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Melanie Guy


Melanie Guy, Head of HR

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Why onboarding is broken and how HR can fix it


When it comes to onboarding, too many organisations are stuck in the dark ages – and it’s costing them some of their top talent, according to new research.

The processes we use to bring new hires into organisations aren’t working – they’re slow, outdated, inefficient and frustrating.

This is the general picture that emerges from a recent study that looks at the current state of employee onboarding within the UK hiring sector.

The ‘Welcome Aboard’ research involved surveying more than 2,000 office-based workers, finding out about their experiences and attitudes to onboarding.

Employee onboarding covers all of the HR processes that are required to convert successful candidates into productive new hires – from contract signing and reference checks, to welcome packs and first-day administration.

Slow, paper-based process

The study found that more than two thirds (71%) of HR teams within the UK are currently failing to complete all the documentation and administration required for new hires prior to their job start.

For more than a quarter (27%), it’s taking up to a month after the employee starts to complete all of the paperwork, such as contracts and compliance policy agreements.

Related to the slow pace of administration is the fact that two thirds (66%) of respondents said their onboarding was handled via a paper-based process, with contracts posted to them by mail.

It’s this need to physically send out documentation that makes the onboarding phase of recruitment such a cumbersome and unwieldy area to manage – often taking weeks for documents to be sent and returned.

35% of new starters reported having had negative onboarding experiences and for 12%, this had resulted in them dropping out of the process.

It’s also why many hiring teams tend to leave administrative tasks until a new hire has started in their role – allowing documents to be shared, checked and signed without the need for them to be posted.

It’s an approach which is becoming increasingly problematic as forthcoming changes to employment law, which will be introduced on 6 April 2020, will remove the current two month period that employers have to provide written particulars to new starters.

The revisions to the Employment Rights (Employment Particulars and Paid Annual Leave) (Amendment) Regulations 2018 mean that all contract-related documentation needs to be issued on or before a new hire starts.

The new legislation also includes a tougher set of penalties for any employment law breaches, with the maximum penalty being raised from £5,000 to £20,000 per employee.

Employee engagement failings

It wasn’t just the efficiency of onboarding where problems were revealed – it was also the knock-on effect this has on employee engagement and the hiring experience. First impressions matter, helping to shape the future relationship with an employer.

Of particular concern is the fact that more than a third (35%) of new starters reported having had negative onboarding experiences and this had resulted in 12% dropping out of the process.

Losing candidates during onboarding has a damaging impact on HR with the time and resources required to find replacements and the organisational disruption that can be caused by roles left unfilled for extended periods.

This problem has been magnified in recent times by the practice of ‘ghosting’, with candidates dropping out but failing to communicate this to the HR team. Often it’s only when a person fails to turn up for their first day that the problem becomes known.

Communication is key

What exactly constitutes a positive or negative onboarding experience? This was an area covered by the study with respondents being asked what they looked for from employers entering a new workplace.

The most important factor for 63% of those surveyed was clear communication, this was followed by the need to receive information early (55%) in the process and, generally, being ‘kept in the loop’ (49%).

The reliance on a traditional paper-based approach to onboarding has limited the way that HR departments can communicate and engage with new starters prior to job start.

A 2017 study by the London Business School showed that improving onboarding engagement could increase staff retention by as much as 33%.

Poor communications, combined with a long onboarding process, are liable to leave an incoming employee feeling ‘left in the dark’. After the elation of a successful job interview, they have limited contact with the prospective employer.

Typically, the only communications will be a contract or offer letter and some form of welcome package that’s posted out to successful candidates.

It’s lack of effective engagement during this critical phase which can lead to candidates dropping out. It’s a particular problem in an increasingly competitive UK recruitment environment with record high levels of employment.

Candidates are liable to have more than one employment option available and any onboarding stresses, frustrations or delays can cause them to switch to an alternative offer.

Finding a fix

It’s to minimise these risks and reduce drop-out rates that employee engagement is becoming such a focus. HR teams are looking for more effective ways to improve the onboarding ‘journey’ for their new starters.

This is driving a move to technological solutions which transform the way that onboarding communications are able to be handled. Paper-based administration and manual processing are replaced by cloud-based management systems and real-time processes.

The use of digital signatures allows employment contracts and offer letters to be managed online, removing the need to post documentation and allowing onboarding times to be reduced from weeks to days.

The switch to digital onboarding also allows HR to create a much more engaging experience for an incoming hire, providing them with all the information they need to reduce stress levels and start building a bond with their employer.

By reducing the administrative burden, digital communications offer a flexible and scalable way of creating a more effective process. Any kind of information or resources can be instantly shared – from a welcome video and company story to website links to help with relocation.

Instead of onboarding being an anxious wait, it can become an important part of the experience – helping to reduce fears and build positivity about the organisation they are about to become a part of.

Achieving this can deliver significant business benefits. A 2017 study by the London Business School showed that improving onboarding engagement could increase staff retention by as much as 33%.

Conclusion: onboarding challenge ahead

The ‘Welcome Aboard’ report shines a light on an area of the recruitment process that is so often overlooked. It’s the intermediary nature of onboarding that makes it hard to manage – existing in that awkward administrative gap between HR and recruitment.

The broken processes and negative experiences highlighted are a consequence of traditional attitudes to onboarding, thinking that has been moulded by the limits of a paper-based process.

The move to digital ways of working strips away these limitations and allows HR teams to transform their onboarding process – using it proactively to quickly manage new hires and to give them a positive experience which sets the foundation for a productive and stable workforce.

*Note: All survey data from Webonboarding. The 2019 research was carried out by OnePoll with 2,000 office workers from the UK. 700 of which were working in a HR based role or function.

Interested in this topic? Read Onboarding: why new starters need a ‘travel guide’.

Author Profile Picture
Melanie Guy

Melanie Guy, Head of HR

Read more from Melanie Guy

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