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What is employee onboarding in HR? A guide for small businesses

Employee onboarding is key to building a happy and high-performing team — it is the first and most important step to get right as a leader, so you can give new starters everything they need to thrive in their new environment.

This is easier said than done, especially if you work at a small business or startup where you don’t have a full HR team to own the onboarding of new starters.

To ensure you set up new team members for success from day one, you need to:

  • Design an onboarding process that works for you and is scalable
  • Consider getting an onboarding software to streamline the various steps
    This guide covers that and much more, to arm you with the expertise you need to give a great first impression, boost your employee engagement and increase retention rates.

What is employee onboarding in HR?

In human resources, onboarding is the process of introducing a new employee into the company. The process starts from the moment a job offer is accepted by the candidate until the time they can perform all the tasks they were hired to do and feel confident in their role.

This usually takes a few months as you need to help the new employee to:

  • Complete all the necessary paperwork and tick off all the legal bits
  • Ensure they have access to all the tools they need to perform their day-to-day tasks (Slack, reporting dashboards, you company’s HR software, etc)
  • Familiarise themselves with your processes, company policies and your culture
  • Set the right expectations for their role with their line manager
  • Be in a position where they can build good relationships with their colleagues

Why is HR onboarding important?

Onboarding is all about setting someone up for success, getting them into the very best position and work environment from which to launch their career in your organisation.

It is just as important as hiring and should never just be seen as an admin item to tick off a list. If you don’t get onboarding right, then you shouldn’t be surprised if three months after hiring someone, they suddenly decide to leave.

With almost 30% of new hires leaving within their first 90 days, well-thought onboarding can truly impact your employee retention. During their probation period, new employees can leave your company with very little notice. It’s during this time that a clunky and cold onboarding program can make the difference between keeping or losing your new employees.

What should be included in employee onboarding? The 5 C’s of onboarding

Onboarding is so much more than just sorting paperwork and handing laptops to new joiners. The key elements of the process are often referred to as ‘the 5 C’s of onboarding’:

list of the 5cs of onboarding

1- Compliance

One major goal of your employee onboarding process is to ensure that new team members understand and are familiar with your HR policies and confidentiality requirements. New joiners should be able to find that information in your employee handbook.

​​Every employer in the UK has also a responsibility to keep a record of their employees’ Right to Work documentation. For team members from the UK, that’s pretty straightforward – just keeping a scan of their passport will do the trick. For other team members, things get a little trickier.

Nationals from other parts of the world either need to have settled (or presettled) status, or a visa that gives them the right to work in the UK. In either case, you’ll need to keep a record of their right to work documentation on file. If you have HR software like CharlieHR, you can safely store all of these documents on the platform.

Compliance also covers security training: make sure that everyone understands how to keep their laptops secure by following IT best practices.

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2- Clarification

During onboarding, your HR team and line managers need to work together to ensure the new hire understands what’s expected of them and builds the confidence they need to do their best work.

This is a two-way process:

  • Make sure to listen to your team member’s ideas on how they’d like to contribute in their new role, on top of what was stated in their job ad
  • Work together to set clear goals to be achieved by the end of the probation period and within their first year

The final result should be a detailed job description and a professional growth roadmap to set the foundations of the new hire’s career at your company.

3- Company culture

It’s very difficult to convey the various aspects of how you work and behave as a team just during the hiring process.

It’s during onboarding that new team members get to really experience what it's like to work at your company. A successful onboarding process will let your culture shine through every single interaction your new hire has with the rest of the team — from how they’re guided through admin tasks to how they’re introduced to key people in the team.

So, as you review your employee onboarding process, think about what each element of the puzzle is saying about your culture and who you are as a company.

4- Connection

Starting a new job where everybody and everything is new is overwhelming enough. And in this new, hybrid world of work, it can be even harder to connect with new coworkers.

Without a physical space to reach out to people and break the ice with an informal conversation, it’s your responsibility to introduce new hires to relevant people across the business.

With onboarding software like CharlieHR, you can also set reminders for your team when a new starter’s first day arrives, so that people can book them in for a coffee or a chat over Zoom.

Whatever means of communication you use at your company, make sure new joiners are not left behind.

5- Check back

You’d be surprised to see how many new hires get abandoned to themselves after their first week at a new company.

In order to make all the others ‘C’s’ work, you need to regularly check back with your new starters to see how they’re getting on.

It’s up to you how you do this. At Charlie, line managers have weekly and sometimes bi-weekly 1-1s with their new direct reports to ensure they’re getting familiar with their role. They also set monthly conversations to check back on the goals new hires have to achieve by the end of the probation period.

These meetings are an opportunity for new starters to ask any questions, as well as to exchange feedback with leadership.

One always hopes for the better, but checking back is essential to avoid the surprise of an employee leaving before the end of probation.

What is the onboarding process?

When welcoming a new starter into the business, make sure you have a clear and effective onboarding process to lean on.

On one hand, this allows you to give everyone the same, consistent onboarding journey. It also gives you something that you can then review and adjust.

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Having the onboarding process spelled out in a document also lets you delegate more effectively (one person can go for coffee, another will explain all the acronyms).

Employee onboarding should always be a team-wide endeavour and not solely the responsibility of whoever is in charge of ops. Actively share out tasks, so that the new employee can get an accurate feel for the company as a whole.

Many small businesses and startups today choose to manage their onboarding process through HR software — let’s see why.

What is onboarding software?


HR onboarding software helps you by automating your various onboarding steps in a way that’s much more consistent and efficient than if you just did it manually.

Software like CharlieHR allows you to:

Easily collect information with self-service onboarding

  • New hires create their profiles in Charlie and fill in their details
  • No more chasing new joiners for P45s and passports
  • Generate a New Starter Form directly in the software – no need to print

Create tailored checklists for every new joiner

  • Easily create lists of tasks and assign them to yourself your team or new starters
  • Choose from set templates or create your own
  • Delegate onboarding tasks to line managers by making them ‘owners’ of checklists

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Help new starters hit the ground running

  • New starters can access your company handbook directly on the platform
  • The people directory helps them put names to faces
  • Holiday entitlement is calculated automaticallyWant to take CharlieHR for a spin? Start a 14-day free trial.

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How long does onboarding take?

There are no legal requirements when it comes to deciding how long onboarding should take, but most HR professionals agree that it should be around three months.  

Onboarding currently coincides with probation periods — a new hire is not considered fully onboarded until they have passed their probation. This means that, especially for senior roles, onboarding can last up to six months.

Roles and responsibilities in HR onboarding

Human Resources are not the only function responsible for delivering a great onboarding experience, quite the opposite!

Onboarding is a true team effort where stakeholders across the organisation come together to set new starters up for success.

  • The HR department is responsible for building and overseeing the process.
  • Line managers look after their new team members by crafting their job role doc and setting goals for the probation period and beyond. They also have to check in regularly with them to see how they‘re getting on.
  • Their buddy should be at hand in case they had any questions about how things work in the company.
  • The IT team should also help solve any initial hiccup with work equipment and help new starters set up their laptop and any other software they need.
  • The rest of the team is responsible for making sure the new hire feels included and welcome (for example by booking some time in their calendar for a chat, or by making sure they are invited to all social events).
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