The Complete Guide to Successful Onboarding and Training

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onboarding and training small business guide

It’s a new employee’s first day on the job, and contrary to startup convention, proper onboarding does not just mean providing him or her with a brand new iPad and an abundance of swag to represent the company.

New employee onboarding is the single most important thing you can do to ensure the long-term success of not only that employee, but your company overall.

Companies that implement strong onboarding processes have significantly better employee retention, employee satisfaction, and overall productivity levels. If you are the type of person that looks for hard numbers to justify programs, check out this infographic to see just how much improper onboarding can cost an organization.

Successful onboarding doesn’t stop at the end of a new hire’s first day, however. As you continue to scale your business, you’ll need to implement a more formal training process to succeed with your hires. As more and more people come on board, the informal training process you started out with won’t cut it.

A formal onboarding process can be treated as a living, breathing thing that you hone and improve over time, but getting a formula in place early will ensure no new hire slips through the cracks.

Levers that maximize new hire success

The Society for Human Resource Management—one of the largest HR membership organizations—has put together an excellent guideline series on maximizing success during new employee onboarding.

While the guide is focused on Fortune 500 companies and their processes, their outline of the four “levers” that maximize onboarding success can be applied to any size company. Think of these levers as the desired outcomes that any employee should feel at the end of their onboarding time.

1. Confidence in job performance

The more that you can help your new employee feel confident about his or her job and role at the company, the more motivated they’ll be—and eventually, they’ll be more successful.

2. Role clarity

This is arguably the most difficult step for a small business since so many of us wear multiple hats, but it is so incredibly important. Surprisingly, measures of role clarity are among the most consistent predictors of job satisfaction. This means making sure that your new employee is 100 percent aware of role expectations.

3. Social integration

New employees need to feel socially at ease and accepted by peers. High-quality relationships lead to less turnover and a stronger commitment to the organization—no surprise there.

4. Knowledge of culture

When hiring for a position, most organizations place an extreme amount of importance on how likely the interviewee is to fit into their company culture, but too frequently it stops there. Understanding a company’s goals, values, and unique approach is essential to ensuring the new employee’s long-term success.

How to create an effective onboarding program

The question then becomes, “How do you ensure that you are achieving these desired outcomes with every new hire?”

To that end, here’s a helpful guide on creating an effective onboarding and training program.

1. Determine baseline knowledge and create documentation

Before you can implement a new onboarding procedure, you’ll need to lay the groundwork as an organization. Determine who will head up this process for your company and within each department. To be effective, your senior leaders, as well as your managers, need to buy into the new process. They need to understand your company’s values, and that starts with getting their input. 

It helps to have one person run point on organizing, getting input from stakeholders, and implementing everything related to training. Founders and CEOs will likely want to be (and should be) involved at least in the formation of the program. The person in your organization handling human resources responsibilities might also be an asset, in part because one of your goals is to ensure that parts of the onboarding process are standardized. Meaning, every new hire gets the same general onboarding (along with specific job training), in the same way that everyone fills out tax paperwork on their first day. 

To make sure everyone is on the same page, start small by deciding what general, must-know aspects of your business you want to emphasize for each and every hire.

2. Create training team(s)

When new hires start, there should be a rough schedule for them to follow to get up to speed on everything related to the business and their role. Determine what the ideal training schedule looks like and then backfill who handles each aspect of the onboarding. It’ll be different for hires in different departments, and at differing levels of responsibility, but the goal is to set a framework that you can reuse, bringing in the right people as necessary. 

For instance, your CEO might want to kick off day one by greeting the new hire and sitting down with them to welcome them to the business. After that greeting, training programs will begin and be run by team leads from various departments—sales, marketing, operations, product, and so on.

3. Develop an employee handbook

Ideally, your departments will create a quick “employee handbook” of sorts that employees can have on file. You will want to balance the amount of time and effort you put into creating this depending on the stage and maturity of your business. If you are still finding product-market fit and what works within each core aspect of your business, it might not make sense to document processes yet.

Either way, it’s always good to have information and expectations in writing that you and your hire can refer back to, whether it’s a Word document, PDF, presentation, or something else. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal as you grow in size is for many people on your team to be able to deliver the same message and the same training to new hires.

4. Use a first day checklist

The goal of developing a first day checklist is to make sure the new employee is set up and ready to go on their first day. 

This should include making sure your new hire has a place to sit or perform their duties, any necessary tools or technology, and access to company email, and any other tools they’ll use right from the get-go. Don’t put your new hire in the broom closet while you scramble to assemble their desk or set up their computer. 

Include all the official paperwork they need to sign and read. This might include official employment eligibility paperwork, insurance and 401K information, and so on. If you require any online trainings, like sexual harassment prevention or drug-free workplace trainings, make sure they have quick access and can get started immediately. 

5. Set meet and greets with key team members

As mentioned, it’s great for the CEO or founder to sit down with the new hire immediately upon arrival, or at least sometime within the first week.

Here, the CEO can reiterate a lot of what was discussed in the interview process, with candidness around the new hire’s opportunity and expected challenges, department successes and failures, and so on.

If you don’t have someone in a primary HR role, the CEO should also handle all discussions and paperwork around payroll, benefits, and so on. This could also be handled by your CFO or COO, depending on what makes the most sense. 

Ensure that all employees are aware of the new employee’s start date and that the manager is there to greet the employee from the beginning. Also, don’t forget to show them where the facilities are.

You likely have a lot of important people at your company that your new hire may not have met in the interview process. Schedule half hour meet and greets for the new hire to get to know those team members, regardless of if they will be working together or not.

Again, make sure that all employees are aware of your new employee’s start date and are welcoming and introduce themselves.

6. Walk through daily functions and responsibilities

The department lead should then go over the role responsibilities and typical day-to-day functions. Make sure the new hire is taking notes and ask frequently whether they have any questions or require anything to be repeated.

7. Set them up with essential reading material

You’re likely not expecting much output from your new hire in week one. Load them up with reading material that you want them to know inside and out. Share old and updated sales decks, news releases, blogs, and so on.

8. Give demos, schedule shadowing, and offer hands-on training

Depending on how tech-heavy your business is, expect that your new hire will need a few demos to get acquainted, as well as time alone to play with the product and ask follow-up questions.

Again, with output expectations low, take this slow time with your new hire to lead by example. Have them sit in on meetings, calls, or simply let them watch over your shoulder as you work, explaining as you go the expectations you have for when they take over.

Set up a weekly 1:1 meeting between the new hire and their manager to give an opportunity to ask questions, clarify expectations, and address challenges. 

9. Set up coursework, quizzes, and role-playing exercises

In your new hire’s second week, continue to share content and resources that you want them to pour over during ramp-up. Depending on the level of your new hire, you might want to go over the coursework with them, reiterating and explaining as you go.

Have them conduct research for you or do administrative work to understand how your team works and what sort of resources help you to succeed. Test them on the information you’ve shared and work with them to learn.

A step up from shadowing, role-playing is especially helpful for account and sales roles where your new hire will be speaking directly with customers and prospects.

They are becoming the face of your company, so take them out of their comfort zone, throw curveballs, and give them an idea of the best—and worst—case scenarios that they could encounter.

10. Set them loose

If by week three your new hire hasn’t started to actually perform the functions of their new role, now is the time to give them some space to apply what they’ve learned about how your business operates and your expectations of them in the role. Let them show you what they’ve got.

11. Listen in

While you don’t want to hover or micromanage too much, it’s important in the beginning to sit in occasionally while they are working to get an idea of their mastery, speed, and effectiveness.

This will help you in your ongoing training with them, and will also help build your trust in them to ease any worries you might have about handing off responsibilities.

12. Set 30, 60, 90-day reviews

As you’re coming up on 30 days with your new hire, start to collect your thoughts on how they fit in at your company, from a cultural perspective as well as how they are performing in the first few weeks based on the expectations you set for the role. 30, 60, and 90-day reviews give you and your new hire the opportunity to reflect on what’s working, and what they still need to learn. 

While there are many debates out there about the effectiveness of annual reviews, your new hire should have some sort of regular check-in (30, 60, 90 days, six months, one year) that recaps your ongoing conversations, focusing on their performance and ways that they can improve.

The learning shouldn’t stop after month one. Likely, your new hire won’t start performing to their full potential until month three to six.

13. Set incremental goals and milestones

Set incremental goals with the hire that are definitely a reach—but not unattainable—until they hit their stride. Continue to join them in meetings with clients, let them shadow your calls, have weekly check-ins to understand where they’re at, provide ongoing feedback, and share tips and tricks that will make their life easier.

Most importantly, remind them of your open-door policy for any recommendations or questions they have along the way.

14. Ongoing training: Forever learning

Ongoing training is so important and learning opportunities affect the happiness of your team. Companies that provide career development opportunities will find their employees more satisfied and committed to growing with the company.

You can achieve this in a number of ways, including events like weekly practical learning activities, monthly book clubs, mentorship programs within your business, allowances for employees to attend courses outside the office, providing internal certification programs that demonstrate their mastery of the product or service, and more.

Finally, lead by example. Nothing sets the tone better than a leadership team that is entirely committed and practices what they preach.

Editor’s note: This article originally published in 2016. It was updated in 2019.

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Chase Garbarino
Chase Garbarino
For more than a decade, Chase Garbarino has focused on leveraging technology to build networks and communities that help startups and small businesses. As co-founder and CEO of VentureApp, Chase is focused on building a marketplace to help startups procure their business services, saving them time, resources, and money, at scale. Prior to VentureApp, Chase founded Streetwise Media, which was acquired in 2012 by the American City Business Journals. He's also an active angel investor.
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