A guide on fixing onboarding process in startups and small businesses


After spending the first two years of my career in a tiny, yet close-knit agency, my first tryst with onboarding with a Fortune 500 company came as a bit of a culture shock. It had as much to do with my experience in the tiny agency as it did with my rather middle-class conditioning. I landed at one of the city’s premier five-star hotels at 8:30am and was met with a host of people, 200 if I remember correctly. It was an organization-wide orientation that informed us of 'make-believe' rules and policies and made us play silly games with absolute strangers, none of whom I ever saw again. The actual onboarding in my business unit of 700 people and team of 20 was non-existent. It was a broken culture from the get go, despite an HR team of some 30 people.

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Cut to the present, I hear small businesses, startups and agencies complain about onboarding demands that are put on them because they simply don’t have the money to spend on a three-day orientation process in five-star hotels. All I can say it is not about the money. It almost never is.

In smaller businesses, after the recruitment chase is done, hiring managers just expect their employees to start work. Onboarding is often a bunch of unnecessary forms and even more unnecessary “ragging session by fully-grown adults”. Because, why shouldn’t we start-off new employees by asking them personal questions and making them give quick judgmental opinions about people they will be working with, hopefully for many years to come? Over-smartness is a disease in our workplaces and the one place it gets extremely pronounced is in obscure onboarding process of small businesses. I am being particularly scathing of course, because the quick and easy “intro” in the name of onboarding is a colossal waste of time. Yet surprisingly, very few organizations actually get it.

So how can start-ups and small businesses do it right? The first thing is to understand that compared to the sheer numbers hired each month in large multinationals, small businesses have it easier. The teams are close-knit and everyone is usually more approachable because of the small team sizes. Lean teams are assets that small businesses must leverage when designing their onboarding process.

Your onboarding expert must be trained to do more than recruitment

When I say expert, I don’t mean a team armed with degrees in HR. Startups and small businesses can’t afford that, I understand. All I mean is a single person who is culturally aligned, consistent, coherent and most importantly, adept.

In one of my past organizations, the local office manager took charge to onboard employees and she did a stellar job of making them comfortable on the first day. From team structures, meeting room logistics and subject matter experts to good lunch places around the office, there was nothing about the office she did not know. But more importantly, she did a good job of communicating it. I haven’t met an HR professional who came close to doing onboarding right like she did. Find someone similar in your organization and make him or her accountable for employee onboarding.

Design a perfect first day experience

Similar to effective customer experience design, put yourself in the shoes of new employees and understand what they must know and do on their first day. And no, it can’t be all work and deliverables. Employees will not be fooled into believing that they are going to have it easy, just because their first day was light. Much like human relationships, organizations will never have a stronger opportunity to impact new people as they do on Day 1. New employees often give up years of equity to be with you. The least you can do is welcome them warmly into your fold. A welcome kit of small things like stationery and coffee go a long way – try it. Introduce new hires to your team beforehand, so people are expecting them and can walk over and say hello without any hesitation. Tell new hires about lunch options within the first couple of hours – it is just a thoughtful thing to do.

Another important aspect on new hire onboarding is to clue them into the secret language of your organization - the abbreviations, the code names, the slangs, the inside jokes. Nothing integrates a new member into the team than some good, old-college humour. Just steer clear of gossip though.

Care enough to have their workstation set up. This is basic common sense, but often, employers fall short on ensuring that laptops, mail, intercom system and other tech is in new and working order to get the new hires started quickly.

Show new hires that the organization is truly what you promised them during the interview process. Your benefits and perks must be consistent in the paperwork vis-a-vis the recruitment conversations. Your culture must come across as warm, friendly and open, as you promised your new hires it would be. Of course you can’t stage this on every Day 1, so it is just easier to consistently live and breathe the culture you communicate as part of your employer branding.

Finally – and I can’t say this enough – have new hires start at a time when your onboarding expert and others will be able to spend some time with them. Often, I see flexible organizations also call new hires at 9am sharp. They then make them sit around, often without a laptop or even a desk for the next couple of hours. This is brutal on new hires, but more importantly, on the impression your organization is making on them.

Include the C-suite. The hiring manager is just common sense

No matter how busy the hiring manager is, it is his or her job to answer urgent questions, schedule key internal introductions and integrate the new hire with external teams like vendors or clients. But this is not all. Start-ups and small businesses often boast of being approachable and open, as they should. It is one of the best things about working in smaller set ups after all. And nothing proves this more than an approachable founder or business leader who schedules a one-on-one with new hires on their first day. From communicating the larger purpose and goals of the organization to even just visibility and showcasing your culture of approachability, a company’s top management can play a crucial role in onboarding. It is also a quick way to show the employee that their contribution and role are going to be important outside their immediate teams.

Eventually, much like employee engagement, onboarding too is not as much about how much an organization can spend on Day 1 as it is about empathy and human connections.


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