Onboard (As a verb)

Submitted by John Tiebout

John writes:
How about onboard, as a verb? Or as an adjective, as in the onboarding process? Just writing this in an e-mail makes my hair hurt.

Tony Responds:
I guess I should have seen this one coming — there is a grim inevitability about it, isn’t there? — though I have to admit it took me by surprise. A verb “to onboard”? As in, “Let’s onboard the Communications Department before we go public with this”? And a still-uglier adjective form — something like, “We’ll hold an onboarding session for the stakeholders”? Even as my stomach turns, I find myself saying, “well, of course.”

If you had asked me just a day ago, I would have speculated that “onboarding” was something prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. Now, to my amazement, I learn that it’s going on all over the philanthropic sector. The idea slightly offkilters me.

The reason I think “onboarding” was inevitable is that (if I understand it correctly) the word describes the sensitive process of getting other people to acquiesce to things you have every intention of doing anyway. We have nice English words for that: persuading, insiring, enlisting, asking for support. But the real idea behind bringing someone “on board” has always seemed a good deal vaguer — and several shades less nice — than any of those words.

Even if you forgo the goofy expression “onboarding” and just settle for the plain Saxon “get them on board,” what are you actually saying? Are you proposing to win someone’s heartfelt enthusiasm and vigorous cooperation? Make someone comfortable with your plan, even if that person doesn’t actually take part in it? Make others aware of what you intend to do, even if they couldn’t care less? Get them to hold their noses and avert their eyes momentarily, while you go about some distasteful business? Or, to quote the Don, just make them an offer they can’t refuse? What does it mean to have people on board?

Once a phrase ends up so empty of any concrete meaning, I guess it’s understandable that people won’t want to waste a lot of syllables on it. So “get them on board” shrinks to “onboard them.” If you’re inclined to see the positive side of things, you might say that thanks to this coinage, there will now be one less syllable of nonsene afoot in the world.

Even so, I can’t resist pointing out that the whole idea of dragging people “on board” has always struck me as just a bit coercive. If you really wanted to win my heart and hand, I believe you wouldn’t be talking about “getting me on board,” (much less “onboarding me”), you would talk about “getting me involved,” “winning my support,” “signing me up,” or in the quaintly psychedelic parlance of the 60s, “raising my consciousness.” Once your imagery shifts to hoisting me onto your vessel, the relationship no longer seems quite so collegial or even, on some level, quite so voluntary. Once I find myself “on board,” I might reasonably fear that the only way out is overboard.

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