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Strategies for successful onboarding

There are better ways for getting a new employee off to a great start, and they really do pay

With a labour shortage in the agricultural industry, retaining employees is critical, says a University of Guelph professor.

“I wish they’d told me I was expected to make it a priority for my job” is a refrain Michelle Painchaud hears all too often.

Employers somehow think that new employees should simply “get it,” say Painchaud, president of a Winnipeg company that specializes in helping farm businesses recruit and retain new employees.

Unfortunately, it’s seldom so easy. The new employee is entering a new situation at a new workplace with new co-workers, new machinery, and new ways of doing things.

They can feel like they’re having to guess at every turn, which only gets worse if somebody hasn’t made it clear what’s going to be expected of them.

Even in good situations with good employees, it creates needless inefficiency and financial losses, says Painchaud.

And it can easily get worse.

Employees are not going to be performing at peak levels when they don’t know what’s expected of them, says Painchaud. And they are also more likely to quit, forcing employers to start the costly hiring process all over again.

The research is clear. Businesses that have effective onboarding programs improve employee performance at a much faster rate than companies that lack them, says Painchaud.

Onboarding is the mechanism through which new employees gain the necessary knowledge, skills and behaviours to become effective organizational members.

An effective orientation process is essential, agrees University of Guelph professor Dr. Sara Mann, who specializes in human resources management for the agricultural industry. Going over the policies and procedures sets clear expectations, improves job performance, and reduces anxiety and grievances, she says.

With a labour shortage in the agricultural industry, retaining employees is critical, says Mann. The shortage of labour means the power has shifted to the employee, putting even more importance on HR policies and practices including onboarding. “If employees aren’t happy, they know they can get another job somewhere else.”

Painchaud developed an Onboarding Checklist for her clients. The checklist ensures the necessary information is relayed to the employee including dress code, hours, company values, farm history, and policies on absenteeism, overtime, sick leave and time off.

“It’s amazing how many little things are forgotten when someone starts,” says Painchaud, recounting a story told to her by a new employee who said no one told him where the washrooms were for three days and he was never told if or when he was supposed to take lunch. “Not surprisingly he didn’t stay there very long,” she says.

While providing information on company policies and procedures is essential, University of Guelph professor of organizational behaviour Jamie Gruman says it isn’t enough. His research shows it’s also important to help new employees feel welcome and that they belong. Social activities such as a staff lunch or baseball game will make them feel at home, says Gruman. “It’s not just about knowing what to do. Employees need to feel like they are part of the organization. These are the things that bond people together and determine how hard they will work.”

This is exactly the kind of workplace culture Ron Van Marrewyk, co-owner of Westcoast Vegetables near Vancouver with his brother Ray, aims to create in their greenhouse operation. Van Marrewyk wants his employees to feel like they are part of a team. “We all feel responsible for each other and take care of each other,” he says. “People are important… it’s not just about the bottom line. People are our biggest asset.”

Labour is the biggest cost for the cucumber and pepper grower with 53 acres under glass. With the high cost of housing in the area, it can be difficult to attract the best employees. When they find good people, they want to keep them, says Van Marrewyk.

To jump-start the bonding process between new and existing employees, Van Marrewyk sends out an announcement to staff which includes some background information on the new person to make it easier for them to strike up a conversation.

To ensure all the necessary orientation information is covered, Van Marrewyk uses an Expectation Plan with new hires and checks in after the first week to see how they are doing and to get their feedback.

“Communication is so important,” he says. Since everyone has a different learning style, that feedback is used to determine future expectations, he adds.

These practices seem to be working at Westcoast Vegetables. Many of the managers have been there for five to 10 years and the company has a good reputation, which in turn helps with future hiring, says Van Marrewyk.

Creating a buddy system or a mentorship program with existing employees can also help employees to build relationships and become integrated into the organization, says Gruman. Co-workers serve as role models, and provide encouragement and feedback, he adds.

The long-term, informal socialization process is where newcomers learn things like how to behave in an organization and how things are done, continues Mann. “If employees are given sufficient time to informally learn about the organization, there will be lower levels of turnover and anxiety around fitting in, and higher levels of commitment and productivity.”

It’s important to think like an employer and not make assumptions that employees know how you want things done. Painchaud gives the example of an employee who was hired to maintain the farm equipment. The problem was that no one explained to him what that meant for this company.

His previous employer had very high standards for maintenance but the new company was much less particular and reprimanded him for taking so much time on maintenance. “This de-motivated him and he went from a high energy, engaged employee to mediocrity and disengagement,” she says.

To avoid disasters like this one, Painchaud encourages employers to review job expectations and performance measures with the new employee on a regular basis for the first three months.

While farmers may put off implementing an onboarding program or may only have a haphazard program in place because they think they don’t have the time to do more, Gruman says this kind of thinking backfires. “If you take these steps at the beginning, you won’t have to deal with the headaches down the road… It’s about working smarter, not harder,” says Gruman. If you don’t have a successful onboarding program, you risk having people quit or having to terminate them, a job no one wants to do.

And because a successful onboarding process leads to happier employees, recruiting new employees will be easier, says Gruman. With a reputation as a good place to work, you’ll attract more and better people, he says.

What to cover during orientation*

  • A brief description of the farm’s history and current operations.
  • A business overview, including production targets and key objectives.
  • A review of the organizational chart.
  • A tour of the farm, including facilities, equipment, and hazardous areas.
  • A chance to meet and chat with all members of the team.
  • A description of the job requirements and expectations.
  • Completion of paperwork, including how the employee will be paid.
  • Key safety information.
  • A review of key aspects of the farm’s management, including roles and responsibilities of various staff.
  • Policies and procedures.
  • Information about the farm’s values.
  • Emergency contact information.

*Source: CAHRC Agri HR Toolkit

Key questions to address when orienting new employees*

  • What do employees need to know about the workplace that will keep them safe?
  • Which policies and procedures do employees need to be aware of to avoid mistakes?
  • Which policies should be reviewed with the employee at a later date to ensure understanding?
  • What information will ensure that a new employee clearly understands what is expected of them and how their job fits into the whole operation?

*Source: CAHRC Agri HR Toolkit



  • Online HR Tool Kit: An annual $99 subscription fee gets you access to detailed information for creating HR policies and procedures from Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC).
  • Employee Turnover Benchmarking Tool: Want to see how your employee turnover rates compare with other farms in your province and sector? Check out this tool on the CAHRC website.
  • Cost of Turnover Calculator: Want to calculate the total cost of hiring employees? Check out this online calculator at the CAHRC website.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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