From Average to World-Class: Your Onboarding/Orientation Program, Part 2

This checklist continues last week’s article about comparing your onboarding program against the design components of a “world-class” onboarding program.

Part 3: Operational Design Components


The last level of components for world-class onboarding programs is still important, even though they are more operational in nature. They include the following:

  1. A written and integrated plan. World-class onboarding programs have a short written plan that is integrated with the overall business plan, the HR plan, and the recruiting plan. In addition, hiring managers and those impacted by the onboarding program should be involved upfront in the program design and planning process.
  2. A compelling business case. The program design must include the development of a compelling business case that convinces the chief financial officer, as well as line managers, that the onboarding program will directly improve their individual business results.
  3. Prioritized jobs. Because there is never enough budget, world-class onboarding programs prioritize and focus their talent, time, and resources toward onboarding individuals in mission-critical jobs, critical business units, and in jobs with a significant revenue impact.
  4. Continuous improvement and testing of system effectiveness. The onboarding program should have a formal process for continuously assessing and improving its processes and output results by assessing each onboarding success and failure and then feeding back the information to process managers. In addition, World-class onboarding programs periodically use “mystery shoppers” to identify system problems.
  5. Ownership by management. The onboarding program design should make it clear that onboarding problems and processes are owned by hiring managers. Managers must realize that they suffer the most when poor onboarding takes place.
  6. Individual accountability. Responsible individuals must also be rewarded or punished based primarily on program performance.
  7. Best practice sharing. The onboarding program must have a formal design component for the rapid identification, sharing between business units, and the adoption of best practices related to onboarding.
  8. Risk-taking for improvement. The onboarding program must have design features that encourage periodic experimentation, pilot tests, split samples, and reasonable risk-taking, as long as rapid learning occurs after a failure.
  9. Data-based decision-making. Major onboarding program design and resource decisions must be made based primarily on data, rather than just on emotion or historical practice.
  10. Uses the latest technology. The onboarding process should be paperless and offer additional information on an exclusive onboarding website.
  11. External recognition. Although world-class programs maintain their competitive advantage by keeping their critical design components relatively secret, world-class onboarding programs eventually do receive some external recognition. This includes winning ERE Recruiting Excellence Awards or Optimas awards; being highlighted in major HR, recruiting, and general business publications; being included in benchmark studies; and/or being featured in academic case studies.
  12. The program avoids common onboarding program killers. Some examples that keep your program from reaching world-class status or may cause it to fail:
    • Letting the program be run 100% by the benefits function, which almost guarantees “death by form” (i.e., boredom and loss of enthusiasm as a result of filling out forms all day).
    • Over-reliance on videotapes and slideshows, with little time for interaction.
    • Not having a “local component” of onboarding at the departmental level in addition to the corporate component.
    • Failing to make effective onboarding as part of a manager’s performance appraisal and bonus process.
    • Failing to reward the onboarding program manager and the manager of each independent HR and non-HR component of the process, based on program performance.

Part 4: Program Metrics

  1. Corporate metrics for assessing world-class onboarding and orientation. Onboarding is no different from any other business process: if it is to meet its goals and continually improve, it must use metrics and measures. Because the language of business is dollars, all key metrics must also be converted to dollar impact. Key metrics for onboarding should include the average time to minimum productivity, average retention rates during the first three months, manager and new-hire satisfaction rates with the onboarding process, and the program’s return-on-investment. The following is a list of possible corporate metrics that can be used to determine whether your program is world class. I recommend that you work with the CFO’s office early on to ensure that the metrics you pick have credibility and will be relied on by senior management. Some of the possible metrics you might consider include:Business impact metrics
    • The average time in days it takes to reach the minimum productivity expectations for new hires (often compared by job family).
    • Voluntary turnover rates of new hires in the first six months.
    • Diversity voluntary turnover rates in the first six months.
    • Percent of involuntary terminations of new hires in the first six months.
    • The percentage of times that the proscribed (needed) development and training classes were available to the new hire within two weeks of hire date (and that were successfully completed).
    • Number of referrals by new hires that are hired by the organization with them six months of their starting date.
    • When tested in a random sample, the percentage of designated “essential information” that is actually retained by new hires after one month.
    • The percentage of hires, when surveyed after six months on the job, who rank onboarding as a “major or critical contributor” to their performance.
    • The percentage of hires who left the firm within six months, who cited onboarding (in a post-exit survey), as a contributor to their leaving/failure.
    • Since one of the goals of onboarding is to identify, and eventually eliminate, barriers to productivity, you need a metric to track the number of barriers that new hires encountered that were identified and how long before these barriers were reduced or eliminated.
    • The dollar impact of onboarding activities on the business and the program’s return on investment.

    Satisfaction measures

    • New-hire satisfaction rates (including separate metrics on high priority hires and diversity hires) with both corporate and “local” onboarding processes after one month and six months (Note: this metric can reflect onboarding’s impact on your employment brand).
    • Percentage of hiring managers who are satisfied with onboarding (from a survey).

    Program delivery

    • The percentage of new hires who had no trouble receiving their first paycheck, IDs, receiving benefits, or receiving telephone and computer equipment.
    • When surveyed in a random sample, the percentage of designated “essential onboarding program elements” that were not delivered to new hires within the first month.
    • Average number of days, after an acceptance offer, before onboarding/orientation begins.
    • The percentage of new hires who receive “customized information” that fit their particular needs, business unit, and/ or job family.


    • Have a separate metric for every major onboarding program goal you have set. This data covered in these metrics is used both to provide evidence to senior management of the value of great onboarding/orientation and also provide HR with an opportunity to further refine the onboarding process and to mass-customize the information that is provided to future new hires.

Part 5: How Does Onboarding Differ From Orientation?

  1. Clearly defining the difference between onboarding and orientation. Because there is disagreement as to how the two programs differ, it is important to define how onboarding differs from orientation. The traditional process of getting new hires up to speed has been known for years as orientation. More recently, onboarding has become a variation on the term orientation, and has become more popular. Although there is no official definition of the two terms, here is the distinction that I have found to be the most useful:

    Orientation generally means…

    The term orientation has for years meant the narrower range of corporate activities controlled by the orientation coordinator, the payroll, the employee ID, and the benefits departments related to “sign up’s” and providing basic information. The goals of traditional orientation are relatively narrow. They are to get you on the payroll, signed up for benefits, and to give you a brief overview of the company’s culture, products, and values. Most orientation programs are corporate-driven and have no “local” component.

    Onboarding generally means…

    The broader term onboarding has a more comprehensive reach and a broader perspective. The primary difference between onboarding and orientation is that onboarding has as its goal decreasing the time it takes for a new hire to reach the minimum expected productivity level on the job. This business impact and results perspective is the primary differentiator from orientation, which has a process focus.

    Onboarding differs from orientation in the following ways:

    • Goal. The primary goal is to get new hires productive as fast as possible.
    • Integration. It coordinates and integrates both HR and non-HR functions to ensure there is no delay in reaching productivity (i.e., payroll, benefits, employee ID, computer access, telecommunications, and training).
    • Local component. It includes a “local” component where managers continue the onboarding process to ensure that the employee meets the right people, knows how they will be assessed and rewarded, understands the business goals, and learns all necessary resources.
    • Continuous process. It is a continuous process that starts the minute the person accepts the offer and it is a continuous process that might go on for weeks rather than just one day.
    • Metrics. Results are measured using performance metrics and they are then quantified into dollars. The primary measure of success is the time to productivity for new hires but in addition, ROI, retention rates, and both manager and new-hire satisfaction are constantly measured.
    • Feedback loop. The causes of successes and failures are communicated to ensure that every process continually improves.
    • A primary function. Rather than being considered an overhead or back-office function, onboarding is given primary status as a business impact function that directly impacts business results. Although others are involved, it is “owned” by line managers because it is their business results that suffer if onboarding is not done correctly.
    • Customization. The onboarding process prioritizes jobs, new hires in business units, and focuses the most time and resources on those who have the biggest impact on business results and where great onboarding has a significant impact on decreasing time to productivity. In addition, there are variations in the onboarding process to provide different information and in the appropriate formats to diverse individuals and individuals working in different geographic in business unit locations.
    • Remote. While most orientation is done face-to-face, onboarding programs include the capability to onboard individuals remotely using technology.

Final comments

Most onboarding programs are poorly designed and have limited goals; as a result, they produce limited results. This is true even though there is data to show that great onboarding can improve productivity, retention, error rates, customer satisfaction, and even your employment brand. If your organization is ready to break away from the pack in this underappreciated area, use this checklist to begin your design process.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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