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Onboarding: An Overlooked Tool for Small Business Employee Management

The term, onboarding, may bring to mind an ocean cruise (hopefully not the Titanic). But, in today's jargon, it refers to the process of bringing new employees into the company and making them comfortable and productive in relatively short order. Where orientation is generally a one day process to teach newbies about the company and its overall culture, onboarding is an extended process that can take weeks or even months to accomplish, depending on the person and the job.

A good onboarding program can bring employee retention rates to nearly 90 percent, but professionally-developed programs are costly. Small business owners can (and should) still conduct a well-planned process for their own new hires. Even if they can't afford the bells and whistles of professional onboarding programs, they can use the intimacy and heart of their small company cultures to welcome new employees and bring them into the fold. Here are five tips that can help turn newbies into productive team members who may want to stay with you forever.

#1. Plan for their arrival.

Once employees arrive and fill out W-4s and other forms, what will happen next? Do you have a place for them to sit? Do you have a mentor who can train and guide them? Have you planned their first activities?

Just as important, do you have real work that will make the new hire feel productive right at the start? Just one day spent at loose ends seems like a year. They may think twice before returning to repeat the experience for even one more day.

#2. Introduce the place, the people and the culture.

If you have a relatively short and entertaining orientation video that doesn't look like a Leave It To Beaver rerun, there's nothing wrong with requiring new hires to watch it. But, don't stop there.

Take them on a tour, pointing out everything from restrooms to resources that they will regularly need. By all means, introduce them to the people who they need to know right away. Introduce them to too many people, however, and they may start taking notes.

Don't forget the social aspects. Plan a lunch with their immediate managers and a small group of significant co-workers. This is one of the best ways to get them to know the people who will be most important to them.

#3. Develop an effective training plan.

The primary goal of training is to teach new employees the ins and outs of their day-to-day jobs. In a perfect world, you would have written instructions for every job, but your employees are probably busy enough just doing their own work, without becoming training developers.

Assign one or more patient mentors to teach them how to perform their jobs. And, once job training is complete, keep in mind that small businesses typically require employees to wear many hats to back up other employees. As time and comfort levels permit, provide new-hires with job shadowing opportunities that introduce them to the big picture.

#4. Set realistic expectations.

If you've ever watched Undercover Boss, the disguised boss gets about three minutes of training and then, the trainers expect speed comparable to their own. This is a great way to set up a new-hire to fail. Understand that inexperience brings reduced dexterity and a natural learning curve to the mix.

You probably know what to expect from newbies — and what progress actually looks like. Set and communicate their initial goals at levels that they can meet or exceed. As they progress, keep raising the bar until they reach maximum levels. If they exceed the maximums, given them a raise. Then, find out what they're doing differently and pass the information along to everyone who needs it.

#5. Invite feedback.

Out of fear of job loss, brand new employees seldom want to provide feedback that might make waves with upper management. Trainers, however, require feedback, so they need to genuinely invite questions and comments without argument or even rolled eyes. Remember the age-old saying: there is no such thing as a stupid question.

Onboarding programs are not one size fits all.

A well-honed plan provides a good start for every new employee that you bring in. But, the same plan may not account for the types of positions they fill, the staff that you can afford to lose to training activities at any given time, and even the personalities of everyone involved. Your onboarding process needs to remain effective, while flexibly addressing issues like these.

One issue to consider: your small business is susceptible to the ebb and flow of the business cycle, but can you really afford to fill new staffing needs only during the slow season?

Planning and timing are everything. You absolutely have to consider new-hire needs from the first day that they walk through your doors. If you have a clear plan in place, you know how to conduct an abbreviated up-front onboarding process that meets the most immediate needs. As time permits, go back to fill in the less-important blanks. A consistent plan with built-in flexibility can help your newbies develop a solid comfort level quickly. They'll thank you by staying on the job longer.

About the author

Carol Roth is a radio host on WGN, a CNBC TV contributor, a ‘recovering’ investment banker & a bestselling author of The Entrepreneur Equation. You can find her on Twitter @CarolJSRoth or at She also has an action figure made in her likeness.