Onboarding (which includes orientation) is the process by which new employees are taught about, coached, and trained on the “world of a given organization”. It’s an ongoing process where position, employment and organizational information (including culture, vision, and values) is shared. While often guided and managed by HR and/or management, it, ideally, includes a team of people who are involved at varying points. A solid onboarding process not only provides employees with the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities to do their jobs – it also sets them up for success in the longer term and ensures that a higher level of productivity is reached sooner.

While orientation is usually considered a single, one-time event when an employee is welcomed to the organization, the full onboarding process is an ongoing series of events which starts at point of offer (but is prepared for well in advance!). Both are important for imparting knowledge and supporting employee success.

Unfortunately, however, many employers either fail to see the importance of a solid onboarding process, or simply don’t take the time to plan for/carry them out – which ultimately leads to a “sink or swim scenario”. Through our work with clients, we’ve heard countless employees describe this as their experience, even saying that sinking or swimming is a known (and celebrated!) part of the workplace. Sadly, the end result is that these employees neither feel valued, nor do they have what they need to truly make an impact more quickly.

Of course, the realities of COVID-19 have further impacted the ability of many employers to effectively orient and onboard employees, especially in the case of front-line roles that need to be filled immediately. While we know employers need to get their people working as quickly as possible, the consequences of not taking the time to prepare for and carry out an effective process can be significant. These include:

  • Accurate, sufficient, and/or critical knowledge and training isn’t imparted/carried out, which can lead to costly mistakes, safety issues, frustration/stress, etc.
  • Lack of engagement, feeling valued and confident; lower morale
  • Impact on safety of both employees and clients
  • Inequity due to inconsistent processes (e.g. some employees not having access to the same information or opportunities, simply due to never having been told about them)
  • Difficulty terminating once the probationary review is reached (in the case of federally regulated organizations or bargaining unit employees) – but more importantly, losing potentially strong employees simply because they weren’t given the necessary feedback in order to improve and become successful
  • Overall lack of commitment

While there are many different outcomes and ways that ineffective or absent onboarding processes impact employees and employers, ultimately, it leads to significantly higher turnover, which, among other things, can be extremely costly. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, it can cost an organization approximately 6 to 9 months of an employee’s salary to recruit, train and onboard the replacement – and even more so for specialized and/or senior staff. The Harvard Business Review puts turnover costs much higher at an estimate of 100% – 300% of the employee’s salary!

While those are the hard costs, equally (or perhaps more so) impactful is lack of commitment. While your organization may pride itself on hiring employees who can be self-directed and “run with the ball”, and they may do so for a time, if you haven’t shown that you’re committed to them, they have little reason to be committed to you. High performing employees want to contribute and align their values with employers who are prepared, have their act together, and are clearly invested in them as people, as well as in your/their collective success. They know – and you should too – that a solid onboarding process shows that you care.

When we work with our clients, we’re aware that we can often sound like a broken record. We talk a lot about culture and culturally aligned processes. We also talk a lot about the importance of training, coaching, sharing and ultimately aligning your people with both culture and processes. Consider these statistics:

  • Gallup poll showed that only 12% feel that their workplace did/does a great job of onboarding
  • The Harvard Business Review found that nearly 33% of new employees start looking elsewhere for employment within the first 6 months and 23% within the first year
  • Research by C. Tanner indicates that almost 90% of employees have decided within the first 6 months whether they’re going to stick around or not

On the flipside, according to Brandon Hall Group and plenty of other research, strong onboarding processes can improve retention of new hires by 82% and productivity by over 70%.

So what does an effective Onboarding & Orientation process look like?

  • While it may start with a checklist and have an administrative component to it, it’s much, much more than that
  • It addresses organizational background/history, culture/values, organizational structure, vision, mission, and why you’re ultimately here
  • It outlines your expectations for them and also what they can expect from you (which is one part about the practices outlined in your employee handbook, but should go well beyond saying “here, read this”)
  • It introduces team-members and gets them involved at varying points along the way (e.g. meetings with their manager and immediate team-members, but also ideally someone from each of the other teams in the organization, who will provide an overview of what that team/ department does and how they/you work together, etc.)
  • It clarifies the role, expected accomplishments, how the employee will be supported
  • It provides the employee multiple avenues to obtain information and ask questions
  • It includes various sources of information, beyond paperwork and merely reading
  • It doesn’t start and/or end on the first day or week
  • It involves job shadowing and a “teach-back” mechanism so you can be sure they’re truly getting and absorbing the most critical aspects
  • It builds in checkpoints to ensure there’s many opportunities to clarify expectations, course correct, give, and get feedback
  • It provides a safe place for the new employee to question things

What about the challenges presented by COVID-19?

While organizations have had to do away with large group orientations due to COVID-19, the alternative shouldn’t be to just stop doing orientations. In fact, while some of these are done well, more often than not, they tend to be “go through the motions” scenarios that miss the one-to-one connection and oftentimes don’t take place until the employee has been with the organization for a month or more. It may already be too late by then. While there’s few better, if any, alternatives to the face-to-face approach, orientation and onboarding can be done well, even during a pandemic. While it’s true we’re all a little tired of Zoom and other video methods, they’re the reality of the time and can/should be used to set up meetings. Of course, for many organizations, it’s on-site as usual (but with necessary protocol in place) and just like every other process you’re carrying out, meetings to impart knowledge and job shadowing can still occur – just a little more carefully.

Further, while there are some great web-based orientation and onboarding processes that can be used effectively for organizations of all sizes, these should never replace the human element. Even if that element can’t be in person, face-to-face interaction and a variety of options to converse, ask questions, gain information is critical – especially given how diverse we all are, in terms of how we learn.

However challenging it feels to take the extra time to prepare and carry out onboarding and training processes, the results of not doing so could be so much more challenging. We strongly encourage you to take that time – and invest in your people – from the outset.