Onboarding is a fairly recent term, and its importance is a 21st-century awareness. Back in the day, you just did your paperwork and sat down with some boring papers. All too often the attitude was along the lines of “Read this, then go be an amazing employee.” Sometimes your manager would introduce you to a stream of people, many of whom you’d never talk to again.

My first real job was in retail. I filled out the requisite paperwork and was then let loose on the sales floor without the benefit of even rudimentary training on the cash register. At another early job, I arrived at work to find I had a place to sit but no computer or desk phone (yes, this was in olden times when cell phones weren’t ubiquitous).

But in the latter situation I had a very welcoming boss, which made a huge difference. I didn’t care that they obviously weren’t quite ready for me because my new boss spent time with me. Quality time. We started getting to know each other. It was the beginning of a solid working relationship that led to a seven-year tenure.

And that’s the crux of onboarding: building relationships.

This is the fundamental distinction between onboarding and orientation. Orientation is paperwork, learning where the copy machine is, when breaks happen, where to find supplies, etc. Onboarding is how we prepare new employees for their crucial role in the organization. The socialization and relationship-building pieces can’t be overstated.

Onboarding welcome

Done right, onboarding helps people find a meaningful place in the company universe. It’s a way to say, “Welcome to our world” and mean it. Of course, there is training involved; it’s an essential part of onboarding. But onboarding should be an ongoing process of individual development that happens over days, weeks, or even months.

Orientation at a new job boils down to what you need to know to survive. Onboarding is what you need to know to thrive.

We’re currently working with several clients to bolster their onboarding processes. And we are onboarding a new EPI team member. These synchronous events have reminded me of the following tips for successful onboarding:

  • Prepare for a new person’s arrival. Have technology, workspace, email, phone, etc., ready from the get-go.
  • Have someone warmly welcome new people on their first day. And have the initial welcomer touch base throughout that day and the upcoming days. You don’t want the new person to feel like a burden that must be quickly handed off.
  • Avoid cognitive overload. Don’t throw everything at someone at once. Help them understand what they need to know, not everything there is to know. That comes over time.
  • Be patient and empathetic. Everyone needs time to acclimate to a new job.
  • Do whatever you can to make the person feel they’ve made the best possible decision to join your organization.
  • Encourage questions to help them understand the organization, its culture, and how they fit into it.
  • If possible, have a meaningful task or project ready so they can start contributing value. (Remember, “purpose” is one of Daniel Pink’s “trifecta of intrinsic motivators.”)
  • Share company stories and personal anecdotes to help new employees connect with current employees. Encourage socialization by arranging lunch for the whole team the first day or beyond.
  • Provide an ongoing mentor (or better yet, a reverse mentor). If your new hire is older, try to pair them with someone younger; if they are younger, pair them with someone older. You want to encourage a reciprocal flow of information and insights, with someone who probably feels safer than a new boss.

When you’re busy, it may be difficult to give onboarding the time and attention it deserves. But it’s important work, vital to the success of your team.

Ignoring or rushing onboarding has a costly domino effect.

The consequences include things like increased turnover, which is expensive in and of itself, and workplace loneliness, which affects team morale, engagement, and performance.

If you search the internet for the origins of the word “onboarding,” you’ll find lots of information, including rants claiming it’s just another bit of nonsensical business jargon. But it’s a term that certainly makes sense to me: You’re bringing someone on board — and on board with — your organization and its culture. Hopefully, for the long term.


lead change well photo of Michelle Kelly

Michelle Kelly, CEO (Chief Enjoyment Officer)


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