What is onboarding?

Onboarding is the first real live experience of a new employee in your organization. And that goes beyond getting to know each other and explaining how the coffee machine works. What exactly does onboarding mean, why is professional onboarding so important and what does it yield?

What is onboarding?

What is onboarding?

Onboarding consists of all activities that lead to employees becoming familiar with their function and the organizational culture 

Onboarding consists of all activities that lead to employees becoming familiar with their function and the organizational culture. Effective onboarding also supports employees in building their own network within the organization and in translating organizational goals into personal ones.

Onboarding can also have a strong motivational effect, as employees are then proud of having chosen this job and this organization. Good onboarding should ideally be a mutual process where employees and employers maintain a dialog to align their expectations.

Five main goals of the onboarding process

Onboarding has five main goals:

  • To motivate and support employees to perform independently quickly
  • To align mutual expectations
  • To clarify how employees can contribute to organizational goals
  • To help employees to connect with colleagues and the organization
  • To innovate from within the organization based on feedback from newcomers

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To make onboarding a real success, the following is important:

1. Onboarding goes beyond the content

"Some organizations see onboarding as a kind of extended introduction," says onboarding expert Ardiënne Verhoeven of Workwonders. "Their focus is mainly on content. But new employees also go through a socialization process during onboarding. This is where they get to know the organizational culture and to build their own network within the organization. If this is done properly, it gradually increases their commitment to the organization." If employees really get excited about their new work environment, that gives them a lasting boost. "Good onboarding increases employee commitment and reduces turnover."

2. Onboarding usually takes more than two weeks

As a rule, onboarding takes more than two weeks. Verhoeven: "People often refer to an onboarding period of 90 days, but in reality, the period varies depending on the job and organization. So a shelf stacker will probably only need one or two evenings, but the leader of a team of shelf stackers would need more. And making sure a CEO is fully familiar with all aspects of the organization takes at least six months."

3. Onboarding starts before the first working day

Onboarding can also start before the first working day. "During the period before employees start their new job, they are particularly open to anything linked to their new role and organization. If you don't use this period for 'preboarding', you really are missing an opportunity. By maintaining regular contact with employees, you can, for example, give them access to introductory material on the Intranet in advance, or invite them to team or organizational meetings." 

4. New employees need autonomy quickly

If employees are to be able to work independently quickly, they need the right resources and plenty of room to make their own decisions. Verhoeven: "One prerequisite for feeling motivated in your work is autonomy. This automatically means that managers must give new team members sufficient responsibility from onboarding onwards. If a manager is constantly keeping tabs, an employee cannot be autonomous, as they must be able to make decisions for themselves and decide how to implement them. This not only improves performance, but also increases commitment and motivation, so employees quickly feel that they can use their own competencies and really make a contribution."

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5. Onboarding is an opportunity for the organization to innovate

Onboarding is an opportunity for employers to learn from the experience brought by new employees and to innovate from within, so it's important to create an atmosphere where this social innovation is actually possible. Verhoeven: "So it's important not to say ‘that's how you do it’, but to wait a few weeks and then ask: 'what would you change, based on your professional background?' This is a quick way to make someone feel that they are standing on their own two feet and it will give the organization a better opportunity to really benefit from the new employee's knowledge and skills."

Verhoeven gives an example: "Suppose a new sales representative concludes after a few weeks that preparations for customer meetings aren't as good as he was used to in the past. Then the entire organization may learn something from this person's approach. That's why you shouldn't wait four months and then say you're going to give them some feedback. Instead, you need to ensure that people can ask questions and make suggestions for change on a daily basis." 

6. New employees want to make a contribution

If new employees are given the opportunity to show what they can contribute during the onboarding process, this can be very motivating.

Verhoeven: "New employees want to demonstrate their competencies and show what they can add, particularly if they are going to be in a management or senior role. They are rarely listened to, however, and the only response is often: This is how we do things here. Professionals really do encounter this attitude and that's a real shame."

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7. Onboarding is about managing mutual expectations

Effective onboarding means maintaining an ongoing dialog

Effective onboarding means maintaining an ongoing dialog. Verhoeven: "This is where both parties align their expectations about the job description, the processes within the organization and the culture. Together they look at how the new employee can contribute as much as possible and how the organization can support them to do this. All in all, it's about finding a good way of working together, within the team and the organization."

You should therefore check regularly whether these expectations still match up with each other. Verhoeven: "Ask them questions like: 'How do you think things are going? Do the job and organization meet your expectations? Are we delivering what we promised? And if not, what can we do about it?’"

8. New employees need a permanent contact person

Set up a permanent onboarding contact person for each new employee. Verhoeven: "That might be a colleague within a self-managing team, for example, but the manager can also guide a new employee — it depends on the organizational culture, the job and the person. A junior employee will probably be happy being guided by an older colleague, but if someone has a little more experience and the organization is very hierarchical, it may be better if the manager takes on that role." This personal attention shouldn't end after the first two weeks. "You need to continue with it for as long as necessary."

9. Honesty is the best policy

To ensure that new employees stay with the organization for as long as possible, it's important to be honest about organizational culture from the very beginning. Verhoeven: "A lot of how an organization works, the culture and team dynamics, is often invisible at first, so it's important to talk about this explicitly at the earliest possible stage. The best time for this is while you're recruiting, before the applicant says yes."

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This isn't just about the attractive aspects of organizational culture. "If it's absolutely normal for employees to work overtime on a regular basis, or if it's not acceptable for employees to run their own small business alongside their job, you must make that clear as well."

Failure to do so will result in misunderstandings that will cause problems sooner or later. "For example, if you say as an organization that openness is important, but a new employee gets strange reactions after giving feedback, that will cause disappointment."

The same applies to organizations with a very direct culture. "That's important for employees to know, because not everyone can handle it. Companies are often reluctant to share this type of information because they're afraid that people will turn jobs down. But that attitude increases the risk that employees will quickly pack their bags, because their initial enthusiasm isn't based on reality."

10. Onboarding is also required for an internal career step

Onboarding is also important for people who change jobs within the organization, not just for employees who join from outside the organization. This might be a new job in another department, division or operating company, but a major change in the role or the addition of management tasks can also have a major impact. "Employees in all of these situations can feel just as much of a newcomer as someone who has just joined from outside the organization."

11. Don't wait for three months before evaluating

If an employee has doubts about their new job during onboarding, as an organization, you want to know that as soon as possible. “If someone doesn't feel they are in the right place, doesn't feel at home or doesn't know what is important, you want to know very quickly. You don't want to wait for three months." So make sure newcomers are clear on what they can do if they have any doubts about the job and the organization and who they can talk to in confidence. And onboarding research can also help to prevent early offboarding.

Ardiënne Verhoeven

Ardiënne Verhoeven founded Workwonders in 2000 as a consultancy company specializing in onboarding and recruitment. She has written two books about onboarding, including Onboarding: het managen van verwachtingen (Onboarding: managing expectations). Ardiënne Verhoeven studied law and business administration at the University of Groningen (RUG). She then spent eight years as HR manager at KPN and Unilever, where she gained experience in areas including recruitment, selection, coaching and developing management talent.

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