Onboarding’s Spectacular Failure – Build a Conversational Culture Instead

It remains remarkable that businesses continue to fail at onboarding, and not just fail, but fail spectacularly. Studies indicate that half of all new senior outside hires fail within 18 months, half of all hourly workers leave new jobs within the first 120 days and that 90% of new hires decide within the first six months whether to stay or leave. Further, how many of those that remain are disengaged? The costs to corporate America are massive. To take one metric for example, some estimates suggest that the cost of one failed executive position can reach $2.7 million. These losses are avoidable.

Although remarkable, such failure is unsurprising when many organizations treat new hires as commodities to be assimilated into the organization through a series of steps, rote processes and systematic interventions, or through a sink-or-swim apathy. They miss the obvious: new hires are people that require a human-centric approach, not a mechanical, sterile protocol. These are cultures that are conversationally incompetent.

The SHRM (Society of Human Resources Management) Foundation’s Effective Practice Guideline Series includes Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Successauthored by Talya N. Bauer, Ph.D. It describes onboarding as “the process of helping new hires adjust to social and performance aspects of their new jobs quickly and smoothly.” Onboarding comprises four distinct levels known as the Four C’s. Compliance (policies, rules, regulations) is the lowest level, followed by Clarification (role clarity), Culture (organizational norms) and Connection (interpersonal relationships and information networks). Essential features of a sustained, positive employee onboarding experience include social integration and knowledge of the culture.

To illustrate social integration, Bauer’s work features a case study of IBM’s onboarding program. One of the most valuable elements in IBM’s onboarding process was “the individual assigned as a new employee’s coach—a friend to answer questions, reinforce concepts, share processes and tools, and help transmit the intangible cultural values of the firm.” This begins to hint at the importance of personal relationships rich in the principles and practices of authentic conversation. However, the titling of IBM’s onboarding practice as the Assimilation Process also suggests a more typical onboarding emphasis on an inculcating methodology over a more complex approach matching the nuance of human experience.

One of the onboarding tools suggested is a conversation guide borrowed from the authors of Onboarding: How to get your new employees up to speed in half the time. The need for a conversation guide, though, points to a different corporate problem than presented by onboarding. It indicates an organizational culture where humans are not capable of having an authentic conversation. If you need a script to manage your “onboarding conversations,” you’re missing the point.

It isn’t that a coherent, diligent onboarding process is unnecessary and I certainly am not suggesting that the interpersonal elements of that process are inappropriate. Yet the continued inadequacy of many onboarding programs illustrates the larger challenge: Creating an organizational competence with the principles and practices of conversation. Developing and nurturing a conversationally competent organization is a long and arduous effort. It defies rigid protocols and how-to manuals, nor is it achieved simply through a new hire team lunch and a coffee meet n’ greet, which is why many organizations have little appetite for it. But if you want truly groundbreaking onboarding, authentic conversational practices and environments are indispensable. How does your organization go about establishing a truly conversational culture that folds a new hire within its embrace?