Long reads

How to get onboarding right

23 Jan 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

The first few weeks can make or break a new employee’s career with you – but not all organisations pay enough attention to this critical period

It’s day one of your new job. It’s a role you were super excited about landing, and you’re keen to make a good first impression on your new boss and colleagues. But on top of the usual day-one jitters – and the disorientation of acquainting yourself with new equipment and processes, and a perhaps labyrinthine building – another concern is becoming increasingly urgent… Not only are you starving, as no one has told you where to get food – they’ve also not bothered to give you directions to the loo.

Unfortunately this was the very real experience of one new starter, whose anecdote was included in a survey by software provider Webonboarding. It was by no means the only onboarding horror story shared. Others detail an onboardee being given a full body physical (including an internal examination) in a case of mistaken identity, another being sent back and forth between various far-apart buildings for the first few hours before they found their team, and another being invited for a coffee by a colleague, only to then be fired for leaving their desk.

Clearly, many organisations still get this vital part of the employee experience drastically wrong (see our reader horror stories on p49). Nearly four out of 10 employees surveyed by Webonboarding said they had encountered problems during this process. 

Jon Ingham, HR and organisation development consultant at Strategic Dynamics Consultancy Services, says HR teams can often be seduced into thinking onboarding is basic stuff and so neglect carefully considering how to get it right. “It’s not rocket science but it can be tricky, and I don’t think HR spends enough time working out what really good onboarding looks like, rather than simply dealing with the basics,” he says.

This will be to an organisation’s detriment, he warns, with this vital first impression potentially going on to colour someone’s entire time with a company. “They will frame all other experiences going forwards in the light of that first day. They are much more likely to focus on the ongoing negative experience than the positive,” he says. 

Or they could of course decide to leave altogether, with this not only a serious waste of recruitment costs, but something that can undermine team morale and managers’ confidence too. Failed onboarding can “hugely hurt a manager’s pride if they see it as a [personal] failure”, says Ellie Brown, head of people operations for Oodle Finance.

Then there’s the added imperative of getting people up to speed as quickly as possible, given the growing number of organisations and individuals deciding to go down the ‘gig’ working route. If someone is only going to be with a company for a few months, say, waiting several weeks for the right support could deal even more of a devastating blow to their overall productivity.

Yet, as Ingham eludes to, onboarding doesn’t have to be complicated. David D’Souza, membership director at the CIPD, says it can actually be “dead simple”, and ultimately just entails “one human thinking for five minutes about what another might need to feel settled in an organisation”. 

Experts stress there is no exhaustive, tick-box list for getting onboarding right, with this very much individual and context-dependent. But there are some simple tips and common pitfalls HR practitioners should consider.

Get joined up 

Successful onboarding starts with knowing who the stakeholders are in the process. HR and talent acquisition specialist Mervyn Dinnen says organisations often get onboarding wrong because of poor communication between different departments within HR. Describing the process as a relay race, he explains the baton is often “dropped” when recruitment hands a candidate over.

“There’s a question over ownership and who has responsibility, as often the hiring manager will assume HR and recruitment have it figured out. It is important that all stakeholders, such as recruitment, talent acquisition, HR, L&D teams and the hiring manager, are aligned,” he says.

D’Souza agrees that a lack of clear ownership can lead to a disjointed employee experience. “We still trip up on the basics all too often. Sometimes that is [down to] not working effectively with other departments across the organisation, and sometimes it’s identifying the process, but not thinking about the experience people go through,” he says.

Plan start dates carefully

Planning ahead to ensure everything is in place on day one is critical, experts agree. Onboarding works best when people quickly feel busy and useful within their new organisation, but that can only be achieved where they’re given ample guidance from line managers. A classic mistake, according to D’Souza, is existing staff being too busy to lend new starters their support and time. “You finally have a resource but people treat them like an inconvenience, and eventually they start to feel like one,” he warns.

D’Souza highlights some classic mistakes, including someone’s start date clashing with their line manager’s annual leave, equipment and system logins not being ready, and starting someone in the middle of a big project when no one has time to get them up to speed.

Ingham says there are no excuses for leaving new employees without the proper equipment to do their job. “In this day and age if people are turning up and finding they have no desk or IT equipment, no one is there to greet them or their manager is on a business trip, that is simply unforgivable,” he says.

Start things off before day one

If onboarding starts on the employee’s first day, then it is already too late. For those who commit the common blunder of resting on their laurels after the job offer is made, the horrors of ‘ghosting’ potentially await – a phenomenon involving a candidate who accepts an offer but never shows up. (The phrase derives from that coined to describe the internet dating scenario of someone suddenly ending a relationship and, without warning, stopping all communication.)

“Ghosting should reinforce the need to get onboarding right. The deal is not done until they show up, so you’ve got to stay connected with candidates,” confirms Gary Cookson, director of EPIC HR.

Ken Brotherston, managing director and founder of TALiNT Partners, says candidates often get caught up in the “euphoria” of a job offer and so forget to ask important questions at this point. So HR needs to make clear the communication channels are open for prospective employees to get in touch as and when questions spring to mind.

“No matter how senior you are, changing jobs is an emotional experience and having someone communicate with you regularly before you join makes a huge difference, and reinforces why you took the job,” says Brotherston. “There are multiple channels of communication open to employers to stay in contact.”

It shouldn’t, however, be just HR leading this pre-onboarding communication. HR tasks, such as DBS and right to work in the UK checks, can often “turn people off” instead of making them feel welcome, Cookson warns. So it’s important that less formal, more personalised and sociable contact from line managers balances this out. “Where onboarding is successful is despite the things HR does, and not because of them. It is because of what line managers and the team do,” he says. 

Don’t overdo it 

But Dinnen warns that if there are several stakeholders in the process (especially external recruiters) then the old adage ‘too many cooks’ could ring true. “If a new employee is contacted every day it will be overkill. Regular communication should only happen in the first few days, then it needs to scale back to weekly check-ins,” he says. 

Similarly, Ingham warns businesses trying to make employees fully productive from day one risk asking too much of their new employees. “Some organisations are seeing this trend [of early onboarding] simply as an opportunity to save costs, get ahead of the game and get the employee’s value quicker,” he explains. 

This is also a danger in pre-onboarding, he says, where an organisation is so determined for a new employee to hit the ground running as soon as they arrive, they bombard them with information and requests to meet and attend events before their start date. “That is the wrong way of seeing it, but there is an opportunity to use that pre-onboarding process as a way of motivating, engaging and connecting individuals,” says Ingham.

Give a warm welcome on day one  

There isn’t a silver bullet with onboarding, according to Brotherston, but a positive business culture supported by the right processes and tools should lay the foundations. He says day one should consist of “rudimentary stuff” such as a tour of the building and its facilities (the canteen and – crucially – toilets), information on what to wear, getting someone set up with system logins, time with their line manager and introductions to their team. “You should involve people in the rituals and routines of the workplace as quickly as possible too,” he adds. “Whether that’s a get-together or people being part of the birthday collection.”

Brown agrees that day one is about creating an “amazing first impression and covering the basics”. “From there it’s all about regular communication with your manager and making sure your expectations are clear on both sides so they can be met and hopefully exceeded,” she says.

Review performance regularly 

Brotherston says getting a new employee up to speed and settled during the first few months can be done in a number of ways, such as by putting them on an induction programme that gives them ample opportunities to meet key people and understand how the business operates. 

This part of the onboarding process should be structured like a performance management review, with regular meetings between a new starter and their manager, says Dinnen. “There has to be regular check-ins,” he says. “There is no point starting someone and the first time they have a review with their line manager is at their probation meeting.”

A successful onboarding experience, he reiterates, makes employees feel supported from the moment they accept an offer until their probation review. And, of course, beyond.  


Your real life onboarding horror stories 

“Who is this guy?” 

Will, 29, chef de partie

I turned up for my first day as a sous chef at a restaurant in Peterborough. A couple of hours into my shift, the area manager turned up and gestured towards me, saying: “Who the f*** is this guy?” 

I tried to introduce myself but he completely ignored me, wouldn't shake my hand and then spent two hours calling various people to find out why I was there, who gave me the job, etc. 

He then asked all my coworkers why I was there, but did not once look directly at me. Finally, he decided my presence was legitimate and offered me his hand – he had a stupidly strong handshake. I didn't go back for day two.

“Just run with it; see how you get on…”

Laura, 26, marketing executive

Fifteen minutes into my first day, my line manager told me she had handed her notice in because she wasn’t given the promotion she wanted. They hadn’t started hiring a replacement, and her boss was going on maternity leave within six months. 

I had no fixed senior management to report to and ended up having five line managers in the space of just over a year. This wasn’t ideal as the structure of the business was strange and I needed someone to walk me through the different divisions. Instead I was given a handover spreadsheet and essentially told to ‘run with it and see how you do’. I left after 13 months. 

“You’re not the right fit”

George, 44, HR consultancy director

After accepting a new position I went on a company away day before my official start date to meet my new team, and enjoyed getting to know them all. 
But a week before my start date, while on holiday with my family, I received a call from my new boss. She told me: “I’m just not sure you’re the right fit for this role. I saw the way you interacted with people at the away day, and I’ve heard things you’ve said about what you’ll do in this role and I just don’t think you’re right.”

When I asked: “How do you think I will feel on Monday when I turn up?” she replied: “That’s down to you.” 

“How long have you worked here?” 

Matthew, 30, events and promotions manager

I had a somewhat chaotic start when I took a job in the care sector. On my first day the Care Quality Commission (CQC) arrived for an unannounced inspection and so my induction turned into an interrogation, as I was included in the investigation with no support or guidance from my new managers. 

The CQC inspector got angry when I couldn’t answer any questions and asked: “How long have you been here?” I told her: “An hour and 20 minutes.”

At no point did senior management explain to the CQC I was new and couldn’t tell them anything about a single resident or how the home was run.

“What’s that awful smell?” 

Lolly, 23, sales assistant 

On my first day as a jewellery sales assistant, my co-worker and I were told the previous members of staff were suspected of shoplifting. We assumed they had already been fired but they were still working. 

We worked two very uncomfortable shifts with the previous employees, who were understandably disgruntled. A week after they were fired the sales counter began to smell extremely bad and we spent months trying to figure out the source of the stench. We eventually found a nook in the back of a cupboard containing a plastic bag full of rotting fish guts.

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