D. Caulfield

Onboarding Antipatterns

Effective Onboarding

A good onboarding experience will get the new-joiner up and running quickly. A great onboarding experience will stay with them forever. A terrible onboarding experience will leave a horrible taste in their mouth about their new company on their first day. They will lose confidence in themselves and the people around them. The onboarding experience is a litmus test for how seriously a company supports their people.

Building a great onboarding experience doesn't require much secret sauce. Most of the battle is to understand what makes a horrible onboarding experience and then do the opposite! Here are some antipatterns I've come across to ensure your onboarder has a terrible experience.

Onboarding Antipattern: Information abyss

...where the company provides no information to the onboarder, assuming they will figure it out or "just know it". This leads to onboarders feeling lost.

Problems with this antipattern

  • Without clear instructions, the onboarder must be brave enough to ask for help. There is enough to contend with without trying to improvise every step of their first few days.
  • Every obstacle to getting started is another frustration for the onboarder.
  • The company loses time to productivity. This is the moment the onboarder starts returning value on their salary.

Antipattern solution

  • Provide a document (physical or digital) containing clear instructions how to setup their laptop and access the internal company resources.
  • Include instructions for the basics like email, online accounts (eg. microsoft suite), development environment, password reset procedures...
  • Build on the documentation over time and include new procedures to make the onboarding process more seemless.

Onboarding Antipattern: Muddy Instructions

...where the company provides instructions that are unclear, ambiguous or incorrect.

Problems with this antipattern

  • The new-joiner feels productive at first but gets more frustrated as time goes on.
  • Bad information is worse than no information. It only serves to frustrate the onboarder.
  • The onboarder is torn between trusting the procedures which don't work and interrupting someone for help.
  • The onboarder feels stupid that they can't figure out the procedures.

Antipattern solution

  • All documents should be sanity tested every few months.
  • Gather feedback from every onboarder, asking specifically about information that was unclear.
  • Give onboarders the authority to update documentation to make it better. This is simple if the documentation is digital.

Onboarding Antipattern: A Philosophical Onboarding

...where the company focuses on documentation and videos to give their onboarder a strong grasp of the theory of their job instead of focusing on what tasks the onboarder needs to do.

Problems with this antipattern

  • The onboarder gets frustrated when they are asked to learn as much theory as possible in their first few days.
  • Without knowing what they need to do, the onboarder feels like they are not progressing.
  • The onboarder is delayed in becoming productive because they have no practical knowledge of what to do.

Antipattern solution

  • Write down the main 3 tasks that qualify new-joiners as 'productive'. For example: First code commit, first ticket closed, first improvement introduced. Write the steps to each of these tasks and bring the onboarder through them before giving them the theory.
  • Give the onboarder a mentor to clarify their questions.
  • The onboarder is a member of their team from day 1. Ensure the team understand this and include them at all moments.
  • Replace steps containing "Learn about A, B, C" with steps that say "Do X, Y, Z".

Onboarding Antipattern: A journey without a destination

...where the company has no clear goals or success criteria for the onboarder. The onboarder wonders what they should do next.

Problems with this antipattern

  • The onboarder is left without any clear goals, wondering what tasks they should prioritise.
  • The onboarder doesn't know what success looks like and therefore get demotivated when they feel they're not progressing.
  • The company is not getting quick return on investment from their new hire because they don't know what to do.

Antipattern solution

  • The onboarder should be provided with a list of goals they need to achieve in their first day, first week, first month and first 3 months.
  • Clear criteria should be provided to each goal (eg. To confirm you have setup your outlook account, open the email titled "Day 1".)
  • Each goal should be supported with either documentation or a go-to person such as a mentor for questions.

More antipatterns

3 more onboarding antipatterns


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