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Onboarding: All Aboard!


Onboarding is yet another new buzzword, this one for a structured process of welcoming new people to the wild and crazy variables that your workplace has. As sure as Christmas has reindeer, your workplace holds surprises for the unwary.

We are all creatures of our environment. As a species, many of our current social characteristics are a result of our ancestor’s environmental influences. I’m writing this article around Christmas time because I’m dedicated (but mostly because I don’t pay attention to emails about deadlines.) Around Christmas, reindeer feature heavily in cute animal stories on news websites. Apparently, reindeer can’t move and urinate at the same time and are remarkably regular and consistent in how often they stop to do so. In Norway, home of the bulk of the world’s reindeer, there is even a specific term for this approximately six-mile distance – Poronkusema. This literally translates as… well, let’s not literally translate it in a classy publication like Employment Today. But it does illustrate how specific cultures are influenced very specifically by their environment. Eskimos have twenty-seven words for snow sort of thing. (Politicians have forty nine thousand words for absolutely nothing.)

Environmental influence and variation is especially true of our work environments. There may be commonalities but there are also wild variations, many of which are not immediately obvious to newcomers. Sometimes surprises are great, like surprise birthday parties. Sometimes surprises are not great, like paternity tests. An expectation gap between the job you thought you accepted and the job it turns out you actually got is not a good surprise. Regardless of what you call it, there needs to be a deliberate and planned process to manage no-new-job-surprises with specific results in mind.

Onboarding, also known as organizational socialization, refers to the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviours to become effective organizational members and insiders. If I googled the term ‘onboarding’ twenty years ago, would I have found even one reference to it? No, I wouldn’t have and not only because Google didn’t exist twenty years ago outside of a CIA laboratory. I don’t care if you call it induction, orientation or create a new term so you can bundle some software with it and sell consulting about it.

Omer Ashik is a seven-foot tall Turkish basketballer who plays in the NBA. He had a good year 2 years ago as a backup centre in Chicago. On the back of that performance, he got a great deal as a starter for Houston and had a decent year. Houston then brought in controversial centre Dwight Howard, famous as an underachieving goof-off, but undeniably very talented. He got the starting job ahead of Ashik. As many of us do when we’re paid $US15,000,000 and don’t get what we want, Ashik packed a sad and demanded to be traded to work elsewhere.

Aware that this wasn’t going to be a great workplace culture, Houston tried to trade Ashik but every other team in the NBA knew that Houston needed to and, so, Houston’s bargaining position was weakened. In the end, they couldn’t get it done and Ashik and Howard and everyone else now have to show up and get along and get the job done. Apart from the million dollar minimum wage, this is actually a fairly common occurrence in normal workplaces. Someone gets a promotion that someone else felt was rightfully theirs and drama ensues. The difference between the NBA and Kevin’s Panelbeaters is that ESPN reports on the NBA and everyone knows what that Houston workplace will be like. No one reports on Kevin’s panelbeaters except perhaps Police 10-7 or Fair Go. Newcomers to the Houston Rockets know what to expect. Newcomers to Kevin’s Panelbeaters do not.

The thing about onboarding and other buzzwords de jour is that they’re usually for big organisations that have the capability and scale to deal with formal systems and such – be they software systems or good old fashioned procedures trying to get a positive and consistent approach to integrating new people. Those organisations have HR departments or whatever they’ll be called in 2014. Most people in New Zealand are employed by small outfits with ten or less people. The boss of Kevin’s Panelbeaters is probably Kevin and he (or she) is the one who will be onboarding any new people. And it’s really simple and critical and it starts well before the new person arrives and before they sign a contract. It starts before the recruitment process. The job needs to be specifically, accurately and honestly defined and described. Maybe Kevin won’t get formal with a typed-up job description, although that wouldn’t hurt. The foundation of ‘no surprises’ is clarity of expectations.

Onboarding is essentially a thorough welcoming process. So, welcome to your new year and welcome to all new employees. Ask yourself what quirky peculiarities your workplace has that your new peeps need to be warned about. What is your equivalent of Poronkusema? And, in case you’ve heard the rumours, no, reindeer urine is not hallucinogenic. My friend Rudolph told me so.







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