Onboarding: A Managerial Buzz Word or a Necessary Process?

Buzz words. Favorable with "next-gen" politicians and ''blue sky thinking'' CEO's. But, when it comes to employees and customers - is ''onboarding'' another meaningless buzz word, or is it in fact a meaningful process?

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Only 12% of organizations do it well, but I hear the term ‘onboarding’ an awful lot. I find this odd.

So, what does onboarding really mean? Where did it come from? Why do we do it? And is it just another hollow managerial buzz word?

Let’s find out. 

What is onboarding?

Think back to the last time you boarded a plane. What happened? 

The air hostess greeted you warmly at the door of the aircraft and guided you to your seat. You were introduced to the captain and crew, you were told where the toilets were and you were instructed what to do in an emergency. You were offered refreshments, and you were asked several times, over the course of the flight, if you were ok. Or something like that, right? 

That’s onboarding. 

Onboarding is a process that holds your hand through an experience that you’re new to, unsure of, nervous about, or unfamiliar with. 

Within organizations there are generally two types of onboarding: 

Employee onboarding 

New employee onboarding is the process of integrating a new employee with a company and its culture, as well as getting a new hire the tools and information needed to become a productive member of the team.


Think back to the morning you started your current job. How did you feel? 

Nervous? Scared? Anxious? Overwhelmed? 

If you’re anything like me, you’d have felt all of those and more (read this to find out exactly how I felt)! But, what happened when you arrived at your new workplace? 

You were probably greeted by the person who interviewed you (Phew! A familiar face!). Given a tour of the building (Relief! You know where the canteen is!). Shown to your desk (Great! It’s near a window!). Introduced to your team (Thank god! They’re all lovely!), and given loads of logins, passwords, information, and tasks to get on with (Yes! I can do this!). 

After the first hour, your nerves disappear and you begin to feel better. And, after the first few weeks, you feel like you’ve been there all your life. That’s because you’ve been given the information, relationships, and tools you need to grow in both confidence and competence in your new role. 

That’s employee onboarding

It’s a clear set of steps that organizations should follow to offer support to their new hires. A good employee onboarding process should build confidence, increase competence, and keep staff happy, motivated, and keen to stay with you. 

Customer onboarding

Think back to the last time you went into a new clothes shop. How did it go? 

Did it feel a little daunting at first? A big, unknown space filled with loud music and lots of eyes watching your every move.  

But, as soon as you walked in, you were probably greeted by a friendly salesperson, you could see clear signs directing you to the changing room and tills, and as you were browsing through the clothes racks, you were politely asked if you needed any help. 

You start to relax and enjoy the experience. You know where everything is, you know the staff are friendly, and you know you can ask for help if you need it. In fact, you like it so much that you want to go back again, and again, and again.

That’s customer onboarding.  

It’s a process that organizations should follow to build relationships with their customers. An effective customer onboarding process will help new customers feel welcome. It will make them feel comfortable with the product you’re offering and, most importantly, it will make them feel like they want to keep coming back. 

I don’t know about you, but I always find it easier to understand a concept when I know where it came from. 


Where did onboarding come from?

The term ‘onboarding’ actually started out as ‘organizational socialization’. It was researched, developed, and turned into a concept by J. Van Maanen and E.H. Schein in the ’70s. They were the first to look at how people “learned the ropes”, within an organizational capacity, and defined it as: 

“The process by which a new member learns the value system, the norms, and the required behavior patterns of the society, organization, or group which he is entering.

Organizational Socialization and the Profession of Management

‘Organizational socialization’ turned into ‘onboarding’ when it started to become more than just a few simple steps to teach someone “the ropes”. It grew into an all-encompassing process that was designed to turn new employees from organizational outsiders into organizational insiders

Simple instructional steps became carefully documented processes that helped new employees to pick up their roles quickly and made them feel part of the company. 

Instead of spending up to 200% of an employee’s salary trying to find new replacements for lost employees, organizations found that strong employee onboarding processes were improving new hire retention by up to 82%.

It wasn’t long before sales and customer success teams cottoned onto this. They began to apply employee onboarding processes and principles to new customers to help them get the most out of their products and make them feel valued as a customer. 

This increased customer retention and meant they spent 5-25 times less money trying to attract new customers. 

(Although I can’t tell you for sure where the specific term ‘onboarding’ came from, for me, the phrase “welcome aboard!” springs to mind when I think about the origins of onboarding!) 

Now we know what it is and where it came from, let’s dig a little deeper into why onboarding is needed. 

Why do we need to onboard employees? 

I recently bought a new sports watch for running. I’d been wanting one for ages and I couldn’t wait to use it. As soon as it arrived, I tore off the packaging, strapped it to my wrist, and started pressing all its buttons, eager to see what it could do. 

The result? 

It ran out of battery before I had a chance to go for a run and I got frustrated because I couldn’t get anything to work. 

Too many employers act like this when a new employee arrives. 

There’s a pile of work to get through, they’re struggling to keep up, and they’re feeling the pressure. So, they grab the nervous, anxious new employee and throw them straight into the deep end. 

With no instructions and no time to settle in, the employee quickly runs out of battery, becomes useless, and gives up. The employer gets frustrated and finds themselves with more work, more stress, and more pressure than they had to begin with. Everyone loses. 

Effective employee onboarding processes keep 68% of new employees happy, engaged, and with the organization for up to three years.

Why do we need to onboard customers?  

I recently bought a pair of leggings from an online clothing company I’d never used before. 

I added the leggings to my basket, entered my personal, delivery, and bank details, agreed to their T’s & C’s, clicked “buy purchase’’ and then got … a blank white screen. 

There was no order confirmation message, reference number, or information about what happens next. Nothing.

So, I checked my emails and found….nothing. 

I waited for a few minutes. Still nothing. 

Two hours went by. Nope, still nothing. A day passed and yep, you guessed it. I got nothing

Three days later, the leggings arrived. They were packaged nicely, in perfect condition, and exactly what I wanted. 

But, will I ever buy anything from this company again? No! 


Because I was abandoned. I had no idea if my order had gone through, I didn’t know when they’d be delivering it, and I didn’t have a reference number in case I had any problems. I had nothing. 

They made it incredibly clear that all they were interested in was my money.

So you see how important having an onboarding process is for customer retention? 

If you don’t have a proper customer onboarding process in place, one that supports and cares for your customers after you’ve made the sale, you’re likely to lose 75% of your new customers.

Take onboarding seriously. It’s a necessary process, not a managerial buzz word.

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