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Onboarding vs. Orientation: A Guide for Employers

  • Human Resources
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 04/12/2022

Employees greeting a new hire during orientation

Table of Contents

Onboarding vs. orientation? With every new employee hired, businesses confront this key question. If employers believe these two terms describe the same process, they risk taking the wrong approach to effectively usher a new hire into the organization.

There is a significant difference between onboarding and orientation, and what's best for both the organization and new employee may differ from one business to another. But when onboarding and orientation are handled properly, with special attention given to the new hire's needs, both processes can be enormously beneficial in terms of long-term employee retention.

Orientation and Onboarding Definitions

Onboarding is designed to help new employees adjust to their jobs quickly, while gaining the skills and knowledge needed to make a desired contribution to the business. This often includes getting up to speed on the social and performance elements of their new positions. In this way, they can achieve the highest levels of productivity within the company.

In general, onboarding describes a series of events that enable new employees to learn what they need to do to meet the responsibilities of their new positions. Orientation, on the other hand, refers to the initial welcome a company provides to the new hire (usually over the course of a single day).

At a new employee orientation, the new hire typically:

  • Receives an introduction to the company's mission, values, and culture
  • Meets their new co-workers
  • Completes new-hire paperwork

With onboarding, the new hire:

  • Begins to settle into their new job
  • Takes part in department meetings
  • Gains knowledge of the specific nature of their job responsibilities
  • Takes on projects and/or short-term assignments

While it's an essential step in the new hire's engagement with the business, orientation doesn't help new employees navigate the wider metaphorical workplace or success at their positions. It's during the onboarding process that new employees become integrated into the workplace and gain the training and knowledge needed to thrive over the long-term.

What Is Onboarding?

What priority should small business owners place on new employee onboarding? A strong case can be made that new-hire onboarding and training has a crucial impact on company culture, employee productivity, and long-term employee retention.

Onboarding an employee the right way can favorably affect workplace efficiency, accelerate training and development, and help drive results in a healthier, more collaborative company culture. Some aspects of employee onboarding can (and should) be done before a new employee's first day on the job. Keep in mind, however, that the time associated with employee onboarding may have to be compensated under federal, state, and/or local law.

To achieve this onboarding goal:

  • Send company welcome materials and an onboarding schedule to the employee before they first show up for work.
  • Have a future manager or another senior company representative reach out to the new hire to welcome them to the team.

These approaches can help a new employee feel ready to get started on their first day.

Identifying and implementing training and onboarding techniques may increase the likelihood that your new employees will be eager to invest their skills and enthusiasm into your business.

What Is Orientation?

Generally speaking, a successful employee orientation program is made up of two parts:

  1. A broad overview of policies and procedures that affect the entire company, including everything from the company's mission and goals to benefits, compensation and zero-tolerance policies regarding bullying and sexual harassment; and
  2. A review of the new hire's specific job duties and an explanation of how their position fits into the company's short- and long-range goals.

Key action steps include:

  • Provide the full array of resources needed to hit the ground running (workstation, supplies, relevant technology, and software, etc.).
  • Introduce the new hire to co-workers and managers.
  • Arrange for the new employee to work with a veteran staff member serving as a mentor.
  • Offer an in-depth view of the company culture, with emphasis on the value of teamwork — along with the importance of individual contributions — and how everyone contributes to the same overriding goal.

At orientation, new hires are formally introduced to your organization and its culture, mission, vision, and values. This often takes place in a conference-style event bringing together new hires from different departments across an organization. It's common for companies to schedule time for individual leaders to greet new employees, introduce themselves, and explain their roles within the business.

Remember, every new employee is unique, so taking a "one-size-fits-all" approach to orientation may not work. Employees should receive much of the same information, but it's important to refine the process when necessary, so the experience is beneficial for all involved. Especially when it comes to onboarding employees virtually.

Without both programs, a new employee is unlikely to have a well-rounded sense of their individual responsibilities and where they fit into the "big picture."

What Is the Difference Between Onboarding and Orientation?

As we have seen, significant differences exist between new-hire onboarding and orientation.

Orientation is a one-time occasion, during which the new employee gets a broad view of the organization. In general, this program doesn't take more than a single week.

By contrast, onboarding is an ongoing process (30-90 days in many cases), designed to get the new hire "up to speed" while also instilling the values of the organization.

While key differences exist, both programs aim to make the new hire feel at home within the organization, and to get them equipped — both in terms of their mindset and through the availability of relevant tools and resources — to get moving from their first day on the job.

In addition to the difference in timeframes, onboarding vs. orientation comes down to emphasizing the new hire's role within the organization (onboarding), versus helping the individual get acclimated to the workplace and culture (orientation).

Prioritizing Both Onboarding and Orientation

The purpose of onboarding. It never pays for an employer to skip or bypass key steps in the onboarding process. That's because onboarding fulfills a strategic need: enabling new hires to acquire a sense of the company's mission, values, and long-range goals. When employees gain clarity about the organization — and the importance of their own role within that organization — they will work more efficiently and feel a stronger sense of being part of the "big picture."

The purpose of orientation. A well-designed employee orientation program, may benefit your business and the new hire in numerous ways:

  • May enable new employees to get into the rhythm of daily business life faster than those without proper new-hire orientation. That often translates into less time and money needed for training, as well as less resources required from your HR department.
  • May keep "new employee anxiety" to a minimum, since new hires experiencing orientation can more quickly feel like they are part of the organization.
  • May reduce the time and effort needed for managers or supervisors to answer basic questions or explain issues more appropriately covered in orientation.

Effective employee onboarding involves much more than simply outlining the responsibilities and job duties of a new hire's position. The broader purpose is to instill an in-depth understanding of your company's history, culture, and mission. Presented in a positive, all-inclusive manner, this approach can result in a burgeoning sense of pride on the new employee's part, and a willingness to hit the ground running.

Many successful onboarding processes are an ongoing initiative. Once the initial program is over, look at ways to provide support and mentoring to new hires for six-months to a year. Find ways to involve as many people as necessary to help diversify new-hire perspectives and help new employees build networks within the company. Finally, establish feedback loops with new hires, managers and employees involved in the onboarding process to help identify gaps and opportunities for improvement.

Your company's onboarding and orientation programs are a new hire's first in-depth introduction to the job, the culture, and the importance of working together as a team. Investment in this critical initial stage of employment may greatly improve the likelihood of strong and enduring employee relationships, increased performance, and long-term employee retention.

The good news is employers don't have to "re-invent the wheel" when grappling with onboarding vs. orientation. As we have noted, both programs are essential for new hires, and having the help of a third-party HR provider can make all the difference. Find out how Paychex HR Consulting Services and employee onboarding software can assist you in achieving the goal of having employees who like working for you and want to continue offering their talents to your organization for months and years to come.


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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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