5 Onboarding Tips That Boost Employee Engagement & Retention (+ FREE Onboarding Checklist)

February 21, 2020
by Damian Keane

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Amanda has just been hired at a new position and, after a perfunctory “employee onboarding” routine during which she read and signed compliance paperwork but not much else, she’s thrown into the deep end and expected to manage.

If you’ve had a first day that was like that, you know exactly how it feels, You’re disoriented, confused, anxious, and lonely. And, you make a lot of mistakes until you finally learn the ropes.

It’s not unusual for the Amandas of the workforce who’ve had this type of experience to feel unmotivated, unproductive, and uncommitted to their new company. In fact, a bad onboarding experience can prompt a decision to quit within the first six months of landing a new job - and, according to a study from Bamboo HR, it has for 31% of people.

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This decision is a source of stress for the employee but it can also be a significant resource drain for employers. Replacing employees costs money, and damages a company’s employer brand.

Check out Ambassify’s Ultimate Guide to Employer Branding, and learn how building a strong employer brand can help you hire and retain the best talent on the market!

READ: Ultimate Guide to Employer Branding

Numerous studies have shown that good employee onboarding positively impacts productivity, motivation, and employee engagement. In recent years, this has led companies to give their internal employee onboarding processes a much-needed makeover, with the goal of retaining more employees and setting them up for success from day one.

Before we dive into effective onboarding practices, let’s take a look at the actual purpose of employee onboarding, and how it connects with employee engagement. Also, don’t forget to download our handy onboarding checklist - it breaks the entire process down into weeks and months and helps you plan onboarding activities.


Download Your Free Onboarding Checklist


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What is Employee Onboarding (+ Employee Engagement Connection)

Every organisation engages in employee onboarding but not every organisation does a good job at it.

The minute a new hire accepts the job, onboarding begins. In most cases, it involves zero activities until their first day in the office (which is a mistake), and even then, it can amount to a simple: “Hello, here’s your desk, get to work now”.

But here’s the thing - the better your organisation is at onboarding employees, the sooner they’ll bring value to the company. In ideal circumstances, new hires consume value for the first three months. In the next three months, their contributions either get them to the breakeven point or slightly above it.

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And that’s when the onboarding process is perfectly tailored to them, and the organisation rallies behind them to help them succeed. Now imagine that curve with no onboarding at all - most employees take up to a year to comfortably settle into their role, and some never do.

Effective onboarding focuses on ongoing processes that allow new employees to learn about the organisation and their role in it. It includes continuous and in-depth lessons about organisational structure, vision, mission, and values, and streamlines the initial orientation process (a tour of the premises and sorting out the paperwork). For most organisations, good onboarding lasts more than a few days - it can take up to a month and, in some cases, up to a year for a new employee to transition into their role of a fully-functional member of the team.

Unfortunately, although we’re seeing some positive changes around employee onboarding, a lot of organizations are still not making it a priority.

A survey of 350 HR professionals in the US showed that 24% of them did not have a formal onboarding program at their organization. Additionally, 75% of those that did had programs that lasted a day or two, basically just dealing with new hire orientation and compliance paperwork.

This lacklustre approach to onboarding has lasting consequences on employee engagement and overall retention rates. 

According to the Aberdeen Group study, effective onboarding results in:

  • 66% increase in employee retention,
  • 62% better time-to-productivity ratio,
  • 54% increase employee engagement.

When you realise that decision-making is 70% emotional and only 30% rational, these numbers make perfect sense.

You can offer the best compensation and benefits package but if your new hires don’t see you making an effort to connect with them (and to connect them with the organization and others in it), this won’t matter much. 

The decision to stay and to go above and beyond for a company is a decision that’s made with the heart, not with the head.

To prevent new hires from leaving (costing you money, time, and reputation), you need to focus your onboarding efforts on activities that connect the individual with the company and give them the tools they need to be successful. Here are five tips that will help you design a great onboarding experience, and allow you to transform new hires into satisfied and engaged employees faster.


1: Start the Process as Soon as Possible

Onboarding can start as soon as the ink dries on the employment contract, which can sometimes be several weeks in advance of the new employee’s start date.

This process is called pre-boarding, and companies that perfect it can expect to retain 81% of first-year hires. Of course, pre-boarding is not an intensive process - you do not want to overwhelm people before you even start paying them. That sends the wrong message.

However, there are small (but critical) things that you can do during this period that will demonstrate your commitment to the process, as well as slightly unburden new employees during their first few days at the company.

  • Company policies and procedures can be reviewed several weeks in advance, which gives new hires a chance to ask questions and clear up ambiguities.
  • Logins and credentials can also be sorted in advance - have your IT department contact the employee to set them up with all the necessary accounts.
  • If you’re organising or attending a networking event during this period, consider extending the invitation to your newest employee. Alternatively, ask them to join the team for after-work drinks one day. Getting to know everyone in a more social setting takes the edge off of the first day at the office, and signals that team spirit is the essential element of your company culture.

There are more things that you can do during this period - sending the employee work equipment choices and helping them decide on what they want to use, sharing contact information and short bios of key team leaders and members, and more - but you get the idea. The more of the administrative stuff you can get out of the way this early, the better. That way, your hire can take the first week to familiarise themselves with their actual job and the people they’ll be doing it with.


2: Have a Plan & Commit to the Long-Haul

A lot of organisations that have a formal onboarding program do really well in the first few weeks. After that, things kind of taper off - the new employee settles into their role a bit, and everyone just assumes that they’re doing fine.

Of course, this is far from the truth - most new employees take longer to acclimatise to their new situation, and even longer to become fully productive members of the organisation.

Research has shown that longer onboarding programs (those lasting six months to a year) are associated with better business outcomes, higher engagement levels, and better employer reputation. 

After the first few weeks, onboarding activities don’t have to be frequent but they have to be purposeful and useful. It’s best to focus on relationship-building and company culture activities so that new employees feel socially connected and supported.


3: Focus on Relationships

Efficient onboarding programs boost employee engagement because they focus on quickly integrating new hires into the collective. Strong relationships are key to making new employees feel supported and valued.

You can help build these relationships faster when you incorporate certain activities into your employee onboarding program, such as:


  • New employee mentorship - create a buddy system in which new employees are paired with veteran employees who can help them navigate company waters for the first few weeks.
  • Set up personal introductions - organise get-to-know-each-other meetings between the new employee and several of their close coworkers and other important stakeholders.
  • Encourage participation in different company programs - these programs can range from informal workout sessions on the premises to formal employee advocacy initiatives. For example, a points-based advocacy program will encourage friendly competition, connecting employees with their coworkers and the company on a more meaningful level.


4: Set Clear Expectations

According to a Gallup study, only around half of all employees know, without a shadow of the doubt, what’s expected of them. And that’s all employees, not just the newcomers.

Let that sink in - right now, approximately 50% of the global workforce is walking around on eggshells, guessing what it is they’re supposed to be doing, how are they supposed to be doing it and why.

Of course, you want to avoid this at all costs. It’s especially frustrating for new hires since they feel insecure enough already, and want to prove that they were hired for a reason (belong on merit). That’s difficult to do if they don’t have a clue about what’s expected of them.

Here are some tips on how to effectively communicate expectations to your new employees:

  • Have this conversation on day #1 - don’t postpone - you’ve unburdened the new hire during the first week specifically so you could focus on the important stuff, and there’s nothing more important than them getting a grasp on how they’re expected to contribute, and what that contribution means for the company.

  • Explain duties and responsibilities in detail - ideally, someone doing the same job (or the exiting employee) will be able to go into the nitty-gritty of things with the new employee. This will help them get that first-hand information that’s often crucial for them to hit the ground running.

  • Focus on team expectations - it’s important for new hires to settle in comfortably into their teams. Explain to them how teamwork looks like in your organisation, how feedback is given and received, and how big wins are celebrated.
  • Don’t overwhelm with performance expectations - let’s face it, a new hire will not tick any of the performance boxes in the first few weeks, and that’s to be expected. Tell them where you need them to be during different stages of the onboarding process (after 30, 90, 120, and 365 days), and make it clear that the company is there to help them achieve those goals.

5: Involve Senior Leadership

Even if you do everything you can to wrap up the boring stuff - paperwork, IT, tours - during the pre-boarding phase, chances are that the employee’s first day on the job will still be packed with the mundane.

What’s often lacking during that period is one crucial ingredient - inspiration.

That’s easily fixed when you involve a senior manager in the onboarding process. CEOs, VPs, and heads of departments are in the best position to talk to employees about the company’s vision and goals and to walk them through the finer points of company culture.

It’s safe to say that, at a certain point, involving the CEO will not be very realistic. If that’s true, it just means that you’re a large organisation and that there’s plenty of top brass execs to contact for a one-hour session with a new employee. Even if it’s just the head of their department, it still signals that their hiring is an important milestone, and employees appreciate that. In fact, they might even expect it - according to one study, new hires prefer it if someone from the management team takes the time to show them the ropes on their first day on the job.


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Onboard for Engagement & Success

If you take the sink or swim approach to employee onboarding, you’re risking a lot more than ending up with one unproductive employee. Almost everyone that you hire will end up like Amanda from the beginning of our story - dazed, confused, and more likely than not to give up and quit.

The effect that unsupportive onboarding has on employee engagement is real and considerable, almost always resulting in low workforce morale, longer time-to-productivity ratio, and a damaged company reputation.

On the other hand, structured onboarding programs are connected with better work outcomes and a more productive and engaged workforce. These programs do take a bit more time and planning to implement, but when you get them just right, you’re doing your new hires (and your bottom line) a huge service.


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