Onboarding: Hit the ground running = total farce of a concept

Onboarding, Baby! HR!
Onboarding, Baby! HR!

Three businessmen are waiting for another one, conceptual business illustration.

Love the concept of onboarding (an employee’s first days/weeks/months at a company). Love it. Went to school to learn more about it, that was a waste, and I ended up working in marketing. Oh well. Life happens, I guess. You live and learn. Just wish I didn’t have a bunch of debt in the process. Eh.

Still, I read and think about it a lot. For example: why don’t we discuss direct work goals more in the process? Why does it seem like no business really has any type of plan for this? What if it’s all just a semantics issue?

The whole thing confuses me, honestly.

Just found this on HBR, and it makes a handful of interesting points. Here’s probably the funniest:

So, how long before your new hire is fully assimilated into her position? “90 days and not a minute longer,” Watkins jokes. Humor aside, Watkins explains there is no one-size-fits-all answer. “When you look at high-level employees transitioning within a company, research indicates they feel they add value by about six months,” he says. “But if you’re coming into a challenging job from outside the company, it may take a year.” Grote agrees: “Onboarding time is a function of the job.” The idea of a new employee “hitting the ground running” is a farce, he says. “You know what happens if you do that? You fall on your face.” Grote says new teammates need to start at a reasonably paced walk and accelerate as quickly as is comfortable.  “Ask your existing employees how long it took before they felt they were part of the team. What they say is the best data you’re going to get,” he advises. While you’re at it, ask them about their overall onboarding experience. “The old-timers won’t remember, but those hired two months ago will have feedback about what they wish they’d learned earlier,” Grote says.

Grote, BTW, is the guy who wrote this book.

Couple of things to unpack here:

  • The First Week: The way most managers approach it is “forms + lunch on Day 1, settling in on Day 2, and then a bunch of no-context deliverables hurled over the fence on Day 3.” At that point, the manager has pretty much washed their hands of anymore “training,” per se. It’s all kind of sad. People need “on-ramps” or “runway” or whatever business cliche you personally like to use. Work typically isn’t that hard, honestly. Deliverables are pretty much the same across a lot of orgs. What’s hard is learning the culture and the people and the relationships — and figuring out how you can best fit into that and be a value-add both in terms of your work and you as a person. As such,
  • We should emphasize culture from Day 1: A lot of people don’t get this, but it’s a core tenet. Rather than focusing on paperwork and formal process from Day 1, we should instead focus on culture and politics and people and who does what. It’s amazing to me how many people at different organizations have no idea what 80 percent of their co-workers do. I’m not saying every rank-and-file needs to know this, or everyone needs to be out there analyzing job descriptions, but honestly, have some clue who does what in your org. It can actually benefit you.
  • Data: There’s this whole culture/idea around “people analytics” and how it’s going to save everything. It’s not, because it’s a lot of data, people won’t know how to process or synthesize it, people lie on surveys, etc, etc. All the normal problems. But this pull-quote above makes a good point, right? Rather than worrying about data in the broadest sense, instead think of data at a more micro-level: namely, uh, go around and talk to people about their own onboarding experience. Just walk around. Press the flesh. Have conversations. People love to try and solve work problems with software or programs or process, but oftentimes we just need a human touch to solve it.

How would you make the onboarding process better? Any ideas? 


Ted Bauer


  1. Hey Ted, I stumbled on your blog and loved how mad it makes you!

    I work with a web development agency in London – 70% of their employees are Millennials. When I started working with them, they did not have an onboarding process meaning that excellent people were joining the company but not really knowing what to do when they got through the door. Over the last couple of years we have been improving their onboarding process. We applied the concept of “agile stories” to onboarding and aligned the initiation point for the process with “offer accepted”. Some of the stories are social and ask that people take some time out to meet the team for drinks before they join, participate in a retrospective and understand the “nitty gritty” of what is happening before Day 1.

    We use an online tool which enables new joiners to read the company’s story, understand how to live their values and the reason that they work the way that they do. The result is that new joiners arrive primed for delivery on Day 1.

    I know onboarding does not end on Day 1 but the result is that attrition (for reasons within the company’s control) has halved and people are actually able to hit the ground running.

    Human Resources fail to understand that people are NOT Resources. I set up Knot Resources to iterate on – and spread the word about – how to do onboarding and employee engagement better.

    Essentially the most crucial parts in doing it right are having a champion for it, keeping it real and ensuring that it is a collaborative effort. Thanks for energising my fire!

    • The crucial part is people caring, but sadly a lot of people miss that. It’s kind of sad, right?

      • There are so many articles about how attracting and retaining talent is a top priority for CEOs and founders and you acknowledge how people are staying in companies for shorter periods nowadays. It is sad the people don’t care. Maybe if they did there would be more sustainable businesses.

      • I just think the focus for a lot of people who rise up in companies is money, plain and simple. Things about “people” feel interchangeable to them, not tied to money. They focus on the money stuff.

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