The Practical Guide to Employee Onboarding

How to Ensure Your Hires Start Off on the Right Foot

Employee onboarding is a vital moment for any organization—but we don’t always get it right. In fact, often the process for onboarding an employee is ad hoc, with some parts being neglected altogether. In this eBook, we will explain why the onboarding process matters so much, how to streamline and improve it by taking a holistic employee lifecycle view, and the positive effects this can have on your workplace culture.

Why Employee Onboarding is Critical

Effectively onboarding employees is critical for any organization. It helps build culture and happy employees, which leads to a productive team and company. And doing it right is important for security and compliance.

People Matter: People are the lifeblood of your company. In fact, they are your company. So how you get them started is important. A strong onboarding program can increase retention by 25% and performance by 11%. Often we think of onboarding as a technical process, and parts of it may be, but we must remember that people are at the center of it. We should strive to build processes that take this into account. It’s the right thing to do, and it will benefit the organization as a whole.

Productivity Matters: Taking a people-first approach has the added benefit of improving your organization’s productivity. The faster you get someone up and running, the sooner they can add value to your company. So if you’re focused on the bottom line, think of optimizing the onboarding process as a way to increase the ROI of a new hire. People need access to the right apps, tools, and people to do their jobs well, and a good onboarding process will enable this efficiently.

Security Matters: You can’t risk company or customer data leaks or security breaches, and one of the best ways to avoid this is to develop tightly controlled onboarding processes to ensure that the right people have the right levels of access at the right time. A whopping one-third of all companies have already experienced an insider threat incident, according to a recent SANS report. A proper onboarding process dramatically decreases the odds that your company will be vulnerable to this type of attack. It’s easy for credential allocation and privileged access controls to slip through the cracks if there aren’t clear processes in place. Protect your organization’s security by getting this right.

Compliance & Regulations Matter: You may also need to meet relevant guidelines and regulations for your industry and organization type. For many SaaS-based organizations, SOC 2 must be adhered to at all times. This and many other compliance frameworks require tight controls around access, and specifically around onboarding, so building processes that not only protect your organization but ensure compliance through repeatable processes and demonstrable controls could keep you out of hot water.

Onboarding Today: Ad Hoc, Insecure, and Inefficient

The reality is that most onboarding is done on an ad hoc basis today. Employees request access to services or credentials when they need them, rather than receiving all of the appropriate onboarding materials up-front. This is inefficient, and can slow down productivity. It may not even be assigned to a specific person or department, so there is not sufficient accountability.

Moreover, office managers can often inherit a lot of basic administrative duties, and in some cases this includes onboarding. It rarely makes sense for these busy employees to handle such sensitive and complex processes, however, since they require technical training and come with a wide variety of security implications. They are much better handled by a dedicated IT team, in the case of technology, and HR team in the case of people and paperwork.

The bottom line: The way onboarding is done in most workplaces today isn’t good enough—it isn’t secure enough, efficient enough, or people-focused enough. It’s time to do better.

A Better, More Efficient Way Forward

It’s easy enough to point out what* isn’t *going well. But what would better onboarding processes look like?

For one, they would be automated. Many of the tasks related to onboarding are repeatable and rote, so there is no reason that a human being should be directly in charge of them. When they are an employee’s task, they may not always be at the top of the to do list and can easily slip by for days or weeks (or never get done). If you implement automation, you can keep the process, well, automatic!

They should also be streamlined. Ideally there would be a single tool you could rely on to handle the automation of onboarding (we’ll discuss this in more detail later). Beyond streamlining the technology, make sure that roles and responsibilities that can’t be automated are clearly defined and assigned to the appropriate team members from the beginning. Check in and ensure that action items are completed in a timely manner. This way, everyone understands what they are responsible for and nothing slips through the cracks.

The benefits of doing onboarding this way are manifold. It’s much more secure, and decreases risk for your entire organization by reducing the opportunities for insider threats and privileged misuse. If you are beholden to compliance mandates, this strategy will also allow you to meet many requirements without extra effort or new processes. You will need to produce audit trails for many types of compliance, and building out a largely automated and well-planned onboarding process provides you with a record of what has been done, by whom, and when.

Finally, this approach is, as you can probably tell, significantly more efficient. Done right, it enables increased productivity for both new team members and veterans who are involved in the onboarding process. It also means that new team members can hit the ground running, adding value from day one, rather than waiting around to get access to critical tools, connections to important stakeholders, or permission to do the jobs they were hired for.

Now, let’s take a deeper look at what a better approach to onboarding looks like in practice.

Embracing the Employee Lifecycle

As you can probably tell, onboarding is a discrete, important process. But it is also part of a larger picture—the employee lifecycle—that is worth considering for the overall health of your organization. As you can see in the diagram above, this continuum spans from long before an employee’s first day until long after the employee departs.

The benefits in terms of employee productivity, organizational efficiency, and reduced risk are well worth the effort that goes into building a streamlined employee lifecycle. Understanding and planning for the entire lifecycle is an excellent way to improve retention, morale, and ROI on new hires. It also reduces the likelihood that you’ll find yourself at the center of a breach or PR scandal.

Having a broader picture of how onboarding fits into the employee lifecycle can help you define processes, plan ahead, and make strategic changes that benefit your entire over the long run. (We have also put together an eBook specific to the offboarding process, will be live soon) Now, let’s take a deeper look at a framework for streamlining and optimizing your onboarding processes.

Onboarding Guide

Onboarding is one of the most important moments in an employee’s time at your organization. It is the moment when they not only receive the tools they need to do the job they’ve been hired for, but also when they begin to form their first impressions, set mutual expectations with you, and adjust to the culture of your organization.

**The key goal for onboarding employee is to quickly get them to full productivity. **This means creating comfort and clarity, providing access to the right tools, and minimizing wasted time for the rest of the organization.

While it’s easy to think about onboarding as just a technical problem to solve (get them an email password and access to Slack, stat!), this time period has much bigger implications from a culture and productivity standpoint, as the stats we mentioned in the intro make clear. You’ve probably invested a lot in recruiting your new hire and have high hopes for long-term retention, so it’s important to get this key moment right.

In this section, we’ll explore what a good onboarding process should look like and give you some tools to build or improve on yours.

To do this, we use the OODA loop framework, which stands for “observe, orient, decide, act.” It is a military framework that has been widely applied to the business world and which offers a helpful lens for building a more efficient employee lifecycle. The OODA loop can help you optimize the processes of on and offboarding and ensure that the goals of making your employee lifecycle more secure, efficient, streamlined, and automated are carried out.

Here’s what it looks like.

Applying the OODA Loop Onboarding

There are four key steps in the OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. Additionally, as its name implies, the framework is intended to be a cycle, in which each step feeds the next in line and there is a continuous process of improvement and refinement over time. Here’s how we suggest you apply it to onboarding.

Observe: Always Be Recruiting

The Observe stage primarily applies to hiring. This is the point in time when you identify a role you may want to hire for and canvass the market for candidates. Of course, a good human resources team should “always be recruiting,” so you shouldn’t be starting completely from scratch. In the “Observe” phase, you’ll want to network and post to job boards to find out who is out there and how their skills might match up with your business’s needs.

Some common steps during the Observe period include:

  • Conducting one-on-one networking meetings
  • Attending networking events
  • Exhibiting at job and college fairs
  • Reaching out to contacts for recommendations and referrals
  • Instituting an employee referral program

Your goal is to spend this phase getting a good handle on the hiring market and knowing who might be the right fit for any open roles.

You may find that, during this phase, you refine your idea of what the ideal candidate would look like. Maybe he or she doesn’t really need to have 10 years of executive experience, but absolutely needs to have led a team through IPO. Or perhaps that entry-level hire actually needs to have more chops to fill the open role. Outside information and unfolding circumstances will necessarily change your goals and outcomes during the Observe phase.

Orient: Build Your Onboarding Plan

The Orient phase is a more traditional aspect of the onboarding process than the Observe or recruiting phase. This is the time to ensure your processes, people, and tools are in place for onboarding.

Now, it might seem like we are putting the cart before the horse, asking you to spend time on onboarding before you’ve even made a hire. However, if you focus on optimizing your onboarding process long before an employee even signs the offer letter, it’ll be a much smoother process overall, and that new hire will be able to add value to the team much faster.

The Orient process is one that should be taking place at almost all times at your organization, as you continually build and refine the processes that make up the onboarding moment. Here is what you should think about including.

Build a Checklist

Make a master list of onboarding steps needed for all employees, and then break down specifics for each department and each role. Getting organized around onboarding is the best way to ensure a seamless experience. You want to verify that nothing important falls through the cracks, wasting time or money for your organization.

Of course, there’s no single timeline that works for every organization or even every role within a single organization, but take the time to build out a clear timeline that ensures employees will be onboarded efficiently and effectively.

There are lots of onboarding checklists available online, and it may be helpful to take a look at what other organizations have used to help you brainstorm and make sure you don’t forget any items. However, remember that no two organizations operate the same, and you can’t simply copy someone else’s onboarding list. Use them for inspiration and to make sure you don’t forget any key steps, but also think through what makes your organization unique and what is essential to your employees.

Here’s a sample list of what you might consider including:

  • Facility
    • Parking
    • Transportation
    • Physical keys or other means of access
  • Technology
    • Hardware (printers, laptops, company cell phones)
    • Software (accounts, passwords, authentication)
    • Documents and wikis (organizational and role-specific)
    • Walkthroughs, demos, and/or trainings where necessary
  • HR and Legal
    • Payroll setup
    • Benefits
    • Tax documentation
    • Legal contracts
    • Employee handbook
    • Stock options (if applicable)
  • Culture and Connections
    • Dress code
    • Start and end time (day one and going forward)
    • Company values and norms
    • Company swag and/or small welcome gifts
    • Mentorship and/or buddy program

Once you have developed a checklist, run it by several of your department leads and other stakeholders to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything.

Assign Responsibilities

Next, with your checklist of necessary steps in hand, figure out who should be responsible for ensuring that each task is completed. When it comes to technology access, if you have an IT department, this may be a natural fit. HR and/or finance will likely be in charge of payroll, benefits, and other paperwork. Introductions to colleagues can be handled by a manager. Facility tours and access are often assigned to an office manager.

Of course, if you are a small organization, you may need to have employees for whom this is not a natural part of their job handle some or all of the onboarding process with new employees. Secure their buy-in and maintain clear expectations around these responsibilities. And be realistic about how much time onboarding can take and give them a break on their other responsibilities if they are in charge of getting a new employee up to speed.

Define Processes and Tools

Once you have checklist of action items for onboarding and you know who is in charge of each, use a tool like Blissfully or BambooHR to ensure that each action item is completed anytime a new employee starts. These tools can help you manage the process and decrease the odds that something important falls through the cracks.

Beyond a method for managing the checklist, figure out what tools and processes will smooth out the onboarding process—from a benefits portal to a digital document manager. As we mentioned in the introduction, automating as much of this process as possible is a very good idea.

One way to do this when it comes to onboarding employees with new SaaS tools is to use multi-factor authentication combined with single sign-on, so that folks don’t have to create and manage individual logins for every single service. We cover this in detail in our SaaS security eBook.

Later in this eBook, we’ll take a look at specific tools that can be used to streamline and automate the processes required to onboard a new employee at your organization.

Decide: Commit To Hire

At this point, it’s time to get back to the hiring process and make a decision about which candidate(s) you will extend an offer to. One thing that many organizations will need to do at this point is gain authorization for and conduct a background check. Some compliance frameworks require this, and in other cases it is simply a way to reduce liability and make sure you really know who you are hiring. We recommend Checkr for this process.

Once you have vetted the candidates and made a decision, send an offer letter. Remember to leave plenty of time for questions and for the negotiation process. Hopefully, this will end in a closed deal and a new employee for your organization. If not, go to your next top candidate and proceed until you have a signed offer letter.

Act: Execute Your Onboarding Plan

Now that you have a signed offer letter, it’s time to execute your onboarding plan. This should be done in a timely manner, so that you can ramp up the new employee fast and get them contributing and adding value as soon as possible.

Most of the HR-related tasks, like setting up payroll and benefits, should actually be completed before Day One, but you will need to ensure all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.

Here is what your checklist may look like when it comes time to Act:

Refine: Evaluate and Reassess

Once you have tested out the entire onboarding process on a few employees, make note of what is working well and where snags have arisen. Feel free to ask for feedback directly from new employees. When they are still pretty close to the process, they should be able to give you insight into how easy or difficult the process was and whether there is anything they’d recommend you change. (As a positive side effect of doing this, they’ll likely feel included and that their opinions are valued, which is great for company culture and morale.) Don’t be afraid to adjust over time and tweak the process to accommodate changes at your organization and make general improvements to the experience. Continuous improvement is the entire point of applying a framework like OODA to the employee lifecycle.

Putting it Together: A Holistic Employee Lifecycle

As you can see, we believe strongly in considering the entire employee lifecycle when you think through and prepare for onboarding of employees. The benefits of this approach include:

  • Happier employees
  • Stronger retention
  • Increased return on hiring investments
  • Higher productivity
  • Greater efficiency
  • Lower organizational risk
  • Less burden on management, IT, and HR teams

Now, the key to implementing a holistic employee lifecycle in practice is investing in tools that also take a lifecycle approach, and choosing tools that integrate well with one another. You want to carefully select technologies and processes that offer flexibility and enable automation. This will make life easier for your HR, IT, management, and other teams. The easier it is to oversee and manage the employee lifecycle, the more likely it is that your processes will be followed consistently.

Blissfully’s Employee Lifecycle Technology Recommendations

First, recognize that HR and IT both play very key roles in the onboarding process. The tools you select should be comfortable for both of these teams to use, and they should integrate well with the processes that are familiar and essential to those teams.

On the HR front, two tools we highly recommend are BambooHR and Gusto.

BambooHR is specifically designed for small and medium-sized businesses, and it handles everything from applicant tracking to employee onboarding, and from vacation time to overall HR reporting. It’s an excellent, integrated system that your employees can interact with and use for self-service around many HR-related tasks. As a bonus, we also love that BambooHR includes built-in employee onboarding checklists.

Gusto is a similar HR software offering, covering payroll, benefits, and HR writ large. It is also designed for small businesses and provides companies with access to trained HR pros (helpful if you don’t have a large HR department), as well as benefits brokers who can help you select plans for your business. If you choose Gusto, you may not need a tool like BambooHR, but keep in mind that it does not offer employee onboarding or offboarding checklists.

On a more specialized note, we also recommend Carta if your organization offers stock options. While this may seem like a relatively small and specific need for your HR team to fulfill with software, any startup veteran knows it’s important from an overall organizational health perspective to stay organized when managing stock options for your employees. And for background checks we recommend Checkr, which provides a simple and streamlined way to get accurate background checks for potential employees.

Next, on the broader IT front, Blissfully provides an easy and automated way to onboard new employees, given them access to all the SaaS tools and apps they need with the click of a button. Blissfully also offers integrated onboarding checklists that you can customize to your organization to ensure that you don’t forget anything.

Additionally, our centralized audit trail features ensure that every action is tracked, so that you can easily demonstrate that you are upholding compliance and/or regulatory mandates. You can even track who completed which task and when.

Why This Approach Works

The software-defined approach outlined above allows you to manage the employee lifecycle in a way that is people-centric. It both smoothes out the process for the employees themselves during onboarding and also streamlines work for HR and IT professionals who are charged with managing the process.

These tools are also key to boosting productivity, in that they automate many of the routine and rote tasks that would otherwise consume valuable time for your new and departing employees, as well as HR and IT professionals. They also help get new team members up to speed fast, so they can quickly begin contributing to the overall success of the organization.

Importantly, these tools also support security, by ensuring that access to key data and information is carefully controlled and automatically provisioned and de-provisioned at the appropriate moments. When humans are left in charge of these complex and time-consuming processes, action items can fall between the cracks and security risks proliferate.

Finally, by using software-defined solutions to track the employee lifecycle, you will be better able to meet compliance mandates and regulations that apply to your business. The tools we mention above make it easy for you to generate reports and audit trails that demonstrate exactly how your organization is upholding best practices and legal requirements.

To sum it up, the employee lifecycle approach outlined here, when executed with technologies like the ones described above, will help make your organization a better place to work, while protecting your valuable assets and enabling your long-term success.

Learn how Blissfully can help your organization with onboarding and offboarding or request a demo to see Blissfully in action!