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Employee Onboarding: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need

Employee Onboarding

Employee onboarding is a crucial part of the employee life cycle, and can have a large impact on the rest of an employee’s career with a company.

Onboarding can affect:

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  • An employee’s first impression of a company
  • How well the worker performs on the job
  • Satisfaction, motivation, enthusiasm, and engagement
  • Loyalty and longevity
  • How skilled and productive an employee becomes

Among many other things.

Today, the marketplace is competitive and constantly changing – employee onboarding, therefore, is more important than ever.

In this guide to onboarding, we’ll explore:

  • What employee onboarding is
  • How to get onboarding right
  • The benefits of effective onboarding … and the drawbacks of poor onboarding experiences
  • How onboarding fits into the entire employee life cycle
  • A step-by-step process for managing and improving the onboarding experience

To start with, let’s look at the basics: 

The Ultimate Employee Onboarding Guide: Key Definitions and Key Concepts

Employee onboarding is one of the earliest stages in the employee journey, which sets the stage for the rest of that employee’s life with a company.

To better understand employee onboarding, let’s look at some key definitions:

  • Employee Onboarding – Employee onboarding is a stage in the employee life cycle, which focuses on integrating workers into the social, operational, and strategic areas of a business
  • The Employee Life Cycle – The employee life cycle covers the employee’s journey with an organization, beginning with pre-hire activities and ending with post-exit interactions
  • Employee Training – Employee training is an important aspect of the employee experience, which should begin during onboarding
  • Employee Engagement – Engagement refers to how enthusiastic and motivated employees are at work
  • The Employee Experience – Like user experiences and customer experiences, employee experiences affect how engaged, productive, and active employees are in the workplace

To streamline and improve all of these areas, HR professionals must manage the employee experience carefully.

As we’ll see below, effectively managing the onboarding experience can offer a number of benefits for both employees and the organization.

Employee Onboarding FAQ

Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about employee onboarding (with answers).

We have already covered the “what” of onboarding, so we’ll jump straight to the “why.” That is…

Why does onboarding matter?

This stage can dramatically impact the rest of the journey, for a few reasons:

  • Employees’ first substantial impressions of their coworkers, the workplace, and the company are often formed during the onboarding process. This first impression creates the workers’ emotional attitudes towards a company, which can play a big role in how their future plays out at the organization.
  • Key metrics, such as employee satisfaction and engagement, are affected by their initial experience with the company. Employees who have good experiences and are socially integrated will be more motivated and interested in their work, as well as where they work. 
  • The onboarding experience affects performance both in the short and the long term. In this early stage, the digital work experience and the workplace experience play an influential role on the individual employee’s attitude, as well as their proficiency and productivity. Faster time-to-competence, for instance, boosts confidence, motivation, and reduces fears that can later transform into resistance
  • It can also help shape the talent pool and the workplace culture. Onboarding, which can increase employee turnover when done improperly, will inevitably attract a certain type of worker. Organizations that don’t show signs of assisting with employees’ career development, for instance, will drive away employees who want access to skills training, upward mobility, and career-boosting potential. And those skill seekers are often top talent – the very employees a business should strive to attract.

In today’s competitive work world, the demand for skilled employees is only growing. 

This puts pressure on employees to continue developing their skills. It also puts pressure on employers to attract top talent, a shortage in today’s marketplace.

The influential role of onboarding, therefore, should not be underestimated.

Effective onboarding can attract top talent, improve employee performance, leave them with a positive impression of the brand, and determine how long they stay at a company.

See below for a discussion of how to improve the onboarding process, best practices, and checklists.

What are the costs of poor onboarding?

As we saw above, onboarding is a defining stage in the employee journey.

An extremely influential one: one study found that 33% of new hires look for a new job within their first six months. This suggests that their experience in those first few months didn’t meet expectations or support their career goals.

Cost estimates for turnover vary. They range from several thousand dollars to as much as two times an employee’s salary. 

However, there are often “soft costs” as well, which are much more difficult to calculate quantitatively. 

Poor onboarding, for instance, can cap employee skill levels early on, resulting in skill levels that plateau … and contribute less value to the organization’s performance.

Employee Orientation vs. Employee Onboarding: What’s the Difference?

Orientation is a part of the onboarding process, but it’s not the only part.

This refers to the first days on the job, when new hires complete paperwork, tour the office, meet a few key people, learn about their role at the company, and so forth.

Onboarding includes orientation, but extends to other – arguably more important – stages:

  • Initial job training. Training offers employees with the skills and the tools they need to succeed on the job. Effective training predictably accelerates time-to-competency, productivity, and performance.
  • The employee’s first interactions with their coworker. Those interactions can go on to define how well the worker fits in with their team. Good experiences will serve to increase satisfaction, engagement, and longevity.
  • Their first steps with the tools they use in their day-to-day work routines. This also connects with employee satisfaction and productivity – workers who are more proficient are also more productive, engaged, and happy with their work. Workers who lack sufficient training will, however, lack the skills they need to succeed, lowering confidence, productivity, and their job satisfaction.

Organizations who want to reap the benefits of effective onboarding, therefore, should of course focus on creating excellent orientations.

However, they should also look past orientation at the whole onboarding process, which can take months, or even years in some cases.

Who is responsible for employee onboarding?

Employee onboarding is a stage in the employee life cycle, which lies within the domain of HR.

Coordinating that effort is often HR’s job, but others will often implement certain sections of it.

For instance, larger organizations will often have entire business functions dedicated specifically to employee training or employee experience management.

Managers and other coworkers may also be assigned to assist with certain portions of the onboarding process, such as on-the-job training or continuous development.

Organizations with informal onboarding processes – or no onboarding process at all – will suffer from higher turnover, a costly problem.

Preventing such high turnover and improving the workforce requires the right tools and the right approach, strategy, and plan.

How do you build an onboarding plan?

A good onboarding experience has a few key components:

  • Approach – Does the organization have a formal approach to onboarding? How sophisticated is it? What is their attitude to it? The methodology?
  • Strategy – What are the aims of the onboarding program? What are the guiding principles behind the onboarding plan?
  • Action Plan – What concrete steps are being taken to achieve the strategic aims behind the onboarding program?

To build an onboarding plan, HR professionals should work with the appropriate managers to develop an effective approach and strategy. 

What is the best employee onboarding software?

Onboarding software can include:

  • HR platforms that have onboarding functionality, such as automated paperwork processing and communication features
  • The digital tools that employees use in their daily workflows
  • Digital adoption solutions
  • Employee training software

The best onboarding programs should use whatever tools help to improve the onboarding process.

Using the appropriate tools properly, after all, helps organizations make more from their investment in structured onboarding programs.

Where does onboarding fit into the employee life cycle?

There are several models of the employee life cycle.

Gallup’s model has seven stages:

  • Attract
  • Hire
  • Onboard
  • Engage
  • Perform
  • Develop
  • Depart

Each stage is critical, but since onboarding plays such a pivotal role in this journey, many professionals pay special attention to this stage.

A Step-by-Step Checklist that Can Improve Your Employee Onboarding Process

To enhance the onboarding process, HR professionals and other stakeholders should take a structured, goals-driven approach.

Here are five steps that can act as a basis for any onboarding improvement projects.

1. Assess and understand.

The best way to start off is by taking a high-level snapshot of the situation.

Asssess and understand areas such as:

Many of these assessments can be combined. 

Employee surveys, for instance, can help a business better understand the current workforce capabilities, culture, change readiness, and so forth.

Altogether, this information will help the project coordinators better define the scope of the project – where to begin, what approach to take, what goals are realistic, and how to achieve those goals.

2. Build a strategy and a plan.

The strategy is the guiding light that directs the plan of action. 

That strategy will guide the overall approach and the action plan.

Here are a few points to follow during this stage:

  • Set goals. These goals should be achievable, realistic, and measurable. They should be informed by the information collected in the first step. 
  • Align efforts with other business units. A training program, for instance, should keep in sync with other strategies, such as the organization’s digital strategy, IT’s plans, HR’s employee experience strategy, and so on. After all, each strategy will affect the onboarding process.
  • Work with stakeholders to create a set of goals. Onboarding goals can include the completion of paperwork, attending certain onboarding sessions, completing learning pathways, meeting performance quota, and so on.
  • Assign responsibilities and delegate tasks. Different parties will have different roles to play in the onboarding process. HR, for instance, will take on certain duties, such as guiding employees through the onboarding process. 

Project management is an important asset to have at this stage.

After all, business projects such as organizational change projects and business process improvement initiatives also need to be well-managed and well-executed.

3. Run pilot tests.

An ambitious organization may choose to skip this step altogether. 

However, for larger organizations with established hiring processes, pilot tests can provide a lot of data, while minimizing the impact on any existing hiring practices.

A pilot test would look something like this:

  • Test the onboarding process on a certain segment of new hires. Restricting the test process on a few personnel will demonstrate whether the new program is worth pursuing, without actually impacting the existing onboarding process.
  • Collect feedback and data, then review the results. The outcomes can be measured by surveying employees, managers, teams, and by investigating impacts on targeted metrics, such as satisfaction scores or performance quota.
  • Make a data-driven decision on how to proceed. This information can help HR professionals decide whether to keep this approach, try a new one, or test variations.

Pilot testing can be repeated and refined, until an organization is ready to roll out a finalized version of the new program.

4. Roll out the changes.

Implementation is the actual transition to the new employee onboarding process. 

To achieve your objectives, roll out wisely:

  • Ensure that the change project is managed efficiently and effectively. All change projects, including process improvements such as enhancing the employee onboarding process, should be managed well. Managers coordinate activities, maintain accountability, adjust program tactics when necessary, and perform other relevant management tasks.
  • Lead. Change leadership is just as important as change management. The leaders of a project will fuel and propel the project forward. An executive, senior manager, or director, for instance, can claim ownership of a project and ultimately be responsible for its progress and successful completion.
  • Collaborate closely with the relevant managers and teams. Collaboration is a must. Change managers, leaders, vendors, and other stakeholders should all work as closely together as possible. The more actively these change managers participate, the better the project will perform.
  • Be adaptable and agile. Change management can help businesses initiate changes that get results. And the more agile the management approach, the better. After all, it is impossible to foresee and account for all the variables and obstacles in any project. 

Effective management of the rollout process can make a big difference in results, so be sure to manage, monitor, and optimize as you go.

5. Evaluate and optimize.

No business project is perfect right out of the gate – optimization can make a large difference in outcomes, efficiency, and costs. 

Effective optimization can even transform a failing program into a successful one.

Here are a few key steps to follow when implementing any organizational change project:

  • Continually collect and analyze data throughout the project. Data collection should begin before the project begins, with assessments and analyses, as covered above. Throughout the project, augment that data with software analytics, surveys, discussions, and so forth.
  • Evaluate the results. Measure performance against the target objectives. Also analyze the results to determine the causes of issues, obstacles, and inefficiencies.
  • Make adjustments as needed. Don’t be afraid to make changes to the change program itself. The more adaptable your change process, the more relevant it will be to employees’ needs and real-world circumstances.

The more quickly and efficiently a project can adapt, the better its outcomes will be.

As mentioned, the initial results of any project don’t reflect its final outcomes. With the right adjustments, initial outcomes can be dramatically improved upon, vastly increasing the potential returns of a project.

Keep Your Program in Peak Condition with this Employee Onboarding Checklist

An employee onboarding checklist can keep onboarding processes smooth and efficient.

A checklist ensures that nothing gets left out, forgotten, or missed.

Here are some of the most important items to include on your onboarding checklist:


The first area to focus on is operations – the technical side of the onboarding process.

Here are some items to add to the operations section of your checklist:

  • Orientation. Orientation includes administrative tasks, such as facilities tours, filling out paperwork, explaining policies and procedures, and so forth.
  • Provide employees with the right tools. These include digital tools, as well as physical equipment. It should go without saying that employees must have the right tools in order to work efficiently and productively.
  • Deliver the proper training. Employee training, of course, is a crucial step in the onboarding process. Some claim that training begins when onboarding ends … but this doesn’t mesh with onboarding models that last for months or even years. The point: training should begin early and enhance skills quickly. 
  • Provide access to appropriate support channels. Support can include technical support, managerial support, HR support, and so forth. The more support that is offered during onboarding, the better the employee’s experience will be.
  • Monitor results. Track relevant data, such as training completion data, orientation information, and new hire surveys or feedback. Ensure that all items are completed successfully and that employees are satisfied.

Many businesses stop with the operations portion of the onboarding process.

Unfortunately, this neglects other important elements of the onboarding process, such as the “softer” social component.


The employee’s social experience has a profound impact on their work life. 

Positive experiences can motivate and engage employees, while negative experiences can literally drive them away from the organization.

Every employee onboarding checklist should include a social component, to ensure that new hires are integrating well into their teams, their department, and the organization as a whole.

Here are a few important items to include in your checklist:

  • Introduce workers to the right people. Workers should meet everyone relevant to their position early on, even if it is just a quick greeting. It can also be useful to assign certain coworkers, such as team leaders and super users, to pay close attention to new hires during onboarding and training.
  • Make employees feel welcome. Take active steps to open up communication channels and break down perceived walls. Even if this simply involves reassuring employees that managers’ doors are always open, employees should feel at home in their new workplace. Those that feel isolated or alienated will be more disengaged and less satisfied with their new job choice.
  • Explain the corporate culture and values. A workplace culture is built upon values, beliefs, and assumptions. If those are explained clearly, employees will better able to integrate themselves into that culture.

The social element may be considered “soft” because its impact is difficult to quantify.

However, cultural and social integration play an important role in the employee experience. In fact, “soft” social elements – such as cultural mismatches or poor management – can play a larger role in employee satisfaction than the other elements covered here.


At the end of the day, every employee must support the organization’s strategy and mission. 

It pays, therefore, to make that clear to employees, by ensuring that they:

  • Understand the organization’s strategy and mission. Explaining the organization’s mission is the first step to getting employees on board with it. Employees can then understand the “why” behind their job, which goes a long way towards adding meaning and purpose to their job.
  • Can relate to or identify with that mission. The more that employees can identify with the corporate agenda, the more they will support it through their work. 
  • Are the right fit for the company. Ideally, pre-hire communications will weed out employees who aren’t the right fit for the organization. However, in the event that inappropriate candidates do make it into the workforce, it is better to identify them early on.

Some of the items on this checklist will be for internal use – notes, comments, and evaluations, for instance.

Others can be accomplished through surveys, quizzes, polls, training tools, or other employee onboarding software.

Employee Onboarding Software

HR professionals will likely be working with a set of tools, ranging from HR platforms to digital adoption solutions.

Each tool has its place and can add value to the onboarding workflow.

Let’s look at a few of the most common software applications that can help improve the onboarding process:

HR Platforms

HR platforms are one-stop shops for HR professionals. 

These platforms assist with core HR functions, throughout the employee journey.

Common features of HR platforms include:

  • Payroll
  • Attendance tracking
  • Surveys 
  • Communication tools
  • Self-help portals
  • Document processing

To name a few.

As organizations grow in size, these platforms add more and more value. 

HR software add immense value not just to the employee onboarding process, but to the entire employee life cycle.

Project Management Tools

Project management tools are commonly used by many professionals, not just project managers.

These tools help organize workflows, tasks, and team projects.

Common features of project management tools include:

  • Checklists and kanban boards
  • Collaboration features, such as comments and chats
  • Calendars
  • Third-party integrations
  • Document uploading

Some project management tools have free versions, but if an organization has a subscription, then project templates can be very useful during the onboarding stage.

An onboarding project template, for instance, can include everything needed to guide an onboarding process: checklists, documents, deadlines, goals, a schedule, and so on.

Communication Tools

Workplace communications tools are also used extensively for employee onboarding. They can help employees stay in touch with the right people, 

These can include:

  • Workplace chat tools
  • Intranets
  • Email lists
  • Knowledge bases

To name just a few.

In many cases, an organization will have its own set of communication tools already. 

If not, there is no shortage of communication tools on the market, many of which are free. 


Analytics tools can be used in a variety of ways during onboarding:

  • To monitor employee productivity with their digital tools
  • To track employee training programs
  • For analyzing the onboarding program itself

Data sources can vary as widely as the analytics tools themselves.

What is more important than the specific analytics platform is how the data is integrated and used. In almost all cases, the more deeply a business examines its data, the greater the value it can extract from that data.

Regardless of the analytics platform, HR professionals and onboarding specialists can use that data to measure, understand, and improve their onboarding efforts.

How to Choose the Right Employee Onboarding Software

There are several things to consider when evaluating HR software and onboarding platforms, such as:

  • Existing technology stacks
  • The budget
  • Organizational strategy
  • Costs, benefits, and functionality
  • Third-party integrations
  • Workforce capabilities

As with any B2B buying decision, the adoption of technology is a complex process that involves many variables and parties.

The purchase decision, therefore, depends not just on HR’s needs, but also on the existing digital ecosystem within a business.

For that reason, HR professionals should focus less on individual tools, and more on the organization’s digital workflows.

How to Onboard Effectively in the Digital Age

New hires must often learn an array of new technologies when they enter a company.

This presents onboarding specialists with a challenge: how do you streamline the onboarding experience and maximize productivity?

In this scenario, employee training is not just a luxury – it makes a direct impact on performance, engagement, and the overall employee experience.

To onboard effectively in today’s digital workplace, HR professionals should:

  • Streamline the onboarding experience. Efficient, effective onboarding should incorporate both the offline and the online worlds. The digital onboarding experience, after all, represents an employee’s introduction to their new digital workplace. 
  • Minimize cognitive load and shorten learning curves. The simpler the onboarding experience, the more quickly employees can become competent and productive. Too much cognitive load – that is, mental effort – will increase frustration and decrease performance.
  • Maximize competency and productivity. Skill levels depend heavily on the quality of the training program. Effective digital training solutions can raise competency quickly, helping new hires become more productive, satisfied, and engaged in shorter time spans.

Great onboarding and training, in short, will help employees, their teams, and the organization as a whole.

Employees will be more engaged and motivated, improving their satisfaction and lowering frustration. 

And because they become more productive more quickly, they will contribute more value to their teams and the organization’s aims.

How Digital Onboarding and Adoption Can Help Streamline the Digital Workplace

An integrated, streamlined workplace is the ideal for any business. 

The more aligned, collaborative, and coordinated business units are, the better the organization will function as a whole.

For that reason, onboarding should focus not simply on employee training, but on effective adoption.

In the digital workplace, digital adoption is a process that plays a key role in:

  • Digital transformation
  • Employee training
  • Software implementation
  • User adoption
  • Employee onboarding

Digital adoption extends beyond the adoption of a single tool or platform, and instead aims at streamlining the entire digital workplace.

Digital adoption platforms (DAPs), for instance, are tools solely dedicated to digital adoption.

Implemented during onboarding, these platforms help:

  • Accelerate training. Digital adoption platforms, such as the WalkMe DAP, deliver contextualized guidance directly inside of the target application. 
  • Engage employees. New hires, regardless of skill level or background, can immediately learn even complex workflows. This helps them become more self-reliant, productive, and engaged.
  • Integrate digital workflows. Digital workflows span multiple tools and platforms, which is why training should be focused on practical application … not theories, features, or irrelevant tasks. DAPs focus on workflows and tasks, irrespective of which tools a company is using.
  • Raise productivity and proficiency. DAPs’ automated training can also be used to promote specific product features and train users without the need for human intervention. This can prevent employee skill levels from plateauing, raising workforce proficiency levels across the board.

DAPs operate independently of other platforms, so they can enhance workflows regardless of which tools a business uses.

Final Thoughts: The Future of Onboarding

In the digital age, onboarding is more than orientation – and it is more than just another step in the employee journey.

It is a crucial stage of the employee life cycle that can define the future of an employee’s career with a company.

That career can be short, long, productive, lackluster, valuable, or barely acceptable.

Onboarding – which affects the employee experience, their engagement levels, and their skill levels – has a large influence on how employee journeys play out.

In the future, it is likely that more organizations will recognize the importance of the onboarding process.

This is especially true in the digital business environment, which is undergoing constant change and transformation.

In such fast-paced digital workplaces, perpetual learning, organizational change, and evolution will become standard … which means that employee onboarding will play an even more valuable, pivotal role in the years to come.

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