The Difference Between Onboarding and Orientation

What good is having knowledge and skills about a particular topic if you do not share it. Here’s a quote from Margaret Fuller, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” So hopefully, others will light their candles with the knowledge that I am sharing about onboarding.

Onboarding vs. NEO

Onboarding is one of those terms that has been misunderstood especially in the Federal government. I often hear new employee orientation (NEO) described as onboarding. I feel compelled to clear up this confusion as well as help organizations create effective and sustainable onboarding programs.

Onboarding is not an event, it is the process of bringing employees into new organizations and roles to ensure that they have what they need to be successful in the shortest amount of time.

Orientation Characteristics

  • —Transactional in nature
  • —Usually occurs within the first week
  • —Executed by HR Office
  • Addresses organizations’ needs
  • —Focused on completing paperwork

Onboarding Characteristics

  • Strategic in nature
  • —Starts before first day through first year
  • —Supervisor & senior leadership involvement
  • —Integrates multiple offices, functions and individuals
  • —Addresses employees’ needs
  • —Maximizes employee engagement and retention

Just the Facts

Top companies have effective onboarding programs. The Federal government can do the same things and achieve the same results. Here is what top companies do and the results that they achieve.

  • Structure a variety of experiences for new hires
  • Spend more than 16 hours orienting new hires
  • Less than 5% of new hires leave during their first year
  • Over 75% of new hires participate in formal onboarding

Which experience would you prefer?

You come in on the first day to a room with 20 new employees. After the fifth presentation by HR, you are asked to fill out 10 forms and take the oath of office. The remaining part of your day is spent in your new office with no computer, phone, or anyone showing you how to get to the cafeteria or restroom. Actually, no one came by your desk except to drop off a manual that you are to read until your supervisor arrives on your 3rd day.


You are greeted by someone from your new office who will serve as your onboarding buddy. Your onboarding buddy walks you to NEO and asks if you have any questions about the paperwork that you were given two weeks before your first day. During the first half of your day, you have learned about the organization and how you fit within it, seen a welcome video from your senior leaders, and taken a tour of the building by completing a scavenger hunt, as well as played a game to test what you’ve learned At lunch time, your onboarding buddy arrives to take you to lunch and show you to your office. After lunch, your buddy takes you to meet the other members of the staff as well as your supervisor. You meet with your supervisor for an hour to discuss your duties and performance expectations in addition to developmental opportunities.

Your supervisor continues to meet with you weekly for the first two months and bi-weekly for the remainder of the first year. Once every month, your onboarding buddy and you go out to lunch to discuss how things are going and what additional support you may need. Finally, the onboarding program manager checks in with you monthly and provides opportunities for you and the other new employees to learn and grow within the organization.

Essential Components for Effective Onboarding

Federal agencies have to move from a transactional “data dump” to an engaging and positive experience where new employees learn and feel valued before they walk through the door on the first day. The following three components are essential to effective onboarding: address people needs (create opportunities for new employees to build relationships); organizational needs (help them learn about the organization and how they fit in it); and resources and support needs (provide processes, procedures, policies, resources, and tools to help them do the job).

Onboarding is all about learning. Adults learn best when there’s an immediate need, when it’s relative to their work, when they can apply new learning to existing knowledge and skills, and when they play an active role in the learning process. We have to ensure that onboarding is engaging and fun. Here are two onboarding programs that I’ve created that engage new employees.

One program is called the Passport to Success. This program involved giving new employees a passport on the first day, although they start earning “stamps” prior to the first day. As new employees complete learning activities throughout their first year, they will receive additional stamps and “rewards” to celebrate their accomplishments.

The other program is called the Pathways to Success. New employees would receive a game board. They would receive fake money for each pathway along their onboarding journey that they completed. At the end of their onboarding experience, they received certificates and awards.

What’s Your Process for Creating an Effective Onboarding Program?

Yes, there is a process. Here’s one that you can follow. I use this same process for creating most learning & development programs,

  1. Identify a Program Manager
  2. Assemble a team
  3. Assess needs
  4. Create a roadmap
  5. Develop materials
  6. Implement
  7. Evaluate In a future blog post,

I will share with you additional information regarding the onboarding program development process. Hopefully, I have lit your candle to learn more about effective onboarding programs.

Deadra Welcome is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Peter Gillis

Superb article on a topic so often overlooked. An organization sends a bad message when the orientation is being shown to your desk.


Very nice article. Something that long time employees need to remember… nice to the new person, we were all in their shoes at one time.


Great article. As the NEO coordinator for my agency, it is execute by Employee Education Service not HR as I think it should be but with collaboration.

I like the idea of the Passport program. Perhaps we can discuss further?

Truman Burroughs

I truly would like to know more. This is really exciting and I think its approaches like these that result in longevity in an organization. I have been charged with redesigning our New Hire Orientation which is really in the need of an overhaul, so would love to discuss more.

HR Specialist – Workforce Development and Training