Employee Onboarding vs. Orientation: 5 Key Differences

Although these terms often overlap, there are some key differences between employee orientation and onboarding. Read on to find out why you should approach each process with care.

Davor is a content marketing expert who loves writing about project management, productivity, and remote work.

đź“– Table of contents

Answer questions instantly

Build beautiful documentation portals that answer questions for your users, developers or team.

The purpose of both employee orientation and onboarding is to make new recruits productive at their jobs, as well as happy in their role at their new company.

That being said, the two are far from the same. It’s an unfortunate fact that employers, managers, and leaders out there still confuse the two very different aspects of welcoming new employees and sometimes offer just one element.

And that’s hardly enough to assimilate new hires properly.

Well, we’re here to set the record straight.

Read on to find out the key differences between orientation and onboarding so you can start designing a program that creates happy, productive employees who are very likely to stay with you for a very long time.

Onboarding vs. Orientation: Difference in Meaning

Many employers like to say they have a strong onboarding program, but they actually only offer orientation for their new recruits.

Since these two very important HR terms are so often used interchangeably, it’s a good idea to start by explaining what each of these concepts means.

Employee orientation is basically everything that’s covered on a new employee’s first day at work. It usually involves a tour of the office, some paperwork, and short introductions to the rest of the team.

Since all of this can be covered in a single workday or at least over the course of the first week, more or less, we can consider employee orientation to be a one-time event, rather than a process.

For many employers out there, that’s just about all the employee can expect when starting a new job, since a quarter of all companies spend no more than a day to welcome and train their employees.

How much time companies spend training new employees
Source: Archbee.com

Conversely, employee onboarding is a long-term process that can encompass activities, learning opportunities, and social events to build a more comprehensive assimilation program when a person starts working for a new employer.

Much more complex than a couple of training sessions, employee onboarding is a way for new employees to envision the purpose of their work and to start establishing real relationships with their colleagues.

Part of Google Team
Source: Obie

The picture above shows a group of new employees at Google (Nooglers). The social component and the fun hats signal that there’s much more going on there than simple orientation.

Onboarding is quite comprehensive and does so much to make new employees feel welcome.

Therefore, it has become a point of pride for major companies who like to boast about their onboarding program to attract quality new hires and cement their reputation as a pleasant place to work.

To sum up, we can say that the difference between orientation and onboarding is that orientation can and should be a part of onboarding, but onboarding cannot and should not be reduced to a simple orientation session when starting a new job.

Orientation is a one-off event that serves to show the new employee the basics of their new job.

On the other hand, onboarding is a comprehensive process that inducts a new hire into the company’s culture and sets them off on a career path within the company.

Onboarding vs. Orientation: Difference in Purpose

When starting a new job, recruits need both onboarding and orientation to be successful in their role.

The purpose of orientation is to formalize the new hire becoming a part of your company (which usually involves some paperwork) and acquaint them with the specifics of their job.

Clearly, every company has its own workflows and ways of doing things, so you can’t skip orientation, no matter how experienced the new employee is.

However, filling out paperwork and explaining work processes can’t really be called onboarding, although, as we’ve mentioned earlier, companies sometimes mistake the two.

Onboarding means more that paperwork
Source: Archbee.com

The true purpose of onboarding is a little more complex. It’s more about making the new recruit an integral part of an organization rather than just teaching them to do a particular job.

A successful onboarding program should aim to integrate the new employee into the company’s unique culture and instill in them the values, goals, and mission that the company represents.

After quality onboarding, the fully assimilated member of the team should be able to come up with their own ideas and make meaningful contributions to advance the company’s business goals.

They should also be much more likely to stay with the company long-term because they feel comfortable working alongside their colleagues and consider the company mission to be their own.

In other words, quality onboarding has a significant impact on employee productivity and retention.

Quality onboarding has a significant impact on employee productivity and retention
Source: Archbee.com

To sum up, orientation will teach employees how to perform their daily tasks.

But if you want to advance your long-term goals and build a tight-knit team of individuals who will stay with you for years, you really need a quality onboarding program.

Onboarding vs. Orientation: Difference in Activities

Another important difference between the two aspects of welcoming new employees to your company concerns the types of activities that each of them comprises.

And while orientation mainly focuses on procedural activities, employee onboarding is far more social in nature.

As we’ve already mentioned, orientation is all about getting the new employee to the point of productivity as soon as possible.

That means getting some important paperwork out of the way, such as their contract, social security information, and insurance.

After these documents have been thoroughly examined and signed, a good next step is to go over some basic information about the company.

After all, your new employee won’t instinctively know everything about your policies, codes of conduct, and work processes.

Many companies like to house all of this vital information in a handbook or employee guide that can answer the new hire’s basic questions and dilemmas.

In modern-day corporations, these handbooks are often created by using quality information software, like our own product, Archbee.

''How we work'' section in Archbee
Source: Archbee.com

After that, the employee also needs to be shown how they will be carrying out their work on a day-to-day basis.

You also need to introduce them to the other members of the team so that they can start collaborating with and reporting to other key figures at the company.

Onboarding activities are a little more elaborate than that.

When thinking about what onboarding should consist of, a good direction to take is to come up with some activities that will impress your new hire, make them feel wanted and welcome, and validate their decision to join your company.

This is where you can get really creative.

For instance, some companies like to kick off a great relationship with a welcome kit that contains some cool company swag, like a branded hoodie, water bottle, or a pair of headphones.

Companies also often organize small events, lunches, or even fun scavenger hunts to encourage socialization and interaction between new employees and their coworkers, which helps people get to know each other better and start forming lasting relationships.

Photo from ScavBoss
Source: ScavBoss

Check out the picture above. It was taken at a scavenger hunt held by CEW, a beauty trade organization, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

But it’s not all fun and games. Employees also need serious conversations about their progress, expectations, and goals at multiple points during the onboarding process.

That’s why a quality onboarding process also includes frequent meetings with the employee’s manager.

In fact, most employees have stated that one-on-one meetings with their managers are something they can’t do without.

New hires require more attenton
Source: Archbee.com

So, as you can see, both onboarding and orientation activities are quite important to a newbie’s experience with your company.

The activities that are part of employee orientation are crucial because your new recruit would be absolutely lost without them, while onboarding gives them many good reasons to stay.

Onboarding vs. Orientation: Difference in Duration

We’ve already touched upon this topic, but let’s examine it in a bit more detail.

Duration is probably the most significant difference between employee orientation and onboarding, which means it’s also the easiest way to tell them apart.

As this article has shown you, the purpose and activities that are a part of employee orientation allow it to take up relatively little time.

As we’ve said before, a quarter of employers try to get this entire process out of the way on the first day of the new hire’s employment, and many companies even start orientation before the employee sets foot in the office for the first time.

This is called pre-boarding, and it’s becoming more and more popular among employers.

It allows employees to engage in activities that don’t need to be supervised before they come into work on their first day.

This frees up their time to do more advanced stuff once they really get their start.

Hiring with Pre-Boarding
Source: Archbee.com

All in all, orientation can be said to cover the pre-boarding period (from the moment the offer is accepted up to the day the new recruit starts working), the first day, and maybe the entire first week.

On the other hand, the ideal duration of employee onboarding is something of a hot topic amongst HR experts.

For example, most experts argue that onboarding should take ninety days to really cover everything the employee needs to be successful and work almost entirely without supervision, becoming fully integrated into the company culture.

This may seem like a very long time, but it’s actually quite manageable if the period is broken down into milestones or checkpoints along the way.

Example of a Ninety day onboarding process
Source: Archbee.com

Furthermore, there’s an argument to be made for extending the onboarding period to a full year.

An unfortunate statistic tells us that an inordinately large amount of employee turnover happens within the first year.

Large amount of employee turnover happens within the first year
Source: Archbee.com

A good way to prevent that is by extending your support to the employee, as much as you can, during the first year.

Logically, if an employee feels supported and able to work on developing their skills, if they know that the company values them, they are much less likely to leave in search of better opportunities.

Overall, orientation is the period leading up to the first day at work, which can extend to the entire first week.

Onboarding, on the other hand, is the process that encompasses the whole period until the employee can be considered a full employee, one who makes large contributions to the company and works almost without any supervision.

Onboarding vs. Orientation: Examples

After reading this article, the differences between onboarding and orientation should be quite clear.

To drive the point home, let’s look at each of these concepts in action and see some good practices you can follow when welcoming new employees into your own organization.

Let’s start with orientation. Even the most famous companies out there keep their employees’ first day on the job relatively simple. A good example is Dropbox.

Small team from Dropbox
Source: Dropbox Blog

According to Zeya Yang, a former product manager at the company, orientation at Dropbox is quite administrative.

New employees fill out all kinds of paperwork and then get introduced to a variety of resources and internal tools they will be using in their work.

That’s pretty standard stuff, but Dropbox employees also attend orientation sessions led by the company’s CEO, Drew Huston, and Chief Technology Officer Aditya Agarwal, which is very exciting and a good way to meet the most important people at the company on the first day.

The newbies get to leave work early on the first day and meet their new colleagues at a fun first-day activity to get a chance to mingle with the team.

For instance, Zeya Yang got to go go-karting.

Dropbox does an excellent job providing an informative and engaging first day for their new employees, and they follow it up with a full onboarding program as well.

Similarly, the onboarding experience at Netflix starts with an introduction to the company’s technology stack and a meet-and-greet with the other members of the team.

Poorna Udupi, a software engineer at the company, was impressed by the amount of support he received during the onboarding process.

Photo from Netflix
Source: Netflix

During the first week, a mentor was assigned to him to help him settle in. By the end of the week, he also had his first code check-in and production push.

This indicates that Netflix is very serious about helping employees become productive as soon as possible.

After that, and until the end of his first quarter, Poorna Udupi participated in sessions led by the executive management, including the Chief Product Officer, Chief Finance Officer, and Chief Executive Officer to learn about company culture and ethos.

He also met with Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO in an informal setting, to learn about the company from the man himself.

All in all, Netflix is a great example of a company that helps employees become productive quickly and then takes its time to integrate new employees into life at the company.


The key takeaway from this post should be that employers aren’t meant to choose between orientation or onboarding to induct new hires into the company.

Both elements are crucial if you want employees who are both good at their job and conscious of the role they play within the organization.

With a properly oriented and onboarded workforce, nothing stands in your way of business success.



Frequently Asked Questions

What is the basic difference between employee orientation and onboarding?
Expand FAQ
Employee orientation usually takes place on a new employee's first day at work, covering things like an office tour, paperwork, and team introductions. It is typically a one-time event. On the other hand, onboarding is a long-term process that encompasses activities, learning opportunities, and social events aimed at gradually assimilating a new hire into the company culture and work processes.
What is the purpose of employee orientation and onboarding?
Expand Button
Orientation aims to formalize the new hire's entry into the company, explaining specifics of their job and introducing common work processes. On the other hand, the goal of onboarding is to make the new recruit an integral part of the organization, imparting values, goals, and the company mission, thereby promoting employee productivity and retention.
What are the common activities in orientation and onboarding?
Expand Button
Orientation mainly focuses on procedural activities like paperwork and basic information about the company. Onboarding, however, includes more social activities, such as welcome kits, team building, regular check-ins with the manager, and discussions on the employee's progress, expectations, and goals.
How long do orientation and onboarding typically last?
Expand Button
Orientation usually covers the pre-boarding period up to the first day or even the first week of an employee's job. On the other hand, onboarding effectively starts from the employee's first day at work and can last until the employee becomes fully integrated into the company, which according to many experts, should ideally take around ninety days.
Can you provide some examples of orientation and onboarding?
Expand Button
At Dropbox, a company known for its high-quality orientation and onboarding programs, the orientation includes paperwork, introductions to internal tools, and meeting sessions with top executives, following which new hires are taken out for a fun first-day activity. Their onboarding includes support from a mentor and sessions with executive management to learn about company culture and ethos.


Onboarding New Hires