The problem of HR thinking

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We probably over-focus on large employers in our various discussions about work, although admittedly work is getting more bureaucratic and not less.

Well, in that same vein, 8 of 10 larger companies have onboarding programs that last less than three months.

I’ve written about onboarding a ton since I started blogging — here, here, here, and here are some examples — because it makes no sense to me how bad organizations are at it.

Onboarding is like starting a new school as an adult. There are so many feelings and ideas tied up in that, and it has the potential to start a really beautiful, mutually-beneficial (you’d hope), strategic relationship. Instead we drown it in paperwork and bullshit, oftentimes the manager of the new hire isn’t available to speak with him/her, and we dive right into task work.It’s lame.

Acquisition vs. retention

Onboarding inherently is the beginning of a focus on retention. Now you’ve hired an employee, they’ve started working there (unless they “ghosted” you, damn!), and your goal is to keep them relatively happy and productive (or at least the latter) for a period of time somewhat approximating 3.6 years.

In the parlance of navel-gazers all over the thought leadership community, this is the transition point from “candidate experience” to “employee experience,” i.e. the shift between two things executives don’t give a flying fuck about and don’t reside on balance sheets in any way. Phrased another way: the beginning of retention.

Think about customer acquisition, which is another nice little navel-gazing topic. Is it harder to acquire a new customer or retain an old one? The former. Can you successfully have annual recurring revenue without retained customers? No.

So we seem to “get it” on the customer side, but we don’t “get it” on the employee side. Turnover is a big problem, quite logically because work is inhumane in many places.

But here’s the problem: if you constantly focus on acquisition instead of stuff like onboarding and retention, you’re just running in circles. Because in that context, you just keep spending money every year to acquire and re-staff. I know most HR numbers aren’t hard-tracked on the “spreadsheets that matter,” but it’s still a massive cost and one that keeps vomiting back up as a problem.

The Spring Training Problem

When I say “Spring Training,” what do you think of? Baseball, probably? Good. That’s a good start.

Spring Training is the season of perpetual hope. This year, for example, the Orioles are supposed to be terrible. But when pitchers and catchers report, there is this small glimmer that maybe, against all odds, this will be the year they are magically good.


I think psychologically this is why we often focus so much on the acquisition side of the talent equation. Bringing in new talent is hope. Maybe they’re going to do new stuff. New ways of thinking. Innovation! Disruption! Change stalled processes! All that.

(In reality I realize very few people with decision-making ability in organizations even think about hiring for more than a second, but allow me this.)

Plus, we want to challenge ourselves at work. Acquisition feels challenging. Needle in a haystack! A-Players!

Onboarding? That’s forms. Paperwork. It’s not sexy. It’s not challenging. It’s boxes.

So we over-focus on one at the expense of the other, and in the long run that’s short-sighted and not even that cost-effective.

So should onboarding be longer?

The dirty little secret is, in reality onboarding never actually stops. You should always be learning and growing in a role if the role is designed properly. And when you’re not learning or growing in it, you should be either in a new job or in a higher position at that job. That’s the way it should work.

If it actually did work that way, work would be a lot more functional. Probably not coming down the pike anytime soon, though.

But in reality, onboarding should be at least 18 months in a conventional framework, and it should be populated by dozens of different events where you get exposure to different leaders, different departments, different ways of thinking, different processes, etc. The goal should be a full understanding of the business in a year to a year and a half.

I proposed that at McKesson in summer 2013 and got laughed at openly by about six people. It’s not how we think.

The other part of the equation is that executives get threatened by someone “knowing the business” in 18 months. It feels like that means everyone is coming for their perch. Honestly, that type of thinking is normative in big companies. Most execs would rather have siloed information and tasks so that no one can come for all they (supposedly) know. Can’t ignore that either.

Will we ever truly care about onboarding?

Not really. It’s so far gone at this point that I don’t know if we can get it back.

Functional companies? Yes.

Most companies? No. HR box-checking.

And we’ll continue to put most of our energy and planning into acquisition approaches, instead of the first brick in the retention wall. Bleeding money as a result, but again, no one really notices.

In the meantime, here’s how to fix onboarding.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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