Five Biggest Mistakes in Onboarding: What the Research Says…

This article first appeared in my Newsletter in the October 2013 issue. You can sign up for my newsletter by clicking here.


Onboarding is ubiquitous. Every organization does it. Some do it with great fanfare. Some make a substantial investment. Some just let supervisors get their new hires up to speed. Unfortunately, most organizations make critical mistakes in onboarding—mistakes that increase turnover, raise costs, weaken employee loyalty, and lower productivity.

Fortunately, recent research highlights onboarding best practices. If organizations would just use the wisdom from the research, they’d save themselves money, time, and resources—and employees in those companies would have to deal with many fewer headaches.

Key Outcomes

Recent reviews of the research suggest that there four key outcomes that enable onboarding success:

  1. New hires have to quickly and effectively learn their new job role.
  2. New hires have to feel a sense of self-efficacy in doing their job.
  3. New hires have to learn the organizational culture.
  4. New hires have to gain acceptance and feel accepted by their coworkers.

Enabling Factors

Recent research suggests that the following factors are helpful in ensuring onboarding success:


What New Hires Can Do

  1. Be proactive in learning and networking
  2. Be open to new ways of thinking and acting
  3. Be active in seeking information and getting feedback
  4. Be active in building relationships

What the Organization Can Do

  1. Ensure that managers take a very active and effective role
  2. Provide formal orientations that go beyond information dissemination
  3. Provide realistic previews of the organization and the job
  4. Proactively enable new hires to connect with long-tenured employees


Five Biggest Mistakes
(In Reverse Order of Importance)

5—Providing an Information Dump during Orientation

The research shows that employee orientations can facilitate onboarding. However, too many organizations think their orientations should just cram tons of information down the throats of employees. Even worse are orientations that have employees sit and listen to presentation after presentation. Oh the horror. New employees are excited to get going. Putting them into the prison of listening—even to great content—is a rudeness that shouldn’t be tolerated. The best orientations help build relationships. They get employees involved. They prepare new hires for how to learn and grow and network on their own. They help new hires learn the organization culture—both the good and the bad. They share the organization’s vision, passions, and its strategic concerns.

4—Thinking that Training is Sufficient

Training can be essential to help get new employees competent in their new roles, but it is NEVER sufficient on its own. Training should be supported by prompting mechanisms (like job aids), structures and support for learning on the job, reinforcement and follow-through, and coaching to provide feedback, set goals, and lend emotional support.

3—Forgetting the Human Side of Onboarding

New hires are human beings, and, just like the rest of us, they too are influenced by the dynamics of social interaction. They don’t just learn to do a job. They also learn to love and trust a company, a work unit, or a group of coworkers—or they don’t. In return, new hires are either trusted and respected by their coworkers or they’re not.  The research is very clear about this. One of the keys to successful onboarding is the strength of the relationships that are built in the first year of a person’s tenure. The stronger the bonds, the more likely it is that a person will stay and bring value to the organization.

2—Considering Onboarding as Something that Can Be Done Quickly

Some companies offer a one week orientation and then cut loose their new hires to sink or swim. Enlightened companies, on the other hand, realize that onboarding is like relationship-building—it takes time. It takes time to really learn one’s job well. It takes time to integrate into the organizational culture. It takes time to connect with people. Realistic estimates suggest that onboarding can take 6 months, 12 months, or even 18 months to fully integrate a person into a new organization.

1—Not Preparing Supervisors

Supervisors are the single most important leverage point for onboarding success. You’ve probably heard it said that people don’t quit their companies, they quit their supervisors. Well, the flip side can also be said. People don’t join a company, they join a supervisor and his/her workgroup. Unfortunately, most supervisors just have no idea about the importance of onboarding and how to do it correctly. Where best practices give supervisors training and an onboarding checklist, too many supervisors just wing it. The real tragedy is that the investment in onboarding training and a checklist for supervisors is quite small in the greater scheme of things.

Final Thoughts on Onboarding

As a workplace learning-and-performance consultant, when I’ve been called in to advise companies on their onboarding programs, I often see incredibly dedicated professionals who are passionate about welcoming new people into their organizations. Unfortunately, too many times, I see organizations that have the wrong mental models about what makes onboarding successful. It’s a shame that our old mental models keep us from effectiveness—when the research on onboarding now gives us sound prescriptions for making onboarding successful.