Onboarding New Employees — Without Overwhelming Them

A great onboarding experience can keep new hires engaged and committed, and increase their learning and preparedness for their new role. In trying to ensure new employees feel supported and properly prepared, some organizations flood new hires with far too much information. Even if managers have the best intentions, bombarding new hires with tasks — such as asking them to read every single page of the employee manual or requiring them to get set-up on Slack, email, Box, and all the other platforms all at once — will backfire. Three strategies can help organizations mitigate this overload and ensure employees have the space, time, and mental resources available to learn and thrive in their new job.

We know that effectively onboarding new employees has huge value. A good onboarding process — with clear information on job requirements, organizational norms, and performance expectations — not only enhances employee productivity but helps increase loyalty and engagement, and decreases turnover.

And yet organizations consistently fall short. According to a 2022 survey from payroll company Paychex, only about half of new hires are satisfied with their onboarding experience. This failure can preclude the formation of an emotional bond between new hires and the company, impacting engagement and influencing employee retention. New employee turnover rates can be as high as 20% in the first 45 days, and approximately one-third of employees leave their new jobs within the first 90 days of employment.

One common mistake is offering a perfunctory experience that consists of a day of orientation and a packet explaining benefits. What is less recognized — but equally destructive and prevalent — is that some companies “over-onboard” their employees. In my work as a learning design consultant, I hear stories of managers who, on their new hires’ first days, read through every single page of the employee manual with them and expect them to get up to speed with Slack, email, Box, and all the other platforms all at once. Or managers who take employees on a “quick tour” of a manufacturing plant and then point out all the different features in rapid succession.

While these leaders may be well-meaning and eager to help their new employees get acclimated to their role, bombarding new hires with a deluge of information can also backfire. Our brains can only process a finite amount of new information at one time, and even less when we are novices. As a result, new employees are susceptible to the impact of excessive (extraneous) cognitive load during onboarding. This can lead to diminished performance or even the new hire deciding the new job is not a great fit, and leaving.

In my research, both in academia and corporations, I’ve identified three strategies leaders can implement to help reduce employee overwhelm and ensure new employees are onboarded effectively and efficiently.

Dose information in a logical sequence.

While it may be tempting to give new employees a rapid “fire hose” of onboarding material, in reality, effective learning is a gradual, effortful process that requires more than a singular session or even a week or two. And it turns out (somewhat counterintuitively) the longer the onboarding process, the faster employees gain proficiency, because they’re able to build on prior knowledge they’ve already assimilated.

Begin the onboarding process with the essential basics, clarify their relevance, and then build on this foundation in a logical sequence over time. By doing so, your company will retain more new hires and create a culture where continuous learning is a clear organizational priority.

For example, one fast-food company adopted this strategy when they shifted their approach to a continuous learning model. To begin, new hires go through a focused training program, followed by quizzes on key topics several times a month. If they fall short on the quizzes, they go through a retraining process. As a result, the fast-food company’s turnover rate is less than 29% for frontline workers, significantly less than the industry average of about 86%.

Be clear about expectations.

A clear understanding of your role is one of the most consistent predictors of engagement and job satisfaction. If you don’t know what you’re meant to be doing, you can’t know whether you’re on the right path — and that uncertainty can take a mental toll.

Without adequate guidance, new hires are left to navigate a confusing maze of uncertainties, which uses up mental capacity in nonproductive or inefficient ways. Common shortfalls include a lack of clarity about job responsibilities, task prioritization, reporting structures, deadlines or timeframes, and performance metrics. These inefficiencies in communication can, for the new hire, generate anxiety, stress, and reduce confidence, especially if people are afraid of asking for help or making mistakes.

To ensure role clarity and to set new hires up to make meaningful contributions, consider the following strategies:

Eliminate “insider terminology” to avoid creating “outsider” anxiety.

A third, and critical, component of a good onboarding experience involves making sure new hires feel welcome and a sense of belonging. There is a real danger that new employees won’t be able to learn about their job and your organization if they are distracted by worrying about fitting in, finding like-minded people to connect with, or questioning their place in the grand scheme of things.

One of the surest ways to torpedo a new hire’s sense of belonging is the use of insider-jargon or acronyms without explanation. Assuming universal understanding of business terms like “LOE” (level of effort), or “RCA” (root cause analysis), organization-specific names like TPS report (which can mean many different things), or the staff’s routine attendance at the “AERA conference” (these are real examples) is misguided. New hires are not necessarily in the know about these terms, and their lack of knowledge slows down understanding and can create feelings of exclusion, apprehension, and inadequacy.

This “insider” information also extends to people within the organization. Consider the experience of a new colleague, Edmund, who struggled with uncertainty when co-workers referred to other people at the company by their first names. Each time it happened, Edmund would worry if he should know this seemingly important “Sarah” or “Juan” (without explicit introductions), and what did it say about him if he had to ask?

To make sure everyone is in the loop, err on the side of over-explaining terms, acronyms, and relationships to new employees. Include full names and titles when you introduce people within the organization. Provide new hires with a comprehensive glossary of industry or organization- specific terms, along with a detailed company directory. This resource can help support new employees in their transition and ensure a more inclusive and informed onboarding process.

. . .

A great onboarding experience not only increases employee learning and preparedness to excel in their new role, it also leads to greater engagement, loyalty, and retention. But while the value of effective onboarding is indisputable, the reality is that many organizations (even those studiously trying to avoid under-training their employees) fall short, going too far in the opposite direction and flooding new hires with too much information. By implementing strategies that mitigate cognitive overload, organizations can ensure employees have space, time, and mental resources available to learn and thrive in their new job.

Human resource management, Developing employees, Employee engagement, Onboarding, Hiring and recruitment, Talent management, Employee retention, Digital Article

Julia Phelan
Julia Phelan, Ph.D. is a learning design consultant and expert in applying learning science principles to create effective learning experiences. She works with organizations to help build a strong workplace learning culture by improving training design, implementation, and outcomes. She is the co-founder of To Eleven, and a former UCLA education research scientist. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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