Designing onboarding. Are you aware of the significant differences in onboarding new hires across levels, locations, roles, etc.?

Written by Julie Salskov Andersen and Christian Harpelund


Companies invest heavily in onboarding today. Leaders are painfully aware of the importance of integrating their new hires in the best way, in a labor market where people change their minds and change their jobs with increasingly rapid speed. But even though they invest in new onboarding technologies, new swag and new approaches, a fundamental problem still needs to be resolved in many workplaces: the problem of variations in how well these are implemented across the company.

Fragmented and inconsistent

A recent article published in Harvard Business Review addresses this issue of how to onboard new hires at all levels (Hollister & Watkins, 2019). The authors refer to a global, multi-business organisation with more than 120,000 employees. This company decided to conduct an in-depth study on how they onboarded their roughly 20,000 new hires every year. The study provided important insights showing that the approach towards onboarding varied significantly across location, functions, levels, etc. Put in another way, the onboarding experience was highly fragmented and inconsistent across the organisation.

The worry for the executives of the company was that variations in the effectiveness of onboarding could potentially have a negative effect on, among other things, employer branding, time to performance and employee engagement.

Personas on board

The company decided to develop an onboarding system that was company-wide, yet flexible enough to take into account the differences across units, levels, and roles. They created distinct “personas” representing broad categories of employees – for example, individual contributors, leaders, etc. The onboarding design and the allocated onboarding resources were then customized for each persona based on their level of complexity and needs.

The existence of arbitrary and unstructured onboarding efforts across an organisation is also a problem that we face in our efforts to help our clients. In a global IT company, we have recently been reviewing their current onboarding experience.* The review showed that, from an employee perspective, the onboarding experience varied significantly across department, role, location, and gender.

What and how

For example, between the “Sales Canada” department and the “Marketing United States” department, the difference in terms of the overall Onboarding Index** is profound. Their scores varied from “best in class” down to a critical score that we know from our wider experience with many clients indicates a great risk of very high staff turnover.

From interviews, we know that these variations are caused partly by inconsistency in onboarding effort across the organisation (as in the article mentioned before), and partly by inter-individual differences between those responsible for the onboarding, as well as intra-individual differences among the new hires. Meaning, that variations occur both in relation to which activities are being facilitated where, and how the new hires perceive the onboarding activities in each department.

A gender difference

In a review of another global IT company’s onboarding program, we found a significant difference between the average Onboarding Index score for men compared to the score for women (women representing a lower score).

This insight enabled the company to facilitate onboarding efforts tailored to the women in the organisation – for example, by establishing a women’s network.

Yet another example shows a high score on the collaboration dimension (one of six onboarding dimensions***) and a low score on the culture dimension. In general, cultural familiarisation seems to get too little attention in many of the companies we work with, even though struggles with culture can be a big reason why new hires don’t seem to integrate well.

A strategic investment

One way to accommodate the complexity associated with onboarding is to adopt a highly structured and data-driven approach. From studies, we know that structured onboarding is a strategic investment that is reflected not only in the psychological well-being of the new hires but is significantly beneficial from a financial point of view, for example by improving time-to-performance and reducing employee turnover. Hence, a streamlined, efficient process can make all the difference.

Onboarding Group’s services enable our clients to track and improve their current onboarding efforts and provide them with a framework for a sustainable onboarding strategy across the organisation (as with the example of the global multi-business company). Our experience is that, by investing in onboarding, organisations immediately add value to their new employees. It helps to provide a sense of meaning in their job and a sense of increased contribution. In the end, it ensures a stronger commitment and a higher sense of loyalty to the organisation.

Onboarding Studio

As with the example of the global multi-business company, successful onboarding is often best facilitated in a tailored way in order to accommodate the full complexity of onboarding new hires across the organisation. In order to ease and support that process, we developed Onboarding Studio ©, an online design tool that enables our customers to manage the design of their onboarding programs in a highly systematic and interactive way.

Onboarding Studio: Manager Timeline

Using Onboarding Studio, onboarding designers can create and manage multiple onboarding programs, for example, local and global programs, and accommodate different onboarding needs. For each onboarding program, activities can be mapped according to the relevant dimensions (from the Onboarding Model) and timescale for execution. This also helps them to stay alert to the potential pitfalls in the onboarding process – such as lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities – and gives them a well-thought framework for onboarding new hires across the organisation.

As of today, we have gathered more than 100 onboarding activities in our studio catalogue that companies can pick and choose from when they are designing onboarding programs.

The different timeline views will give the new hire, the manager, HR and other onboarding stakeholders (e.g., buddies, mentors) an overview of the activities that are scheduled for the entire pre- and onboarding period. In this way, everybody involved in the onboarding will know what will happen next, who is involved and when the activity starts and ends. This makes it easy to check in on the ongoing onboarding and track the progress.

Onboarding Studio: Activity Catalogue

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*Onboarding Review is an analysis of the current onboarding efforts in an organization. It identifies the successes of the onboarding process and highlights the areas that need improvement. The results provide insights into how to optimize the ongoing onboarding process and transform great quality candidates into effective and engaged employees.

**Onboarding Index Score is a number measured on a scale from 0-100 and based on an onboarding survey measuring 6 dimensions and 18 underlying attributes.

***About the dimensions: A new hire’s total onboarding experience is built upon the following dimensions: Culture, Rules, Network, Collaboration, Competencies, Performance.


The Onboarding Model – 3 tracks | 6 dimensions