Attention, Managers: Use Onboarding to Gain a Competitive Advantage

Onboarding is not a nice-to-have, but rather a need-to-have.”
—Kevin Martin, research director at Human Capital Management

I’m pretty sure that no one would argue with Kevin Martin’s statement about the importance of onboarding. One possible exception might be someone whose only experience with onboarding has been sitting through a long and incredibly boring program that focused only on some bureaucratic minutiae, such as the company’s dress code policy. In that case, though, I’d say that such a program is something that no one wants to “have” at all!

Why care about onboarding? There’s a simple two-word answer to that question: competitive advantage.

A competitive advantage is what enables an organization to stay ahead of its competition. It’s based on many factors, but one of the most influential is employee innovation in new and better ways to deliver products and services. To achieve this innovation, a company not only needs to hire and retain the brightest and best employees, but it must also enable them to function at their peak capacity.

It can take a while for new hires (even people who bring years of relevant experience to their new jobs) to hit their stride at a new company because they first need to learn to navigate the organization’s cultural norms, corporate procedures, and internal approval processes. Therefore the quicker you can teach them the ins and outs of getting business done in your organization, the sooner they can provide strategic innovation in their respective roles. And that’s where onboarding comes in: it’s the process by which new hires obtain the vital knowledge that makes it possible for them to be most effective—and innovative—at their jobs.

With all of that in mind, it’s clear that onboarding is no mere “nice-to-have” but rather a “need-to-have” that accomplishes three goals:

• Improve retention
• Decrease time to productivity
• Enable faster cultural indoctrination

Once a candidate accepts your job offer, the clock starts ticking on how quickly he or she can begin contributing to your company’s bottom line—or how quickly “buyer’s remorse” sets in. If your company doesn’t bring its A game to onboarding, new hires might become disengaged before they’ve even started working there!

In many companies, onboarding falls under the HR umbrella, but that doesn’t mean management should ignore that area. Regardless of who’s “officially” in charge of onboarding, your direct reports are going through the process, and as their manager you have a strong interest in making sure that their introduction to the company sets them up for future success. Therefore, it’s critical that managers stay informed about (and involved with) their companies’ onboarding programs.

So if you’re a manager, don’t assume that onboarding isn’t relevant to you! Ensuring that employees become contributors as quickly as possible and also stick around is part of management’s role and can give your company advantage over your competitors—which is why it’s critical for managers to take onboarding seriously. If HR handles your organization’s onboarding, share this blog post with those folks and ask them to implement these suggestions to shore up your program. And if HR isn’t able or willing to create an effective process, then create one within your own department.

To make your company’s onboarding process as effective as possible, be sure to use the following strategies when creating and implementing your program:

Be timely.

onboarding to gain a competitve advantageAround 90% of employees decide whether or not to stay with a company within their first six months there. (1) The longer the time between the employee’s first day and his or her participation in an onboarding program, the less time the organization has to influence the employee’s “stay or go” decision. In addition, it typically takes new hires 3 to 12 months to become fully proficient in their positions, so starting the onboarding process as early as possible can help shorten this window so that the company can start to benefit sooner from the employee’s expertise.

Incorporate the voice of the customer.

Who is the customer for your onboarding process: the new hire, or his or her manager? Although both parties have some overlap in their interests, the manager (and, by extension, the company) will certainly place the highest value on topics that help a new employee to be productive sooner. New hires do need to learn basic company information (such as benefits, policies, and procedures), but consider sharing that information with employees prior to the start of their onboarding process so you can instead use that time to shore up their confidence and ability to tackle their new assignments.

Involve senior leaders.

Nothing says “You’re valued!” quite like the CEO or other senior leaders showing up during orientation to welcome new recruits personally. In fact, a recent study by the Association for Talent Development suggests a correlation between low effectiveness of onboarding programs and low direct participation rates of senior employees in those programs, with one survey respondent observing that “the key to effective onboarding is the level of leader engagement across the function and the entire organization.”(2) More involvement of senior leaders can increase positive perceptions of the onboarding process, which in turn can help new employees feel fired up and ready to contribute right from the start.

Make onboarding interesting and worthwhile.

onboarding to gain a competitive advantageWho among us hasn’t sat through an incredibly boring onboarding program that lasted for hours and felt more like an endurance test than an introduction to the company? I’m sure that from personal experience you already know that those kinds of programs can kill new employees’ enthusiasm. If you want employees to be engaged at their jobs, you need to foster that engagement right from the start.

So don’t use onboarding time to review important-but-dull company policies. Instead, ask new hires to read those documents ahead of time (remember, they are excited about joining your organization, so odds are good they will do their homework!) and spend just a brief segment of the meeting making sure they understand that information (perhaps with a short quiz, for example).

For the bulk of the onboarding time, focus on the information and goals that will set employees up for success in their new roles:

• Introductions to key executives
• The importance of his or her responsibilities
• Establishing mentoring relationships (both formal and informal)
• Product knowledge
• Company culture and norms
• Quality initiatives (or campaigns focused on other key areas)
• Networking and building relationships with other new hires
• Training opportunities to continue learning and growth
• Performance accountability and rewards system

Tailor onboarding to the audience.

onboarding to gain a competitive advantageAn employee’s position on the company org chart should play a factor in determining what onboarding process he or she needs. In general, the more senior the employee, the more strategic the topics his or her onboarding should cover. For example, onboarding for new college graduates is likely to address the basics of everyday life in corporate America (such how to break the ice with older employees and how to manage up), whereas onboarding for a director or vice president might include topics such as mission, vision, and values (and how they infuse his or her work) or future growth plans for the company.

Extend onboarding beyond one day.

Onboarding should not be a “one and done” proposition. In fact, the best onboarding programs check in at 30, 60, and 90 days to ensure that new hires’ expectations are being met. These check-ins also help managers and HR see if there’s anything they can do to boost new employees’ productivity, and they serve as opportunities to discuss training, mentoring, and other programs that can increase new hires’ engagement at the organization.

Seek feedback on the onboarding process.

At the conclusion of the initial onboarding, ask new hires about what they thought were the most—and the least—valuable aspects of the program. Then ask them again for feedback at the 90-day check-in, which is enough time for them to have some perspective and perhaps suggestions for additional topics that they think should be covered in future onboarding programs.

Final Thoughts About Onboarding

When done well, onboarding can lead to great employee engagement, which in turn can decrease turnover, increase job satisfaction, and improve performance levels. Together, all of these factors have a strong impact on nearly every aspect of the organization, including productivity, quality, and reputation—and profit. By engaging your employees from day 1 through an onboarding program that is interesting, relevant, and useful, you can give your company the competitive advantage that directly, rapidly, and positively affects its bottom line results.

Next blogLearn how to manage employees without killing innovation.


(1) Aberdeen Group. 2006. “Onboarding Benchmark Report: Technology Drivers Help Improve the New Hire Experience.”

(2) Ryann Ellis. 2017. “Senior Leader Involvement: Missing Ingredient of Onboarding.” Association for Talent Development website, September 12,

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