Onboarding is a buzzword that’s often used to declare that an organization knows what’s current and appropriate when it comes to managing new employees. According to the heavily footnoted Wikipedia entry:

Onboarding, also known as organizational socialization, refers to the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members and insiders.

The Wikipedia entry for onboarding also makes reference to the brevity of a new employee’s “honeymoon period” and notes that “40 percent of executives hired at the senior level are pushed out, fail, or quit within 18 months.”

Forty percent of newly hired execs are gone after 18 months? That’s crazy! Think of the direct expense to the organization and the unquantifiable disruption of business processes and staff. But is better onboarding — more thoughtful, comprehensive, and up to date — the answer?

What’s the Real Intent?

We seem to have created an illegitimate verb. “Onboarding” and sounds too easy — “Just hop onboard!” — to account for the complexity, nuance, and thoughtfulness that are part of choosing the right person for the job and the goals that need to be met (which are not always one and the same), as well as teaching new employees “how things really work here” and guiding them toward the brightest possible future for both them and the organization.

The term onboarding is often used as an organizational panacea, to suggest that a new employee who has gone through it will fit in well, perform effectively, and have high morale, too. All too often though, I’ve heard comments like “We didn’t onboard her properly” used to explain or account for performance problems.

Oddly, the onboarding process is sometimes referred to euphemistically as a way to absolve blame on the part of both the employee and the manager when the relationship isn’t turning out as expected. In some organizations, the onboarding period occupies a vague in-between territory that might belong to HR. It’s also sometimes meant to dramatize an organization’s belief about how truly complicated and special its culture is, and how different it is from that of any other company.

The fact is that a whole lot has to go right — including skillful thought and skillful action by multiple people — to turn new employees into “effective organizational members and insiders.”

Do You Torture New Employees?

If the term “onboarding” makes you think of “waterboarding,” you’re not alone. From the new employee’s perspective, onboarding can:

  • Demonstrate that one party has all the power — and it’s not you;
  • Feel overwhelming, drowning you in information and expectations you can’t even process;
  • Force you to struggle so hard that you can’t breathe;
  • Make you feel like a victim; and
  • Create a painful experience that’s often hard to recover from.

But onboarding can be like waterboarding from the employer’s perspective too. An organization may go through the process and still not get the answers or performance it wants from its target. Just like torture.

How could the socialization process work better for both organizations and new employees? Over the next few weeks, I’ll consider other possibilities for selecting, welcoming, and integrating new employees.