Bankstraat 27, B-3000 LEUVEN +32 497 91 93 63

HR practices revisited


This post describes how organizations shape their ONBOARDING, the integration process of new employees. Is it the intention to fit the new employee into the dominant culture within the organization, or, on the contrary, is it about emancipating the new employees and allowing them to reinvent the organizational culture?

We want to trigger your reflection around these four questions :

  • What are the most common building blocks of onboarding in organizations today?
  • What “theory in use”, what deep-seated (and perhaps unconscious) principles, assumptions and values are behind it?
  • How does that impact the behavior of the new employee and possibly also the things a manager, supervisor, mentor does when involved in the onboarding process? And the impact on the innovative power of the organization?
  • What can you do to make onboarding a generative practice that does not “rein in” new employees but “makes room” for them to innovate and take initiatives that ‘shake’ the existing culture?

Current Practices ?

If you make a list of all the actions and initiatives that organizations are taking today to integrate new employees into the organization, then this is the tentative ‘top 10’:

  • Management explains how the organization works, vision, mission, values, etc … (one learns what the organization finds important)
  • Explain what the new job of the employee entails: job description, objectives, expectations towards the new job holder, list of tasks, etc.
  • A mentor is appointed who supports the integration of the new employee and helps him / her to find his / her place in the organization.
  • Appoint a “buddy”, a colleague in the workplace where the new employee can for help or any kind of questions, he/she might have.
  • Handling all kinds of administrative procedures such as contract, insurance, passwords, badge, access to databases, etc. This sometimes happens before the first working day.
  • Equip the workplace, provide IT infrastructure, work tools, etc… so that it is fully operational when the new employee arrives
  • Get to know ‘reference figures’ in the organization and start developing a network.
  • Take a tour of the company, the site where they work and possibly other sites that they will work with
  • A training plan that provides the necessary technical training to perform the job
  • In the run-up to the first working day, send a number of emails to the employee to share information and allow the newcomer to contact the organization and ask questions if necessary.

A few things that stand out :

  • People think in terms of assimilation, to fit the employee as seamlessly as possible into the existing organization and organizational culture
  • The motivation is often retention and the cost thereof
  • It is often a unidirectional dynamic, from the ‘company’ to the ‘newcomer’ and not the other way around
  • It is often about telling the newcomer what we as an organization want him/her to do
  • The culture, vision, mission, values that are ‘imprinted’ on the new employee is the ‘espoused theory’, the official story, the communication riddle. But what can be seen of this in practice? Little attention is paid to that.
  • Little ownership for the ‘integration’ with the newcomer
  • The company ‘speaks’ (or shows), but doesn’t really listen to the new employee
  • It is an ‘bank concept model’ and not a ‘discovery model’
  • Innovation in onboarding is often about automation, social media use, etc … but the underlying ‘assimilation’ paradigm often does not change.
  • It is predominantly an administrative and not a relational, dialogic process
Dominant Ideas on HR websites ?

Do you expect that your new hires will leave within 12 months? (…) The cost for replacing an employee is over 25 percent of their annual salary, so it is very costly when you don’t get it right.  (

Onboarding is the initial process of assimilating new employees into an organization.

Many of the most successful organizations have automated their onboarding programs to streamline their talent acquisition initiatives and increase their return on-investment.

You have put a lot of time and energy into recruiting new employees.
Of course you want to keep the talents you bring in. (…) With an onboarding program you ensure that new employees learn everything from your organization.(

In the course of this phase, discuss the job and competence profile with the newcomer: for example tasks, result areas, competences, induction period, evaluation criteria …(

What is the theory in use ?

Many of the above Onboarding activities are in themselves, perfectly OK: painless and preferably paperless administration, appoint a mentor, a buddy, your computer and passwords up and running before you even step in the door, … who could be against that .

But if you look under the surface and dig a little deeper, you notice a number of ‘underlying assumptions and values’ that are very much in line with the ‘contain & control paradigm’:

  • The idea is that the ‘newbie’ will ‘blend in’ (assimilate, socialize) into the organizational culture. That of course ensures the status quo. The reason why you hire employees (their creativity, new blood, a different view, a critical view, different competences, different frame of reference, etc …) is very professionally eliminated in that way.
  • It is ‘one-way’: the organization says who they are, what they want to happen, provides a lot of information, etc …
  • People hardly listen to the newcomer or to their need or passion to contribute.
  • The process is offered ‘ready-made’. The newcomer is not triggered to go out on their own. The organization does not say: ‘just figure it out’, go exploring, create your own image of what you see around you, …
  • The ‘shared ambition’ is never actually discussed (people focus on profit, efficiency, vision, tasks, …), but they do not engage in a dialogue with new employees about added value of their activities for society.
  • The newcomer is quickly boxed in. He is told what his tasks are and what is expected of him. It is never said, just look around and start doing the things you find fascinating, …
  • Actually, one starts entirely from the needs of the organization and ‘coerce’ the new employee into it.
  • At no point is the newcomer seen as a full member of a ‘meaning making’ community.
  • The relationship is depicted as (only) transactional: ‘what are you entitled to’ and ‘what do you have to do for that’.
  • There is no form of dialogue or invitation to think along with the organization.
  • It is apparently assumed that the newcomer is ‘incompetent’ because he does not yet know ‘how we do things here’, nobody acknowledges that being new enables ‘new ways of looking at things’.

Tout le monde savait que c’était impossible. Il est venu un imbécile qui ne le savait pas et qui l’a fait. (Everybody knew it was impossible. Than this nutcase came by who didn’t understand that, and he did it.) Marcel Pagnol

In real live, as well as in the ‘onboarding guides’ or infographic about onboarding on the internet, it is very difficult to detect an onboarding process that shows a clear ‘generative’ character. Actually, there are two ‘variations’: either one sees it mainly as an administrative, informative process, or one goes further and provides for networking, training and induction in culture. But even in the latter case, it is still about ‘we will tell you what we expect from you and what you should do’. The new employee is not himself an ‘actor’ in determining what his contribution to the organization and organizational culture can and will be.

New Employees: Assimilate or Emancipate?

You rarely perceive the idea that ‘new people’ can be a trigger for organizational change and that the organization can also learn to embrace ‘diversity of ideas, approach, passion and expertise’ and allow itself to be ‘changed’.

A lot of research has been done into onboarding and it regularly shows that even the ‘basics’ are not ok (contracts, the equipment of the workplace, etc …). But research results are sometimes also interpreted unilaterally ‘from’ the perspective of ‘manageability and simplification’. A study by Vlerick and Talmundo was interpreted as follows on the MT website (

“As many as 66 percent of the respondents say they have too little information about specific tasks, expectations and desired results. 64 percent complain about the lack of clarity of their role”

You can see that as a problem. But, from a generative point of view, that is not necessarily bad news … The problem here is not that there is role ambiguity, that is normal if you still have to create that clarity for yourself. The main problem is that the organizations involved have raised the expectation that this clarity is possible and will come from them. They fail to teach people how to deal with this lack of clarity and the unpredictability of what they will be doing in the organization in a few months’ time. Nor do they prepare them for a situation where they will be ‘looking for their place’ probably the rest of their career (in a fast changing and unpredictable environment)

This infographic is more about efficient administrative procedures in stead of integration.
And even if it is about onboarding, the contain-control paradigm is all over it.

What are the consequences ?

Broadly speaking, that all means you are offering a very little degree of freedom for the newcomer (and actually everyone else too) to think expansively and divergently. It has a lot of consequences that do not benefit the organization’s ability to change.

  • Through focusing on ‘the way we do things here’ and ask compliance to that the organization is missing out on a lot of very useful ‘disturbing ideas’ and innovation initiatives.
  • You won’t find out how the talent of the newcomer really can contribute to the organization beyond the boundaries of their dedicated ‘job scope’. The focus is not on shared ambition nor on their contribution to that shared ambition.
  • Management loses their credibility when newcomers start to find out that the ‘onboarding story’ does not really exist on the work floor. (eg: we are open to innovative ideas may be the message, but if the newcomer gets the lid on the nose at the first try, that sounds hypocritical.)
  • Employees get the message that ‘jobs’ are stable, that everyone has their ‘place’ in the organization, while the reality is that most jobs will be drastically different within 12 months or may even simply no longer exist by then.
  • It creates ‘followers’ instead of initiators and is not leading to distributed leadership
  • You risk to breed ‘gray mice’ (and chase everyone else away)
  • You risk that the elements that could be ‘generative’: buddy, mentor, integration in a team or community of practice are also filled in from a “control” paradigm. The newcomer then starts to listen ‘timidly’ to the others and do what they expect. And the ‘anciens’, for example as a coach or mentor, start to ‘direct’ instead of stimulating the employee’s sense of discovery
  • This process functions as a ‘large copy machine’ for the methods and procedures of the past.
  • From day one on, you frustrate the well-educated, independent, adventurous employee. That’s exactly the one you need for a sustainable future.

What to do differently?

To develop a generative onboarding process, you can either use existing and commonly used methods ‘differently’ or you can devise specific methodologies that are generative. You flip into ‘contain-control’ when you start from the idea that the ‘individual’ must be assimilated to the existing culture. To ‘unlock talent and innovation” you have to assume that the individual who enters the community will change and enrich that community and that culture. If you want to further develop diversity, creativity, capacity for change, etc. in the organization, ‘assimilation’ is not a good idea.

If you recruit a ‘peacock’ to bring diversity and new blood to the land of the ‘penguins’, you should not require the peacock to act like a penguin from now on.

A far from exhaustive list with some ideas:

  • Make an explicit ‘onboarding’ contract between coach and coachee, in which a number of things are specifically included such as: role of the coach (i.e. not telling someone what to do), the status of first job (not a permanent job, but only a base to discover all kinds of other things and then find a more definitive ‘role’ later), an explicit mandate to explore, experiment and challenge, a roadmap that supports but does not make choices, …
  • Design tools to guide the ‘search’, which do not contain ‘answers’ but above all many possible questions to be asked and suggest ways to search for the answers in the organization (people, actions, documents, intranet, … )
  • Immediately integrate into a team or network, with the explicit agreement that the newcomer will immediately play an active role there.
  • Establishing a network of ‘newcomers’ so that people can not only support each other, but are also strengthened in the fact that they are allowed to ‘experiment’ and that there is an explicit mandate for this (which does not alter the fact that a manager here or there will try to close)
  • Invite the newcomers to consciously ‘read’ the culture of the organization from the experiences they have with colleagues, in projects, etc … Let them share this with each other and with management (in a real dialogue, in which the management does not defend itself) and then think together about the ‘discrepancies’ between what people want and what is really happening in the field. Let newcomers also develop (and implement) ideas to further develop that culture in the right direction.
  • Do not impose a ‘position’, but help the new employee, with techniques from job crafting to look for things to do where he can use his talent to the maximum, learn as much as possible and contribute to the shared ambition from day 1
  • You can also use the idea of ​​a sponsor in the ‘exploration for your own role’, whereby the newcomer looks for sponsors in the organization with his idea or project who want to support his idea and contribute as an expert/consultant or as a coach (is a idea of ​​Goretex)
  • The dialogue around ‘adaptation challenge’ and shared ambition must be a permanent process in the organization. Let the newcomer participate as a fully-fledged stakeholder as soon as possible.
  • Give people 1 day a week ‘space’ to work on their own projects (which are not part of their job or the project portfolio of the organization) (at Google this was called ‘me-time’)
From Experience



In fact, the approach for ‘new employees’ should be, like for everyone else, focused on ‘autonomous motivation’. How can we create such a culture (job, processes) that people become self-starters and develop autonomous initiatives and projects according to their talent, energy, passion and expertise (and involve other people from the organization) that for them are the best possible contribution to the ‘shared ambition’ of all stakeholders and amazing learning opportunities.

When developing activities for your onboarding process, you can consider these three ‘properties’ as essential for a generative approach:

  • CHALLENGING DEMANDS: ensure that there is sufficient challenge and variety in the things that the employee is doing. Encourage him/her to experiment, make mistakes and learn from there. Make it interesting but also ‘useful’, a real contribution to the shared ambition.
  • VOLITION & AUTONOMIE (not controlled): ensure that ownership lies with the employee, he has to make choices. Provide autonomy and a culture in which making mistakes and experimenting is seen as necessary building blocks for learning and development.
  • SENSE OF BELONGING: make sure that the employee feels connected, receives support, assistance both materially and emotionally. That obviously means the right equipment to do his job properly, coaching, being able to participate as a full member in networks, team decisions, etc.
These properties correspond with other motivation theories such as the Self Determination Theory and also with Karasek ‘s thinking around ‘dangerous’ work who sees these three elements as building blocks for healthy work, in order to prevent burn-out and bore-out


This is a selection of documents from HR consultants in which organizations are advised about onboarding. It is noticeable that almost all of them start from the control paradigm. Almost never, you come across the idea that onboarding can also be intended to help new employees enrich and change the organizational culture. People start from the status quo and not from the need to reinvent the organization. We have not yet found any articles that explicitly use the ‘corona experience’ to think generatively about onboarding. It is still about ‘how can you assimilate people remotely’.

  1. Virtual onboarding: How to welcome new hires while fully remote. LINK
  2. Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success. SHRM Foundation’s Effective Practice Guidelines Series LINK
  3. Integrating New Employees to the Workplace. LINK

Organization Development

Cement Professionals Onboarding Process

Years ago I developed a onboarding process for new hired engineers in an international ‘building materials’ group. Although it was not ‘full proof’ generative as we would probably do it today, it did focus on ‘exploration’ instead of ‘explaining’ to new hires ‘how we work here’. The general idea was not working with the ‘engrained perceptions of people who work in a plant for a long time’, but help new hires to create their own perception based on observation, exploration, discussion, etc…

Two key ingredients of that process were :

  • EXPLORAID : an extensive ‘exploration period’ where people starting from their ‘assigment’ (job) were encourage to ‘find out’ the answers for all kinds of questions they were confronted with. They got the explicit mandate to do that, to take initiative, contact other people, etc… (without approval from hiërarchy). They were provided with a sort of ‘compass’, with a number of areas they could explore, questions they might want to ask and suggestions of things they could do to find answers to these questions. The material insited on ‘customization’ (done by the new hire) and on the need to ‘challenge’ what you see, don’t take it for granted, contact your network (also outside the plant) to look for alternative views… and MAKE YOUR OWN MIND UP
  • COACHING : there was an explicit coaching support throughout the process.  The Coach was also the ‘manager’ of their first job or assignment and the coach was supported by a number of materials to make sure that it was ‘coaching’ and did not become ‘tell people what to do’.

Here you have a snapshot of some of the materials used. For more information on this, contact Move!