The case against ‘onboarding’

Nearly four years ago, we noted how business jargon creeps into mainstream journalism, focusing on “metrics” and “optics.” More than six years ago, we discussed the creeping use of “granular” and other jargony terms that were often part of Buzzword Bingo.

Sadly, many of those terms have been “mainstreamed,” adopted so much that many are not considered jargon anymore. So there are free spaces on the Buzzword Bingo card.

When you began to work for an organization, a boss or new colleague might have said “welcome aboard.” You were, after all, embarking on a new adventure, so it was like getting “on board” a ship, train, or plane. The people in HR would say they had “hired” you. You might have received some “orientation” to introduce you to the organization and “training” to make sure you knew what to do.

Now, when you begin to work for an organization, HR might say they “onboarded you.”

“Onboarding” is a single term incorporating the hiring, orientation, training, and goal-setting for a new worker. The new president at Ball State University, for example, “will have a ‘100-day plan’ put into place to assist with his onboarding process,” the student newspaper wrote. But the president must have “buy-in” to that plan: His new contract has goals that “may include the president’s ‘full cooperation and participation’ in the onboarding plan and performance management plan.”

When you “board” a boat, that’s a verb. When you step “on board” a boat, that’s an adverbial phrase. It’s not a long way from adverb to verb, hence “to onboard” a new worker. The gerund form is “onboarding.” (Gerunds, you might recall, are verbs acting as nouns.) “Verbification” can happen to any part of speech. And there’s the adjectival form, as in “onboarding process.”

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The jargony (and jarring) term started in business, possibly from the same people who brought you “incentivize,” “value-added,” “redeployment,” “drilling down,” and “repurposing.” But it is appearing in news reports and more casual conversations, and in education. A supervisor looking for people to greet new volunteers recently emailed that “we are still a little scattered because of the way this group has been on-boarded.” Just a month earlier, that same supervisor had written that the organization was bringing new people “on board.” She hadn’t yet invited a verb to the party. An article in the Education Life section of The New York Times listed the top fields for internships, and No. 11 was Human Resources, for “Onboarding (orienting new employees).”



In fact, the Times has used “onboarding” as the verb or gerund more than 20 times since 2005, seven just in the last year. To be fair, most were in the business section, but still.

When most readers see “onboard,” they will see an adjective, as in the “onboard amenities,” of a cruise, flight, or train trip. Even if they see it hyphenated, as some places do, “on-board” will take them a second to process, meaning they stop reading forward. You don’t want your readers to stop moving forward. Explaining it is one way to reduce that possible confusion, as one news report did: “Onboarding is a human resource process that introduces new employees to the company and their positions. A well-structured onboarding program reduces turnover and gets employees to be productive faster.” (The newspaper loses points for allowing that same business columnist to characterize “working conditions, salary, security, quality of supervision and policies” as “hygiene” factors in business.)

Though “onboarding” has been around for 20 years, most dictionaries haven’t yet brought it aboard. (“Onboard” as an adjective traces just to 1958.) Dictionaries, after all, follow language, not lead it. The American Heritage Dictionary added it just two years ago, defining the transitive verb as “To introduce to a system or process: a human resources administrator who onboards new hires.”, based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, has the additional definition of “to interact and exchange information with (a new customer) so as to ensure customer satisfaction, maximize company revenue, etc.”

Is it jargon? Unquestionably. Is it useful? Possibly. The Associated Press Stylebook does not deal with it directly, but in its online “Ask the Editor” feature, the answers hint at its grudging acceptance, though the questions almost always deal with whether it’s “onboard” or “on-board.” “It’s handy shorthand for company orientation programs for new hires.”

Just don’t go overboard.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.

TOP IMAGE: Photo: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland