A good onboarding experience has benefits for the new recruit, their colleagues and the organisation’s bottom line. Yet, induction frequently fails to meet the new starter’s needs and expectations.[1],[2] How can your organisation make the induction process more inclusive?

Remember onboarding is not just for brand new staff

It’s easy to think of onboarding as just for people new to the organisation. But if we think of induction as less HR-docused and more about developing a sense of belonging and acceptance within the organisation,[2] we can see its benefits for anyone who has had an extended absence—for example due to parental leave, extended sick leave, other career breaks, role changes or a transition between in-office and hybrid work arrangements.[3]

Start before Day 1

The onboarding process begins as soon as a new employee accepts your offer. Make sure that all the interactions they have between that point and their first day are positive and inclusive.[4]

Don’t ‘drop the baton’ as the new recruit is passed between different stakeholders in the process. All parts of the system should interact seamlessly so, for example, the person is not misgendered, their name isn’t mispronounced, and they don’t have to share their accessibility needs with every new person they interact with. Of course, processes must be in place whereby personal information is kept confidential unless the person has consented to it being shared with particular parties.[5]

Where possible, begin the administrative tasks required before the person’s first day so that you can make sure they are ‘in the system’ and able to login to the organisation’s IT, access buildings and so on from day one.[1]

Make sure your forms and systems are accessible and use inclusive language and questions. Record personal identity information (birth certificates/passports) separately so that it is clear that sensitive information won’t be shared as general employee information. Also remember that trans and gender diverse people can’t always access up-to-date identity documents.[5]

If possible and appropriate, invite the new employee to the workplace prior to their start date. This gives you and them insight into any required accommodations and adjustments and importantly, allows time for these to be implemented prior to their first day. IncludeAbility provides some guidance for employers for staff with disability,[6] but don’t make assumptions about who might need accommodations. Offer this to all new recruits.

Of course, any pre-onboarding should be about making the person’s first days easier—it shouldn’t be about having them ready to ‘get on with the job’ from day one.

Prepare the team

“… inclusive culture isn’t one that inducts new hires into the existing company culture but instead expands to incorporate the new skills, approaches and perspectives that a new hire brings.”[7]

To continue growing the team culture, it’s important to work with the existing team on how they may need to adapt their own roles and responsibilities to proactively include the new member. Assigning a mentor or buddy can assist the new starter to engage with colleagues, even before their first day.[4],[8]

Train your managers

How much managers share information and support a new employee makes a huge difference to how that employee feels in their new role, how quickly they get up to speed, and how well they perform. However, managers are more likely to provide information and support to employees who seek out information. That means an employee who, for whatever reason, does not proactively seek information to learn tasks or build relationships is seen as less committed and thus receives less support.[9]

Since people have different learning styles, managers should be trained to be inclusive leaders and provide equitable support to people with different ways of learning and doing. Enable managers to ask questions to understand individual needs and provide the support, mentoring, and information needed to allow each individual to complete their work in ways that optimises and values their talents and approaches.[8]

Managers should also be trained to talk about the organisation’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, processes and resources.

Plan your timing

Although you might want someone to start as soon as possible, that may not be the best way to create a welcoming and inclusive experience. To make the new starter feel welcomed, informed and valued, the right people and systems need to be available. If their line manager is on leave or out of the office, their work equipment is not ready and everyone else is busy, the new person will feel like an inconvenience rather than an asset.[1]

Make the process structured yet flexible

Having an induction checklist will help the organisation to comprehensively onboard a new starter over time. However, having a checklist should not mean that induction becomes a tick box exercise. New employees expect flexible, customised and personalised onboarding that is connected to learning, development and socialisation.[2],[8]

The process should accommodate different groups of employees with different needs. Graduate students taking on some paid work will have very different needs to newly recruited executives. International recruits will not have the same cultural knowledge as domestic staff. People coming into higher education and research from a different sector will have different needs, as will employees of classification types, work areas, work functions and work arrangements.[1]

Consider also how the onboarding process can be conducted in a hybrid or remote environment.[8] Simply replicating the old process on an online platform doesn’t work—imagine eight hours a day of virtual training and induction for your first week! Be sure to include opportunities to build relationships and networks. This could involve virtual coffees with colleagues and one-to-one sessions with managers. Remember: the purpose of onboarding is to empower the new hire to work effectively as part of a team.

Think about people’s work fractions, and what proportion of their working day/week any mandatory onboarding modules may take. You may need to alter the expected timeframe to complete those modules to account for an employee’s part-time status. Casual staff also need to be properly onboarded and paid for their time.

Avoid overwhelm

We all know that starting a new job can be stressful and that effective onboarding can minimise the stress. The sooner the new staff member feels they can work independently, with no more assistance from colleagues or managers than is needed in an average work interaction, the sooner that stress will dissipate.[4]

That doesn’t mean onboarding should be rushed—it should be a staged process. Everyone takes in information differently, so people should be given time and space to gather the information they need to settle into their role. An action research study at a US university suggested developing a multi-modal, comprehensive onboarding program from the point of recruitment through the employee’s first year.[10]

Explicitly include inclusion

Use your onboarding materials to communicate what an inclusive workplace means to your organisation and why it cares about inclusion. Be cautious about not overwhelming people in terms of the volume or type of information included. Follow any input with links to resources so people can learn more.[7] This will help people feel comfortable talking about inclusion and related topics in the workplace.

Provide information on inclusion, disability and accessibility to everyone, share information about employee networks with everyone, and actively discuss inclusion and accessibility with everyone. Don’t make assumptions as to who needs what information. Do this repeatedly as people’s readiness to share personal information may change over time. Create a point of contact for further discussions about accessibility and inclusion and provide this to all new recruits.[6]

Evaluate your onboarding process

To optimise, improve and refine the onboarding process, institutions should continuously review and evaluate by asking recent hires about their experience. This can be particularly beneficial to better tailor the onboarding process and resources for different groups of employees.[8],[11]

An employee onboarding survey is a systematic way to efficiently check in with people and gather data to improve your process. It signals to new employees that feedback is sought and valued at the organisation, while also implicitly signalling what the organisation thinks is important via the questions asked.

Cullen[12] suggests a two-phase process. The first phase, in Week 1, asks the employee about the recruitment experience, their decision to join your organisation, and the onboarding experience so far. The second phase, in Week 5, asks about belonging, organisational and role alignment, and engagement, about the onboarding experience and whether it has enabled them to fulfill their role.

An inclusive onboarding process improves staff satisfaction, productivity, efficiency and wellbeing, improving retention as a result. Without this process, new staff can struggle to settle into the organisation. This can leave them feeling unprepared, ineffective and dissatisfied, and existing members of the team feeling burdened and resentful.[1] Think of onboarding as an investment in the whole team, not just that one individual.

References

[1] King VC, Roed J and Wilson L (2018) ‘It’s very different here: Practice-based academic staff induction and retention’, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 40(5):470–484.

[2] Billot J and King V (2017) ‘The missing measure? Academic identity and the induction process’, Higher Education Research & Development, 36(3):612–624.

[3] Boogard K (2022) ‘How re-onboarding eases the transition to a hybrid workplace’, Culture Amp, accessed 25 May 2022.

[4] Caldwell C and Peters R (2018) ‘New employee onboarding – psychological contracts and ethical perspectives’, Journal of Management Development, 37(1):27–39.

[5] Pride in Diversity (2018) ‘AWEI Practice Points: Inclusion of Trans & Gender diverse Employees’, ACON, accessed 12 May 2022.

[6] Australian Human Rights Commission (n.d.) ‘Creating an accessible and inclusive induction’, accessed 12 May 2022.

[7] Trinidad C (2021) ‘Part 8: Creating an Inclusive Onboarding Experience’, Lever, accessed 15 May 2022.

[8] Jeske D and Olson D (2021) ‘Onboarding new hires: recognising mutual learning opportunities’, Journal of Work-Applied Management, 14(1):63–76.

[9] Ellis AM, Nifadkar SS, Bauer TN and Erdogan B (2017) ‘Newcomer adjustment: Examining the role of managers’ perception of newcomer proactive behavior during organizational socialization’, Journal of Applied Sociology, 102(6):993–1001.

[10] Williams-Smith RE (2017) From good to great: An action research study to improve the new faculty onboarding experience [doctor of education thesis], Capella University, accessed 29 June 2022.

[11] Aldrich-Wright J and McKay K (2017) ‘Vice-Chancellor’s Gender Equality Fund Final Report 2017: Review and Improvement of Academic Induction and Orientation Pack (STEMM Focus)’ accessed 16 May 2022.

[12] Cullen J (n.d.) ‘17 powerful employee onboarding survey questions to use’, Culture Amp, accessed 16 May 2022.