The Sad Story of Onboarding Gone Wrong

Bob, a senior-level manager, started his job with enthusiasm and a strong desire to make a difference. He had a great hiring manager and loved his new job.

That all changed after two months, when a reorg left him with a different manager.

Within days, Bob’s new employee experience took a turn for the worse.

The Difference the Manager Makes

Unlike the first manager, his new manager, Cal, talked down to him.

He treated Bob as if he were a novice in his field, rather than the seasoned veteran he is. Cal also had the annoying habit of demanding a task list from Bob each day and repeatedly checking in on Bob’s progress.

Cal ignored Bob’s courteous and low-keyed attempts to get him to stop micromanaging.

Cal not only ignored Bob’s attempts at assuring Cal he had things under control; he also ignored Bob’s requests and ideas. Bob, an inspired “idea guy” who loved making a difference wherever he went, found his energy and enthusiasm wane as the weeks went by.

How to Kill Enthusiasm

Since Cal made it clear he had no interest in Bob’s ideas and suggestions, Bob decided to keep his mouth shut and his head down.

Even though he saw numerous opportunities to make both business processes and the new hire experience more effective, he kept these value-generating ideas to himself.

A Culture That Permits Engagement-Damaging Behaviors to Go Unchallenged

What made matters worse was that Cal’s manager Val, the VP of operations, felt that Cal was doing a good job. Val had very little interaction with Cal, and when they did, Cal was always on good behavior.

The company’s HR manager was sympathetic to Bob’s plight but believed she could not address Cal’s management style because Val seemed to believe that Cal was doing a great job as a manager and was very confident in her position on this.

Involving Val would mean challenging her perception of Cal, and confronting Val with the consequences of Cal’s behavior … behavior that she had been unwittingly allowing.

The HR manager was afraid to confront Val because, in this company, you showed deference to people with higher status, even when they were clearly wrong.

It’s Not Worth the Fight … I’m Leaving

Bob quickly saw the dynamics surrounding him for what they were, and began a new job search. After working with the company for only seven months, he resigned. His leaving with no firm job was a testament to how intolerable the situation had become.

He had had enough, and saw no evidence that things would change.

Bob’s Story Has Been Repeated Millions of Times

Bob’s story is based on a true story, with the names and some of the details changed. Bob’s story is a classic example of the employee engagement problems that continue to plague employers. Despite millions of dollars spent on employee engagement surveys and programs designed to increase engagement, the employee engagement needle has barely budged over the years.

Furthermore, research by Watson Wyatt has shown that employee engagement starts declining after only six months. This means that the typical employee experience leads to employees feeling increasingly less excited about their work, and less inclined to try to make a contribution.

Article Continues Below

The fact that employee engagement continues to be low across the globe, and that it declines after only a half of year on the job, obviously indicates most organizations have huge room for improvement in the employee experience they deliver, especially during those critical 6-12 months of the new hire experience.

What Could Have Changed Bob’s Situation?

What could have prevented the time and money spent recruiting, hiring, and training Bob from being wasted?

What could have kept Bob in a job he had originally wanted, so this very accomplished professional could have made a valuable contribution to his new employer?

Preventing New-hire Turnover

Let’s first look at what Bob’s former employer could have done to prevent this waste. As you go through this list, ask yourself if your organization is doing each of these well:

  1. Educate managers on the pivotal role the onboarding period plays in how quickly a new employee reaches 100 percent productivity, and how engaged that employee becomes. Remind them that first impressions color all future impressions.
  2. Communicate strongly and consistently the crucial role that managers play in onboarding and employee engagement. Stress that onboarding is not an “HR thing,” nor is employee engagement.
  3. Provide managers with the training, coaching, and support to perform their onboarding responsibilities well.
  4. Hold managers accountable not just for hitting their numbers, but also for doing the “people side” of their job well. Make “people management” an explicit part of a manager’s job, with an adequate portion of managers’ incentives tied to the “people” part of their role.
  5. Communicate to employees through words and deeds, “We need your feedback and input so we can make this the best, most high-performance workplace possible. We especially need your feedback and input when it comes to the new hire experience, since we know it’s so critical to get that right.”
  6. Engage new hires in focused conversations that enable the manager to identify the unique “engagement recipe” for each employee. For recommendations on how to engage employees in these engagement-enhancing conversations, see our previous articles: 3 Engagement-Enhancing Conversations Every Manager Should Have and The Conversations You Need to Really Boost Employee Engagement
  1. Provide multiple vehicles for new employees to provide feedback, and do so throughout the first 6-12 months of their employment.
  1. Involve the senior management team in dialogue about what managerial behaviors they want to see in their managers, and how they can more intentionally model these.
  1. Summon the courage to engage managers in accountability conversations. If you don’t feel confident in your ability to do so, commit to learning and practicing the skills that make such conversations productive.
  1. Invest in training and coaching for all who supervise other managers, so they too can have successful accountability conversations.
  1. Review your onboarding process and ask if its structure makes for a positive, high performance-enabling experience from Day 1. If you’re not sure how to assess, enlist someone with expertise in this area and who can view it with Fresh Eyes. In the meantime, here are two articles to get you started: How to Avoid the Four Deadliest Onboarding Mistakes and 13 Questions to Maximize Your Onboarding Efforts

How to Keep From Losing Your Talented New Hires

This loss of an excellent employee would have been averted had Bob’s manager Cal understood the importance of the manager’s role in onboarding, had the tools to execute his role effectively, and was held accountable for doing so.

You can prevent unnecessary and costly employee turnover and the cost of low employee engagement by implementing the above recommendations.

To get started, share this article with your management team and identify which of the above areas you are doing well in, and which ones need to be addressed.

Finally, might you have some Undercover Bobs in your organization who are planning their departure?

What will you do to find them and start them on the road to fuller engagement and productivity?


image from Shutterstock

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at

Jacob Schneid has years of experience as a trainer, coach and consultant in individual, work unit and organizational improvement. His consulting practice, The Momentum Group, focuses on employee engagement, coaching and training. He has had a career-long interest in employee motivation and strengthening employee-manager relationships. He has developed a unique tool for improving the engagement of individual employees which has been successfully used in several leading Canadian companies. An introduction to the tool is available here. You can contact him at