Scientist, Educator & Speaker
Onboarding, or the process of integrating a new employee into an organization, is something that some academic institutions have taken a long time to embrace – if they do it at all.
When I landed at my institution in 1992 as a brand-new assistant professor, I was parachuted into a nearly empty brand-new building that was a temporary holding spot for me until my permanent laboratory and office space were renovated. I was escorted to my ‘holding spot’ (that lasted 2 ½ years!) by a departmental administrative assistant and left there. There was no phone, no office chair, no nothing! I was totally on my own. The rest of my department was located in a separate building across the street. I had to walk across the street to find a phone in my department’s office to order a phone to order all of my scientific equipment and supplies. For 2 ½ years, nobody from my department – ever – came to visit me in my ‘holding spot’, with the exception of the people I hired to work with me.
I’m a social creature, so I created my own onboarding process in order to understand the culture of my department and my school, and most importantly, to understand what was expected of me to get recognized and promoted to associate professor with tenure. The promotion information that was provided (and this is still the case) is vague so that each department and school can decide what constitutes ‘excellence in scholarship’ and therefore warrants promotion (or tenure). That means faculty need to understand the culture and expectations of their workplace in order to advance. I was fortunate to find wonderful colleagues who were willing to guide me early on, but it was something I had to figure out for myself.
Nowadays, my institution does a much better job of formal onboarding of junior faculty. There is a New Faculty Orientation. There are endless seminars all through the year on the ins-and-outs of navigating the complicated tenure process. There is a wonderful Council of Advisors for junior faculty that is made up of senior faculty outside of your department who provide “both breadth and depth in terms of understanding what is required to advance through the faculty ranks at UCLA.” (website: https://apo.ucla.edu/faculty-career-development/mentoring-resources-council-of-advisors) And there is a campus-wide Associate Vice Chancellor for Faculty Development who focuses on the well-being of our junior faculty. So many improvements since I landed in the outpost of my department over 26 years ago.
It’s not only junior faculty and other relatively inexperienced employees who need onboarding. Much has been written recently about the importance of onboarding executive leadership, including CEOs, who are new to an organization. Byford and co-workers (2017) noted that a global study of 588 senior executives who transitioned to new positions pointed to a problem with understanding the “organizational culture and politics” of their workplace, not lack of competence or managerial skill, that led to failure. This wasn’t a minority of respondents – nearly 70% pointed to a lack of understanding about norms and practices that caused them to stumble. These are things that could and should be taken care of with an effective onboarding process that includes assimilation and integration into the culture of the organization. A statistic from a 2005 Harvard Business Review article, which continues to be cited, is that 40% of new CEOs fail within the first 18 months of their new job (Ciampa, 2005). Analysis shows that this is not a failure of the interview process or the managerial skills of the CEO, but a failure of onboarding and integrating the new executive leader into the culture and politics of their new environment.
The message is clear. At every level, make sure that your workplace has an effective onboarding process in place for new employees and executive leadership. And this onboarding must include cultural and political integration. Otherwise, there is a significant risk of failure and/or retention of people who are otherwise very skilled, but don’t know how to fit in quickly with the culture of their new work environment.
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Mark Cooper and John Marx write about universities.
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