The Complete Onboarding Guide: How to Set Up New Employees for Success

October 2, 2023
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min read
This comprehensive guide provides HR professionals with tips, templates, and best practices for creating a stellar employee onboarding program that excites and retains top talent.

Onboarding is the crucial process of integrating new hires into your company and setting them up for success. An effective onboarding program leads to greater job satisfaction, improved performance, higher retention rates, and faster proficiency. 

This comprehensive guide provides tips, templates, and best practices for crafting a stellar onboarding program. Follow these guidelines to create a structured onboarding process that engages new employees and equips them with the tools, training, and connections they need to thrive.

Why Onboarding Matters

Too often, onboarding is treated as optional or just a formality. But proper onboarding lays the foundation for new hires' entire tenure at your organization. Investing in onboarding has significant benefits:

Shortened Ramp-Up Time: Methodical onboarding dramatically reduces the time it takes for new employees to reach full productivity. They gain context, connections, and skills faster.

Increased Engagement: Thoughtful onboarding makes new hires feel welcomed, invested, and excited about the company. They become engaged faster.

Improved Retention: Data shows retention rates are significantly higher for companies with robust onboarding. It prevents early turnover.

Role Clarity: Onboarding aligns new hires with the goals, responsibilities, and expectations associated with their role.

Cultural Cohesion: It establishes company values early and reinforces the culture new employees are joining.

Legal Protection: Comprehensive onboarding ensures HR compliance with laws, regulations, and employment policies.

When done right, onboarding facilitates immediate productivity and long-term success.

Key Phases of Onboarding

Onboarding should not be treated as a one-day orientation, but rather as a structured process broken down into distinct phases over time. This prevents information overload and creates milestones. The key phases include:

Before Start Date

This pre-boarding phase lays the logistical groundwork before the employee's first day:

  • Send a welcome packet with things like an org chart, training schedule, policy guide, office map, etc. This gets new hires informed.
  • Set up the workspace with equipment, supplies and system access needed on day one. Having their desk, computer, etc. ready prevents stress.
  • Complete paperwork like tax forms, NDAs, and insurance docs. Finalizing legal forms means HR can focus on strategic topics.
  • Create email accounts, employee IDs, passwords and other accounts the new hire will need. This allows them to dive in on day one.
  • Assign an onboarding peer mentor who can answer questions and provide guidance as the new hire transitions in.

Completing these preparatory tasks sets the stage for a smooth first day.

First Day

The first day is crucial for making a good first impression:

  • Greet the new employee and provide a tour of the office space to get acclimated to the environment.
  • Explain the organizational structure, the new hire's role, and primary job duties to provide context. Give an overview of their responsibilities.
  • Introduce key team members and contacts the new employee will be working with. These connections build rapport.
  • Review the agenda and key topics for the first week of onboarding. This level sets expectations.
  • Set aside time for the new hire's questions and concerns. Addressing these prevents later roadblocks.

The goal of day one is welcoming new hires, clarifying their role, and outlining the onboarding journey.

First Week

The first week is focused on training and integration:

  • Complete required HR compliance training around things like security, harassment, company policies etc. This protects the company from a legal perspective.
  • Provide IT and system orientation to get new hires up and running on core tools and programs needed for their role. The faster they can access systems, the faster they are productive.
  • Have the manager set goals, review role responsibilities, and explain what success looks like. This alignment is critical early on.
  • Check-in frequently with new hires to see how they are adjusting, address questions, and provide support. Nipping issues in the bud prevents problems down the line.
  • Introduce new hires to the facilities, office amenities, and services they can take advantage of. Familiarizing them with the resources available facilitates getting up to speed.

The first week plants the seeds for success through robust training and integration.

First Month

The first month shifts focus toward cultural onboarding:

  • Facilitate relationship-building activities with peers and cross-functional teams. Coworker connections are crucial for engagement, culture fit, and collaboration.
  • Assign the new hire a senior leadership mentor beyond their direct manager who can provide guidance and be a sounding board as they navigate the organization.
  • Share company updates, recent wins, launches, and important announcements to keep new hires informed and connected to the company story. Recognizing achievements they have contributed to motivates them.
  • Celebrate the completion of key onboarding milestones and successes. This positive reinforcement fuels additional progress.
  • Conduct 30/60/90-day check-ins to solicit feedback on their experience so far and uncover any lingering questions. Continued support ensures a smooth transition.

The first month is focused on integration into the social fabric of the company through connections and culture.

Post Onboarding

Once formal onboarding concludes it's vital to debrief the experience:

  • Hold a debrief session to collect feedback from the new hire on what worked well, what didn't, and suggestions for improvement. Their candid input helps enhance the program.
  • Review progress on the new hire's goals and get manager feedback on their ramp-up. This informs needed training or mentoring.
  • Analyze key onboarding metrics like satisfaction, ramp-up time, and milestone completion rates. The data highlights opportunities for optimization.
  • Evolve the onboarding program based on feedback and data to fill gaps and improve the experience. Onboarding should be continually refined.

The post-onboarding phase closes the loop to ensure your program is thoughtfully evolved.

Breaking onboarding into distinct modules based on timeframe prevents overload for new hires while creating milestones. Each phase serves a unique purpose in the overall journey.

Top Tips for Great Onboarding

Follow these best practices when designing an engaging, effective onboarding process:

Set Clear Goals

Define specific knowledge, skills, and behaviours that new hires should exhibit after onboarding. This clarity drives program design. Goals could include things like:

  • Proficiency with core systems and tools
  • Understanding of company values and culture
  • Connections with key stakeholders
  • Comprehension of role responsibilities
  • Productivity and independence

Matching activities to target goals ensures onboarding is strategic.

Structure It

Break onboarding into organized modules and phases focused on different topics. For example:

  • First day: Introductions, tour, job overview
  • First week: Required training, manager check-ins
  • First month: Ongoing education, relationship building

This prevents overload and creates milestones.

Assign Buddies

When a new employee joins the company, it's important to ensure they have a smooth transition into their role. Assigning seasoned peer mentors, also known as "buddies," to new hires is a valuable strategy. These buddies serve as experienced guides who help the newcomers navigate their initial days. By providing advice, answering questions, and sharing insights, buddies accelerate the integration of new employees. This approach not only imparts knowledge but also establishes a sense of camaraderie, creating a support system that actively engages and assists new hires

Check In Regularly

To foster ongoing growth and address concerns promptly, it's crucial to establish regular check-ins with new hires. Schedule recurring meetings at the 30, 60, and 90-day marks. These check-ins serve as opportunities to solicit feedback from the new employees about their onboarding experience. This feedback helps uncover any lingering questions or issues and allows for proactive resolution before they escalate. Consistent communication during these check-ins is the cornerstone of a successful onboarding process.

Make It Interactive

Passive learning can often be less effective than interactive experiences. Incorporating interactive elements into the onboarding process can greatly reinforce learning and engagement. Activities such as job shadowing, process simulations, site visits, team meetings, and role-playing exercises provide hands-on experiences that contribute to better knowledge retention. These activities not only impart information but also allow new hires to actively participate in their learning, making the onboarding process more memorable and impactful.

Go Digital

Utilizing modern HR software can revolutionize the onboarding process. Create digital onboarding timelines with linked tasks to centralize the entire process and provide visibility into each new hire's progress. Digitizing materials ensures consistency in onboarding practices across the entire company. By making the process digital, it becomes more efficient, transparent, and accessible for both new hires and the HR team.

Collect Feedback

Gathering feedback from new hires is an essential step in refining the onboarding process. After the initial 30, 60, and 90 days, use surveys or focus groups to ask new employees about their experiences. Their insights can provide valuable perspectives on what is working well and what can be improved. Act on their suggestions to continuously enhance the onboarding program based on their evolving needs.

Train Your Managers

A successful onboarding process relies on the active involvement of hiring managers. Educate these managers on effective onboarding techniques, emphasizing their role in activities such as goal setting, check-ins, and training. By setting clear expectations and empowering managers to take ownership of onboarding, new hires receive consistent guidance and support from the leadership team.

Set Milestones

Celebrating milestones during the onboarding journey boosts morale and engagement. Acknowledge the completion of key onboarding phases with meaningful gestures such as lunch with leadership, certificates of achievement, company swag, or shout-outs in team meetings. This positive reinforcement not only recognizes the progress of new hires but also fosters a sense of belonging and accomplishment within the company.

Following these tips will result in a stellar onboarding experience that excites and empowers new employees.

Onboarding Timeline Template 

An onboarding timeline provides an overview of the sequenced activities involved in onboarding new employees. 

Here is an example onboarding timeline:

Week -1 

- Send a welcome email

- Create email, accounts, tools access

- Assign mentor

Day 1

- Meet and greet 

- Office tour

- Job Overview 

- Org structure presentation

- Meet the team

Week 1

- Orientation (HR, IT, facilities)

- Compliance training

- Set goals with the manager

- Job shadow mentor 

Week 2

- Ongoing technical training

- Site visits

- Meetings with key departments

Week 3-4

- Relationship-building activities

- Assign senior leadership mentor

- 30 day check-in

Month 2-3

- 60 day check-in

- Participate in team projects

- Coworker feedback session

- 90 day check-in

Common Onboarding Mistakes to Avoid

It's just as important to know what not to do as it is to implement best practices. Steer clear of these common onboarding pitfalls:

Leaving New Hires Unsupervised

Leaving new employees without supervision, tasks, or support on their very first day can be a disheartening experience. Imagine the anticipation and excitement of starting a new job, only to feel ignored or unimportant upon arrival. To prevent this demoralizing situation, it's crucial to have a well-structured agenda in place for the new hires. This agenda should include various activities that introduce them to the company, their team, and their tasks for the day. Furthermore, assigning onboarding buddies who can guide them through initial procedures and introduce them to colleagues helps prevent any feelings of isolation.

Failing to Assign Onboarding Mentors

One common pitfall in onboarding is the absence of a formal mentorship program. Without engaged mentors to provide guidance and support, new hires can quickly become overwhelmed and unsure of how to navigate their new work environment. To address this, it's recommended to assign both peer mentors, who are experienced colleagues, and leadership mentors, who can provide strategic insights. These mentors play a crucial role in helping new hires integrate into the company culture, understand expectations, and clarify any uncertainties.

Neglecting Cultural Integration

While logistical orientation is important, solely focusing on practical aspects can undermine the importance of cultural integration. Onboarding offers a prime opportunity to convey the company's values, mission, and the norms that shape the work environment. Neglecting this aspect can lead to a superficial understanding of the company's ethos. Therefore, incorporating sessions that delve into the company's culture and its significance can help new employees feel connected, fostering a sense of belonging from the outset

Information Overload

Drowning new hires in an avalanche of information without providing context, opportunities for retention, or reinforcement is counterproductive. To ensure that information is absorbed and retained effectively, it's advisable to break down the content into manageable portions. Moreover, incorporating hands-on applications and interactive learning experiences can aid in reinforcing the knowledge gained during the onboarding process. This approach not only prevents overwhelm but also enhances retention.

Lack of Follow-Up

It's a common trend for the initial excitement of onboarding to dwindle after the first week. However, maintaining this momentum is crucial for the continued success of new hires. Implementing 30/60/90-day check-ins helps ensure that new employees are progressing well, have their concerns addressed, and are given opportunities for additional training if needed. Moreover, ongoing mentorship beyond the initial period can provide consistent guidance as new hires settle into their roles.

Inconsistent Onboarding

Inconsistencies in onboarding practices across different departments or locations can lead to frustration and confusion among new hires. Ensuring standardization in onboarding activities, resources, and timelines throughout the organization is essential. This establishes a unified experience for all new employees, regardless of their role or location, and helps them feel equally valued and supported.

Addressing these potential pitfalls and taking proactive measures to avoid them ensures that your onboarding program becomes a source of excitement and empowerment for new employees. Acknowledging any shortcomings in the current program and actively making improvements will result in a more effective and positive onboarding experience overall.

Onboarding for Remote Employees

Onboarding remote employees presents a unique set of challenges due to the absence of in-person interactions. However, with thoughtful adjustments, you can create an effective onboarding program that addresses these challenges and sets remote employees up for success.

Send Welcome Package

To make the remote employee's first day special, consider sending them a welcome package to their home. This package can include company swag, handwritten welcome notes, gift cards for coffee or local eateries, and other personalized surprises. This tangible gesture helps bridge the physical gap and shows that the company values and appreciates their presence, even from a distance.

Schedule Video Calls

Leverage video conferencing tools like Zoom to conduct onboarding meetings, training sessions, and introductions. Video calls provide a more personal and visual connection compared to traditional phone calls. Encourage remote employees to have their cameras on during these interactions, as this enhances the sense of connection and engagement.

Assign Remote Mentors

Pair remote employees with mentors who are also experienced in remote work. These mentors can provide tailored guidance on effective communication, staying engaged, managing time while working independently, and overcoming challenges that remote work might present. Having a mentor who understands the remote dynamic can significantly ease the transition for new remote hires.

Leverage Digital Content

Digitize your onboarding materials into interactive online courses, resources, videos, and tools that remote employees can access at their convenience. This approach supports self-paced learning and allows new hires to absorb information on their own schedule, ensuring they grasp key concepts thoroughly.

Send Technical Equipment

To ensure remote employees have a fully functional home office, consider shipping necessary supplies and tech equipment, such as laptops, monitors, and any specialized tools. The IT department should proactively assist in the setup process to address any technical challenges the employees might encounter.

Schedule Virtual Meetups

Facilitate informal virtual meetups where remote employees can connect with colleagues, engage in casual conversations, and build relationships. Virtual lunch groups or coffee breaks provide opportunities for remote workers to interact and feel part of the team, combating potential feelings of isolation.

Recognize Milestones

Highlight onboarding milestones and work anniversaries for remote employees through virtual shout-outs during team meetings, digital gift cards, recognition on social media platforms, and even mailed gifts to their homes. Recognizing achievements and milestones reinforces their sense of belonging and contribution.

For remote employees, it's even more critical to prioritize engagement, connection, and clarity. Regular communication, transparent expectations, and ongoing support are key. Remote onboarding should be designed not only to prevent isolation but also to set employees up for long-term productivity and success within the remote work environment.

By incorporating these strategies, your onboarding program for remote employees will effectively address the challenges of distance and create a sense of belonging, engagement, and readiness for their roles.

Measuring Onboarding Success

Assessing the effectiveness of your onboarding program is crucial to ensure that it's achieving its intended goals and to identify areas for improvement. Utilizing key performance indicators (KPIs) provides valuable insights into the program's impact. Here are the metrics you should track to measure onboarding success:

New Hire Satisfaction 

Conduct pulse surveys at the 30, 60, and 90-day marks to gauge the satisfaction of new hires with their onboarding experience. High levels of satisfaction are indicative of engagement, which often leads to better retention and improved performance. These surveys offer direct feedback from new hires and provide actionable insights into the effectiveness of your onboarding process.

Ramp Up Time to Productivity

Monitor the time it takes for new hires to reach key productivity milestones. Effective onboarding should accelerate their journey to full proficiency in their roles. Tracking this metric helps you assess whether the onboarding program effectively equips new employees with the skills and knowledge needed to contribute meaningfully and quickly.

Onboarding Milestone Completion 

Keep an eye on the percentage of onboarding goals, tasks, and activities that are successfully completed within the designated timeframes. A higher completion rate suggests that the onboarding program is structured and well-received, setting new hires up for success.

Retention and Turnover 

Analyze the retention rates of new hires after 6 months and 1 year, as well as any instances of early turnover. A robust onboarding process has a positive impact on employee retention. By reviewing exit interviews for employees who leave, you can gain insights into any shortcomings in the onboarding process that might contribute to turnover.

Performance Against Goals

At the 30, 60, and 90-day marks, assess the performance of new hires in relation to the goals set with their managers at the beginning of the onboarding period. This evaluation helps identify any skill gaps or areas requiring further development. Adjustments can then be made to training and support as needed.

Engagement and Culture Fit

Utilize pulse surveys and feedback from managers to evaluate indicators such as motivation, attitude, and alignment with the company culture. This assessment sheds light on how well new hires are integrating into the team and adapting to the company's values and dynamics.

Collect both quantitative metrics and qualitative feedback to gain a comprehensive understanding of onboarding outcomes. Analyzing data over time allows you to pinpoint successful aspects and areas that may need refinement. This iterative process ensures that your onboarding program remains effective and aligned with the evolving needs of your organization and new hires.

Effectively measuring the success of your onboarding program provides valuable insights for refining your approach. By following these guidelines and adapting based on the data, you can create a structured and intentional onboarding experience that positions new employees for long-term success within your organization.


What are the 5 C's of new hire onboarding?

The 5 C's of onboarding are:

  • Compliance - Completing required forms, training, etc.
  • Clarification - Providing clear job expectations and responsibilities
  • Culture - Establishing company values, norms and behaviors
  • Connection - Introducing peers, mentors, and key contacts
  • Confidence - Giving support and resources to perform duties

How do you structure onboarding for new employees?

Effective onboarding structure includes:

  • Pre-boarding before day 1 to handle logistics
  • First day focused on introductions and overview
  • First week for required training and integration
  • First month for cultural onboarding and relationship building
  • Post onboarding for getting feedback and evolving the program

What is a good onboarding process for new hires?

A good onboarding process should be structured, consistent, interactive, and supported by managers, mentors, and buddies. It should clarify roles, facilitate connections, convey culture, and instill confidence through training and resources.

What are the 4 phases of employee onboarding?

The 4 phases of onboarding are typically:

  1. Pre-boarding before start date
  2. Formal onboarding in first week
  3. Informal onboarding and integration over first months
  4. Ongoing onboarding with check-ins at 30/60/90 days

What are the 3 most important elements of successful onboarding?

The 3 most important elements are:

  1. Manager involvement - Setting goals, providing context, giving feedback
  2. Mentor guidance - Answering questions, offering advice, accelerating integration
  3. Structure - Organized timeline and activities to prevent overload