New Hires Underperforming? Try This Employee Onboarding Checklist

Employee onboarding is an often overlooked process that can make or break great teams. To better help you tackle optimizing your own process, we’ve put together an employee onboarding checklist.

If you’re a business owner or manager, you’re likely painfully aware of how time-consuming and expensive hiring the right employees can be. Between placing ads, proactively recruiting, and carefully vetting and interviewing hundreds of candidates, the total cost of hiring a single new employee can easily surpass $50,000.

With stakes this high, it goes without saying that companies need to do everything they can to ensure that their employees are happy – and effective – enough to stay put. But how can the average company create a set of business practices that prevents the kind of excessive turnover that can devastate a bottom line? It starts with a robust employee onboarding checklist.

According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Foundation, as many as 1 in 25 employees leave their jobs on account of problems stemming from poor employee onboarding. The SHRM research reveals the true cost of poor employee onboarding with a wide variety of statistics, most notably:

  • 25% of American companies lose new employees within a year of their hiring, primarily due to poor employee onboarding.
  • Up to 20% of turnover occurs within the first 45 days of employment.
  • In the U.S. and U.K., the annual total costs associated with keeping unproductive employees who don’t understand their jobs amount to some $37 billion.
  • The productivity lost from new hires adjusting to a company learning curve can amount to as much as 1% to 2.5% of the company’s total revenues.
  • Fewer than 1 in 3 American executives are satisfied with their employee onboarding processes, and almost all of those who are dissatisfied admit that their poor employee onboarding reduces staff retention rates.

Qualitatively speaking, poor employee onboarding can result in the kind of bad outcomes that managers dread. On the one hand, a hire with the background, skill-set, and drive to become a bonafide company superstar might end up quickly leaving the company because she never gained a firm enough understanding of her role to deliver the results of which she was capable. On the other hand, if employee onboarding is too elongated, hands-off, or casual, managers risk being unable to identify a bad hire as early as desired simply because it takes months upon months for the new employee to get to a place where she is producing enough substantive work to be evaluated.

In either scenario, you will be introducing unnecessary stress and uncertainty into your new hire’s adjustment period, which is never a good way to kick off a working relationship. What’s more, insufficient employee onboarding processes have been shown to lead to lower employee morale, lower employee engagement, lower confidence levels among employees, and a general lack of trust in the company and its leadership.

Good employee onboarding is critical for 3 major reasons:

  1. Employee onboarding is the most powerful, consistently repeatable way to make new hires feel welcomed, supported, comfortable, and prepared.
  2. Employee onboarding maximizes the potential that a new hire will make real contributions to the company, not only in the short-term but over the span of their tenure.
  3. Employees who genuinely believe they are contributing to the team tend to be satisfied with their position, meaning good employee onboarding increases employee retention and allows a company to focus its attention and resources on endeavors more productive than an unending hiring cycle.

Of course, essential as it may be, good employee onboarding requires a not unsubstantial investment of time and (human) resources. For many companies these initial outlays function as a decisive disincentive, which is why it is so important that you maintain realistic expectations when attempting to refine your employee onboarding onboarding checklist practices.

Download the Free On-Boarding Checklist. Click here to get your copy.

First and foremost, it should be understood that even a finely-tuned employee onboarding checklist is not a magic wand. There is simply no way to guarantee that a new employee will be functioning at full force on Day 1 or Week 1 or even Month 1. Indeed, allowing an employee onboarding process ample time to unfold is part and parcel of what makes “good” employee onboarding. That being said, it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder, “How much time is ‘ample time?’” As with most questions in the business world, the answer varies.

How Long Does Good Employee Onboarding Take?

Ultimately, you should expect three to six months on average to bring an employee fully up to speed, though hires with relevant experience at direct competitors using similar systems, policies, and procedures may take less time. Formal training will be much shorter, of course, but companies must accept that proper employee onboarding entails far more than just “showing someone the ropes.” Here are some expectations to keep in mind off the bat:

  • The length of your employee onboarding process is determined in large part by your new hire’s existing competencies.
  • Just about every employee shows up on Day 1 with a “proficiency gap,” that is, a gap between where their skills and knowledge are and where they need to be.
  • As uncomfortable a truth as it may be, the average employee only operates with around 70% competence with respect to things like their company’s technical software and fine-grained policies.
  • Nearly all employees learn the basics of their position – it’s hard to stay employed for long without doing so – and most will eventually progress to an intermediate level of expertise, but few end up surpassing a mid-level competence threshold.

…As such, it’s helpful to remember that employee onboarding need not turn new hires into experts overnight; it only needs to provide them with the fundamentals they need to succeed down the line.

A few options for condensing the timeline for your employee onboarding:

  • The best way to streamline your onboarding and get your employees set up for success as quickly as possible is to establish organized and efficient procedures that can be replicated for each new hire. This is especially true when it comes to the HR side of the employee onboarding process. Nothing prevents hitting the ground running quite like spending your first day or two on the job filling out pages upon pages of forms unrelated to your actual work.
  • Incorporate technology like authorized digital signatures and secure cloud-based data storage enable HR departments to execute their duties virtually. As a result, it’s no longer unusual for an employee to be totally squared away with HR prior to even setting foot in the office.

Even with a firm corporate commitment to this type of ongoing, comprehensive employee onboarding, figuring out how to go about acting on such a commitment can be quite overwhelming. Luckily, employee onboarding is at the heart of what we do at Continu, so we’ve gone ahead and assembled an outline of best practices for employee onboarding that we hope will take some of the anxiety out of what is clearly an absolutely essential business process.

Steps to Take Before Day 1

Effective employee onboarding can be summed up in three words: preparation, preparation, preparation. If you try to rely on ad hoc processes, you’re inevitably going to leave something out, so make sure you draw up an employee onboarding agenda well in advance of your new hire’s first day. There are a number of things that this entails:

Get all of the requisite paperwork in order

Between W-4s, I-9s, non-disclosure agreements, non-compete agreements, and any number of other industry- or company-specific forms, it’s easy to let an employee’s first day be consumed by paperwork. But as mentioned above, modern technology makes it possible to get the ball rolling on these mountains of paperwork before the employee-to-be even sets foot in the office.

Download the Free On-Boarding Checklist. Click here to get your copy.

By encouraging a new hire to work on these forms prior to her official start-date, you ensure that her first day can be used to build momentum instead of feeling like an administrative slog. If for whatever reason you are unable or unwilling to handle your paperwork virtually, try to pre-fill whatever information you can on your paper forms so as to make completing them as quick and easy as possible.

Prepare the employee’s workstation

As an employer you want to make your new hire feel welcomed, and there’s no better way to do so than by providing her with a fully-furnished workplace “home.” Pointing someone to an empty cubicle just doesn’t cut it, and, in truth, conveys a lack of effort or concern on your part. Instead, consider furnishing your new hire’s workstation with:

  • Office basics like pens, paper, a phone, and a computer (if your employees are not expected to use their own)
  • Company-specific items like keys, personalized company business cards, an employee handbook, and the contact information of supervisors and key peers
  • Employee-specific information like logins and passwords and any outstanding paperwork
  • Branded swag like backpacks, hats, t-shirts or mugs so your new hire can show off their company pride from Day 1

Meet with the employee’s direct supervisor

Unless you are part of a super-lean startup, chances are the person who managed a new employee’s hiring won’t be the same person as their direct on-the-job supervisor. As such, in order to avoid embarrassing – and costly – mix-ups, you need to sit every supervisory stakeholder down and create a plan for the new hire before she arrives. What projects or tasks should you expect the new employee to complete in her first 30 days? What knowledge or skills should she possess after 90 days? Fixing firm, consensus answers to these kinds of questions makes it far easier to confidently communicate expectations to your new employee.

Create an employee onboarding checklist

In addition to consolidating all the substantive employee onboarding materials relevant to your new hire – perhaps with a learning management system (LMS) – it’s helpful to create a basic logistical checklist of everything that needs to be done to help your hire settle in. The details of such a checklist will vary depending on the nature of the hire, but the list should invariably include items addressing basics such as:

  • Which team members should the new hire speak to on her first day? A particular direct supervisor? A certain peer? A specific HR manager?
  • On which tools or platforms should the new hire be trained? What is your intra-office communication tool of choice? If the hire is an engineer, what software will she use? If she’s a marketer, what analytics tools are preferred?
  • Which accounts need to be set up before the new hire arrives? Gmail? Slack? Github? Trello? Continu?
  • Are there reading materials that the new hire should be given to help get her up to speed on ongoing projects to which she will be expected to contribute?
  • What small endeavors should the new hire tackle on Day 1 in order to start building momentum?

Ensure everyone is ready for the “big day”

At some point between your new hire accepting the job and their first day in the office, you need to communicate details about driving directions, parking, expected arrival time, dress code, lunch policies, and so on. It is also wise to brief your existing team members. Whether via a company-wide email or a quick announcement at an all-hands meeting, be sure to give your employees a little background on their new colleague, regardless of whether they will be working closely with each other or not. This prevents awkward “Who are YOU?” interactions on your new hire’s first day, which goes a long way toward creating a welcoming atmosphere.

Download this template at the bottom of the guide.

Steps to Take on Day 1 (or First Couple of Days)

If you’re careful to complete all of the above steps, you should be ready to go for your new hire’s first day. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can sit back and expect everything to take care of itself. You only get one chance to make a good first impression – and remember, 20% of turnover occurs within 45 days, so first impressions can be pivotal – and disorganized or insufficient Day 1 employee onboarding processes tend to leave a bad taste in employees’ mouths. Getting a start on any hard skill training that needs to be done is certainly important, but don’t forget to work on the following as well:

    1. Reinforce what your company stands for and what projects are top priorities

      Presumably you’ve spoken at some length with you new hire about your company’s value proposition and where you see the company heading in a year, five years, and so on. If not, you might need to reevaluate your interviewing procedures. In any case, it’s wise to reemphasize what makes your company unique within your particular market on a new hire’s first day. Are you the low-cost provider? Or, conversely, do you market your top-of-the-line product quality? Do you offer industry-leading maintenance? Do you pride yourself on forging personal connections with each and every one of your clients? It’s difficult for a new employee to add value to your company if she doesn’t understand the company’s general value proposition, so you need to spell this out clearly.

Download the Free On-Boarding Checklist. Click here to get your copy.
  1. Explain your company culture

    Again, you likely (hopefully) touched on company culture during the interview process, but driving it home on an employee’s first day never hurts. This can be accomplished by having your new hire read internal documents or external articles that you believe exemplify your company’s culture (or cultural aspirations) or, perhaps more effectively, by encouraging team members to speak with the employee in a relaxed, supervisor-free environment throughout the day.

  2. Lay out your expectations 

    As with most things in business, employee onboarding is most successful when it involves open, honest communication. It may seem like buttering them up, but don’t hesitate to explain to a new hire precisely why you hired them. Whether you were attracted to their skills and experience or their attitude and work ethic, make it clear that they have something, some “it factor,” that prompted you to hire them. Now, there’s no need to lie or fabricate a reason. If your new hire is generally unremarkable but has one very specific, very refined skill, just tell them! This can take the form of a statement like, “I hired you because you are exceptional at X, and I’m counting on you to crush X.” Then, within the context of this discussion, offer an outline of your expectations, including:

    1. What projects or tasks will your new hire work on? How will she contribute to the company from Day 1?
    2. What are your new hire’s responsibilities? Is she in charge of overseeing any teams or managing any subordinates?
    3. What are your performance goals for your new hire? What are her goals for herself, and for the company?
    4. What deliverables are expected in the first 30 days? The first 60 days? The first 90 days?
    5. There’s nothing wrong with making a point of conveying high expectations for your new hire, but remember not to overwhelm your employee on her first day and not to set unreasonable goals that will lead to burnout.
  3. Have work prepared for your new hire to take on 

    Of course, you’re going to appear rather unprofessional if you finish outlining expectations for your new hire and then have to scramble to find something for them to do on their first day. It is absolutely critical that you have a project – no matter how small – for your new hire to complete on Day 1, as allowing her to jump right in will help reinforce the fact that she can be – and is expected to be – a real contributor to the team. Try to avoid assigning busy work or tasks that won’t typically be part of the new employee’s workload. If you hired them, you should trust them to start on real work ASAP.

Steps to Take Throughout the First Month (and Beyond)

As mentioned above, thorough employee onboarding takes anywhere from three to six months for the average employee. Unfortunately, there isn’t any secret hack to accelerate this timeline, so as a manager you simply must take some deep breaths and let your established long-term employee onboarding procedures unfold. These should, at minimum, include the following:

  1. Help develop your employee’s knowledge foundation 

    Remember, it’s unrealistic to expect a new hire to become an expert within their first week at work, so you’ve got to support their knowledge acquisition over time. This starts with providing detailed training manuals, client profiles, informative books, and other relevant written materials, but it shouldn’t end there. According to Bersin by Deloitte, up to 80% of workplace learning happens via on-the-job interactions with peers and supervisors, and formalizing these interactions within a mentor-mentee framework is a great way to help your new employee build their knowledge base.

Indeed, even though it may cost you some productivity in the short-term, it’s usually worth it to encourage your company’s mentors to prioritize their mentorship roles over their own work for the first couple of weeks that their mentee is on the job. The employee development that this kind of close mentoring enables will pay huge dividends in the long-term, more than recuperating the senior employee’s time investment.

    1. Integrate the new employee into the team 

      As with any group situation, your new employee may be reluctant to dive head-first into office socialization. It’s human nature to want to stand back, assess social power dynamics and how each person interacts with everyone else, and only then participate in workplace conversations. Since this impedes informal mentorship and discourages your new employee from seeking clarification from workplace “strangers,” you should make an effort to help your new employee integrate themselves into your office culture as quickly as possible. Building a welcoming company culture and supporting formal mentorship programs are helpful in this regard, but you should also make a point of casually introducing your new hire to everyone in the office – even if they are in an entirely different department – over the course of the employee’s first month.

Download the Free Employee OnBoarding Checklist. Click here to get your copy.
  1. Check in frequently 

    While it’s important to strike the right balance between being attentive and being overbearing, as a manager it’s incumbent upon you to check in with your new hire early and often. Consider adhering to the following check-in schedule for every new employee, regardless of experience:

  • End of Day 1
  • End of Day 3
  • End of Week 1
  • End of Week 2
  • After 30 days
  • After 60 days
  • After 90 days

Not only should these checks-in involve assessing the progress your new employee has made, they should also serve as an opportunity to solicit frank feedback from your worker. Do they feel comfortable in their role? Do they desire additional formal training for a particular skill? Have they established supportive working relationships with their peers and supervisors? Make it clear that there’s no wrong answer and that constructive criticism of the employee onboarding process is more than welcome.

Final Thoughts

In the end, good employee onboarding is just as much about making your new hire feel comfortable and well-positioned to succeed as it is about formal training. Both components are necessary, but focusing on one without the other amounts to laying the foundations for a bad outcome. Nobody wants to walk into their dream job on their first day and find that their peers and supervisors are disorganized or disinterested in helping them settle in, and good employee onboarding prevents this nightmare scenario.

Of course, onboarding is not an on/off switch, not a hard good/bad binary, and crafting an onboarding process that is optimized for your industry and your company takes a concerted effort by your entire team. You may not get it perfect on the first go-round, but if you follow the guidance outlined above, you should be well on your way to an onboarding process capable of building stronger workplace relationships, creating better-informed employees, and making your company a great place to work.

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