2 February 2023

Onboarding: you only get one chance to make a first impression

8 minute read


Jo Faragher

Jo Faragher

Jo Faragher is a writer and editor, specialising in HR and employment issues. She is a regular contributor to Personnel Today, People Management, First Voice (Federation of Small Businesses magazine) and Times Higher Education. She was awarded the Towers Watson HR Journalist of the Year prize in 2015 and was Highly Commended for the same award in 2019.


Employee experience Onboarding


The right onboarding software will help new employees get off to a happier and more productive start – and streamline your admin processes

If you thought that employee onboarding software was a ‘nice to have’ technology investment, it might be worth bearing in mind that 4% of employees have left a new job after their very first day. From the moment you make a candidate a job offer, through to their first weeks and months in a role, this experience can shape not only how they feel about your company but the likelihood they will stay and become productive in what they do.

After investing significant resources in finding, attracting and assessing that candidate, if your welcome is inconsistent or fails to live up to their expectations, it’s more likely they’ll feel disillusioned. More than two-thirds (69%) of employees are more likely to stay with a company for three years if they have a great onboarding experience, according to culture and engagement specialist OC Tanner. And it’s a virtuous circle, too, as new employees that have a great onboarding experience are likely to offer the same courtesy to new people who join after them. That 4% who didn’t last the first day? There’s every likelihood they’ll share that experience with their friends and professional networks, leave a negative review on Glassdoor, and avoid buying your products and services again.

There are many practical advantages to offering a smooth onboarding process. Employees can gain an understanding of the organisation’s structure and where their role fits in, they can meet colleagues (whether in person or digitally), and complete any relevant forms or compliance training before their start date. There are advantages in terms of speed, too. Time-consuming tasks such as providing information for right-to-work checks, or submitting a P45 – that might typically be reserved for the first day – can be done online using secure document-sharing software, and reminders can be sent out automatically without the recruitment team getting involved. Onboarding specialist Sapling estimates that the average new hire has three documents to sign and 41 administrative tasks to complete on top of the 10 learning and work outcomes they’re expected to achieve in their onboarding period, so achieving some of this before the first day can create significant productivity gains. New employees can get straight up to speed with job-related tasks and forging relationships with colleagues and clients, rather than spending time filling out forms or completing a mandatory health and safety course.

“Two-thirds of employees are likely to stay with an organisation longer if they have a great onboarding experience”

With this in mind, more and more organisations are opting for pre-employment hubs that tie together the ‘essentials’ (such as contracts and policies) with learning about the organisation’s culture or ‘how we do things around here’ and creating a warm welcome. After accepting an offer at tech giant IBM, for example, new hires gain access to a ‘Soon to be Blue’ online community (referring to the company’s ‘Big Blue’ nickname) where they can learn more about its history, corporate culture and other need-to-know information. The engine powering these hubs could be your recruitment system or specialist onboarding software, but all the candidate experiences is your branding – hopefully consistent with the look and feel of their hiring experience so far. Cloud-based systems allow new recruits to access onboarding content from any device, only opening more comprehensive access to your core HR system once they’re a fully-fledged employee. Lucy O’Callaghan, talent manager at Ciphr, says making processes as intuitive as possible reassures candidates that they have made the right decision. “We put new hires on our onboarding system as soon as their contract comes back,” she explains. “They have access to our policies, their benefits, and their induction plan. Then on day one their user model changes so they can start booking holiday or accessing our careers hub – having navigated it before, it’s prepared them for coming into the business.”

It may seem like common sense, but those few weeks between making an offer and an employee’s first day at work can be risky. It’s often the point at which a hiring team hands over their candidate to HR or line managers, and is a common period for ‘ghosting’ – ceasing all communication without warning – particularly where candidates have long notice periods or have received more than one offer. As with the rest of the candidate engagement process, it can help to break down the onboarding journey into touchpoints: these are opportunities to either make your new recruit feel part of your organisation’s culture or to turn them off completely. “Create a Post-It note for each touchpoint and ask: ‘Is this the best we can do?’,” advises Adrian McDonagh, co-founder of hireful. “Can you personalise emails, share a link to your Glassdoor reviews or to interviews with your senior people, for example?” Small ‘events’, such as signing an offer letter, should be as intuitive as possible – a digital signature they can complete on their phone, for example – and are all opportunities to make a good impression.

“Break down the elements of the onboarding process to identify where you can make the experience more streamlined, automated, and personalised”

Breaking down the process into individual elements can also help you to determine where technology can make the experience more seamless, and where there is value to be had in the human touch. Technology should help to make the experience frictionless, but not to the point it becomes impersonal. So a chatbot can replace a recruiter for those ‘night before’ questions such as ‘Where can I get my access pass?’ or ‘How many days’ holiday do I get?’ but also free up time for someone on the team to pick up the phone to a new starter who has a more pressing or personal concern.

Different stages of the process can also trigger important timesaving actions for stakeholders outside the recruitment team. For example, your HR system could send an automatic notification to the IT department that a new employee needs a laptop configured with particular software, or to order a uniform in a certain size. Onboarding journeys will differ depending on role, seniority and geography, and many tools will enable you to drag and drop features so you can curate and configure onboarding processes for different types of employee. There are also many aspects of the process that can be handed over to the new employee: self-service elements allow new starters to add and edit their own details, for example, minimising errors for HR while ensuring data is captured consistently.

Johnny Campbell, CEO at SocialTalent, says that candidate relationship building must not stop once an offer has been made. “It’s crucial to have regular touchpoints right up to the first day,” he says. “Once the recruit has built a relationship with their manager you can hand over – the danger is dropping the ball before then.” In their book The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath use the example of the first day experience at the Asian offices of manufacturing company John Deere. Once you’ve accepted an offer, you receive an email from a ‘John Deere friend’ who introduces themselves and shares basics such as where to park, the dress code and who will be there to meet you on the first day (including a photo so you know who to look out for). Once you arrive, a flatscreen monitor in the reception welcomes you and there’s a banner next to your desk saying, ‘Welcome to the most important work you’ll ever do’. Your first email is from the CEO, including a video about the company’s mission, and there’s a welcome gift of a replica John Deere plough. The scene is set to meet your colleagues, manager and their manager and the company has made that ‘defining moment’ of the first day at a new job a memorable one.

Of course, moments such as these have become more challenging since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, with most organisations forced to shift their experiences online as they onboard remote employees. But there are still ways to make the experience feel personalised despite it not being in person. “You can offer a 360-degree tour, offer invites to business briefings or town halls, or even Friday drinks over Zoom,” says Nicola Sullivan, solutions director at onboarding platform company Meet & Engage. “The system can automate the output of content but you can ensure there is face-to-face engagement over video.”

As should be the case for a face-to-face induction, consistency is key, she adds. “If you bring people onboard virtually this could be across different offices and countries, so you need to ensure this doesn’t just come down to the quality of the hiring manager.” Technology can offer those nudges to take actions that – if forgotten – might endanger the quality of that experience, from simple reminders about start dates and times to suggestions of how to make that experience memorable. The data produced by these tools can also help organisations gauge overall satisfaction with the experience, for example through pulse checks or analysis of how new employees engage with onboarding content, so HR teams can tweak and personalise the experience for future hiring programmes.

“Our career is a series of onboardings… when you change roles, or become a manager for the first time”

A virtual onboarding experience can also be a way to show new employees more of the culture of the organisation. Integrating recruitment and onboarding modules with a learning management system (whether as part of an existing system or a third party) means that employees can access relevant content before their first day – whether that’s a welcome video from the CEO or an interactive tool that takes them through potential career paths at their new employer. It’s also a prime opportunity to engage them with any mandatory learning they need to complete, such as health and safety training. If you’re onboarding a cohort of employees – for example, a new graduate intake – why not set an induction project that encourages them to collaborate while also getting to know each other and familiarise themselves with the culture of the company? How new employees engage with this content can be tracked and later linked to metrics such as retention and performance, so there is business value in offering rich learning experiences on top of your usual welcome process.

Finally, don’t restrict your onboarding strategy to new hires. Every time someone starts a new role internally, receives a promotion, or returns from a period of extended leave is an opportunity to re-engage them with the business. Robert Zampetti, a partner at consulting firm EY specialising in HR transformation and workforce experience, puts it this way: “When you are onboarding someone, there are administrative transactions that have to happen over a certain period. But, in reality, our career is a series of onboardings. You do it when you change jobs, when you become a manager for the first time. It’s all about the mechanics and the institutional behaviours that you experience around those changes, which either go smoothly or they don’t. You either see good cultural attributes or some of the worst, and each time the organisation is put to the test.”


Five key takeaways

  • Think of candidates as consumers: a bad experience could put them off your organisation – and they’ll tell their friends too
  • Enable new hires to complete administrative tasks via your HR software as early as possible, as this means faster time to productivity
  • Use onboarding to offer a window into your organisation’s culture
  • Make the onboarding process seamless – this can mitigate the risk of candidates ‘ghosting’ your company and pursuing another opportunity
  • Don’t limit onboarding to new hires – each move within your organisation is a chance to reinforce your culture and values


Want to find out how Ciphr’s integrated HR and onboarding solutions can help your organisation? Request your demonstration now


This is an extract from Good Work, Great Technology: Enabling strategic success through digital tools, published by leading UK HR software provider Ciphr. For more insight into how technology can change work for the better, download the complete book for free, now.