The Flight-Check Model of Onboarding

When you consider the quality of your onboarding you need to address a certain amount of minimum administrative actions as well as providing emotional and functional support.

Many onboarding schemes in use by companies currently feature only partial recognition of a new hire’s needs, and often will not provide support where it is needed the most. As an illustration, I’d like to refer back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, like I did in my previous post about Capability Development:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Source:Wikipedia

We want to establish an environment where the heavy lifting on the first three layers has effectively been already done by your organization. Physiological needs in this sense aren’t just the security of a job, including an appropriate salary and secondary benefits, but also the minimum requirements to do the job in question.

For example, ensuring that all required hardware and accounts are made, and that the new hire has access to their work location and knows how to get there in the first place. This is one of the two most recognizable sections of onboarding, because it also involves the knowledge required to turn a new hire into an employee, employee handbooks, and all manner of on-the-job training. However, as we see here it’s no more than the absolute basis for onboarding.

Second up is safety, which includes everything from signed documents affirming their job status, safety equipment if applicable, to having someone on-site to receive answers to job-related questions. Where the first step on the ladder removes the confused look on a new hire’s face, this should allow them to exhale and get the load off their shoulders.

Belonging is the third step and focuses on knowing your place in the organization, knowing exactly what is expected of you to perform, and connecting with your peers. This is the part where most people put the most effort in when it comes to onboarding, because has the greatest visible benefits and really puts in the Human element.

Esteem is the goal post for the onboarding, the ability to move independently, confident and able to do their jobs according to expectations and in good alignment with their colleagues. Once you’ve reached this level the onboarding process is a success.

Self-actualization is the step beyond, where performance management and development comes in. If everything before this was the planting stage, next is the growing stage.

Plan your onboarding like you’re getting ready for take-off


Airplanes are continuously in transit from one airport to another and their planning is both tight and critical. Failure to keep everything under control can range from lost luggage, late flights, to downright disaster. Because of this, aviation has a strong history of checklists, safety margins and restrictions designed to minimize the chance for errors, while keeping most of this out of sight of passengers.

And when you come down to it, that’s not much different from a good onboarding schedule, is it? Granted, the name “onboarding” itself screams like it involves a seating arrangement and in-cabin refreshments, so it was a good place to look for inspiration on creating a framework that would allow settling activities and checkpoints at the right time.

Like the captain and the head steward, two specific roles are set out for the new hire’s direct manager and someone who will guide them during their introduction period, often called a mentor or “buddy”.

Like with the captain, the manager’s main focus is on getting the new hire up to speed as an employee. Their main strength is that as a manager and leader, they will have the soft power needed to start processes that are stuck, and have an easier time arranging for team meetings and introductions needed for the new hire.

The buddy, like the head steward, has a role to guide the new hire, explain things that are not in the employee’s handbook, and offer a guided tour of the unofficial side of the company’s daily life (every company has its own culture, back alleys and shortcuts).

It is important to select a buddy who is willing and able to be a mentor and teach a new colleague the ropes, but also has the needed weight of experience and calm demeanor to handle any incidents during the onboarding, while maintaining a positive learning experience for the new hire. Think to yourself “would I want this person training a new person at feeding king cobras?” – if the answer is yes, you have a winner on your hands.

Setting clear and firm goals

In the end, you want your onboarding to be successful by establishing three goals to work towards:

  1. All administrative actions involving the new hire are completed, and feedback on the process has been received.
  2. The new hire has made all necessary connections to peers, colleagues, departments, management and team members to be able to function (mostly) independently as an employee.
  3. Everyone was involved in time, communication was transparent and timely, and expectations and incidents were handled as well as possible.

As you can see this involves several streams of actions (administrative, social, educational and management) handled like a project. This means you need to know when things need to be complete (deadlines), when to check for progress (checkpoints) and how to handle delays and incidents (incident management).

Don’t think too lightly about the onboarding when it comes to time and effort involved, you are setting the groundwork for a (hopefully) long and successful career of a Human being in your company. If this does not meet expectation, it may not only lower morale before the person even began work, but this is sure to find its way in discussions outside of the company if it is remarkably disappointing.

Getting your timing right

As it goes in any project, these goals need to be broken down in distinct actions, and you will need to understand when each of these deliverables are expected to be completed.

Realize well that certain actions can run in parallel (informing people of a new hire coming in while setting up their accounts, ordering their hardware and sending them the new hire handbook) while others must, by definition, be successive (such as doing background checks before a formal hire, or arranging a person’s security clearance before their arrival).

Using the aviation flight plan as a model, break down the entire process in five steps:

Briefing: Associated with informing and checking understanding, this section of the onboarding should get everybody up to speed on the coming of the new hire, set down the roles people play and what you expect of them during the process. This should also mark the end of the recruitment process, so the negotiations and legal process.

Routing: Associated with movement and action, here all requests and activities need to be fired up to create the ground works for when the new hire arrives. This not just applies to the activities during the onboarding, but also to processes that need to be finished before arrival, such as entering the new hire in the systems and preparing equipment.

Onboarding: The most visual element, onboarding is the proper “seating arrangement” of this process and the most involved. Welcoming the new hire, giving them a tour, meeting their manager and colleagues, and guiding them to fit well in their role and place in the company. This phase is an active one, where the new hire should receive regular check-ins for understanding and well-being.

Take Off: At this stage, the first shock has worn off and as they say “the honeymoon is over”, as the new hire settles into their new role. There will still be hurdles to take, and this phase marks tying down the last administrative ribbons, ending any probationary period and finding final solutions for any temporary fixes made during the Onboarding. Check-ins at this phase become passive, rather than active, where your role switches to being available for help, rather than offering it actively.

Flight: This stage is marked by the independence of the new hire. They may need occasional assistance like anyone else, but on the whole they operate like any other employee. This is also the time to ask for feedback and find improvements to be made to the system. Any fixes made during Take Off should now be routed back into the process as improvement points, so that these issues can be prevented next time.

Checkpoints and Deadlines

Deadlines are the final dates that each of these phases should be completed. Ideally the Briefing phase should start as soon as the agreements are made on the new hire, before the ink on their contract is dry. As soon as possible after that, the Routing should start to give everyone ample time to prepare, book meetings and make arrangements. Since administrative processes can be slow, and communication can fail at one of numerous points, regular and continuous checking and pressure is required here.

Onboarding itself starts the day of the new hire’s arrival, and can last anywhere between two weeks and two months depending on the complexity of the role and organization. Once the new hire becomes more independent and settles down, the Take Off phase should begin where new hires are monitored, but not actively checked. When it comes to resolving issues, pressure should be maintained to fix issues that hinder the new hire’s ability to be involved and do their jobs, even if it sometimes means creating a temporary fix that needs a more permanent solution later.

The Flight phase is the end of the onboarding and wraps up the experience transforming a new hire into a capable and knowledgeable employee.

As with all projects, HR will likely be the linchpin in this process, and a single person should be the owner of the onboarding process. They should be the primary contact for the new hire, managers and team members who find themselves with questions and issues during this phase, centralizing control and communication.

Transparency in Communication

Communication is key before and during the whole onboarding process. Not only will you need to chase progress on various actions and update everyone involved in the latest changes and actions, but you also will need to practice transparency.

Part of this involves creating an atmosphere of open professionalism in the virtual and temporary team handling your current onboarding. They are putting in significant time and effort, so you need to be sure that they understand and accept your expectations. However, they also need to be able to give feedback and feel safe to report any problems and irregularities that they encounter.

In any situation, any reported problem can be resolved more easily than one that has been kept silent. Sometimes, the problem can even result in a failure or dismissal later on down the line, and sour relations with colleagues, recruiters and the job market. To prevent all of this, an open and honest channel of communications is critical in any successful project, and onboarding is no different.

A project brief can help you greatly in arranging your tasks and checks, setting a calendar for your onboarding, with checkpoints and deadlines, in either a spreadsheet or in a project/gantt chart. Making this available to all members involved will help focus on the tasks at hand, serves as a constant reminder of their responsibility, and acts as an early warning system when processes are not running as smoothly as they should.

When it comes to meetings with the virtual onboarding team, keep them sparse and to the point. You will likely want a more extensive briefing meeting to discuss the roles and responsibilities, but after that I would suggest a more organic system of personal checkups. A good point for a second meeting would be just before the new hire arrives (making sure all is ready and everyone is on the same page) and at the beginning of the Take Off phase (checking your assumptions that everything is in order, as well as thanking them for their efforts).

(Inter) National Transfers

Specific notes need to be made for employees who move (great) distances in order to take up a position in your company. Aside of the legal and regulatory requirements involved, make sure that the onboarding process helps, or at least makes allowances for, the many administrative tasks involved in moving and setting up a new home.

When I moved to Sweden from the Netherlands, I switched contract right before the move. I was fortunate that I effectively moved to a different subsidiary of the same company, taking a lot of the sting out of moving internationally while your contract is in the air.

Even then, I needed to arrange housing, moving, signing out of my home town and in at my new town, getting my tax papers and identity handled, signing over my car, arranging border permissions for my pets, and all manner of administrative decisions within my company’s HR process. I can’t even begin to imagine what I would have to go through if I had moved with children, or had a purchased home rather than a rental home.

A great deal of stress and insecurity will assail such a new hire, and this means that their tolerance for retaining information and making decisions will be less. While I do not advocate taking a lot of work out of their hands, as this is usually considered “their business”, it does mean that respecting these limits and ensuring you have room in your program for time to rest or arrange personal matters would be a very sensible thing.

When it comes to international transfers, also be aware that a new hire might not be aware of all required regulation, and may need help to understand certain legal documents or laws that they have never heard of before. Be proactive in making this experience as smooth and easy as possible and you will not only have less to worry about later on in the proceedings, but you will also foster trust and loyalty in a new colleague.

The true cost of a bad hire (by you)

You may have heard that the cost of a bad hire can easily range as high as 25 to 50 thousand euros, as seen here. This involves hiring a bad apple by mistake and recognizing this too late, costing the company revenue, the cost for firing this person but also secondary costs for rehiring, lost morale, and losing potential good hires. That’s a lot of money.

But don’t forget that the reverse also applies – a person who is willing, of good character and great skill who is turned off by a bad recruitment and onboarding experience, but who saw too late that their needs were not met and they were left flailing and confused. When such people don’t make it through the probation period, whether by leaving or severely reducing their performance and engagement with the company until expelled, they impart similar costs to the company.

This can be equally avoided with a similar mix of preparation, communication and guidance throughout the process by Human Resources as a capable business partner to senior management and new hires alike.

Few will remark on the plane leaving the airport successfully, but nowhere is failure more clear than in debris strewn about the takeoff lane. Analyze your onboarding strategy and be brutally honest: does it satisfy the needs of the company and new hires sufficiently to cement a long-term relationship?



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