Talent & Leadership
A Founder’s Guide to Onboarding New Hires
Companies spend a massive amount of time and resources trying to recruit and hire the right people. But their efforts tend to taper off at the point of onboarding. This is a common but dangerous approach. Effective onboarding can mean the difference between a costly hiring “mistake” and getting your new employees up to speed quickly in terms of productivity and engagement. Great onboarding doesn’t just help employees achieve meaningful results today—it also helps set them up for success throughout their entire career with the company. This is why a company’s onboarding process is one of its most essential People Systems.
In this guide to successfully onboarding new hires at a startup, we’ll cover:
- Measuring onboarding success
- 3 onboarding areas of focus
- CAMPS Model: Your brain-based onboarding framework
- Takeaways & next steps
Measuring onboarding success
After all the time and effort you’ve spent on hiring the best talent, it’s even more critical to protect that investment by ensuring you are setting up your new hires for the best possible success from the very beginning. In this guide, we’ll cover how to build the most effective onboarding programs for your teams. When doing so, it’s important to identify first what you are trying to create. Be clear on how the success of your onboarding program gets measured as well. The two key onboarding objectives metrics we’ve found to be most helpful are:
- Speed to performance
- Sense of belonging
Speed to performance—the time it takes for new hires to achieve the results you expect—helps you track the efficiency of your onboarding efforts. You can assess this by setting measurable goals for each role, then tracking how long it takes new hires to achieve them.
To measure a feeling of belonging, ask questions via survey and/or a 1:1 conversation 30, 60, and 90 days into someone’s tenure at your company (and incorporate them into your ongoing engagement survey). Good research-validated questions include:
- Does your manager, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
- At work, do your opinions seem to count?
- Do you feel a sense of connection to the company mission, vision, and values?
- Do you feel like you can be yourself at work?
- Do you feel a sense of belonging at work?
While speed to performance is a great measure of productivity, belonging acts as a strong predictor of engagement and retention. Deliberately designing for belonging also helps you build a company where people with diverse identities and backgrounds can thrive.
3 onboarding areas of focus
Once you’ve identified the ideal outcomes of onboarding are clear, it’s time to work on building out the most effective process. There’s so much to do and so much to learn, and it’s rarely clear what order anything should go in. To simplify the complexity of onboarding, we recommend focusing on these three key areas:
1. Learn the business: It’s tempting to have your new hire dive right into the job. The role has likely been vacant for some time, the work is piling up, and you want to start seeing some return on your investment, right? But the truth is that you will see much more long- term productivity and retention if you take the time upfront to teach your hire the broader context of the business.
- Who are the customers?
- What do they care about?
- What are the top priorities?
- What are the explicit and implicit norms and values?
Understanding the broader mission and vision of the organization will also provide an essential framework for how the work should get done (we talked about this earlier in our values guide).
2. Learn the people: Most companies assume that people will figure out how to form their own workplace relationships, but this process is so essential for performance and engagement that you do not want to leave it to chance—especially if your team is distributed or remote. Spell out who new hires should meet, how, and why, and keep reinforcing the message that success at your company is a team mission.
3. Learn the role: With the strong foundation of the business and the people in place, you can now begin to focus on the core tasks and responsibilities of your new hire. Clarify how success is defined, the resources they have to achieve their goals, and the expected norms, tools, and rituals of the team and company.
- Avoid making the classic mistake of teaching only via “ride alongs” with one member of the team.
- Provide a variety of learning pathways, including shadowing, reading instructions, watching videos, doing mocks/practice rounds, self-assessing progress, and interviewing co-workers.
CAMPS Model: Your brain-based onboarding framework
Your onboarding process will be most fruitful (and scalable) when it is held together by an underlying strategy. The framework we’ve found to be most helpful is the LifeLabs Learning CAMPS Model.
CAMPS stands for Certainty, Autonomy, Meaning, Progress, and Social inclusion, and it encapsulates the underlying needs our human brains all have in common. These are also the five biggest drivers of engagement at work (and life), resulting in productivity, engagement, and retention. Throughout the rest of this guide, we’ll introduce you to each of these brain cravings one by one so you can use them like a checklist to see if your onboarding process falls in one of the good or bad CAMPS.
Most humans don’t do well with uncertainty, especially when the stakes are high. Uncertainty triggers our sympathetic nervous system and releases the stress hormone cortisol, inviting a fight or flight state rather than the curiosity and connection that set us up for success at work.
Taking on a new job already comes with deep uncertainty. Remember: Your employees want to feel like they made an amazing decision in choosing to join your company, and they want to show you that you’ve made the right decision in hiring them.
For this reason, onboarding is typically the point in the employee lifecycle with the highest levels of uncertainty and stress. Reduce that early anxiety by eliminating unnecessary mysteries.
Here are some uncertain areas you may want to tackle even before Day One on the job:
- Employee directory sharing team member names, roles, bios, and photos
- Job/role description, including the purpose of the role and how success is measured
- Benefit enrollment
- Pay schedule
- Apps or software to download
- Schedule of first day (or even first 2-3 weeks) with blocks of time for lunch and self-study (especially if you are onboarding folks remotely where there is no one to bump into in the hallways to guide them to their next appointment)
- Scheduled 1:1 check-ins, ideally following a predictable cadence (e.g., a 15-minute check in every morning at 10 a.m. and every afternoon at 4 p.m.)
- What to bring with you on-site or even remotely (e.g., ID, notebook)
- Who to go to with different types of questions, their contact info, and how to contact them
- Dress code or attire expectations (or clarifying if there are none)
Having these elements in place before Day One creates certainty, allows for more progress on Day One, and signals your care and thoughtfulness to the new hire.
It’s so easy for new hires and companies to focus on helping people fit in during onboarding that we forget the power of standing out. Research shows we are most likely to stay in a role if we feel like ourselves (versus just one of the group) early on in the employee experience.
In psychology, this concept is called Optimal Distinctiveness: the right balance of feeling unique and similar to others. For example, in a study of a large call center in India, researchers Cable, Gino, and Staats found that employees who received sweatshirts with the company logo and their name along with an opportunity to reflect on and share their “best selves” had 250% lower attrition rates than employees who got swag and joined onboarding discussions focused only on the company. You can give people this boost of autonomy in several ways:
- Provide a template (see sample) to share personal information early on with the team
- Offer resources to optimize their workspace (e.g., budget, training, chair choices)
- Give the employee a choice of swag items (e.g., sweatshirt, notebook)
- Provide a template to help new hires set personal development goals
- Offer flexibility and choice where possible (e.g., work hours, work location, 1:1 time)
- After the initial first few weeks of total calendar certainty, invite new hires to decide how they want to use their time
Meaning is one of our most important human needs. Connecting employees’ work to concepts that matter to them increases engagement, satisfaction, and productivity. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “Those who have a why can bear almost any how.”
New hires need to have a clear sense of why their work is worth doing and how their tasks impact customers, co-workers, and your company mission. The impact is significant. For example, in a study of nurses responsible for assembling surgical kits, nurses who met healthcare workers using the kits assembled twice as many kits and made 15% fewer errors. In a separate study, pharmaceutical employees who heard a talk by a patient had significantly higher engagement scores, organizational pride, and commitment two months later.
So, how do you weave meaning into your employees’ onboarding experience? Here are our recommendations:
- Share stories about your company’s past so that new hires feel embedded in the timeline
- Communicate your future vision, why it matters, and where there is space to co-create this future with the new hires’ help
- Create space for new hires to reflect on and share how the company mission, values, and vision resonate with them personally
- Illustrate the downstream impact of the new hire’s work. Who will be impacted by it internally and externally?
- Suggest that employees speak with end users, invite users onsite, or simply offer recorded interviews of user stories
- Share the data of company and/or role impact (e.g., user feedback, number of people impacted)
- Create a role shadowing program, giving all new hires an opportunity to observe or even participate in “frontline” roles like customer service
- Ask new hires to schedule “role interviews” (see template) with people they will work with to understand how their work will impact others
- Encourage teammates and leaders to give frequent positive feedback early on
One of the best predictors of workplace satisfaction is a feeling of progress. Research by Teresa Amabile and team shows that it’s not the big wins that matter most but a feeling of continuous achievement.
Neurologically, when we anticipate and hit our goals, we experience a burst of dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter. More dopamine means more engagement and productivity. And yet, so many new hires get stuck in a prolonged period of dopamine depletion—either feeling they can’t contribute enough or scrambling to do a little of everything because they’re not sure which of their tasks they should prioritize. Great onboarding programs are designed to be brain-friendly, delivering a steady stream of dopamine through early wins, measurable goals, clear priorities, and visible progress tracking. Here are some concrete progress tactics to incorporate:
- Create a checklist of action items to cross off for the first 3-6 weeks
- Develop quizzes or assessments that new hires have to pass to advance to the next level of their onboarding program
- Identify the No. 1 priority for new hires to tackle every week or day
- Set measurable expectations of performance at 30, 60, and 90 days (see sample below)
- Schedule 30-, 60-, 90-day check-ins to reflect on progress and reset goals, if needed
- Create opportunities for new hires to have early, visible wins (for example, Facebook engineers push code to the site in their first week!)
- Publicly recognize the new hires’ contributions (e.g., team shout-out, work demos)
- Start 1:1s and/or team meetings by having everyone share small wins
- Encourage team members and leaders to give frequent feedback—ideally asking new hires what they’d like to receive feedback on
- Carve out time on people’s calendars for self-study and reflection
- Offer skill development experiences (e.g., training, learning from various mentors) early on so employees feel they are developing transferable skills rather than simply knowledge that’s only relevant to this role and organization
When assessing progress, don’t forget that feedback is a two-way street. Either as part of your 30-, 60-, 90-day check-ins or at the end of the new hire’s formal onboarding cycle, ask managers to conduct a retrospective on what worked and didn’t work throughout the process. This should be a bi-directional conversation between the new hire and their manager.
Pro tip: Make sure the onboarding process designer gets access to ongoing feedback—this can help everyone understand how to keep iterating and optimizing onboarding for future hires.
While autonomy and individuality are important to us, we also long to fit in. Our need to belong is so deeply ingrained that feeling excluded registers in our brains as if we are experiencing physical pain. It’s no surprise then that satisfying the need for social inclusion yields the greatest onboarding return with respect to commitment, speed to performance, and retention.
Engineering connection opportunities is an important practice for all new hires, and it is especially vital to do for employees with underrepresented identities (e.g., race, gender, age, disability) and in a remote or distributed environment. Creating diverse connections early on also has the benefit of preventing silos from forming in your organization, keeping information flowing swiftly and catalyzing collaborative and creative problem-solving. Here are some ideas to build connection:
- When possible, hire in cohorts since going through a shared experience solidifies connections (Bonus: invite the group to create a cohort name)
- Create virtual handshakes before Day One (e.g., send a welcome video from the team, manager, or CEO)
- Host a welcome breakfast on Day One (even if it's virtual)
- Encourage teammates to introduce new hires to people and groups outside their team (including employee resource groups and even specific Slack channels)
- Have frequent face-time in the first two weeks (e.g., daily standup with manager)
- Use “roulette” tech tools (like Donut) to randomly assign people to meet
- Provide a calendar of social events and a list of community-building resources
- Invite new hires and co-workers to schedule meet-and-greets with suggested questions
- Ask managers and teammates to exchange their personal user manuals with new hires
- Recruit “cultural ambassadors” who are eager to answer questions, meet 1:1, and make introductions to others in the company
- Speak openly about your company’s efforts to keep optimizing diversity, equity, and inclusion, why it matters, and what steps you take
- Train new hires in inclusion skills—like how to make all voices welcome in meetings
Takeaways and next steps
Think of onboarding as the period of time leading up to Day One until the new hire is fully productive (typically 3-6 months). This is a key window of time to set up employees for success in terms of productivity, engagement, and retention.
- Measure the success of your onboarding program using speed to performance and sense of belonging as your key metrics.
- Focus your onboarding efforts on helping new hires get to know the business, get to know people, and then get to know the role.
- Offer various learning methods like self-study, shadowing multiple people, and practice with feedback.
- Use the LifeLabs Learning CAMPS Model to make sure your employees fall into the engaged (versus disengaged) camp:
Certainty: Do new hires know what to expect?
Autonomy: Do they have choice and voice?
Meaning: Do they know why they’re work matters?
Progress: Do they feel they’re contributing and learning?
Social inclusion: Do they feel connection and belonging?
Last but not least, once you have your onboarding strategy and process in place, take the time to standardize it. Not only will a repeatable onboarding process be infinitely more scalable as your business grows, it also ensures that you are offering a fair, consistent experience to all employees. For best results, keep pulling for feedback, measuring results, and iterating the process for maximum efficiency and sense of belonging.
What to do first:
Identify your current opportunities and gaps—put your current onboarding system to the CAMPS Test.
- Rate each engagement driver (Certainty, Autonomy, Meaning, Progress, Social inclusion) from 0% to 100% one week before start date, one week into the job, 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days in.
- Spot your biggest opportunity for improvement, and fix it!
And if you do nothing else, schedule weekly new hire check-ins and 30-, 60-, 90-day retrospectives to get feedback, keep them aligned on progress, and keep coaching, learning, and adjusting in real time.