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Army Onboarding: Avoid Unit In-processing Failure

The Importance of Effective Onboarding: You Need to Care About Your Unit In-processing Program

BLUF: Army In-processing vs. Inprocessing

Before discussing the trials and tribulations, successes, and failures of Army onboarding, we must briefly discuss semantics. In short, if forced, we will only use the word: in-processing. Merriam-Webster defines in-process as “of, relating to, or being goods in manufacture as distinguished from raw materials or from finished products (2023).” The Army takes an exciting approach, comparing people to raw materials. Army in-processing and out-processing is impersonal. In this article, we do our best to use the industry-approved verbiage. Unit onboarding is the word of the day. Start using it. Tell a friend.

Per SHRM, “‘Onboarding’ refers to the processes in which new hires are integrated into the organization. It includes activities that allow new employees to complete an initial new-hire orientation process, as well as learn about the organization and its structure, culture, vision, mission and values (2023).”

In the context of the US Army, effective onboarding is essential for ensuring that new soldiers seamlessly transition into their units, understand the organizational culture, and are equipped with the necessary knowledge and resources to perform their duties. However, inadequate onboarding processes can lead to various challenges, including decreased morale, inefficiencies, and reduced readiness. This article will explore the significance of effective onboarding in your organization and examine why unit onboarding is ineffective.

Unit Onboarding: New Soldier, Same Mistakes

After two weeks of installation in-processing, Specialist Martinez arrives at Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 88th Infantry Regiment, expecting a seamless onboarding experience to integrate into their new unit through the typical Army in-processing program. Unfortunately, and par for the course, S1 failed to update the gains roster, leading to a lack of visibility while the rest of the staff shrugs at the dated checklist and makes a half-hearted attempt to turn the soldier’s red chiclets into green. The assigned sponsor is at Master Resiliency Training and in Bravo Company, a detail the NCO brought up multiple times before giving up. And upon arrival, there is no deliberate process. SPC Martinez simply shrugs their shoulders, texts their friends that things don’t look good, and then proceeds to scorch the unit onboarding process on Reddit by highlighting every failure.

In its current form, Army in-processing is an eternal work-in-progress that is a product of the “that’s the way we always do it” mentality. Yes, we sound harsh, but someone has to write in a few hard punches when it comes to soldier care. We acknowledged that change management is not only an Army organizational problem. Since early 2000, companies nationwide have experienced the challenge of shifting how they operate.

What Is Change Management?

From the Harvard Business Review (HBR), “organizational change refers broadly to the actions a business takes to change or adjust a significant component of its organization. This may include company culture, internal processes, underlying technology or infrastructure, corporate hierarchy, or another critical aspect.”

There are two types of changes: adaptive and transformational.

  • Adaptive: small changes like changing the requirement from a copy of your ORB/ERB to your Soldier Talent Profile (STP).
  • Transformational: large-scale and sweeping changes like removing outdated paper forms and leveraging MS Teams or Planner for onboarding and task management. This transition requires everyone to think differently, learn and use digital systems, and break old habits. As a leader, your enemy will be the path of least resistance. Your soldiers, while not intentionally belligerent, are creatures of habit and do not want to adjust and worse yet, do not understand the why. You must convince them.

Your organization has the power to modernize the mindset and conduct of the staff through the application of change management. This endeavor hinges on your ability to influence numerous groups and individuals to modify their approach to work, a transformation that you can achieve if their thinking is transformed. Essentially, Command Teams, Executive Officers, and Chiefs of Staffs must reshape the ingrained beliefs of their team – a formidable undertaking indeed (Lawson and Price 2003).

Failures in the Unit Onboarding Process:

  1. Outdated In-processing Checklist: Upon arrival, S1 handed Specialist Martinez a checklist they had not updated in years. The checklist includes irrelevant tasks and misses critical components needed for effective onboarding. Some of these include moving the soldier over in DTMS and DTS. Additionally, ensure they do not have any pay or government travel card (GTC) issues that installation does not address.
  2. Unfamiliarity of Battalion Staff: When SPC Martinez seeks guidance from the battalion staff regarding the onboarding process, they encounter confusion and lack of familiarity with the procedures. This ignorance leads to delays and frustration on his part. Role and responsibilities: the checklist is ineffective without staff understanding the importance of what they must complete and to what standard.
  3. Ignored Sponsorship Program: The sponsorship program, designed to pair newcomers with experienced individuals for guidance and support, is ignored in SPC Martinez’s case. They are left to navigate the unfamiliar environment independently, further complicating the integration process.
  4. Non-Standardized Personnel Counseling Packets: Most units either delegate counseling packets to the company or have an unenforceable standard. Most soldiers do not receive an initial counseling session. In this case, SPC Martinez receives a counseling packet that is lackluster. The information provided is inconsistent, incomplete, and fails to address critical aspects of organizational culture and expectations.
  5. Absence of Welcome Packets: SPC Martinez does not receive a welcome packet containing essential information about the unit’s history, traditions, key contacts, and local resources. This absence hinders their understanding of the unit’s culture and the establishment of meaningful connections before arrival. A lack of a welcome packet also indicates a lack of care and personability, something many soldiers want as part of their Army experience.
  6. Lack of Progress Tracking Method: No established method exists to track SPC Martinez’s progress throughout the onboarding process. Without clear checkpoints or feedback mechanisms, their integration remains unmonitored and unguided, leading to a disjointed and ineffective onboarding experience. In most units, the soldier is responsible for reporting issues or figuring them out. Soldiers demonstrating their adaptability, resilience, and solving problems is great, but not during their in-processing. They have other challenges competing with their time; house hunting, orienting to a new location, getting their family settled, pets, and more are all part of the onboarding that the unit does not directly support or have on their checklist.

As a result of these failures in the onboarding process, SPC Martinez experiences heightened stress, confusion, and disconnection from their new unit. The lack of proper support and guidance impedes their ability to fully integrate into the team, impacting job satisfaction, performance, and overall sense of belonging within Alpha Company.

A stack of papers in a box.

What Are the Key Components of Effective Army Onboarding?

Effective onboarding in your organization encompasses a comprehensive orientation process that familiarizes new soldiers with the organization’s structure, culture, vision, mission, and values. It involves providing guidance on administrative tasks, facilitating mentorship and training, and promoting a sense of belonging and purpose within the unit.

Key Components of Effective Onboarding for Your Unit

  1. Pre-Arrival Preparation: Provide comprehensive information and guidance to new arrivals before they join the unit, including unit history, expectations, and resources.
  2. Clear Day of Arrival Protocol: Establish a structured and welcoming process for new personnel on their first day, ensuring a smooth transition into the unit.
  3. Post-Arrival Events and Practices: Implement events and practices that facilitate the integration of new team members during their first five days, 30 days, and 60 days in the unit.
  4. Leader Involvement: Ensure direct involvement in the onboarding process, including leader in-briefs and interactions with section OICs/NCOICs to demonstrate value and support.
  5. Established Onboarding Goals: Clarify specific goals for the onboarding program, such as job proficiency, cultural assimilation, or organizational shifts, and communicate these goals to all involved.
  6. Continuous Assessment of Practices: Regularly assess the effectiveness of onboarding practices and programs, seeking feedback from new arrivals and adjusting processes as needed.
  7. Comprehensive Initial Counseling: Incorporate elements of organizational culture and expectations into initial counseling sessions, focusing on both work-related tasks and cultural components.
  8. Selective Sponsor Assignment: Assign sponsors strategically, choosing role models who can provide guidance and support beyond just information-sharing.
  9. Structured Progress Tracking: Establish a method to track new arrivals’ progress throughout onboarding, ensuring milestones are met and providing support where needed.
  10. Innovation and Adaptation: Encourage modernization in onboarding processes, such as using technology for pre-arrival interactions or creating personalized welcome packets, to enhance the onboarding experience and adapt to changing needs.

Effective unit onboarding encompasses a holistic approach that considers administrative requirements and cultural integration, ultimately fostering job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and performance among new team members. Plus, it shows that people care and want to help.

How Does the Army’s PCS Frequency Impact Unit Onboarding?

Your frequent Permanent Change of Station (PCS), or relocations, create unique challenges for onboarding. Each move requires you to adapt to a new team and environment, and the Army and your unit must tailor the onboarding process to address these transitions effectively. Moreover, the diverse nature of Army units means that onboarding cannot be standardized, requiring customized approaches for each unit.

Moreover, the few staff members who care about systems and processes are also the points of failure. Hear us out: they (maybe you) build the system and convince everyone to use it, which is no small feat, but once they PCS, the system falls apart. This failure is because that process is the person and not enduring. Add to the problem that many staff members have a ‘knife fight’ mentality or are overwhelmed with tasks. Then, you have the small group of personnel who lack care, competence, experience, or a combination thereof. Last, some want to throw out an imperfect 70 percent solution that only needs fine-tuning. Instead, they want to start from scratch. Reinvention for the sake of award bullets and rating comments.

What Are the Common Shortcomings in The Battalion Onboarding Process?

The battalion’s outdated in-processing checklist hindered the onboarding process, caused a lack of synchronization with post-level onboarding efforts, and rushed left-seat/right-seat transitions. These shortcomings resulted in an inadequate focus on administrative tasks, haphazard training, and no structured onboarding activities.

Critical Issues with Army Onboarding

  1. Lack of Holistic Understanding: Many units view onboarding as disparate, unrelated steps rather than a synchronized process, leading to inefficiencies and missed opportunities.
  2. Over-Reliance on Prescribed Programs: While programs like the sponsorship initiative and post-level reception efforts exist, relying solely on these disconnected efforts often falls short of comprehensive onboarding requirements.
  3. Poorly Designed Post-Arrival Tasks: Onboarding tasks post-assignment are often outdated, rushed, or lack proper execution, hindering the seamless integration of new personnel into their units.
  4. Incomplete Initial Counseling: An essential element of effective onboarding, initial counseling sometimes lacks focus on organizational culture components and may solely concentrate on work-related tasks.
  5. Lack of Leader Involvement: Effective onboarding requires direct leader involvement, from leader in-briefs to ensuring newcomers meet their leaders early on, which is sometimes missing in the process.
  6. Inadequate Assessment of Onboarding Programs: Units often fail to continually assess the outcomes of their onboarding efforts, leading to missed opportunities for improvement and optimization.
  7. Failure to Establish Clear Onboarding Goals: Without clear goals for the onboarding process, units may struggle to achieve desired outcomes such as increased job satisfaction, lower turnover rates, and higher performance levels.
  8. Disjointed Execution of Onboarding Components: Onboarding is more than just following a checklist; it requires a coherent and integrated approach with strong command emphasis to be genuinely effective.
  9. Neglect of Department of the Army Civilians (DACs): Units often overlook and stand unprepared regarding DACs in onboarding programs despite the importance of including them to ensure a cohesive team environment.
  10. Opportunities for Innovation Ignored: Leaders should not hesitate to innovate in onboarding processes, such as using technology for pre-arrival interactions or creating tailored welcome packets to enhance the onboarding experience.

What Are the Consequences of Ineffective Onboarding in The Army?

Ineffective onboarding can lead to decreased morale, reduced operational readiness, and decreased job satisfaction. It can also contribute to higher turnover rates, increased stress for new soldiers, and a lack of unit cohesion.

How Can You Enhance Your Unit Onboarding Processes?

To enhance your onboarding processes, consider a holistic approach by developing a comprehensive program beyond administrative tasks, including cultural assimilation and job proficiency. Ensure leader involvement at all levels to emphasize the importance of onboarding and create a welcoming environment for new team members. Clearly define specific goals for the onboarding process, communicate them to all involved parties, and regularly assess progress toward achieving these goals. Provide personalized support to new arrivals through selective sponsor assignments, structured progress tracking, and tailored counseling sessions. Encourage innovation in onboarding processes, such as leveraging technology for pre-arrival interactions and utilizing storytelling to communicate cultural norms. Standardize procedures and checklists to ensure consistency across units, invest in training programs for personnel involved in onboarding, and extend onboarding programs to include Department of the Army Civilians (DACs) to promote unity within the unit. Emphasize the importance of organizational culture in onboarding by integrating cultural elements into training, counseling, and overall integration efforts.

There is a silver lining: you have complete control of your unit in-processing program; consider the following strategies:

  1. Holistic Approach: Develop a comprehensive and integrated onboarding program beyond administrative tasks, including cultural assimilation, job proficiency, and organizational expectations.
  2. Leader Involvement: Ensure direct involvement of leaders at all levels to emphasize the importance of onboarding, provide guidance, and establish a welcoming environment for new arrivals.
  3. Clear Goals: Clarify specific goals for the onboarding process, communicate them to all involved parties, and regularly assess progress toward achieving them.
  4. Continuous Assessment: Implement mechanisms for ongoing assessment and feedback collection to identify areas for improvement and optimize the onboarding experience.
  5. Personalized Support: Provide customized support to new team members, including selective sponsor assignment, structured progress tracking, and tailored counseling sessions.
  6. Innovation: Encourage innovation in onboarding processes, such as leveraging technology for pre-arrival interactions, creating welcome packets, and utilizing storytelling to communicate cultural norms.
  7. Standardization: Establish standardized procedures and checklists for onboarding to ensure consistency across units and eliminate outdated or unnecessary tasks.
  8. Training and Development: Invest in training programs for leaders and personnel involved in onboarding to enhance their skills in facilitating a successful integration process.
  9. Department of the Army Civilians Inclusion: Extend onboarding programs to include Department of the Army Civilians (DACs) to promote cohesion and unity within the unit.
  10. Cultural Emphasis: Emphasize the importance of organizational culture in the onboarding process, integrating cultural elements into training, counseling, and overall integration efforts.
  11. After Action Review (AAR): Conduct AARs after each onboarding cycle to analyze successes and areas for improvement, fostering a culture of continuous learning and refinement in the onboarding process.

By implementing these strategies, you can strengthen your unit’s onboarding processes, improve new team members’ integration experiences, and ultimately enhance organizational performance and effectiveness.


Effective onboarding is vital for the success and cohesion of military units in the US Army. By recognizing the challenges and shortcomings in the onboarding process, you can take proactive steps to enhance onboarding efforts, ultimately contributing to a more resilient and prepared force. The Army must invest in comprehensive onboarding processes that prioritize integrating, supporting, and developing new soldiers, ensuring their readiness to fulfill their duties effectively.

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