I’ve been onboarded a few times. I’m guessing you have too.  

Show of hands – how many times was it pleasant, interesting, informative, useful and ultimately, engaging? Yeah. I thought so.  

Unfortunately for most companies, onboarding from an employee engagement standpoint is an oft-missed critical step in the employee engagement journey. If you want higher employee engagement – start with this first step. Do it right and it will pay benefits for a long time. We always seem to want to spend so much time after onboarding that I’m sure if we did onboarding better we’d have less work to do to drive engagement in the future.  

To paraphrase a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln (but he probably never said it): 

“If you have to cut down a tree in ten minutes, spend the first two minutes sharpening your ax.” 

For better engagement – spend the first 2 months engaging the new hire.  

What Are the Big Issues with Onboarding?  

First – it is typically one-sided.

Onboarding is a binder (maybe today it is an online PDF – but binders are still common) – full of company BS. Sure it has the employee policies. It includes the org chart (can’t be legit without that!) Probably has an employee phone listing or department listing. Always has a page that the employee signs agreeing to whatever is in the binder and promising to be good boys and girls.  

In other words – employee onboarding is about making sure each department and VP gets to talk about their part of the company and get the legal protections in place for the company. It is all about telling.  

Rare is the onboarding event that is about asking. 

Second – it is never to be spoken of again.

You’d think the binder had the word “Voldemort” on the cover. I can’t remember a job where the onboarding process had any follow up or validation from the employee. Did anyone every ask you if the onboarding process was helpful? Did you ever revisit the onboarding documents to see if they accurately reflect the employee experience? Probably not. Mostly because it is a checkbox for HR to make sure you got the binder and signed the paper.  

Your manager isn’t that worried about onboarding. They just want you to find your desk (maybe today it is finding your home office) and start being uber-productive immediately. 

But what if … and this is crazy – we treat onboarding as the most important part of the employee experience? What would that look like? 

I believe if you adjust your onboarding process to incorporate some of the following strategies, you’ll begin your employee’s experience on a high note that will continually enhance their engagement and investment in your company.  

Employee Onboarding – Motivation, Psychology, and Behavioral Science

#1 – Create small tasks spread out over time.  

To start with – turn off the fire hose. Don’t give a new employee a binder with 132% of the information they need to get through the first week or so of being a new employee.  Instead, break the information in the binder down into smaller and smaller chunks of information. Find out the bare minimum they need in their first week by asking other new employees what problems they had when they were first hired. I’m guessing some of the things are hygiene things like – where the bathrooms are, how the printer situation works, and a list of the good places to eat nearby (again – assuming work from the office.) If remote work – check with other remote workers and ask what they wish someone had told them the first week or so in their job. Those are the things your new employee is probably thinking too. That’s your starting point – THEIR problems and worries. 

Early on only give employees the information they need to get ready to produce and learn.  

#2 – Create Smaller More Focused Tasks 

 Most of the time your first day or so you have to sign up for insurance, 401K, etc. My own experience is that I had to do that on my own – usually in one afternoon in an empty office. As we know navigating the intricacies of insurance types, 401K options, add-ons, upgrades, options, etc., can be maddening. No one feels good after that process. No one really knows if they made the right choices. What if you broke down all those sign-ups into one-to-one meetings about each of the signups required. Instead of doing it all in one day – set up 30-minute meetings to go over JUST the insurance – or JUST the 401K. Enlist other employees to offer up advice on how they set up their benefits. In other words – stop making this a solo event and make it a conversation.  

#3 – Check and Reward Understanding. 

Once you get the onboarding information compartmentalized and easy to digest, circle back and check understanding via a quiz with a reward. This should be fun and should help identify areas of misunderstanding and give the employee a way to begin a 2-way conversation about the company and where they fit. Too often we assume we have communicated effectively when we haven’t. This step helps ensure your new employees are ready to go and will eliminate bigger problems down the road. Humans love to contribute, and we love to have conversations. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to show new employees they can ask questions and that your company is interested in them and wants to be sure they are prepared to be successful.  

#4 – Share Anonymized Employee Data (to the extent you can.) 

To the degree you can, share what other new employees have done when they onboarded. Can you share “on average” employees signed up for 5% 401K match – or show which of the benefits the majority of employees chose? In other words, can you leverage social proof to help new employees feel comfortable with their choices and that they are part of a group that thinks similarly.  

#5 – Circle Back in a Short Period of Time 

Schedule an “onboarding review” with the new-ish employee after 3-months or so. Find out if your process was helpful. Maybe you missed something important. Use this information to help guide and inform the next employee who is onboarded. Make onboarding malleable. Don’t think of onboarding as an immutable process. Make it a constantly changing one. If this were how you were doing onboarding in 2019 you might not have had to scramble when we went full WFH 24+ months ago because you would have been getting up-to-date info on the situation with each new hire.  

#6 – Enlist a “Navigator”  

When I was diagnosed with cancer and getting ready to be “onboarded” at the hospital for chemo and eventually surgery, it involved oncology, surgery, my general practitioner, my insurance, my employer, my family, etc. In other words – there were multiple people, departments, roles, and jobs, I had to coordinate. At one hospital they assigned each cancer patient a “Navigator” whose sole job was to make sure I was doing the right things and that I fully understood the process, answer questions, prod slow-moving doctors and departments, and help with insurance issues. They provided me a safety net where I could get answers from someone who cared about me – not the hospital or a surgery calendar.  
Employees need this safety net too.  
Can you assign a recent new hire and maybe a veteran as “Navigators” for new hires as part of the onboarding process? People like to listen to people like them. It’s a common social psychology principle that we are influenced by and connect with people we see as “like us.” Use this to create tighter bonds between employees and with your company.  


Leverage small increments of information and test comprehension. Keep new hires from feeling overwhelmed and scared. 

Reward small behaviors – filling out forms – taking quizzes. These create multiple positive impressions that add up to more engagement than a single experience. Y 

Use social proof via stats and Navigators to create trust and connection. 

Continually check-in and ask if things are going well – personally. Don’t rely solely on your annual “engagement survey”. Create an onboarding-focused process to gather information you can incorporate into your ongoing onboarding process.  

Engagement is the sum total of your employees’ experience. And onboarding is the one experience that will color all others. Focus on this first. Then the rest. 

Want to avoid unseen icebergs in your employee strategy and keep your engagement plans from sinking? Plot a course and go full speed ahead and call me to chart your solution.