Use Onboarding to Gain a Competitive Advantage

Onboarding New Employees

Onboarding:  A Competitive Advantage

“Onboarding is not a nice-to-have, but rather a need-to-have.” — Kevin Martin, research director at Human Capital Management

Few people would argue with Kevin Mar- tin’s statement about the importance of onboarding. One possible exception might be someone whose sole experience with onboarding has been sitting through a long and incredibly boring program that focused only on some bureaucratic minutiae (such as the company’s dress code policy). In that case, though, it’s probably safe to say that such a program is something that no one wants to “have” at all!

Why care about onboarding? There’s a simple two-word answer to that question: competitive advantage.

A competitive advantage is what enables an organization to stay ahead of its competition. It’s based on many factors, but one of the most influential is employee innovation in new and better ways to deliver products and services. To achieve
this innovation, a company not only needs to hire and retain the brightest and best employees, but it must also enable them to function at their peak capacity.

It can take a while for new hires (even people who bring years of relevant experience to their new jobs) to hit their stride at a new company because they first need to learn to navigate the organization’s cultural norms, corporate procedures, and internal approval processes. Therefore the sooner HR can teach them the ins and outs of getting business done in the organization, the sooner they can provide strategic innovation in their respective roles. And that’s where onboarding comes in: it’s the process by which new hires obtain the vital knowledge that makes it possible for them to be most effective—and innovative—at their jobs.

With all of that in mind, it’s clear that onboarding is no mere “nice-to-have” but rather a “need-to-have” that accomplishes three goals:

  • Improve retention
    · Decrease time to productivity
    · Enable faster cultural indoctrination

Once a candidate accepts a job offer, the clock starts ticking on how quickly he or she can begin contributing to the company’s bottom line—or how quickly “buyer’s remorse” sets in. If an organization doesn’t bring its A game to onboarding, new hires might become disengaged before they’ve even started working there!

In many companies, onboarding falls under the HR umbrella, but that doesn’t mean management should ignore it. Because a manager’s direct reports go through the onboarding process, he or she should have a strong interest in making sure that their introduction to the company sets them up for future success. Regardless of who’s “officially” in charge of onboarding, it’s critical that managers and HR alike stay informed about (and involved with) their companies’ onboarding programs. To maximize their effectiveness, those programs should include the following strategies.


Around 90% of employees decide whether or not to stay with a company within their first six months there.1 The longer the time between the employee’s first day and his or her participation in an onboard- ing program, the less time the organization has to influence the employee’s “stay or go” decision. In addition, it typically takes new hires 3 to 12 months to become fully proficient in their positions, so starting the onboarding process as early as possible can help shorten this window so that the company can start to benefit sooner from the employee’s expertise.


Who is the customer for the onboarding process: the new hire—or his or her manager? Although both parties have some overlap in their interests, the manager (and, by extension, the company) will certainly place the highest value on topics that help a new employee to be productive sooner. New hires do need to learn basic company information (such as benefits, policies, and procedures). But when organizations share that information with employees prior to the start of their onboarding process, they can instead use that time to shore up new hires’ confidence and ability to tackle their new assignments.


Nothing says “You’re valued!” quite like the CEO or other senior leaders showing up during orientation to welcome new recruits personally. In fact, a recent study by the Association for Talent Development suggests a correlation between low effectiveness of onboarding programs and low direct participation rates of senior employees in those programs, with one survey respondent observing that “the key to effective onboarding is the level of leader engagement across the function and the entire organization.”2 More involvement of senior leaders can increase positive perceptions of the onboarding process, which in turn can help new employees feel fired up and ready to contribute right from the start.

Who hasn’t sat through an incredibly boring onboarding program that lasted for hours and felt more like an endurance test than an introduction to the company? From their own personal experience, HR and managers already know that those kinds of programs can kill new employees’ enthusiasm. If companies want employees to be engaged at their jobs, they need to foster that engagement right
from the start. So don’t use onboarding time to review important-but-dull company policies. Instead, ask new hires to read those documents ahead of time (remember, they are excited about joining the organization, so odds are good they will do their homework!) and spend just a brief segment of the meeting making sure they understand that informa- tion (perhaps with a short quiz, for example).

For the bulk of the onboarding time, focus on the information and goals that will set employees up for success in their new roles:

· Introductions to key executives
· The importance of the new hire’s responsibilities · Establishing mentoring relationships (both formal and informal)
· Product knowledge
· Company culture and norms
· Quality initiatives (or campaigns focused on other key areas)
· Networking and building relationships with other new hires
· Training opportunities to continue learning and growth

Performance accountability and rewards system TAILOR ONBOARDING TO THE AUDIENCE.

An employee’s position on the company organiza- tional chart should play a factor in determining what onboarding process he or she needs. In general,
the more senior the employee, the more strategic the topics his or her onboarding should cover. For example, onboarding for new college graduates
is likely to address the basics of everyday life in corporate America (such how to break the ice with older employees and how to manage up), whereas onboarding for a director or vice president might include topics such as mission, vision, and values (and how they in fuse his or her work) or future growth plans for the company.


Onboarding should not be a “one and done” proposition. In fact, the best onboarding programs check in at 30, 60, and 90 days to ensure that new hires’ expectations are being met. These check-ins also help managers and HR see if there’s anything they can do to boost new employees’ productivity. Additionally, they serve as opportunities to discuss training, mentoring, and other programs that can increase new hires’ engagement at the organization.

At the conclusion of the initial onboarding, ask new hires about what they thought were the most—and the least—valuable aspects of the program. Then ask them again for feedback at the 90-day check-in, which is enough time for them to have some perspective and perhaps suggestions for additional topics that they think should be covered in future onboarding programs.

When done well, onboarding can lead to great employee engagement, which in turn can decrease turnover, increase job satisfaction, and improve performance levels. Together, all of these factors have a strong impact on nearly every aspect of the organization, including productivity, quality, and reputation—and profit. By engaging employees from day 1 through an onboarding program that is interesting, relevant, and useful, a company can gain a competitive advantage that directly, rapidly, and positively affects its bottom-line results.

Valerie M. Grubb of Val Grubb & Associates Ltd. ( is an innovative and visionary operations leader with an exceptional ability to zero in on the systems, processes, and personnel issues that can hamper a company’s growth. She is the author of Planes, Canes, and Automobiles:

Connecting with Your Aging Parents through Travel (Greenleaf, 2015) and Clash of the Generations: Managing the New Workplace Reality (Wiley, 2016). She can be reached at

1. Aberdeen Group. 2006. “Onboarding Benchmark Report: Technology Drivers Help Improve the New Hire Experience.”

2. Ryann Ellis. 2017. “Senior Leader Involvement: Missing Ingredient of Onboarding.” Association for Talent Development website, September 12, insights/senior-leader-involvement-missing-ingredient- of-onboarding.

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