The Increasing Importance of Onboarding

Onboarding has long been a standard means by which organizations get new employees oriented and on the path to success. In this era of full employment, however, employers have become keenly aware of the importance of onboarding, as employees can easily find another job if the experience fails to meet their expectations.

According to a recent online survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder and SilkRoad, 93 percent of employers agree a good onboarding experience is critical to influence a new hire’s decision to stay with the organization.

“It’s a sign that organizations are recognizing that onboarding can be a strategic lever,” says Lilith Christiansen, vice president of onboarding solutions for Chicago-based SilkRoad Technology Solutions. “The war for talent is real, and they are looking for more ways to differentiate and to retain talent. Onboarding is definitely seen as one area that can help effect that.”

While organizations clearly recognize the importance of onboarding, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are getting it right. Nearly one-third (29 percent) of employees said they don’t think their organization did the right things in onboarding to “help them prepare and begin their new role.” Nearly one in 10 have left a company due to a poor onboarding experience.

In part, that dissatisfaction is a result of today’s record-low unemployment, says Christiansen. Employees are in the driver’s seat, and they have high expectations that must be met in order for them to stay with an employer. If they don’t immediately feel connected and have a clear view of the culture and mission of the organization and their role in it, they aren’t likely to stick around long.

“Culture and mission should be front and center when somebody walks in as a new employee,” says Beth Browde, a principal at Mercer. “People pick an organization because they believe its purpose resonates with what they value and they feel they can make a difference there. If their first week is not at all like that, they frequently still have another offer in the hopper.”

Engagement levels tend to be highest during the first 90 days of employment, as new hires typically are in the throes of the “honeymoon period,” according to Teryluz Andreu, North America culture and engagement leader at Aon. They are excited to have a new job, get to know their co-workers, and immerse themselves in the culture and mission of the company. If engagement levels are low from day one, says Andreu, chances of improving them down the road are slim. That’s why it’s incumbent upon HR to take ownership to ensure there’s a seamless process extending from talent acquisition through the onboarding experience, says Christiansen. Unfortunately, many organizations aren’t there yet.

“Oftentimes, it’s a bit of a hot potato, where nobody has ownership of it, so HR leaders need to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘We’re going to own this process,’ ” says Christiansen. “What really moves the needle is when the investment in enhancing the onboarding experience isn’t only driven by HR, but by HR and the business together because they are the ones that have the need for talent.”

According to Browde, developing a strategic onboarding process is perpetually on HR’s to-do list but gets “crowded off” because there are simply too many other things to do. It’s only when HR leaders see the hard-dollar cost of failing to provide a positive onboarding experience that they recognize the need to carve out the time to make improvements.

“You have to show up with the data to show HR where not addressing the onboarding experience is costing them–whether it’s people who leave quickly because they were promised one thing and the organization didn’t deliver on that promise or whether they are seeing the cost in longer-term engagement and time to productivity on the part of new hires,” says Browde.

Those organizations experiencing onboarding success typically extend the process well beyond an employee’s first day, says Andreu. Such programs take place over weeks and sometimes even months and often include shadow coaches or buddy systems to help newbies learn the job and get acclimated as quickly as possible into the culture.

According to Andreu, some organizations have created “cadres of peers,” particularly among entry-level employees who may have just graduated from college and be craving the sense of camaraderie they experienced on campus.

“This supportive system of peers creates that sense of affiliation that is very important for younger colleagues,” says Andreu. “They feel like they are coming into the company as a class.”

Clearly, onboarding is a high-touch process, yet there is a definite role for technology to play in delivering a successful onboarding experience, according to Michelle Armer, chief people officer at CareerBuilder. Key technology-driven touch points include automated reminders for managers when it’s time for 30-, 60- or 90-day check-ins and surveying both new hires and managers at specific points along the way to ensure the process is meeting expectations.

“New hires have very high expectations, and technology can help you have a process that empowers managers to have a high-touch approach,” says Armer. “You need both the technology and the people behind it to deliver that experience and create a strong connection between the employee and how their role contributes to the mission of the company.”

Avatar photo
Julie Cook Ramirez
Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at