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Human Resources Q&A: Isn’t onboarding the same thing as orientation?

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Emphatically, no!

Onboarding is often confused with orientation and/or is assumed to be an interchangeable term. But the two functions are actually quite distinct - distinct in their intent, in the elements that are included and most notably, how each is managed with the new employee.

And while they are both different and distinct, each are critical to a new employee’s ability to smoothly and successfully integrate to the new environment in which they will work, as well as to the new expectations they will be expected to meet.

Onboarding is a series of processes that are sequentially designed to socialize the new employee to the organization. It is done to instill a sense of the organizations culture, values and expectations, early in the relationship and is done over an extended period of time that is often aligned with the new employee’s probationary period (in some instances it may go beyond the probationary period). Ordinarily, the duration of a senior manager and/or executive onboarding process will extend between 12-18 months. This might seem excessively lengthy, however, it is quite the norm for an individual at a senior level to have an entire fiscal year to learn and become familiar with every aspect of the job, its nuances and the associated cyclical activities.

A multi-staged approach can begin before the employee is hired, as early as the employment offer and negotiation stage. The way this interaction is handled will most certainly influence and set the tone for future negotiations with your new employee. The structure of your organization and where the new employee fits within it will need to be taken into account when preparing to onboard. In addition, there may be some components that require good lead time to meet your desired delivery date.

Below are some other elements to consider:

Pre-Start Day Preparation

  • What information does the employee need to be aware of? (i.e. strategic plan, critical meeting dates)
  • Identify and make provision for office/workstation requirements. (i.e. telephone extension, digital equipment, security access card)
  • What administrative details can you finalize in advance of start day? (i.e. personal information, direct deposit advice, benefit application)
  • Identify key stakeholders and create a schedule of meetings to occur during the employee’s first week or two, to help facilitate relationship building. (i.e. internal peers/staff, external vendors/suppliers, board members)

Day One (Start Day)

  • Circulate an enthusiastic welcome message to inform all staff of the new employee, their role and contact details.
  • Manager is available to meet, greet and make introductions to team members/direct reports.
  • Assign a “transition mentor” to be a source of guidance to the organizations administrative processes. (i.e. office tour, office equipment, emergency procedures)

Post Day One

  • Establish performance plan. (i.e. short and long term goals)
  • Establish progress updates. (i.e. feedback, coaching)
  • Provide access to resources, materials and contacts.
  • Complete the orientation. (i.e. job, organization, policies, practices)
  • Complete all necessary training. (i.e. software applications/databases)

Orientation is an integrated component of the onboarding process and may be offered in varying durations of time, from one hour, a half-day or one week, dependent on the complexity of the organization and an employee’s job. An orientation event or session is primarily offered to acquaint an individual to the organization and the environment in which the new employee will work. And dependent on the employee’s job, it may include job-specific information and/or knowledge transfer to accelerate the learning curve.

A well-produced orientation session should address the organizations mandate, structure, values, services and/or products, customers/stakeholders, policies, practices and key players. Ultimately, the new employee is left with a clear understanding of their role and how it contributes to the goals and objectives of the organization.

As the HR professional in your organization, you will be relied on to take a lead role with the onboarding process along with the content of the orientation session – to anticipate the requirements, design the stages and orchestrate the players so that the new employee experiences a productive and seamless transition into their role.

Are you onboarding your new employees?

To submit a question for a future column please leave a comment below or contact No identifying information will appear in this column. For paid professional advice about an urgent or complex situation, contact Veronica directly.

V. Utton & Associates offers boutique-style human resource management services to small and mid-sized organizations with particular expertise in the non-profit sector. For a fresh "VU" on people practices contact us at

Disclaimer: Advice and recommendations are based on limited information provided and should be used as a guideline only. Neither the author nor make any warranty, express or implied, or assume any legal liability for accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information provided in whole or in part within this article.

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