Onboarding: What It Is & How To Do It

For many years, when I mentioned the term “onboarding,” I received strange looks, and someone even questioned me as to whether or not it was even a real word.  Luckily, the term is used more frequently today and is certainly part of the Human Resources lexicon, so I no longer have to explain myself.  As a way of clarifying the concept of onboarding to the blog-reading public, I turned to the ultimate authority on all topics, Wikipedia, which had this to say, “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.”

Managing a department in higher education means I am intimately involved in the recruiting, hiring, and orienting of new members of my staff at all levels and across functions.  While selecting the candidates who best fit with your team, office, and campus is a crucial first step, how you onboard new arrivals can be vitally important as well, making or breaking their experience on the job as well as your team’s.  There are a few things to keep in mind when onboarding your new team members with regards to expectations, knowledge, administrative process, and culture.

A smart practice is to lay out supervisory and office expectations early in discussions with a new employee.  Make sure the staffer understands your vision and mission for the office, as well as what is expected of them in that context.  Also, make sure that you communicate the level of professionalism in attire, behavior, and interactions.  Does the person’s job require specific quotas, deadlines, or benchmarks?  If so, they should be clearly stated and understood at the beginning of the experience.  You don’t want your staff member sitting in a meeting with you and using the all too familiar excuse, “I didn’t know.  You never told me!”

Staff members arriving at a new institution and office typically act like metaphorical sponges, absorbing information with a certain level of eagerness.  It is up to the school and department to guide that learning curve and provide the all-important nourishment to the hungry employee.  Who refuses free food these days anyway?  Hopefully, Human Resources will offer a campus orientation to provide background, history, and school-specific information to the new hire.  And then the department serves as a resource and launching pad for the rest – the who, what, where, when, how, and why of the office and its relationships to all of its stakeholders, which help build the foundation of the work experience.  For example, a career services office has an array of stakeholders including students, alumni, employers, faculty, administrators, parents, and vendors, all with different opinions, perspectives, and needs.

With most jobs, there are administrative details and procedural nuances to learn to make things go smoothly and get things done.  Make sure to provide an overview of the administrative aspects of the job for your new staff members.  Timesheets, facilities, web resources, directories, parking, procurement, accounts payable, vacation and sick days, and so much more are there for the learning!  My office provides staff with much of this information during their first week on the job.  Sometimes, it requires walking people through the processes, especially when involving new technologies or software.

Lastly, you want to ensure that the new hire you perceived as a great fit with your team and organization has an opportunity to grow to understand the culture from their end.  During the onboarding process, have them meet with the rest of the staff and hear about their backgrounds, roles and functions, perceptions, and challenges.  Schedule meetings with various department stakeholders on and off campus as appropriate to provide further color and context regarding culture as well as knowledge enhancement.  Perhaps have the new staff member shadow more seasoned professionals on the team during direct service provision, programs and events, and important meetings.  The sooner the staffer can observe the action, the better.  Even if a boatload of questions follow from the shadowing, it makes for helpful conversations and indirect non-threatening ways to assess the individual’s strengths and areas for potential growth from the start.