.

Measure and assess the onboarding process

As teams grow, it can be difficult to monitor and understand the progress of every individual employee. Even with improvements to the onboarding process, there’ll still be untapped opportunities to engage employees and build teams that work well together.

One tool, TinyPulse, lets employees give feedback on the onboarding process and their overall happiness at work. This helps everyone involved optimize toward a better experience.

TinyPulse survey results

Once you’ve used technology to de-emphasize administrative tasks, what exactly does it look like to make culture and connection the foremost themes of your onboarding program?

Let’s take a look.

The personalization of employee onboarding

In an empirical study of onboarding best practices published by the MIT Sloan Management Review, Daniel Cable and his colleagues found that improving the onboarding process made new employees 32% less likely to quit.

Their research focused on the framing and effects of onboarding.

Specifically, most onboarding processes tend to take an indoctrination approach of sorts. Here is how we do things and how you will now do them, too.

But the research from Cable, et al. points to a better, more effective approach:

Rather than focusing entirely on the company and what the employee must know, focus on the individual, their strengths, and how the company can best make use of their abilities.

In their study, they call this approach “Personal-Identity Socialization.”

Employee onboarding personalization

In practice, this process involves taking new hires through some problem-solving exercises. The company in the study, Wipro, asked new employees to provide feedback about themselves and their capabilities. Then they shared that information with the rest of the team.

This sets the stage for mutual understanding: What does this particular employee bring to the table and how can it help the organization reach its goals?

Referring back to Bauer’s four components of the onboarding process, leading the discussion with an assessment of the individual opens the door for activities that focus on Clarification, Culture, and Connection.

The employee doesn’t just learn how things are done. They communicate their strengths and work with their team to identify the best way to contribute and make an impact.

Set up new employees to do their best work

Starting a new job can be one of the most exciting times in a person’s life. Companies should design employee onboarding to capitalize on that excitement.

  1. Take a long-term view  It takes months for employees to feel settled in a new role and company, and onboarding approaches should reflect that.
  2. Put connection ahead of compliance – Technology solutions like BambooHR and Spoke can help reduce the necessary overhead of administrative paperwork and knowledge-sharing, allowing companies to emphasize culture and connection ahead of compliance.
  3. Personalize the onboarding experience – Make early onboarding about how a new employee’s distinctive strengths fit into the company, not about how the company expects everyone to fit in.

And, as with any new practice, measure your results and iterate. Tools like TinyPulse can help you do this in a scalable way.


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