Onboarding used to be so cool.
Merriam-Webster dates the term to the early 1990s but didn’t formally add it to the dictionary until 2017. Onboarding is a jargony term, like rightsizing, leverage or synergy, for what we used to call “orientation.” In some ways it’s a helpful metaphor, but I think it may be doing more harm than good.
According to the editors at the dictionary, “when onboarding is complete the employee typically understands the job and how to do it, and gets the company culture too.” If only that were true. In my own firm, we consistently work on improving our onboarding program but fall well short of that goal. I suspect the same is true at your organization.
What percent of your people are fully “on board”? Not “work here,” or “have been oriented,” or “are aware of our vacation and sick leave policy,” but completely understand, embrace and advance the company’s mission and culture? This is where the metaphor breaks down, and it’s why I’m increasingly disgruntled with the term.
Onboarding suggests something that happens once, and perhaps quickly; to get new employees on board, simply extend a hand and hoist them up. But how many new employees truly understand the company and its culture within their first few years, let alone their first few weeks?
Few to none. Research from Gallup suggests that only 32% of employees are engaged in their workplace regardless of how long they’ve been there. Clearly, the practice of onboarding has greatly underdelivered, especially in a tight labor environment where it’s increasingly easy for people to jump ship.
If we’re going to improve that statistic, we need a new metaphor that reflects the necessity of deepening our employees’ grasp of our companies’ visions and values on a continual basis. It’s a task that never ends.
We could go back to the old term, “orientation,” but it shares the same “one and done” problem: once someone is oriented, they’re oriented. “Acculturation” could be an alternative, but it, too, suggests that at some point the process might be complete (“cult” also being an unfortunate root word). “Assimilation” might work, but to be assimilated suggests a loss of personal identity, not something that makes for a healthy working environment.
If we’re going to replace onboarding as a metaphor, it must be with an allusion that really works.
I suggest a term that turns the idea of onboarding on its head: “Immersion.” Instead of people boarding the vessel, let’s help them become the vessel. Rather than ensuring they remain dry on deck, let’s develop a process by which they can go all in. That is, after all, what we ultimately want.
“Wait a minute,” a new hire may say. “I’m not yet sure I want to be fully immersed at this company.” Of course they don’t — not at first.
Just as swimmers work their way into the ocean one step at a time, people work their way into a company over time — and they can always turn around. As unsure as they may be in the beginning about how good the fit will be, the company is uncertain about them as well. That’s why it’s never a good idea to throw someone into the deep. Different people move at different paces.
First, they may stick a toe in, to see how warm or cold the water is, how muddy or clear it appears, and to what extent the beach is sandy or rocky. Think of this as the interview phase, where someone is deciding whether they want to swim at this beach.
Then comes ankle-deep involvement: new-hire orientation, where they step in with both feet. They feel the sand (or rocks) in their toes, acclimate to the water, and observe the timing of the waves. So far, so good.
If they keep going, after a brief period they’ll find themselves knee-deep in the water. They’ll be a few months into the job and will have begun to feel the currents, perhaps getting knocked off balance a few times. They’ll need to be steadied and encouraged.
A few more steps, and they’re waist deep. Perhaps a year or two in, this is where they’ll come to their first crossroads of commitment as the waves break across their chest and lift their feet off the bottom, if only briefly. It’s a moment that’s both uncomfortable and a bit exhilarating.
Sooner or later, they’ll be in up to their neck. They will have been with the company for some time, will have proven themselves and will be facing the decision whether to make a long-term commitment, perhaps for the rest of their career. Some will hesitate. Some will turn around. Some will let go of the bottom and dive in.
The latter group will become willingly and totally immersed, having embraced the organization (warts and all) and committed to its future. They’re all in. “Company” isn’t just a legal definition of a business enterprise; the term also refers to a group of people committed to a common cause. Those who immerse themselves will represent both, and as such will have earned the right to help steer the organization. To propel it. To overcome the currents and ride the waves.
Why immersion works as a metaphor
Immersion beats onboarding as a metaphor because it describes the long, slow process by which people engage and commit and end up becoming the company. The further they go the fewer they are, but that’s as it should be. Those who are immersed will have worked their way in. They belong. They get it, and they’ve earned the right to help navigate the future — some officially, others informally.
Put the metaphor to the test: run through the names of your key people and consider what stage they’re in: ankle-deep, knee-deep, waist-deep, neck-deep or fully immersed. Ask yourself why each of them is where they are. They may be right on track, progressing through the phases naturally, or it could be that they’re stuck, unsure or afraid.
Consider what’s keeping them from a deeper commitment and how you can help them get there. The further along they get, it’s less about programs and policies and more about finding a way to encourage them on.
Onboarding is fine, as far as it goes, but on even the finest ships there’s always a place to hide. When you’re in the deep, however, there’s nothing to do but sink or swim. Rather than building onboarding programs, if we commit to creatively and continually helping our people become more deeply immersed, ever more of them will be all in. Together.
Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”
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