Staffing Management

How to create a formal onboarding program

By Andie Burjek

Feb. 20, 2020

Brad’s Deals didn’t always have a formal onboarding program. New hires would have meetings with the hiring manager and HR, but there was something lacking that could improve the employee experience, said Jessica Adams, vice president of people at Brad’s Deals and 2018 Workforce Game Changer. 

“You spend a lot of time trying to find the right fit for your organization in a really competitive recruiting environment,” she said. “So you need to work to make [new hires] feel welcome and incorporated as a team member as soon as possible.”

Employee engagement starts at the beginning of the recruitment process and continues through onboarding, said Jennifer Duff, co-founder of Totem Consulting, which has built many onboarding programs for its clients. These experiences that happen early on set the stage for the way in which employees will engage with the organization moving forward. 

New hires partly assess their new job by asking themselves if working at this company was really what they were promised during the recruiting process, Duff said. This is why employees should think more broadly about onboarding, past the basic HR tasks like signing forms. Consider “whatever you want your employee experience to look like as an organization and your employer brand, and then weave that into your onboarding,” she said. 

If employees are sold on a company through the recruiting process and then their onboarding experience does not live up to their expectations, there may be some negative impacts for employers, she said. Employers may see high attrition rates because new employees leave after a few months. 

To avoid this, employers have the power in those first few months to shape a new hire’s employee experience during onboarding rather than letting other parties set the tone. 

“If you’re not managing that conversation up front and if you’re not owning that conversation, that conversation will get owned through water cooler conversation, and that can undermine what the employer is trying to do in terms of the employer brand or the employee experience they’re trying to create,” she said. 

Your Onboarding Timeline

Brad’s Deals’ onboarding process has changed over the years through a process that allows for actionable feedback and constant improvement. 

Also read: 5 easy onboarding strategies for small businesses

Before a new hire starts, they receive at least three phone calls or emails from HR about how excited the team is to have them on staff, what time they should come in and how to dress on their first day, Adams said. Meanwhile, before the employee’s start date, the head of each of the organization’s eight departments sit down and decide, based on the role of the new hire, the most important people they should meet in each department during their first, second and third weeks.

The questions people have in their first week versus the end of the first month are very different, Adams said. While they tend to have more general questions at first, the longer they’re at the organization, the more focused their questions are based on what they’ve observed about their job or around the office. This is why meeting with people from each department on a weekly basis is valuable. 

Jessica Adams, Brad's Deals
Jessica Adams, Brad’s Deals

In addition to these meetings, Brad’s Deals does check-ins with new hires after week one, week two and week four through online surveys. Questions include: How are you doing? Who have you met? How else can we support you? And, what questions do you still have?

New hires also have face-to-face meetings with their manager after three months and after one year, Adams said.  

“Traditional literature says that someone is considered a new hire for three months, but I think there is also some benefit to looking at someone as a new hire for their first year,” she said. “Every company has their busy season, [and] they have their slower season. You want to give that new hire the opportunity to experience the entire cycle your organization goes through each year.” 

Brighid Courtney, client leader at Wellable and a WELCOA Institute faculty member, built Wellable’s first onboarding packet and procedure, and she also included a well thought-out timeline. 

In their first two weeks, Wellable’s new hires have “highlighted meetings for the day” in which they meet with the different departments and learn about what they do and how they contribute to the overall goals of the company. 

Then, the new employees receive a task for the day, based on these meetings. For example, a new project management hire meets with the customer support team one day. They may sit in with support employees and learn about some of the user issues people have with a type of software. Then, their task would be to answer some user tickets to help them further understand the user experience. 

Also read: Onboarding tips HR leaders can adopt from the first day of school

“As you’re looking to build a collaborative environment, it’s important for people coming in to be able to build those relationships early on to make sure they can always go there for help or for resources,” Courtney said.  

The company also makes sure to space out these meetings and tasks so that the employee is not overwhelmed with new information, she added. 

Value of Constructive Feedback

While employee feedback is valuable to any process, it’s especially important when an organization is starting something new, Courtney said. There’s room for growth, and tweaking anything that needs improvement will help the program grow in the right direction. 

Brad’s deals uses its regular new hire check-ins both to make sure the employee has their questions answered and to get feedback on where there’s room for improvement in the onboarding process, Adams said. But the company also uses feedback from candidates who did not receive job offers to make improvements. 

“Getting feedback from people who were not hired is valuable to us to ensure that we are being clear, authentic, and realistic about the projects and the opportunities and our expectations of someone in the role,” she said. 

One time, the company received feedback that a candidate had to wait 15 minutes for their second interviewer to come into the room. Learning this, Brad’s Deals was able to ensure that they could improve the process and not make any candidate have to wait anymore.

“Onboarding is so greatly impacted by the preboarding phase and the recruiting phase that you really have to keep it in mind before someone’s even walked through the door of your organization,” Adams said. 

Big Picture Guidance for Employers 

While this process may seem overwhelming to employers who are creating their first formal onboarding program, Duff recommends that organizations try not to take on too much, overextend themselves and underdeliver. The best thing an organization can do is create small improvements consistently and iteratively over time, she said. 

Practically, how this might pan out is that once every month, the organization makes one change in the onboarding process. That might mean something as manageable as starting to have the CEO send a welcome email or regularly send a simple pulse survey. 

“People get daunted easily by overhauling a program, and I try to encourage my clients to look at it through small impactful changes, because it gets people used to seeing [that] small things can be done, and you can implement feedback quickly,” she said. “It’s about building small wins.”

Creating a flexible timeline is one of the most important parts of making a formal onboarding program, Courtney said. 

“For anyone with a limited budget, time is such a valuable resource,” she said. Organizations must make sure they give new hires enough time to work on the tasks they need to complete. It also helps if there is room built in their schedule to make adjustments and change the timeline, if necessary. 

She suggests that employers carefully plan out that first month with flexibility in mind and come up with the most vital objective and goals for new hires to reach in that time frame. 

Using consistency to help with retention and attrition rates is a major part of Brad’s Deals overall strategy, Adams said. Their process in which new hires meet with people in every department ensures that every new employee has the same meetings that last the same amount of time and gets the same information. The importance of consistency starts well before these meetings, though. 

“If we’re not level-setting with someone during their interviewing process, they’re going to be surprised or they’re not going to be happy when they get here,” she said.

And as HR professionals, we know the worst thing is for an employee to be surprised about what they’re experiencing or the message they’re getting.” 


Andie Burjek is an associate editor at

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