The Ultimate Onboarding Guide for US Employers

February 28th 2024

How you onboard your employees sets the tone for a positive work experience, and getting it right is absolutely crucial. But where do you even start? Onboarding in the US can be confusing, with various paperwork and legal requirements to navigate, and we get it! This is exactly why we’ve made this guide.

In this guide, we’ll explore all the essential elements of effective onboarding in the US. From the initial paperwork to the first-day priorities, we’ll guide you through each step, highlighting the legal considerations that set the foundation for compliant and successful onboarding.

This Guide Covers:

What is Onboarding, Anyway?
Why the Onboarding Process Matters
Required Documents and Forms For New Hires in the US
Who Should be Responsible for Onboarding?
How Long Should Onboarding Last?
How Can You Prepare for Onboarding?
Steps for a Successful Onboarding Process
Onboarding Doesn’t Stop in the First 3 Months; Here’s How to Provide Ongoing Support
How Should You Onboard Remote Employees?
What are the Most Important KPIs to Track During Onboarding?
Bonus: Creative Onboarding Ideas for Gen Z Recruits
Final Thoughts

Two women discussing the onboarding process using their tablet. Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

What is Onboarding, Anyway?

So, after a series of tests and interviews, you’ve finally managed to hire qualified applicants for the position. What next? Well, now it’s time to introduce them to company policies, train them to use their work tools, get them acquainted with the team, and so on – in other words, onboard them.

Onboarding is a crucial process that organizations undertake to integrate new employees into their work environment smoothly and effectively. It is more than just a routine orientation; onboarding encompasses a comprehensive approach to help employees adapt, understand their roles, and become productive contributors to the organization.

Employees typically receive information about company policies, culture, and values during onboarding. They get acquainted with their team members, understand their job responsibilities, and often undergo training sessions to acquire the necessary skills. The goal is to provide employees with the tools and knowledge needed to succeed in their roles while fostering a positive and inclusive work environment.

Why the Onboarding Process Matters

According to Forbes, businesses that implement a well-organized onboarding program manage to retain 58% of their employees for a duration of three years. Additionally, 77% of new hires who undergo formal onboarding programs successfully achieve their initial performance goals. Need I say more?

The numbers definitely speak for themselves: how you onboard your new hires matters. There are so many benefits that come with creating a welcoming and structured onboarding process. Here’s a look at just some of them:

  • Employee Retention: As mentioned, businesses with effective onboarding programs retain a significant percentage of employees for an extended period. A positive onboarding experience fosters a sense of belonging and commitment, reducing turnover rates.
  • Performance Success: The statistics highlight that new hires who go through formal onboarding are more likely to achieve their initial performance goals. A well-guided onboarding process sets clear expectations, helping employees hit the ground running.
  • Faster Time to Productivity: When new hires are provided with the necessary tools, information, and support from the beginning, they can become productive more quickly. This benefits both the employee and the organization.
  • Improved Team Collaboration: Clear communication channels and introductions during onboarding enhance team dynamics. Employees who understand their roles and colleagues from the outset are more likely to collaborate effectively.

Despite the clear importance of effective onboarding, many managers and organizations struggle to do it well. According to a recent survey, only 52% of new hires are happy with their onboarding, with 32% finding it confusing and 22% considering it disorganized. There’s definitely a lot that needs to be done. But let’s start with the legalities first and the requirements that need to be fulfilled for both employers and new hires.

Employees filling out paperwork on the first day of work.

Required Documents and Forms For New Hires in the US

New hires must complete a series of forms throughout the onboarding process. These forms are necessary according to federal law, but companies can also ask new hires to fill out extra forms as per company policy. Some of the main ones new employees will be asked to fill out are:

  • I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification: According to federal law, it’s necessary to fill out Form I-9 to confirm an employee’s identity and authorization to work. As of 2023, the USCIS hasn’t released a new version of the I-9 Form. However, you can continue using the current USCIS I-9 until the updated one becomes available.
  • Federal W-4 Form: The W-4 form is a federal document that employees complete to determine the amount of federal income tax to be withheld from their paychecks. It considers factors such as marital status, dependents, and additional income. Employers use the information provided on the W-4 to calculate the correct federal income tax withholding. This form should ideally be completed by employees on the first day of the job.
  • State Tax Withholding Forms: It’s possible that your employee needs to complete a state tax withholding form as well. If you’re uncertain about whether your state mandates a separate tax withholding form, reach out to your state’s revenue or taxation office for clarification.
  • Work Permit for Minors (if applicable): It’s important to adhere to federal child labor laws for employers hiring and onboarding minors. There are states that mandate a work permit for all minors under 18 years of age, with limited exceptions. There can also be restrictions on their work schedules and the kinds of jobs they can be given. It’s important to check with your state labor laws to ensure compliance.
  • SF-256, Self-Identification of Disability Form: The SF-256 form allows employees to voluntarily disclose their disability status. This helps federal agencies gather information for affirmative action purposes and to promote equal employment opportunities.

Two women being interviewed in the office. Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

Who Should be Responsible for Onboarding?

A lot of people would probably answer “Human Resources (HR)” to this question. And they wouldn’t be necessarily wrong. But while the bulk of the onboarding admin tasks are up to the HR team, onboarding is a multifaceted process that involves A LOT of people. Everyone, from managers and co-workers to other organizational leaders, plays an important role in helping new hires successfully settle into their new roles.

Role and Responsibilities of Human Resources

HR takes the lead in ensuring the new hire completes all necessary paperwork, understands company policies, and is aware of benefits and compensation. They also facilitate training sessions, communicate essential information, and handle compliance-related matters.

Another key responsibility of HR is to communicate expectations clearly. New hires should understand job performance standards, attendance requirements, and workplace conduct from the outset. Additionally, HR leaders provide comprehensive overviews of company procedures to ensure that new employees have a solid foundation for a smooth transition into the workplace.

While HR plays a key role in the conceptual and strategic aspects of onboarding, the operational implementation is often shared with the direct manager, who holds crucial insights into the position’s framework conditions. Given this, the natural next step after HR onboarding is introducing the new hires to their managers.

Role and Responsibilities of Managers

Once HR has assigned new hires to their managers, it’s up to them to guide new employees through their job roles and the tasks and responsibilities that come with them. They set expectations, provide clear job instructions, assist them in using their new tools, and offer ongoing support throughout the training process.

Managers can also give new hires a walk-through of what a usual day in the office looks like, who’s in charge of what, which departments they’ll often interact with, and so on. This step is crucial as it helps new hires acclimate to their new work environment.

Role and Responsibilities of Co-Workers

Starting a new job means collaborating with a fresh set of faces—new managers, teammates, and desk neighbors. It’s exciting and invigorating, but it can also be overwhelming and daunting. During this transitional phase, support from co-workers can make a huge difference.

Co-workers contribute significantly to a positive onboarding experience by welcoming new team members, offering assistance, and sharing insights about the company culture. While formal procedures and policies are covered during official onboarding sessions, co-workers contribute to sharing unspoken norms and daily routines. They can provide valuable insights into how things work, from the preferred communication style to unwritten rules about office politics that might not be in the employee handbook. Some companies even assign an “onboarding buddy” for new hires so they can ease into their roles with a friendly guide. This buddy system encourages new hires to comfortably seek guidance, even on questions they might hesitate to ask their manager.

How Long Should Onboarding Last?

Determining the ideal duration for onboarding is a nuanced process, varying based on factors like the complexity of the role, organizational structure, and industry norms. While there’s no one-size-fits-all timeframe, a comprehensive onboarding program generally extends over the initial weeks to months of an employee’s tenure.

Some leaders think a quick onboarding process is effective, allowing new hires to start working right away. However, various studies suggest that a longer process, ranging from three months to a year, is better for boosting productivity and retaining employees. According to Click Boarding, employees usually take about 8-12 months to become as skilled and efficient as their more experienced colleagues. Every department and role has unique onboarding needs, so it’s best to keep these in mind when planning an onboarding timeline.

How Can You Prepare for Onboarding?

Given that onboarding is an absolutely pivotal stage in the employee lifecycle, it’s essential for employers to come prepared. To facilitate a successful onboarding experience, here are some proactive steps you can take to prepare in advance.

  • Create a Comprehensive Onboarding Plan: Develop a detailed onboarding plan that outlines the entire process from the first day to the end of the probationary period. This plan should include a schedule, introductions to key team members, training modules, and any other relevant activities.
  • Provide Essential Information in Advance: Before the new employee’s start date, share important information such as company policies, handbooks, and any pre-reading materials. This allows the new hires to familiarize themselves with the organization’s culture, values, and expectations before their first day.
  • Prepare Workstations and Equipment: Ensure that the new employee’s workstation, computer, and any necessary equipment are set up and ready for use. Having a functional and comfortable workspace on the first day helps the employee feel welcomed and ready to contribute from the get-go.
  • Have All Necessary Documents Ready: Ensure that all required paperwork is ready for completion on the first day. This includes employment contracts, tax forms, and any other legal or compliance-related documents. Having these materials organized and ready streamlines the administrative aspects of onboarding.
  • Greet New Hires with a Welcome Letter: Once your new hire accepts the job, initiate the onboarding journey with a friendly welcome. Send a welcome letter within 24 hours, expressing your excitement about them joining the team. Include any paperwork that can be completed digitally before their first day. You can also provide resources to help them familiarize themselves with the company, such as the latest employee newsletter, bios of executives, and a list of items needed for the I-9 process.
  • Make it More Personal with a Welcome Call: Aside from a welcome letter, you can also make it more personal by following up with a welcome call. This step helps build a connection and makes the new hire feel valued. During this waiting period before their start date, a call also provides an opportunity to address any questions, fostering a sense of importance within the company.

Steps for a Successful Onboarding Process

Top Priorities on Day 1

The first day is all about ensuring that new employees feel welcomed, informed, and supported as they start their new roles. The initial experiences set the tone for a positive onboarding process, so it’s absolutely crucial to get things right. Here are the top priorities on day 1 of onboarding:

  • Welcome and Orientation: Begin the onboarding process with a warm welcome and comprehensive orientation session. This sets the tone for a positive employee experience and helps new hires feel valued. Provide an overview of the company’s mission, values, and culture. Introduce key team members and make the new employee familiar with the workplace. It also helps to assign a seasoned colleague as an onboarding buddy to help the new hire integrate into the team smoothly. They can give them a tour of the office and further share valuable insights into the company’s day-to-day operations. This personal connection provides a good overview of your workplace dynamics, fostering a collaborative and supportive environment.
  • Paperwork and Documentation: I know paperwork isn’t the most thrilling part, but it’s a necessary evil. Ensure that all necessary paperwork, including legal documents and HR forms, is completed accurately and promptly. This may include tax forms, benefits enrollment, and other essential documents. Getting all of this done on the first day not only ensures compliance with legal regulations but also facilitates the seamless provision of employee benefits.
  • Workspace Setup: Imagine arriving at your new job, eager and ready to dive in, only to find a desk piled high with old paperwork and a malfunctioning computer. Providing a clean, organized workspace with all the necessary tools and equipment ensures that your new hire can hit the ground running.

The First Week

  • Introduction with the Team: The first week of onboarding continues to prioritize fostering connections with the team. This involves formal introductions, team-building activities, and opportunities for casual interactions. Establishing early relationships helps new hires feel integrated, supported, and comfortable seeking assistance or collaboration throughout their tenure.
  • Training for Work Tools and Systems: To ensure a smooth transition into their role, new hires will need to receive comprehensive training on the essential tools and systems they’ll be utilizing. Whether it’s project management software, communication platforms, or specific industry tools, this training provides the necessary skills for efficient and effective job performance, reducing any potential learning curves.
  • Set Clear Goals and Performance Objectives: Establish specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals for the new hire’s role. Discuss short-term and long-term objectives during one-on-one sessions. For example, set a goal for the completion of a training module within the first week or achieve proficiency in a particular task by the end of the month. This clarity aligns expectations and helps the new hire understand how they can contribute to the team’s success.
  • Go Over a Three-Month Roadmap for Key Projects: Outline a roadmap for the first three months, highlighting key projects and milestones. This could involve a detailed discussion of upcoming deadlines, collaborative initiatives, and individual responsibilities. You could also go over a project timeline, breaking down tasks and deadlines for the new hire’s involvement. Providing this roadmap offers a strategic overview, enabling the new employee to see the broader context of their work and the impact on organizational goals.

The First 3 Months

  • Continue to Have Regular 1:1 Meetings: Ensure that regular one-on-one meetings are maintained throughout the first 1-3 months. These sessions provide a dedicated space for new hires to discuss progress, ask questions, and seek guidance. Use this time to delve into their experiences, address any concerns, and provide ongoing support.
  • Hold an Informal 30-day Check-In: Conduct an informal check-in around the 30-day mark to assess the new hire’s initial experience and address any immediate concerns. This can be a casual conversation, perhaps over a virtual coffee or during a relaxed meeting setting. Encourage open communication, asking about their impressions, challenges, and suggestions for improvement. This check-in helps in making timely adjustments and demonstrates a commitment to their well-being.
  • Set Long-Term Goals and Development Plans: Collaboratively set long-term goals and development plans for the new hire. Discuss career aspirations, potential growth within the company, and areas where they wish to enhance their skills. This forward-thinking approach demonstrates a commitment to their professional development and contributes to a sense of purpose within the organization.

Onboarding Doesn’t Stop in the First 3 Months; Here’s How to Provide Ongoing Support

The chance of employees leaving their jobs is highest within the first six months. A study by Equifax Workforce Solutions found that over 40% of people leave within the first month and another 10% leave within the first year. This is why, even after the initial onboarding phase, it’s crucial to continue supporting and guiding new hires for long-term success.

Here are some of the many ways you can provide ongoing support for your new hires:

  • Feedback Loops: Establish feedback mechanisms to gather insights from new hires about their onboarding experience. Regularly seeking feedback allows the company to identify areas for improvement in the onboarding process and address any challenges promptly. This two-way communication not only empowers new employees to voice their opinions but also demonstrates the organization’s commitment to continuous enhancement.
  • Integration into Team Activities: Ensure that new hires are actively integrated into team activities and events beyond their initial onboarding period. This can involve team-building exercises, virtual social gatherings, or collaborative projects. Fostering a sense of camaraderie and belonging within the team contributes to a positive work environment, making new employees feel more connected and engaged with their colleagues.
  • Professional Development Opportunities: Offer continuous learning and professional development opportunities tailored to new hires’ roles. This could include additional training sessions, workshops, or access to online resources. Providing avenues for skill enhancement not only boosts confidence but also aligns with the new hires’ long-term career growth, reinforcing their commitment to the organization.

How Should You Onboard Remote Employees?

Did you know that nearly 36% of remote workers admit to finding the onboarding process confusing?

Navigating the onboarding process was already tough when everyone worked together in the office. But with the increase in remote work arrangements, it’s become even more complicated. Although onboarding remote employees pretty much involves the same steps as office onboarding, there are some special considerations and strategies that need to be implemented to make the process effective and engaging.

  • Ship Technology Tools Before Day One: Initiate requisitions for necessary equipment, such as laptops and phones, before the employee’s start date. Provide clear instructions on connecting to the company server and accessing tech support. Granting access to essential tools communicates a commitment to the new hire’s readiness and prioritizes their needs.
  • Get Employees Online ASAP: Kick off the onboarding process by ensuring new remote employees have immediate access to essential tools such as messaging apps (e.g., Slack, Microsoft Teams), video conferencing software (Zoom, Google Meet), and other relevant applications. Initiate IT setup early to provide passwords and access, ensuring they feel connected from day one.
  • Provide a Central Hub for Company Culture and Documentation: Digitize employee documentation and maintain a central hub, such as an intranet, for easy access to information about projects, culture, and day-to-day operations. Share links to articles, videos, and resources that convey the company’s culture and values.
  • Establish Realistic Responsibilities: As remote work allows for a flexible schedule, establish clear expectations to prevent burnout. Develop routines and realistic schedules, encouraging employees to recharge. Regular check-ins in the weeks after onboarding help assess well-being and work-life balance.
  • Provide a Dedicated Mentor: Given the isolation of remote work, facilitate mentorship for new hires. Mentors serve as guides, offering insights into the company culture and providing support as employees ramp up in their roles. This helps bridge the communication gap and establishes a personal connection.
  • Role-Specific Training: Conduct role-specific training sessions, ensuring new hires have the necessary contact information and video meetings with team members. Provide training and certifications for those new to the field or position, fostering skill development and competence.

What are the Most Important KPIs to Track During Onboarding?

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are vital tools for evaluating the success of your employee onboarding program, providing insights into its effectiveness and areas for improvement. Here are five crucial KPIs you can track during onboarding:

1. New Employee Engagement Rate 

Employee engagement is a cornerstone of organizational success, reflecting the commitment and passion employees bring to their roles. Measure the New Employee Engagement Rate using the Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS). By asking new hires how likely they are to recommend the workplace, you gauge their connection to the organization and its mission. This KPI enables you to collect valuable feedback, fostering transparency and identifying areas for enhancement in the onboarding process.

Calculation: eNPS = Percentage of Promoters – Percentage of Detractors

2. New Employee Satisfaction

A company’s success hinges on its culture, making New Employee Satisfaction a critical KPI. Tracking turnover rates and conducting post-onboarding surveys offer insights into employee morale, happiness, and emotional investment. Understanding how well new hires acclimate provides a holistic view of workplace conditions, guiding efforts to improve the overall employee experience and consequently supporting engagement and retention rates.

3. Employee Turnover

Employee turnover measures the number of departures within a specified period. While some turnover is expected, a consistent trend of high turnover rates can be detrimental. The associated costs are significant, ranging from 90 to 200 percent of an employee’s annual salary. Utilize exit surveys to identify pain points and reasons for departure, enabling proactive measures to address and mitigate potential issues.

Calculation: Turnover Rate = Total Departures ÷ Average Number of Employees x 100

4. Employee Retention

Employee retention is the counterpoint to turnover, emphasizing the importance of keeping top talent within the organization. High retention rates demonstrate a commitment to building long-term relationships with employees, contributing to a more engaged workforce, a robust foundation, and increased profitability. Retention rates are often measured annually.

Calculation: Retention Rate = Remaining Headcount During Set Period ÷ Starting Headcount During Set Period x 100

5. Employee Productivity

Particularly relevant in hybrid and remote work settings, Employee Productivity measures how effectively employee efforts contribute to business goals. Use metrics like Input/Output or leverage project management software and 360-degree feedback to understand workflow efficiency. Monitoring productivity provides opportunities to optimize the workforce, increase financial gains, track performance, and enhance organizational management.

Calculation: Productivity = Input/Output

By consistently tracking these KPIs, organizations can gain valuable insights into the success of their onboarding processes, identify areas for improvement, and ensure the long-term engagement and productivity of their workforce.

A welcome gift to a new employee with a note stuck to it that says "Welcome to the team!"

Bonus: Creative Onboarding Ideas for Gen Z Recruits

Onboarding methods need to change with the times. Sure, standard onboarding procedures and protocols have their place, but to truly engage and integrate Gen Z recruits into your workplace, consider injecting some creativity into the onboarding process.

Create an Onboarding Kit

Who wouldn’t love a personalized onboarding gift on their first day? Develop a kit that includes company swag, personalized notes, and interactive elements like QR codes linking to informative videos or interactive platforms. This modern onboarding kit not only provides essential information but also engages Gen Z employees in a visually appealing and tech-savvy manner.

Create a team GIF

Infuse excitement into the onboarding process by creating a team GIF. Encourage existing team members to contribute short video clips of themselves jumping in the air or showcasing team spirit. Compile these clips into a dynamic GIF that welcomes the new hire with a burst of energy. Send it on your chosen communication channel the moment the new hire joins in. It’s sure to

Turn your onboarding into a scavenger hunt

Transform the onboarding journey into an interactive scavenger hunt. Craft a series of tasks and questions designed to familiarize new hires with different departments and team members. This not only enhances their understanding of the company but also fosters quick connections with colleagues, establishing a collaborative work environment from day one.

Provide mental health support

A surprising 55% of Gen Z individuals have either been diagnosed with or sought treatment for mental health issues. This is 20% higher than the numbers reported among Baby Boomers.

Recognizing the mental health challenges faced by Gen Z, prioritize mental well-being in your onboarding process. Offer resources such as workshops, webinars, or informational materials that address stress management, work-life balance, and coping strategies. Create a supportive culture that encourages open conversations about mental health, ensuring a positive and inclusive workplace environment.

Interactive Icebreaker Games

Kick off the onboarding process with interactive icebreaker games during virtual meetings. Incorporate quizzes, polls, or collaborative challenges that encourage new hires to share insights about themselves. This not only breaks the ice but also fosters a sense of community and belonging.

Final Thoughts

Onboarding is a dynamic and evolving process that demands careful planning, adaptability, and continuous improvement. It’s not just a quick meeting on the employee’s first day; it lasts months. During this extended period, new employees are gradually introduced to various aspects of the company’s operations, culture, and their specific roles.

Onboarding goes beyond the initial formalities, encompassing continuous learning, team integration, skill application, and ongoing support. Organizations that invest in effective onboarding programs not only ensure the smooth integration of new hires but also set the stage for long-term employee satisfaction, productivity, and success. It’s definitely well worth the investment!