November  08,  2022

Great onboarding, like a great party, gets one critical element right.

Remember the last boring, uncomfortable party you attended? Maybe you were invited to a party at which you didn’t really know anyone. You may have left thinking “No one seemed interested in learning about me. I spent the whole evening listening to people I don’t know talk to each other about themselves. And the host didn’t bother to introduce me to anyone.”

In many ways, onboarding is like being invited to a party where you don’t know anyone. Why does this matter? Because first impressions have an outsized impact on a person’s feelings and judgments. Humans are hard-wired to make quick judgments for evolutionary survival reasons and have a very difficult time moving off of those initial assessments, despite plenty of future evidence to the contrary. So if you blow the onboarding, it’s an uphill climb from there.

Arguably the most important outcome of a great onboarding experience is a sense of belonging.

The innate motivation to belong is deeply ingrained in our human biology. As noted by The Mayo Clinic, the sense of belonging is fundamental to the way humankind organizes itself.

At work, the impact of a sense of belonging for employees is significant. According to the Harvard Business Review, high belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days.

So, now that we know how important onboarding and belonging are to business, let’s get back to the party.

If you don’t know anyone at the party, you’re left to navigate on your own, and no one seems particularly interested in you, you might wonder whether you should have showed up at all. Conversely, if someone introduces you to people, you share something about yourself, discover commonalities with those people, you might feel accepted.

Acceptance is essential to belonging. The difference between feeling connected to others and feeling a sense of belonging with others is acceptance. To feel accepted, you have to share your authentic self. Sharing means opening up, and that kind of vulnerability can be a bit tricky to foster in a work environment.

But there’s a solution: build it into the process. Most onboarding is focused on the organization’s “authentic self.” There’s a one-way flow of information to the new employee about company’s identity, including history, values, and norms. But what if we made onboarding a two-way street? Including the individual’s identity creates an exchange of information — an opportunity for acceptance and a growing sense of belonging.

Here are 3 ways to make your onboarding better by promoting a sense of belonging:

  1. Proactively introduce the new employee to fellow employees across the organization. The sooner you can eliminate the “stranger” awkwardness – because they don’t know people’s names and roles — the sooner they will feel that sense of belonging. Find creative ways to help new employees to remember names and faces. Of course, there’s an app for that! Check out Pingboard’s Who’s Who game.
  2. Self-expression. Design the onboarding to encourage the new employee to express their authentic selves. Ask them questions, inviting them to share. For example, are you presenting company history, core values, and vision? Ask them about their history, core values, and vision for their future. Invite the new employee to share their strengths and how they see themselves succeeding in their new role. And check in with them regularly to ask how they are feeling. Joining a new company can be an emotional rollercoaster; having someone acknowledge this and want to know how you are doing sends a very strong signal of acceptance.
  3. Find a way to explore the new employee’s personal background, hobbies, and passions. Then connect them to fellow employees who share similar interests. Create a “buddy” system that pairs a new employee with a veteran that has a few things in common. And make sure your buddy system has real impact: build frequent interactions between the buddies into the process over the first 90 days.

Effective onboarding, like the best parties, creates a sense of belonging. Happy hosting!

For more thoughts on onboarding, check out 4 Secret Thoughts of New Hires – Emerson Human Capital (