Three Best Practices to Make Employee Onboarding Work

Three Best Practices to Make Employee Onboarding Work

After our recent deep-dive on the stumbling blocks associated with onboarding employees, we are ready to move on to finding solutions. So as we take on this herculean task, I’m turning to some learning experts. Edward Boon is a performance consultant who designs learning journeys, and Robert Brinkerhoff is a senior adviser who focuses on impact and evaluations. Together they are working to set the stage for a new and better way to onboard employees.

For organizations that get it right, onboarding can be a powerful driver of key success metrics. Take, for example, the Swedish grocery store chain Willy’s that invested in a strategic onboarding journey for their summer workers, and were rewarded with a 30,000 Euro saving on the costs associated with absenteeism, retention, and attendance. In addition, having been through the onboarding program, 99% of Willy’s new employees said that they would recommend Willy’s as an employer — great news for branding in today’s war for talent.

What are the key ingredients to an onboarding journey that delivers employees who are not only competent in their new roles, but are also committed to the organization and customers they serve? Here are three best practices we have learned through 10 years of designing and evaluating onboarding programs as a High Performance Learning Journey:

Structure, Culture, Strategy

Successful onboarding programs go far beyond the purely structural elements — getting your keycard, setting up your email account, reading HR policies, being shown how to navigate Sharepoint, Teams, etc. Onboarding programs that create a sense of purpose and belonging also include cultural and organization strategy and industry literacy components. This might be accomplished through a workshop introducing the new employee to the company’s core values, followed by an observation assignment to find examples of the core values being lived in practice. The same is true for the strategy components; new employees need to know not just how to do their jobs, but how their job fits into the bigger picture and why it matters. For example, part of the onboarding program might include meeting the teams that are your internal customers in the value chain, to help them understand who is the recipient and beneficiary of the work they carry out, and how, overall, their organization produces value for customers and competitive advantage.

Involve Others

One of the ways in which many onboarding programs fall down is that they leave new employees feeling alone in their new role. The remedy to this pitfall is to purposefully embed social contact in the onboarding journey. The most obvious and critical point of contact will be the new employee’s supervisor. This is the individual that the new employee will initially be most reliant on for support — both practical and emotional. However, if there is one lesson we have learned over the years it is this: DO NOT for one minute imagine that the average supervisor is a master of effective onboarding or even cognizant of the vital role they play. Supervisors themselves likely also need training, guidelines, job aids and other support to perform their onboarding role proficiently. Successful onboarding programs also help new employees build their internal network through structured onboarding interactions with peers, mentors, role models, and so forth. This is important both to help employees become more independent in seeking the information they need to perform their work, and to create a sense of belonging and pride.

Onboarding is a Two-Way Street

The third best practice is to appreciate the experience, knowledge and fresh perspectives a new employee brings to the table. This might not be the first assignment in the onboarding journey, but at some point we recommend providing new employees with the opportunity to share their own experience and how it might be used beneficially in their new “home.” At worst, the new employee will feel involved, heard and appreciated — all still hugely positive. In the more likely best-case scenario, the organization will gain valuable new insights in how they are perceived, learn about inefficiencies that they have become “blind” to, and uncover new and better ways of doings things practiced by competitor organizations.

On a final note, notice that we have consistently referred to the onboarding journey throughout this article. Onboarding should not be a one-time “event” that happens before people start their “real” work. Certainly, there need to be some up-front interventions to get across the basic elements, such as workplace policies and workspace orientation and tool access. But the bulk of the onboarding process should be a series of action assignments and experiences in all three of the key aspects we have described, embedded into the early phases of new employees’ work. Yes, you want to get the new employees out and delivering value as quickly as possible. But ‘time to proficiency’ should not be the only target. When we start to factor in success indicators — employee retention, commitment to the workplace culture, retention, (recruiting is not cheap), and the degree to which an employee would speak well of the organization — it becomes clear that stretching the onboarding journey as part and parcel of the front end of the work experience can reap large organizational dividends later on.

For further information, see High Performance Learning Journeys (Brinkerhoff, Apking & Boon, 2019) and visit Promoteint.com


Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.


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