What we’re talking about 

Onboarding is the process through which a new hire becomes fully integrated into a business. The wheels should really start turning when a job offer is accepted, and they might not finish until an employee hits the three-month mark. The aim is to help employees assimilate into your company’s culture and team, while giving them all the critical info they need to perform their role. That, naturally, requires a considered and often bespoke plan of action – something that’s possible even for small businesses that don’t have fully fledged HR departments. 

Why it’s important 

As well as ensuring legal compliance, a good onboarding process can impact how effective people are at their jobs and how committed they are to the business. It’s obvious stuff: if employees are made to feel welcome and trained in what they need to do and why, they will stay in their roles for longer. 

They’ll also be contributing to the business’ goals and culture more quickly after joining. Research from hiring specialist CareerBuilder indicates that 42% of small businesses with structured onboarding processes see increased productivity as a direct result; 31% have seen lower turnover. Particularly for small businesses, staff need to be all in during key growth stages – you don’t want to be making avoidable errors during the hiring process.

Things to note 

Onboarding hinges on the four Cs. A useful breakdown of onboarding, as defined by Dr Talya N Bauer, a professor of management at Portland State University, is to split it into four levels: compliance, clarification, culture and connection. All the basic stuff – paperwork, code of conduct, law and policy education – falls into compliance. Clarification is going through the structure of the role in detail. Then it’s the people aspect. Culture is more abstract, requiring you to give your new employee a sense of the company’s values, routines and quirks. Connection refers to building fruitful and fun relationships with individuals. Your strategy should encompass each of these areas.

It needs to be tailored to suit your business. There will be sector-specific factors to bear in mind when designing your onboarding process. That might relate to paperwork, background reading, the length and complexity of training, and whether progress is assessed. As a starting point, there are industry-specific onboarding checklists – for retail, hospitality, facility management and transport – at the bottom of this page.

It will also change from role to role. Though you can work from the same outline each time, you should modify it depending on seniority, skill level, and so on. If you’re a founder, you’ll likely need to be involved in onboarding at an executive or managerial level – but if your team is big enough, your input won’t be necessary for less senior hires. 

Onboarding remotely is a different challenge. This will require a few adjustments – but knowing how to do it is more necessary than ever before. Starting a new role remotely can be a particularly disorientating experience, so don’t use distance as an excuse to step down your involvement. That means making use of the relevant digital tools at your disposal and being intentional about setting up socials and meet-and-greets. Be especially clear that they can contact you with questions, and be especially deliberate in recognizing progress.

How to onboard a new hire

1. Set goals for your onboarding process. With the relevant team members, discuss what you want to achieve through the onboarding process and the form you expect it to take. How long will it last? What are the messages about protocol and culture you want to deliver? How quickly does the employee need to be adding value? The goals you set for your first onboarding experience will form the context of the working template you use in the future – though you’ll briefly revisit it prior to each new hire. 

2. Plot out your 30-60-90 day plan. The amount of training needed will differ according to role and business, but split it into achievable chunks and map it onto a 30-60-90 day plan. The first month is likely to hinge on introductory work; the second on leveling up and applying training in practice; and the third on using initiative and finely tuned skills to identify and deliver on business goals. There’s a useful example template here, with some tips on making goals actionable. 

3. Identify who’ll be doing what. Decide who in your team will play an active role. That might naturally be their line manager, but also consider other employees the new employee should meet with quickly and ask them to be proactive in reaching out. One good option is to designate a buddy or mentor figure – someone on hand to chat through ideas, answer questions and help social integration. New York University has a decent guide here

4. Tick off the basics in advance of the start date. Before their first day, get moving with the boring but essential stuff. You want most of the admin done and their tech set-up complete so they can get started on day one. That includes getting contracts signed, getting them on the payroll and sending the employee any relevant reading material. Email accounts, laptops and key fobs should also be set up and distributed before they begin. Maintain regular contact with your new hire, so that they know where they’re going, when to get there, what to wear, and so on, ahead of the big day. 

5. Make the first day memorable. The first day isn’t about work: it should involve ironing out admin issues and giving the new starter as big a welcome as possible. First, give them a clear idea (ideally written) of what’s to come over the next few days, weeks and months. Then organize any introductory meetings with their line manager to discuss responsibilities, company tools and resources, and upcoming targets. You should also aim to introduce them to colleagues in a fun but structured setting – like a morning meeting, a group lunch or an activity towards the end of the day. 

6. Get down to business in the first week. Your new hire should continue to have one-on-ones with other staff members throughout the course of this week – but don’t neglect informal interactions, too, like team socials. Your new starter should be totally set up, so you can start easing them into action based on your plan. 

7. Make space for feedback. Opportunities to answer questions, hear feedback and monitor employee performance need to be built into the onboarding process. That might look like a check-in at 4.30pm on every day of the first week or a review meeting at the end of 30, 60 and 90 days. As well as reviewing whether the team member has met expectations and passed probation, you also need to think about – and elicit – what could have gone better from your side. 

8. Standardize the process. Based on how the process has gone and the feedback you get, create a working template on a doc that outlines your key stages. In the same folder, you can also save key new-starter documents – such as contracts and company information. This will save you time when it comes to welcoming the next hire and help you remember the boxes that absolutely need to be ticked. But don’t forget: you’ll be customizing your onboarding template according to each new employee. 

Key takeaways 

• A seamless, well-planned onboarding process is essential if you want a new employee to make an instant contribution – and stick around. 

• You need to create a plan that covers the four Cs (compliance, clarification, culture and connection) and map it out onto a suitable timeline.

• Build in ample opportunities for formal and informal feedback on both sides – then apply those learnings when someone next joins your team. 

Learn more 

Perspective. Rohan Pasari is co-founder of Cialfo, a small business making higher education accessible. For Forbes, he shares his three steps for improving employee onboarding

Example. This blog post from TalentLyft details eight standout examples of employee onboarding across small and large businesses. 

Tool. To make sure you haven’t missed anything, it’s good to have a checklist to refer to – like this one from Business News Daily

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