“You Mean to Tell Me…”: A Gentle Onboarding Reminder

I had a conversation with my roommate the other day that got me thinking about John Mulaney. I was told by several friends that I needed to check out his stand-up special New in Town, and they were right. This bit in particular, while less than appropriate, came to mind as we talked:

For those not willing to endure the joke (and I wish you would, it’s pretty fantastic), it basically plays around with the idea of Ice-T’s character on Law and Order: SVU seeming completely bewildered by what is going on around him despite being on the force for eleven years.

A similar question arose while watching, of all things, Wild Kratts on PBS Kids. For the unitiated, two quick points:

IMAGE CREDIT: Animation Magazine

(1) Wild Kratts is an animated children’s program that features the zoologists Chris and Martin Kratt teaching kids about wild animals; and
(2) for two childless twentysomethings, my roommate and I watch a lot of children’s programming.

Peter asked me as we watched, what was actually his second viewing of the episode that day (like I said…),

“If the Kratts are supposed to be experts, why do they ask questions that seem like they don’t know?”

This is a valid question. The Kratts are supposed to be authorities on their chosen topic: wild animals and zoology. Similarly, Ice-T is an authority on the gritty details of sexually based crimes. However, these two scenarios have one thing in common, a seemingly obvious thing, but important to note here: their musings aren’t for their own benefit, they’re for someone else’s. Namely, the viewer. The Kratts could talk in jargon about their work, and are perfectly capable of doing so. And Dick Wolf and his talented writing staff could do the same for Ice-T, Mariska Hargitay, and their fictional colleagues.

But that sort of jargon and specialized language teaches the viewer nothing.

Why do I bring this up? Well, July is the start of a new fiscal year for many of us, and with that can come the on-boarding of new hires. As they arrive to their new offices, bright with enthusiasm and excitement, there’s a lot that they’ll need to know that we need to prepare to impart. For many of us, that will mean checking the language and terminology that we use.

I actually came to the question Pete asked on my own while watching another more age-appropriate program on PBS, Sara’s Weeknight Meals. In it, famed former editor of Gourmet magazine Sara Moulton cooks in her “home” kitchen with friends and fellow chefs. At each stage of the process, she asks questions about technique and ingredient origin that we all know she knows the answer to. But the viewer doesn’t. She appears attentive as the expert or friend explains, and we gain more knowledge as the answer is shared with us both.

All industries have their shorthand and jargon, and many individual workplaces have their codenames and acronyms that newbies aren’t always empowered enough to question. In those moments, we may need to explain ourselves a little more intentionally as the Kratts or Ice-T does, or ask questions we already know the answer to, so that others may learn. In the absence of that shared understanding, as I once learned with my father, a sense of belonging can be hard to come by.

Think back to the moments that followed your early days at your place of work. What did you want to know? What did you not understand? What do you wish others told you? Interact with your new hires with those moments in mind. A major part of onboarding is creating understanding of a new environment and that reframe can go far in achieving that goal.

3 thoughts on ““You Mean to Tell Me…”: A Gentle Onboarding Reminder

  1. That’s such a great bit from John Mulaney. I always enjoy how you process such poignant thoughts from comedy. So awesome! Keep it up!

  2. I really wish someone would have had come up to me within the first four months of being hired, handed me a notebook and said “hey, draw anything and everything that made your transition a little more difficult and then draw anything and everything that made it much more smooth.”

    I think we need to give new hires – and heck, new students – the opportunity to do that more often. It’s kind of like when reality show stars go into the confessional and say what they’re actually thinking. We need to provide a judgement free zone for new staff members so our on boarding processes don’t leave folks in the dark.

    Do you think this space could be made available in higher ed?

  3. This is so true. My boss tends to ask “dumb questions” in group settings mostly to get the answers out on the table for everyone. It took me a bit to get used to this idea. And I watch this cartoon every morning. It’s B’s favorite.

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