A Comprehensive Guide to Employee Onboarding (including checklist templates!)

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Employee onboarding is like the workplace honeymoon period. It’s the time when you, as an organization, start your loving, lasting relationship with your beloved spouse, your new employee.

As such, the onboarding period is where the foundation of the employer-employee relationship is being laid.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at employee onboarding. We’ll tell you all the tricks you need to know. We will also share our AIHR onboarding guide. This will provide you with all the secret ingredients to build an awesome onboarding process so you can lay the foundations for a happy, lasting relationship with your new hires.

Introduction
What is employee onboarding?
5 Stages of employee onboarding
Pre-boarding
Creating a great first day
The first week
The first 90 days
At the end of the first year
5 Employee onboarding best practices
Corporate onboarding and technology
On a final note
FAQ

Introduction

Failing to have a well-structured onboarding process has severe (financial) consequences. Some interesting – if not worrying – stats:

  • 90% of hires decide to stay or leave in the first 6 months.
  • New hires who’ve had a great onboarding are 69% more likely to stay with the company for three years.
  • Organizations with a great employee onboarding program experience up to 54% greater new hire productivity.

Onboarding also accelerates the average time it takes for new employees to reach their optimum productivity level (OPL).

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If we look at the figure below, for example, we see that in accountancy, the average cost of bringing an employee up to their OPL is 32 600 GBP – this is five times more than the ‘logistical’ costs of replacing an employee in this industry.

Cost of a termination in case of bad onboarding

Onboarding is also about cutting down the time it takes for new hires to reach their OPL.

In a time where companies are at war trying to recruit the best possible talent out there (using a great variety of recruitment tools to do so), a great onboarding process is a must-have, not a nice-to-have.

Because let’s face it, you don’t want to go through a lot of trouble getting those new hires on board (pun intended), only to lose them again a couple of months later just because your employee onboarding wasn’t on point – or worse, non-existent.

What is employee onboarding? A process perspective

Employee onboarding is the process during which new hires get familiar with the organization, the people, and the culture of the company they’ve just joined.

The purpose of an onboarding period is two-fold: on the one hand, and this is the traditional goal of employee onboarding, it’s meant to get new hires operational as quickly as possible. On the other hand, and this is a more recent role of onboarding, it’s used to shape the critical first impressions new employees have of the company.

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Successful onboarding has a number of clear outcomes. After a successful onboarding, the employee…

  • …has met their colleagues
  • …has a relationship with their direct manager
  • …will feel at home in the organization
  • …has made a couple of meaningful connections
  • …will understand their role and work
  • …clearly understands their appraisal criteria
  • …has access to all the resources to do their work well

The simplest way to check if someone is onboarded well is to ask if they know their role, what success in their role looks like, and if they feel at home in the organization. If this is not the case, onboarding has failed.

A bad onboarding experience is one of the worst things you can give an employee. Everybody wants to do a good job, especially when they are just hired into a new organization. If employees don’t understand what doing a good job will look like, they will be unlikely to remain at the organization for long. A bad onboarding is, together with bad candidate selection, the main reason why employees will leave early.

5 Stages of employee onboarding

The onboarding period starts as soon as a candidate signs the offer letter. It ends when the employee is able to autonomously do the job they were hired to do.

The period between the moment a candidate signs the offer and their first day in the office is also known as the pre-boarding period. While pre-boarding is sometimes considered as a separate process, we’ll look at it as a part of the wider employee onboarding in this article.

There are various opinions as to the different stages of employee onboarding. We roughly distinguish 5 of them:

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  1. Before the first day (pre-boarding)
  2. On the first day (orientation)
  3. The first week
  4. The first 90 days
  5. At the end of the first year

For each stage, we will provide you with a checklist that we use at AIHR which you can simply copy and apply to your own organization!

1. Pre-boarding

Your candidate just signed the offer you extended. Fantastic! Now you want to make sure they actually make it to their first day in the office. This is when the pre-boarding stage kicks in.

First phase of onboarding - pre-boarding checklist

Preparations

  1. Send practical info email & welcome video. In this email, we brief candidates on their first day and answer questions like “what time should I start”, “where am I expected”, “should I bring lunch to the office” and “who can I call if I have questions”. Of course, the exact content of the email may differ. You may want to forward information about how to sign in to the company’s network. This prevents scenarios where the new candidate needs to go to IT on their first day to get their account activated.
    We also embed a video of the two founders of the company welcoming them to the company. This makes the employee experience a lot more personal.
  2. Invite to social events. We forward an invitation to the first social event with the team. This is key in connecting with colleagues so we ask hires to confirm that date as soon as we have it.
  3. Draft 90-day plan. The 90-day plan is the basis for our onboarding process. The 90-day plan is a document we give employees containing their responsibilities and our expectations in terms of performance. This includes ongoing responsibilities that are part of their role and new projects that they will lead themselves. The brilliant thing is that this 90-day plan not only gives clarity to the new employee about what’s expected of them, it also forces the direct manager to very clearly specify what they expect from the employee. We have found this very helpful and implementing this has improved our onboarding process tremendously. We will cover the 90-day plan later in this article in more detail.
  4. Inform team about colleague, role, and responsibilities. Onboarding goes both ways. A day before the new colleague is joining, the team is briefed on the colleague, their role and their responsibilities. This creates role clarity and makes it clear what projects the new colleague will be involved in. It also makes the new hire feel welcomed as everyone is up-to-date with their role.
  5. Draft onboarding agenda for first day + first week. As you will see later, the first day is quite busy. On the first day, the employee meets the team, gets a company presentation by the management team, and is coached by their direct manager. This requires active participation of multiple people in the company so planning this beforehand is key to create a smooth first day. It also creates a clear agenda for the new employee.
  6. Set up email address + system access. This differs per company. If there is an independent IT department, this may be a separate workflow. However, it is key to have this arranged and tested well before the employee is joining. Again, nothing provides a worse experience than having to go to IT yourself on the first day…
  7. AIHR cribs video. During the Corona quarantine, we started making cribs videos of our places. This was a great way to keep people engaged. New hires love taking a look at these to get to know their colleagues better and we ask them to shoot their own crib video before they join. These are shared in our company channel. This way everyone has seen their face and already knows something about them and it is a great topic to connect with immediately on the first day.

Work environment and equipment

  1. Assign (and clean) desk area. When people work in the office, we give them a fixed spot, at least in their first few days or weeks. Having a dedicated place close to their team and manager is key in involving them from the first day. A very practical thing is also to have their work station cleaned. This is a very small effort but having an empty space that is only for you just improves the first experience.
  2. Hardware. We always have the hardware ready before the new hire joins. In our case that’s a laptop, mouse, keyboard, and more. Tip: let the laptop install itself the day before the new candidate joins, this way they don’t have to wait for a few hours for the system to install and updates to finish.
  3. User agreement for equipment. We have the laptop ready together with the user agreement. This is a required legal document so we get this out of the way on the first day as well.
  4. Office access card. With this card, the employee can come in the next day however early they would like. By the way, the first day, make sure that you are ready to beam the candidate in. If the reception desk is expecting them and welcomes them to the company, that’s a much better experience than them having to wait 10 minutes because their name is not in the system yet…
  5. Business travel card. This depends on the employee but in case they come by car, make sure they can access the office parking on their first day and know the availability of the car parks. Nothing worse than having to drive around for half an hour trying to find a spot in an already full car park.
  6. Welcome kit. This will differ per company but we have an AIHR notebook, a Dopper water bottle aimed to reduce plastic waste, and an extra surprise that we won’t give away in case our candidates read this article…

That’s it for the first stage of the employee onboarding process. Once this is all taken care of, we are good to start on the first day! However, for the first day it’s the manager’s task to wake up early because there is more to do.

2. Creating a great first day

The first day is arguably more about the experience than about the information. Yes, you will tell the candidate a lot but they will probably forget 85% of what you said. However, they will remember the feeling of that first day for the rest of their career. That’s what this day should be about. Below, you can find the first-day onboarding template.

Onboarding Checklist - the first day

Welcome

  1. Get cake, donuts, or champagne. To make the day as festive as possible, we start it off with a cake, donuts, or a few bottles of champagne! These are shared with everyone in the office, usually in the afternoon. This provides a great opportunity to meet the entire company, get introduced to the company culture and officially welcome them to the full team.
  2. Discuss agenda for the day. This is at the start of the day. Here the manager and employee go over the agenda for the day. This provides the employee structure.
  3. Office tour. This also happens in the first hour. We give the office tour – show the kitchen, how the coffee machine works (arguably the most important part of the tour), where the bathrooms are, show offices, printer, and how to close the office when they are the last ones to leave.
  4. Introduce to colleagues + team. Here we introduce them to everyone in the company, usually during the office tour. Meeting their team is even more important. We usually plan a one-on-one with everyone in the team in the first week, as you will see later.
  5. 90-day plan. Later in the day, the hire is introduced to their 90-day plan. They receive it and get an extensive explanation of all the different elements. This is a key element in employee onboarding and will elaborate on this later.
  6. Company presentation. This is a presentation by the company founders, mostly focused on how the company works in terms of teams and roles, and its culture. Here the candidate also gets an overview of the company’s goal, mission and vision, which is shared with everyone.
  7. Weekly + monthly structure. Here the manager introduces the candidate to the weekly and monthly structure. This includes our monthly drinks, monthly business update, weekly lunch surprise, and our weekly and daily standup meetings, among other activities.
  8. Invite to team calendar events + holiday calendar. The candidate is added to the calendar for these activities and gets access to the holiday calendar.
  9. Provide access to Employee Resources folder (handbook, expenses form, etc.). These are more boring activities but no less relevant.

Practicalities

  1. WiFi password. No explanation necessary. If you have a centralized IT system, this should be covered there on the first day.
  2. Legalities. These include wage tax deduction forms, a scan of the passport and work permit. These activities will differ based on your local regulation but are nonetheless important to take care of early on.
  3. Submit info for payroll. This can easily be done online. How this works will of course depend on your company’s systems.
  4. Take a profile picture. This will be used in our office software and on our website.

Training

  1. Communication and collaboration software. We train new hires on the software that is used. This can be MS Teams, Yammer, Slack, or any other software that is used by your organization.
  2. Email. This includes basic training in email, including setting your signature and out of office reply policies.
  3. Any other software that is used in the role.

That wraps up the first day. These activities take 4-6 hours. The remainder of the day the employee can get familiar with the systems or work on their first project. Usually, people are quite overwhelmed with all the impressions so don’t expect too much from them for the remainder of the day – just give them some time to catch their breath and send them home early. It’s a special day so they should celebrate.

3. The first week

In the first week, there are a number of things left to do. These are shown in the template below.

Onboarding - the first week

Team

  1. Pick a restaurant. Every Friday we order take out for the whole company and the new hire can pick the restaurant. Picking the right restaurant is arguably their hardest task in their first week. There are always a few eager foodie colleagues (very) happy to assist.
  2. Individual sit-downs with direct colleagues. This usually takes place on the first day already but in case some colleagues were not around, sit-downs with other team members are planned and happen in the first week.
  3. One-on-one with hiring manager. During the first week, the hiring manager will sit down with the new hire every single day. However, this meeting is to recap the first week, evaluate what went well and what could have been improved, and seeing if there is anything that still needs to happen.

To Do’s

  1. Plan AIHR pitch. Every new employee will have to pitch what AIHR is to the rest of the organization. This helps them to come up with a good and short pitch about what AIHR is and what we do.
  2. Add to company page. We add the employee to the ‘about us’ team page.
  3. Introduce on LinkedIn. We always share our newest colleagues on LinkedIn. This helps to build a closer connection with our customers. Usually this results in immediate interaction of customers with the new hires, which is something we love.
  4. Plan 90-day plan check-in meetings. Every month we evaluate the progress on the 90-day plan. These meetings are planned in the first week to structure this process.

4. The first 90 days

Here we need to talk about the 90-day checklist, which is the staple of this whole onboarding process. Many of the factors so far have been focused on creating a great onboarding experience. This is very important. However, having a good overview of one’s responsibilities at work is just as important.

As explained earlier, we do this through a 90-day plan. This onboarding plan contains the key responsibilities and projects that the person will be working on.

Onboarding 90 day plan part 1
Onboarding 90 day plan part 2

This 90-day plan is based on someone we hired recently. This 90-day plan includes the key challenges that this person will be working on, including platform management and team management. We have tried to make these as SMART as possible: part of the role is ensuring an NPS score of 60+ for each of our certificate programs.

On top of their usual responsibilities (which is 15 hours per week), there are key projects (set at 25 hours per week). These are one-off projects that the person will spend time on and wrap-up before their 90 days are over.

As you may notice, the 90-day plan is highly structured. We do this on purpose as we’ve learned that it is almost impossible to give too much structure early on. After these 90 days, the employee is expected to be up and running and we will slowly remove the structure depending on the employee’s development. This will differ per employee, based on how quickly they integrate, the degree to which they can work independently, and their seniority/competence level.

This is represented in the situational leadership model, developed by Hersey and Blanchard. This model shows the desired supportive and directive behavior, depending on the development of the individual. When people are just joining your company, they can be world-class experts but they are new in your context. This means that with few exceptions, they need to be guided into how their behaviors can best contribute to the organizational strategy and which behaviors are the most urgent and likely to make the biggest impact. That’s why the 90-day plan is so crucial.

Situational leadership model for onboarding

5. At the end of the first year

Although not everyone may think an employee onboarding has to last for a year, it’s a good moment to officially wrap up your onboarding. Have a final ‘onboarding’ sit down with your employee – in combination with their first annual performance review if you like – in which you cover:

  • the practical side of things, as mentioned above (although this should not be an issue anymore at this point in time!)
  • the job-related side of things; how are your new employees performing? 
  • their future at the company; you can start talking about your company’s L&D program, ask them about their preferences & ambitions in this regard, etc.
  • ask them again what they thought of their onboarding and ask them what they thought was missing/if they have any suggestions to make your employee onboarding even better

5 Employee onboarding best practices

Let’s finish this guide on employee onboarding with a few practical tips that you can implement in your organization today.

  1. Integrated HR practices. In an ideal world, the 90-day plan is built on the job description and job posting. The 90-day plan should include the reason why the job was created in the first place, and should accurately reflect the job description and job posting. If this is not the case, the candidate has essentially applied to a different job. In other words, when they come to work and they see that the actual job is different from the job they applied for, the result is an unhappy hire and a much bigger likelihood of the employee leaving in their first year. This is why it is so important to integrate these HR practices, do a great vacancy intake, and align your job description with your job posting and 90-day plan.
  2. Use checklists. We have provided you with our onboarding checklist templates. Our advice is to copy them and use them yourself. Checklists are great as a manager can physically print them, have them laying on their desk so they see it every day, and check the boxes as they onboard the new hires. It provides structure and it ensures that necessary steps are done.
  3. Consistent onboarding. Your checklist is only as good as your consistency. If managers have a checklist but don’t use it, your onboarding practices will immediately deteriorate. Implement these checklists and ensure that they are used consistently. You are only as good as your last performance so focus on this and implement it consistently.
  4. Evaluate. This onboarding checklist works for us but it is not finalized. Over time we get feedback, improve our process, tweak details, and optimize our onboarding. In the end, your onboarding process needs to become your own. Your organization has its own culture, stories, and habits so tailor the onboarding experience to those as they convey your culture to your new hires.
  5. Create effective workflows. The process we’ve given you is an analog, mostly pen-and-paper solution. Your organization probably already has an onboarding workflow. Implement the ideas you got from this article in those existing workflows. Each organization has different systems and the process that a company with tens of employees uses is different from the process that a company with thousands or ten thousands of employees uses. However, do make the process personal. One of the reasons why everyone who has joined our company tells us that we gave them the best onboarding ever is that we make it highly personal and give each of them as much attention as we can from the start. Ensure that whatever workflows you are using in your organization, you leverage onboarding as a way to build a personal and strong connection between the direct manager and the employee.

That wraps up this article about the employee onboarding process, in which we’ve explained the process, given you the steps in the onboarding process, and provided a series of checklists you can use in your organization to effectively onboard new employees. Best of luck and if you have any questions, post them below. We will answer your questions as quickly as we can!

Corporate onboarding and technology

A word on corporate onboarding and technology is in order. So far, the onboarding process we’ve discussed is mostly suitable for startups and SME’s. In larger organizations, with a lot more new hires (and turnover), a more automated and digital process becomes necessary. While managers should, of course, still be involved in welcoming new employees on board, it’s the HR department that takes care of the onboarding process as a whole.

Naturally, once you reach a certain number of new hires, an analog process becomes unworkable. To ensure a consistent onboarding experience, and to make sure all the checklist boxes remain ticked, you can use onboarding software. Not only does this kind of technology automate (parts of) the process, it also creates engagement with new hires right from the start (i.e. the pre-boarding phase) by focusing on:

  • Getting the paperwork out of the way
  • Sending (practical) information about the company
  • Making an introduction between new hires and their future colleagues

We’ve listed several employee onboarding solutions in our article about AI-driven tools to optimize your talent acquisition process.

On a final note

Employee onboarding is like the workplace honeymoon period. It’s when you lay the foundation for a strong, lasting employer-employee relationship. Failing to have a well-structured onboarding process has severe (financial) consequences.

When it comes to building a great onboarding program, there are several elements to keep in mind. There is the practical side of the process, of course, such as making sure the relevant paperwork is in order and that your new employees have all the necessary equipment – hardware & software – ready to go on their first day in the office.

But it’s just as important to take care of the other side of onboarding. The one that is about engaging with your new hires from the moment they sign, being clear about expectations, making them familiar with your company culture & values, and helping them in getting to know their future colleagues.

Depending on the budget you have available, you can automate and streamline (big parts of) your employee onboarding. Doing so not only saves you a lot of time but will also be a big help in making sure your new hires are off to a great start in your organization. And improve your chances of a happily ever after together.

FAQ

What is onboarding?

Employee onboarding is the process during which new hires get familiar with the organization, the people, and the culture of the company they’ve just joined.

Why is onboarding important?

Onboarding is important because on the one hand it helps with getting new hires operational as quickly as possible, and on the other hand, it shapes the critical first impressions new employees have of the company.

What is the best employee onboarding process?

Each organization is different, but a good onboarding process is well-structured, constantly evolving, and, perhaps most importantly, highly personal.

How long should onboarding last?

How long an onboarding period lasts depends but a good time to officially wrap up your onboarding is after a year.

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