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ATD Blog

Why Onboarding Fails

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

One in three employees would prefer to go on an awkward first date than attend onboarding or orientation for a new job. That’s according to new research by ServiceNow.

For 80 percent of study respondents, the onboarding process was an "important moment at work." Unfortunately, around a quarter reported that they received no clear onboarding. Some even reported having a truly bad experience; one in 10 new hires said their company forgot it was their first day on the job entirely. ServiceNow reports that 20 percent believed they were still not fully onboarded even after three months on the job.

“Like many other company programs and initiatives, onboarding programs don’t always deliver the expected results,” write Norma Dávila and Wanda Piña-Ramírez in their book, What Works in Talent Development: Effective Onboarding.

It is the L&D function’s responsibility to identify the cause when onboarding programs fail. Dávila and Piña-Ramírez explain that although onboarding programs typically fail because of insufficient planning, time, and resources, there are other not-so-obvious reasons that can make a difference in the outcome, including:

  • onboarding and reality don’t match
  • lack of employee engagement with the onboarding program
  • no compelling business case for the onboarding program
  • lack of sense of belonging or recognition, especially if the employee is left to have lunch alone
  • employee misfit with the company
  • ignoring diverse needs, metrics, and accountability
  • a “do-it-yourself ” mentality, where no one assumes responsibility or ownership for onboarding
  • programs that focus only on employee benefits
  • unavailability, lack of involvement, and lack of guidance from managers
  • information overload at a fast pace
  • misconstruing onboarding as a checklist or time to complete orientation paperwork
  • skipping definition and discussion of company expectations, and delaying explanations about how the employee will contribute to the business
  • assuming new employees will understand how their role fits within the organization without providing detailed information
  • assuming unwritten rules are self-evident
  • believing that a full agenda of activities and events for the employee to meet key people depending on the role is unnecessary
  • explaining how performance will be evaluated at the time of reviews
  • expecting employees to perform the role on their own without giving enough time to develop a basic level of role mastery.

So, what do new hires or employees moving to new roles want on day one? ServiceNow reports that more than half (58 percent) ask for a walk-through of key processes or want a buddy they can turn to for questions. In other words, for onboarding to succeed, you need to remember that your program should be more than completing paperwork, shaking a few hands, and pointing people to the nearest deli.


Karen Lawson, author of New Employee Orientation Training, suggests that effective onboarding programs start with a written plan that outlines specific components, actions, timelines, goals, responsibilities, and available support. Lawson notes that it’s important to involve all stakeholders in the onboarding process. The most obvious people involved are the new employees and the talent development professional who designs and delivers the onboarding program. However, Lawson reminds that many more people need to be part of the onboarding process, including organizational leaders, the human resources (HR) department, the training department, and the employees’ supervisors.

To find out what your company’s onboarding program should cover, Dávila and Piña-Ramírez recommend using these questions to help you define what your company expects of its onboarding program:

  • What is the company’s vision of the onboarding program’s future?
  • What specific company needs should the program address?
  • What will the company want to achieve with this program?
  • On what business metrics does the company want to have an impact through this program?
  • What business changes in the near future is the company anticipating that would have an impact on the goal and design of the onboarding program?
  • Who is the intended audience of the new program?
  • Who will own the employee onboarding program?
  • How many employees does the company expect to hire in a given period?
  • For what departments and positions is the company expecting to hire?
  • What is the anticipated demographic profile of those employees?
  • Where would those employees be located?
  • What type of employment experience are new hires or new-to-role employees looking for?
  • Will the new program include an orientation component? What are the orientation components?
  • Who will facilitate the onboarding program and how will each facilitator contribute?

Bottom line: Few organizations manage the different pieces of onboarding well, and most new hires fail to receive clear messages about what their manager and organization expects from them. But with thoughtful planning, input from key stakeholders, and regular interaction that lasts longer than the first week, you will not only welcome employees to the company, you can bring them into the culture and prepare them to excel.

Want to learn how to create an effective onboarding program that builds engagement with your new hires right away to increase retention and transform your organization? Join us for the next New Employee Onboarding Certificate.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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