6 Useful Onboarding Best Practices Every Employer Should Know

Written by
George Dickson
George Dickson

How confident are you in your organization's onboarding process?

There are many factors that play into the success or failure of onboarding, and most of them boil down to strategy.

Whether or not it's deliberately designed or executed, every organization has an onboarding strategy. Since the strategy you adopt can have a significant impact on employee engagement and retention, it's useful to have a few best practices in mind when developing it.

1. Thoughtful hiring


Thoughtful hiring is the first step in building a stellar onboarding experience.

It's important to understand that onboarding doesn't start the first day a new employee walks into the office. Some of the most impactful elements of onboarding take place long before a new employee's first day.

Why is that?

There are a lot of things to consider before bringing someone onto a team — from their unique skill set, to their expected fit within the organizational culture. 

If you have a team of people working under the same set of foundational values, and a new hire's values are radically different, onboarding presents a major challenge from the start.

Deliberately filling gaps within your organizational culture with a diversity-focused hiring strategy can be an incredibly rewarding, but hiring someone for a specific skill set despite a major cultural incongruity can present more problems than it solves.

Let's say you need a new backend engineer right now.

If your organization depends on a cohesive team environment and your only available candidate exhibits signs that they won't work well with others, it's less likely that hiring this person is going to lead to a smooth onboarding, or end in a long-term mutually beneficial relationship.

High-growth companies and startups face this scenario often, but the same lessons learned in the startup crucible can be applied to any business.

In an interview on Kellog School of Management at Northwestern University's monthly podcast, Insight in Person, TechStars' Managing Director Troy Henikoff detailed some of the more challenging aspects of hiring and onbaording faced by quickly growing businesses and startups.

In many cases, the hiring process begins much too late — at a point where time is already running out, and a hire needs to be made under a tight deadline.

It's worth considering and developing a solid hiring strategy earlier on in the timeline, before thoughtful strategy takes a backseat to an exigent need to fill a seat. It may not seem like the most crucial task to tackle at the moment, but the rewards can be manifold.

2. Candidate experience


Candidate experience can make or break your current and future onboarding efforts.

It's a perfect opportunity to showcase the strength of your employee value proposition (EVP), and make good on it in person. It's a chance to give candidates a taste of what it's really like to work in your organization.

That's not the end of the story, though.

Your candidate experience is also an opportunity for that value proposition to fall flat on its face. With a poor candidate experience, there's less chance you'll be able to sign the most talented and sought-after employees — they simply won't make it past the initial stage.

In both scenarios, it's your candidates' prerogative to share their experience with friends, family, colleagues, and the world at large.

Infusing all stages of the onboarding process (especially early stages) with a policy of diversity and inclusion can go a long way toward making new hires feel comfortable and secure in their prospective daily work environment.

3. Pre-boarding


A little extra effort during the pre-boarding phase can make a significant impact months or even years down the road. As Maia Josebachvili explains in The Future of Work: Talent and Culture in the 21st Century, onboarding starts the moment the offer letter is accepted.

There's often a period of days or weeks between offer acceptance and a new employee's first day onsite.

Don't let that time go to waste.

Pre-boarding is a perfect opportunity to introduce employees into the organization's members, its processes, and culture. It's also a great chance to put a few basic things into place to make the first few days as seamless as possible.

Introduce new hires on your preferred communication channels. Give them a chance to gain an understanding of the cadence, style, and standards of communication across the organization. They'll feel less like strangers on their first day.

Handle basic logistics (network logins, hardware provisions, building access, etc.) in advance when possible. The first few days on the job will be much more efficient and effective if they're not spent setting up logins and accounts. 

4. Work environment design


The environment you provide speaks volumes to a new hire, and often has a major impact on onboarding success. 

Psychological safety is key.

The onboarding period is a formative one. Cultivating an environment of psychological safety where a new employee feels safe to ask questions and share their ideas without fear of rebuke can make that experience more constructive and empowering.

The benefits of this type of environment can continue to pay dividends throughout an employee's tenure, far beyond their onboarding experience.

In Charles Duhigg's seminal New York Times article, "What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team," psychological safety is described as a major factor in team performance and success.

Eliminate a new hire's cognitive load wherever you can.

These early days are prime opportunities for new hires to ask questions that really matter, and they'll be more likely to focus on those questions if they're not trying to answer the basics like "where's the bathroom?"

The less basic housekeeping questions running around in a new employee's mind, the more cognitive resources they can assign to becoming a contributing member of the organization.

5. Introductions


Introducing new employees to their close colleagues and to the organization's leaders as soon as possible can expedite the initial relationship building stage, and help show that the team is invested in their success.

Introuce your new teammates to the types of jobs they're going to be working on, too. The earlier the better.

It's often useful to select a few projects that are representative of the work they'll be doing later on, but within a smaller scope, and an easier scale. 

These sorts of problem solving activities can help develop confidence, and a clearer understanding of their position on the team.

Assigning a sponsor can be useful.

It's much easier to get up to speed with the assistance of a trusted colleague. While it's crucial to maintain an environment of psychological safety where new employees feel comfortable asking all sorts of questions, there are often questions a sponsor can answer that may never have come up otherwise. 

In the same Insight in Person interview, U.S. Army Colonel Brian Halloran explains the importance of assigning a sponsor, describing them as:

That person hopefully becomes your first trusted confidante...maybe somebody who is close enough to their own onboarding session to remember what went well, what didn’t go well, and what they would have liked to have seen a little more of...

Having that trusted confidante and advisor can make a positive impact on those first formative experiences.

6. Clear expectations and guidance


It's surprisingly common for a new employee to be brought on in the hopes that they'll cover a footprint that exceeds the one they filled on day one.

Make sure that you're setting and maintaining realistic expectations for candidates during this crucial stage in the onboarding process, and making those expectations clear. If your stated job description includes graphics and user interface design, don't surprise them with a copywriting project.

Maintain clear and realistic expectations.

Although most formal onboarding programs are designed to have a clearly defined start and end date, the onboarding process doesn't always follow a perfectly linear path. Give new hires room to grow and expand their skills, but don't expect more out of them than they signed up for.

In conclusion

Your onboarding process can have a dramatic impact on many aspects of your organization. By following a few best practices, you can help ensure that impact is overwhelmingly positive.

If you're ready to take the next step in building better workdays, check out our latest guide:

Read the Guide to Modern Employee Recognition

Originally published on July 27, 2016 → Last updated April 21, 2020

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George Dickson

George is dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures with thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition. George formerly managed content and community at Bonusly.


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