Onboarding is a critical stage of the hiring process. It covers everything from offer letters and contracts to welcome packs, compliance policies and all of the admin preparations needed for new hires to start on day one.

What makes onboarding so important is that the experiences of incoming employees during onboarding will help to forge their future relationship with the organisation – whether it’s good or bad.

And if it’s a negative experience, there may not even be a future relationship. A 2017 survey found that 15 percent of employees have opted out of jobs because of negative onboarding experiences.

The problem facing HR managers is…what exactly makes for a good or bad onboarding experience? How do you get inside the mind of an ‘onboardee’ – what exactly are they looking for?

Understanding onboarding motivations

It’s an area where the work of an American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, provides us with some invaluable insights. In the 1940’s, he created a five-tier model, called the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’.

It was an attempt to categorise the basic needs of an individual in any given situation. He identified five core motivations, starting with our most basic need to survive and progressing through to safety, social belonging, self-esteem and, finally, self-actualisation.

His theory is typically presented in a pyramid display format, with survival at the base and self-actualisation, at the top. It shows how motivations change as each need is met.

By applying this theory to the hiring process, we can start to gain a better understanding of what motivates people during onboarding and how HR teams can deliver a positive starter experience.

Here’s a look at the five categories:

Physiological needs

This represents the most basic need for anyone who’s going through onboarding. The number one motivation is to get their contract terms agreed. This determines whether or not a person can pay their mortgage/rent and bills. This is why it’s at the base of the ‘pyramid’ of needs.

It’s an area which needs to be dealt with quickly and efficiently, something that’s not easily done if documents are handled via the post. Delays, frustrations or errors during the contract phase are primary cause of onboarding dropout.

Onboarding requirements:

Safety needs

Once a contract has been agreed, employees want to know they’re entering an organisation that will look after them. Starting any new job is a risk and onboardees look for reassurances to help allay their fears.

Effective communication of the ways an organisation protects employee interests is important. This can be done with the sharing of commitments to protect employee health, welfare and data privacy, along with any company perks, rights and entitlements.

Onboarding requirements:

Social needs

Once a sense of security is established, new hires will look for indications that they’re joining a healthy and vibrant community. They want to feel part of something that’s bigger than their individual role.

An effective onboarding strategy will integrate the sharing of company background information into the process. The aim should be to enthuse new hires about an organisation, providing ‘colour’ and a flavour of the company’s ethos and culture.

Onboarding requirements:


Getting a new job should boost a person’s self-esteem but this positivity can soon be lost if onboarding processes are misfiring. New hires want to feel like they’re valued and more than just a ‘cog in the machine’.

Ensuring first-day preparations are in place and they’re not greeted with bewildered looks and missing office equipment is a good start. Avoiding generic communications and providing company welcome packages also helps to maintain new starter morale.

Onboarding requirements:


This final stage is the tip of the pyramid – a culmination of meeting all of the previous needs. It means that new hires complete enter the organisation feeling positive, engaged and excited about the opportunities ahead.

In onboarding terms this is often referred to as ‘engagement’. All of their needs have been met during the onboarding process, creating the best possible first foundations for productive and stable working relations.  

Onboarding requirements:

While Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ is just one of a multitude of different social theories about human motivations, it provides a useful tool which can help view onboarding in a different way.

It also highlights how so many hiring teams are failing to meet even the most basic of onboarding needs. It’s delays, inefficiencies and frustrations during the initial contract phase which are a primary cause of dissatisfaction and dropouts before even employee engagement comes into play.

While the theory may date back to the time of the Second World War, the ideas are just as relevant when applied to the challenges of today’s dynamic and competitive HR environment.

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