We hear all the time that onboarding has a huge impact on employee retention. In fact, research shows that employees who participate in strong onboarding programs are 69% more likely to stay with a company up to three years. And that's an important statistic--particularly in this day and age, when frequent job hopping is the norm among young, talented professionals.

But onboarding isn't just about preventing turnover. It's about jumpstarting productivity. Why? Because if you've only got four years with someone, you want them as productive for the company as possible, as quickly as possible, for as long as possible. That's why you invest in hiring them. Yet astoundingly, in one recent report, a full 30% of companies said new employees often took a year or longer to become fully productive. That could be a quarter of their entire tenure spent getting up to speed! The reality is that most employees can become completely productive far sooner if they are put on the right track in the first 30 days on the job, and it's your responsibility to make sure that happens.

Here are three key steps to help you out:

1. Don't wait for the first day at the office.

Marketing and sales professionals intuitively know that you don't stop communicating with customers just because they've paid for your product or service. Customers need to use what they've purchased and be satisfied with their experiences--and that takes legwork on your part. Likewise, hiring teams can't stop engaging with new employees just because they've committed to you on paper by signing an offer. Until new hires actually show up on the first day, and even afterwards, you should keep that engagement going.

Remember, many people will need to give two weeks' notice to their current employers, and a lot can happen in two weeks--so use that time advantageously. For example:

  • Start sending emails to let folks know what their first days and weeks will look like, so they know what to expect.
  • Introduce them to the people they will work with, so that the job moves from abstract concept to exciting reality.
  • Connect with them on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook, so they feel like part of a team.
  • Share company events or recount stories that help them really picture themselves as part of the culture already. Imagine being a new hire and receiving an email before you even started work that said, "A bunch of us just attended an all hands meeting, and the CEO mentioned how excited she is that you're starting!"
  • Get the paperwork going (and hopefully, it's not actually on paper). No one wants to spend the first 6 hours in the office completing W-2s and i-9s and other benefit-related documentation. Have a system in place that lets new hires complete these tasks on their own time, electronically, before they start work.

2. Have an honest-to-goodness orientation on the first day.

Would you be surprised to know that 25% of companies don't include training in their onboarding programs? I'd wager that the number that don't offer any kind of orientation is even higher. Most companies just plop new hires down at a desk and say, "Here's your laptop." Maybe they will extend an invitation to lunch with the boss. But that's not enough. That's like a parent just dropping a kid off at a new school, driving away, and leaving them to feel overwhelmed.

You don't want people feeling stressed and alone on day one. If you've been onboarding like you should, new employees will already have a sense about what their first week will be like, but you should nevertheless have a planned, inspiring, and welcoming orientation. Consider these tips:

  • Larger companies might do this in groups, but if you're small, just set up a one-on-one.
  • Talk to new hires about the history of the company, its mission, and the key strategies that underlie that mission.
  • Provide a description of the department a person is joining, the function they will be performing, and why their performance is valuable to the company. Your goal is to help new hires visualize and understand their role in the big picture, so they want to be productive faster, and so they feel like part of a team working towards a concrete objective.

3. Set expectations, with ongoing milestones, and then check in frequently.

Too often people are just thrown into the maze and left to find their own way out. That's not a good experience, and it's not helpful to the team. Never let a new employee start work without clear expectations of what they should be doing--not just on the first day, but for the first week, and the first 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, and so on. By providing precise expectations, you give new hires their own individual missions to work on right away.

  • Be clear about the milestones by which you will measure new employees.
  • Let new hires know how and when you will have check-ins, and maintain the schedule. It keeps people motivated, and it provides a good way to course correct as needed.
  • Finally, be sure employees know that these check-ins are a chance for both of you to discuss what's working (or isn't). They need to feel comfortable providing their feedback to you, so you aren't left wondering what they need, whether they're happy, or if they'll stick around.

In this competitive job market, no one can control how long an employee will ultimately remain with a company. But onboarding--and the idea of truly welcoming and orienting new hires as part of a larger corporate culture and mission--is something you can control. Don't squander the opportunity to have a more productive workforce.