New employee onboarding – psychological contracts and ethical perspectives

Cam Caldwell (Department of Business, Modern College of Business and Science, Muscat, Oman)
Ray Peters (Department of HR and Marketing, RoyOMartin, Alexandria, Louisiana, USA)

Journal of Management Development

ISSN: 0262-1711

Publication date: 12 February 2018



The purpose of this paper is to identify the ethical implications of treating new employees with high consideration and respect for their needs and to explain how this expectation honors the psychological contract between employers and their incoming employees. By providing a specific model for improving the onboarding process, this paper also provides helpful information for practitioners in addressing this important task.


The process for onboarding and assimilating new employees in the modern organization is often ineffective – despite the fact that this important task is acknowledged to be vital to the success of those employees and important to their organizations. This conceptual paper addresses the problems of new employee orientation from an ethical and psychological contract perspective and suggests a ten-step model to improve the onboarding process.


The paper confirms that onboarding is not done well by organizations, that employees expect that they will be treated with appropriate concern for their interests as part of their assumptions in coming into a new organization, that onboarding new employees is fraught with ethical implications, and that the process can be greatly improved by following the ten-step model provided.

Research limitations/implications

The paper provides opportunities for practitioners to apply their proposed model and enables scholars to test the impact of incorporating the steps of the ten-step onboarding model.

Practical implications

Ineffective onboarding has significant ramifications not only for the efficiency of organizations but also for the effectiveness of incoming employees. Understanding the implicit ethical issues in the onboarding process enables organizations to improve the employer-employee relationship and honor their responsibilities to incoming employees.

Social implications

In a world where trust in leaders and organizations has declined, understanding the implications of the psychological contract expectations of incoming employees and honoring an organization’s obligations to those employees is likely to increase employee trust and commitment while benefiting the organizations that apply the proposed model.


The topic of onboarding employees has not been fully understood by busy organizations and this paper addresses the ethical and psychological implications of effective onboarding and its contributing value for both the organization and the new employees affected by the onboarding process. The ten-step model provides a useful checklist for human resources staff and for the organizational leaders who oversee them.



Caldwell, C. and Peters, R. (2018), "New employee onboarding – psychological contracts and ethical perspectives", Journal of Management Development, Vol. 37 No. 1, pp. 27-39.

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

Assimilating new employees into an organization is an important task of human resource professionals (HRPs) and an essential element of their responsibilities as technical experts in their discipline (Huselid et al., 2009, pp. 196-199). Ineffective onboarding destroys benefits achieved by hiring talented employees and increases the likelihood that the hard work spent in recruiting and selecting those employees will be wasted (Smart, 2012). Because many organizations view their onboarding process as an expense rather than an investment, they adopt a short-sighted approach to the process (Stanley, 2012). The predictable result from this false economy is that the transition into the organization for new employees is often painful – leading to underperformance and hindering an organization’s ability to fully utilize the skills and abilities of these new employees (Caldwell and Caldwell, 2016).

The purposes of this paper are: to identify why improving this important human resource management (HRM) function greatly benefits those new employees and the organization itself; to clarify the ethical obligations implicit in new employee onboarding; and to provide top managers and HRPs with a model for improving the new employee onboarding process that meets the ethical expectations and psychological contracts of incoming employees. The paper begins with a brief explanation of the onboarding process and the nature of the psychological contract that exist between an organization and its employees. Building upon a model introduced by the University of Michigan Ethics Scholar, Larue Hosmer (1995), it then presents 12 ethical perspectives that identify how employees perceive the nature of their onboarding process. The paper then introduces a ten-step model for conducting a top-quality onboarding process, identifying how each of those steps honors the ethical expectations of the psychological contracts of new employees. The paper concludes with a summary of this paper and suggestions for additional research.

The onboarding process

Onboarding is the process of introducing a new employee into his or her new job; acquainting that employee with the organization’s goals, values, rules and policies, and processes; and socializing the employee into an organizational culture (Watkins, 2016). Wanous and Reichers (2000) explained that the new employee orientation process occurs while employees are under a tremendous amount of stress. Organizations typically struggle with the onboarding process because their focus is on the organization and its outcomes, rather than on the needs of incoming employees (Bauer, 2010; Snell, 2006).

The typical new employee onboarding process often provides employees with a volume of information that is overwhelming, impractical, and impossible for new employees to incorporate within a short period (Bradt and Vonnegut, 2009). In compiling research about the state of the art of employee onboarding, Srimannarayana (2016) noted that some organizations included too many complex tasks and information for employees to realistically digest while other organizations offered too few items that fail to adequately prepare employees. Finding the “right” balance is an important factor in successful onboarding.

Bauer (2010) explained that an effective onboarding process included four critical building blocks to improve performance, inoculate against turnover, and increase job satisfaction:

  1. Compliance: this building block is the lowest level of onboarding and includes reviewing or teaching employees about basic legal and policy-related rules and regulations associated with working in the new organization.

  2. Clarification: this key function ensures that employees understand their new jobs and all its related expectations. Frequently, this function is poorly handled and lacks specificity.

  3. Culture: providing employees with a sense of formal and informal organizational norms is often overlooked because members of the organization assume that the organization’s values, assumptions, and norms are easily understood.

  4. Connection: this key activity refers to creating vital interpersonal relationships and explaining information networks essential for employees to perform successfully.

Unfortunately, Acevedo and Yancey (2011, p. 349) concluded that most organizations do a mediocre job of assimilating new employees and, few organizations utilize its full scope or potential. In many cases, onboarding is ineffective because HRM is viewed as a relatively unimportant strategic organizational resource (Caldwell et al., 2011) and costs allocated for its programs and activities face scrutiny from budget setters and management decision makers (Caldwell and Caldwell, 2016). Determining the specific cost of employee turnover will help in heightening the value contribution of HRM activities and highlight the importance of successful onboarding programming.

Bauer (2010) noted that effective onboarding has short-term and long-term benefits for both the new employee and the organization, explaining that employees effectively assimilated into an organization, have greater job satisfaction and organizational commitment, higher retention rates, lower time to productivity, and have greater success in achieving customer satisfaction with their work. In contrast, poor onboarding leads to lower employee satisfaction, higher turnover, increased costs, lower productivity, and decreased customer satisfaction. Holton (2001, p. 73) noted in his study of factors associated with onboarding that “(t)he most important tactic was allowing new employees to fully utilize their skills and abilities.” Unfortunately, most organizations focus on establishing managerial control systems rather than on building commitment and empowering employees (cf. Pfeffer, 1998).

Onboarding and the psychological contract

Extensive management research affirms the importance of organizations investing in the importance of employee relationships (Goleman et al., 2013; McKee et al., 2008) and the perceptions that employees develop as they are socialized within an organization (Schein and Schein, 2016). The employment relationship is inherently an interpersonal relationship with profound ethical implications associated with HRM (Hosmer, 1987). That relationship is based upon the social exchange theory in which the employer pays money to the employee in exchange for his or her services (Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005).

The expectations in this relationship frame the psychological contract that exists between the two parties – a contract that is typically unwritten and that rarely perfectly coincides but reflects the reciprocal obligations of the parties (Rousseau, 1995; Robinson and Rousseau, 1994). Consistent with the expectancy theory, new employees are also concerned about: how they will benefit as an organization member; and whether it is feasible for them to obtain promised outcomes (Shea-Van Fossen and Vredenburgh, 2014). The implied contract between employers and employees has evolved over the past several decades (Pfeffer, 1998), but a growing body of evidence confirms that employers who create relationships with employees based upon high trust and high commitment create organizational cultures in which employees exhibit increased extra-role behavior are more creative and innovative, and more profitable than employees in comparable organizations (cf. Beer, 2009; Caldwell and Floyd, 2014).

Well-qualified employees who add the greatest value to their organizations expect to be treated as valued “owners and partners;” given the opportunity to advance in their organizations; and valued as “Yous,” or as unique individuals, rather than as “Its,” or fungible commodities with no individual identity (Buber, 1996; Covey, 2004; Block, 2013). Value creation is a fundamental goal of every organization (Porter, 1985) as it transforms resources, increases their value to customers, and creates incremental added value at each step in an organization’s chain of production (Walters and Lancaster, 2000). The goal for every new employee is to bring that employee’s performance to the point where (s)he begins to add value or create wealth for the organization (cf. Caldwell and Hansen, 2010) and the proper role of onboarding is to make that transition as smooth, seamless, and rapid as possible (Lawson, 2015).

Although some employees are highly committed organizational citizens who are inherently dedicated to giving extra mile performance, even in the face of poor treatment and ineffective leadership (Organ et al., 2005), the research evidence documents that employers who treat employees with high trust, who demonstrate a personalized approach to employees as valued partners, and who pay close attention to their best interests reap the rewards of better quality, improved employee performance, and increased employee satisfaction (Pfeffer, 1998; Paine, 2003; Beer, 2009; Smith et al., 2016).

Louis (1980) examined the problem of employee dissatisfaction with the new employee entry process more than 35 years ago, yet currently new employees continue to be surprised by the inadequacies of many organizations’ onboarding systems (Lawson, 2015, Chapter 5). Although the expectations of each incoming employee about the perceived duties owed to him or her in the onboarding process may vary, Morrison and Robinson (1997) noted that employees feel betrayed when those duties are breached – with an inevitable decline in trust and a predictable decrease in organization commitment (Zhao et al., 2007). A realistic job preview that explains job relationships, performance expectations, work policies, and the context of the work environment (Breaugh, 2009) reduces surprises and provides an opportunity for employees to ask questions about the job and the company (Tekleab et al., 2013).

In examining the nature of organizational trust and ethical perspectives, Hosmer (1995) explained that trust and ethical expectations were closely related. Hosmer (1995) explained that ethical perspectives were diverse and typically derived from well accepted philosophical foundations. Table I builds upon Hosmer’s (1995) research to present 12 ethical perspectives, a summary of each perspective, and a summary of how new employees would be likely to perceive onboarding duties owed to them.

Each of these ethical perspectives clarifies that it is in the best interests of an employer, its customers, and their employees for the onboarding process to occur effectively and with high quality (cf. Hosmer, 1995). A careful review of the right-hand column of the table clearly explains how each of the 12 different ethical perceptions applies to new employees’ perceptions about duties owed to them in the psychological contract between employees and their organization. Table I shows a powerful connection between employee perceptions about duties owed in the unspoken psychological contract between themselves and the organization. HRPs and top management team members should carefully review this table and reflect on the implicit ethical perceptions that employees reasonably have as they begin a job assignment with a new organization.

Accordingly, it is logical to anticipate that new employees will perceive that they are owed ethical duties associated with the 12 perspectives articulated in this table and reasonably expect their employing organizations to provide them with an outstanding onboarding process as part of the psychological contract owed to them (DeVos et al., 2005; Klein and Weaver, 2000). By honoring the ethical duties that employee perceives to be part of the psychological contract owed to them, employers demonstrate that they are: committed to employee success, caring in their ability to understand employee needs, and competent in providing employees with an efficient and effective onboarding process. These three ethically related duties are inherently a part of the construct of trustworthiness which is so critical in building high trust organizational cultures (Beer, 2009).

A ten-step model for quality onboarding

HRPs who incorporate highly effective onboarding programs honor the perceived but unwritten psychological contract expectations of their new employees (Snell, 2006) and fulfill their strategic role as ethical stewards in achieving organizational mission (Huselid et al., 2009; Caldwell et al., 2011). The following is a ten-step model for quality onboarding, including steps prior to the actual arrival of a new employee in addition to assimilating the employee after (s)he has arrived on site:

  1. Establish the relationship online immediately after hiring: in many cases, the decision to hire an employee occurs well before the employee begins employment. Initiating an online relationship via Skype, e-mail, Go To Meeting, or other software enables an organization to create an immediate personalized relationship with a new employee – a well-recognized element of effective leadership (Kouzes and Posner, 2012, Chapter 1) and an opportunity for an employee to learn a great deal about the organization.

  2. Appoint a trained and committed mentor coach for each new employee: the empirical evidence indicates that the type and quality of mentoring for new employees can make a significant contribution to new employee socialization and learning (Ragins et al., 2000). This mentoring can begin online before employee arrival and can be highly effective at helping employees (Bierema and Hill, 2005). Effective mentoring by a caring and well-trained mentor has been found to improve employee work attitudes, engagement, and extra-role behavior (Van Dyne and Pierce, 2004).

  3. Focus the onboarding on relationships and networks: assisting new employees to create relationships with key organization personnel can shorten the assimilation process and is a win-win for all parties. Encouraging those individuals to contact and to welcome the employee, sharing information with those key organization personnel about the employee’s qualifications and needs, and assisting the employee to become familiar with the organization personnel and the organization’s values communicates a powerful message to the incoming employee that (s)he is an important contributor to the organization’s success (Brown, 2007; Rousseau, 1990). The relationship with the supervisor and the natural work group are both essential elements in this transition (Parker et al., 2013).

  4. Prepare a well-developed and complete new employee orientation booklet: integrating all of the many and diverse pieces of information that every new employee needs in relocating; becoming acquainted with the community and organization culture; learning about the organization’s values, mission, and history; understanding employee benefits and policies; completing required paper work and documentation; and identifying his or her key job tasks in contributing to the organization’s ability to create value enables a new employee to be able to go to one clear and well-organized source for obtaining this critical information and is consistent with employee psychological contract expectations (Sutton and Griffin, 2004). Providing that information in one location also facilitates the employee’s ability to share that information with a significant other.

  5. Prepare physical location, office, and staffing support prior to onboarding: acknowledging that new employees need an office computer or laptop, a properly equipped office, and appropriate staffing support in order to get off to the best possible start as a new employee should be matched by appropriate actions to take care of those important administrative details prior to a new employee’s arrival and demonstrates that the organization has carefully thought through the new employee’s assimilation (cf. Caldwell and Caldwell, 2016).

  6. Assist in transitional logistics: because a large percentage of the work force changes jobs on a regular basis (Adkins, 2016), recognizing that a new hire may have had to relocate, sell or buy a home, arrange for schooling for children, and/or make other stressful transitions of significant proportion, reaching out to new employees to assist them in those time consuming tasks communicates that an employer is aware of the need for work-family balance and is committed to the employee’s welfare (Dewe et al., 2010).

  7. Clarify and affirm priorities and expectations: immediately upon the new employee’s arrival to the organization, the employee’s supervisor should meet with the new employee, clarify job responsibilities and key outcomes, explain the performance measurement process, identify key resources and the role of the supervisor, and listen carefully to the employee’s personal goals and job-related concerns. Creating a high trust relationship with the new employee is facilitated by such a meeting and enhances an organization’s social capital, in addition to building employee commitment (Leana and Van Buren, 1999). Defining the employee role in context with the natural work group is again very important.

  8. Engage, empower, and appreciate the employee: employees actively engaged as owners and partners in an organization are more likely to contribute creative ideas, add organizational value, and improve organization productivity (Adkins, 2016; Smith et al., 2016; Beer, 2009; Saks, 2006). Building employee self-efficacy and confidence can also reduce employee stress, facilitate assimilation into the organization, and enhance employee performance (Peterson et al., 2011).

  9. Involve upline in onboarding training and orientation: actively involving top management team members and supervisors in the new employee orientation process – particularly in explaining organizational values and cultural factors – communicates to employees that organizational leaders are committed to those values and that they are personally prepared to perform according to the values that they espouse (Schein, 2010; Kouzes and Posner, 2012).

  10. Create an ongoing coaching process: as part of the new employee orientation, the employee’s mentor and supervisor should both identify the resources available to assist the employee to become a highly productive contributor and the checkpoints that will be used to help the new employee to be assimilated into the organization and to achieve time-targeted performance results (Bachkirova et al., 2011).

Each of these ten steps communicates to the new employee that (s)he is a priority of the organization and is a highly respected “You” rather than a fungible “It” (Buber, 1996). This ten-step process communicates, “We value you and want you to succeed. We care about your success, and we have carefully thought through our responsibility to bringing you on board successfully so that you can have a great experience in our company.”

In the words of DePree (2004, Chapter 1), this approach to the onboarding process and to helping the employee to succeed honors the “covenantal” obligation of leaders to be “a servant and a debtor” committed to each employee’s well-being and success. That psychological contract expectation of being valued as a person is the desired hope of new employees as they transition into organizations. Although all the ten steps might not always be practical in every situation, this model provides a guideline which has general applicability for many organizations in a variety of disciplines.

Caldwell et al. (2015) provided a continuum of ethical conduct for leaders and organizations, which they suggest is a virtuous continuum for evaluating performance outcomes and ethical duties. That continuum, indicated as Figure 1, suggests that the ethical obligation and responsibility of organizations and leaders is to pursue the best interests of all stakeholders and optimizing long-term value creation.

Cameron (2011) explained that virtuous leadership is also “responsible leadership” and the positive organizational scholarship literature affirm that it is the obligation of leaders to raise the standard of their conduct to a virtuous level in creating relationships with those whom they serve (Cameron and Spreitzer, 2013; Cameron, 2013). As suggested in the virtuous continuum, a virtuous leader seeks to do more than simply avoiding errors, honoring obligations, or performing at an acceptable level; the virtuous leader seeks the optimization of value creation, pursues the best interests of stakeholders, and honors the highest standards of ethical stewardship by optimizing organization outcomes rather than accepting a less desirable set of results (Caldwell et al., 2008). The growing body of evidence confirms that honoring this virtuous responsibility creates organizational wealth, greater commitment, improved customer service, and better quality (Cameron and Spreitzer, 2015; Beer, 2009; Pfeffer, 1998).

Summary of the paper

Like many practical HRM issues, onboarding of employees is a profoundly ethical process with implications for the psychological contract between the employer and employee (Hosmer, 1987). This paper makes five significant contributions to the ethically related HRM field:

  1. It identifies the nature of onboarding new employees as an ethical and practical opportunity to substantially improve the relationship between new employees and their organizations. The responsibilities of HRPs and immediate supervisors in retaining and assimilating new employees’ honors “covenantal” obligations that benefit organizations and the individuals working for them (cf. DePree, 2004; Pava, 2003).

  2. It identifies the ethical nature of onboarding with 12 distinct and highly regarded ethical perspectives and as a key element of psychological contracts. By elaborating on the ethical nature of the onboarding process, this paper integrates those ethical perspectives with the expectations of employees that directly impacts their trust, commitment, and willingness to engage in value-creating behaviors (Beer, 2009).

  3. It confirms the value of a virtuous continuum approach to examining the current practices of onboarding for HRPs. Honoring duties owed to stakeholders and optimizing value creation are clearly responsibilities of HRPs and supervisors and the virtuous continuum is a useful criterion for evaluating an organization’s onboarding process (Caldwell et al., 2015).

  4. It identifies a ten-step model for onboarding with each step identifying how that onboarding activity strengthens the ability of an organization to honor ethical and psychological contract expectations of employees. The specifics of this proposed model comply with best practices for onboarding in HRM (Bauer, 2010) while meshing with ethically related assumptions about the psychological contract (Rousseau, 1990).

  5. It provides an opportunity for practitioners and scholars to increase their dialogue in promoting the discussion of ethics in practice. The link between academicians and practitioners is often weak and scholars are frequently criticized for being impractical (Van Buren and Greenwood, 2013; Caldwell, 2014). This paper bridges that gap and provides an opportunity for scholars and HRPs to work together to improve the onboarding process.

Opportunities to research the impact of improving employee onboarding abound and can be assessed by tracking such important related factors as employee turnover, employee satisfaction, the length of time required for employees to begin contributing to value creation, and new employee attitudes about HRPs and an organization’s top management team. We encourage scholars and practitioners to partner together to assess the current onboarding practices of organizations and to identify changes in employee behavior and attitudes after these ten steps are implemented (cf. Caldwell, 2014).


Although organizations depend greatly upon the ability of their employees to add value and improve organizational creativity (Christensen, 2011; Beer, 2009), they often overlook the importance of helping employees to succeed (Pfeffer, 1998). Van Buren and Greenwood (2013, p. 716) have noted the importance of “involvement of business ethics scholarship in debates about important ethical issues in employment practices.” By addressing the ethical implications of onboarding and assimilation in the psychological contract that exists between new employees and their organizations, this paper furthers that purpose while providing specific suggestions for improving a key HRM process.

As HRPs improve the onboarding and assimilation process for new employees, they enhance each employee’s reason for wanting to connect as invested partners in the success of the organization, the work group, and the supervisor with whom they work (Yamkovenko and Hatala, 2015). By improving onboarding and new employee assimilation, HRPs and organization leaders honor the psychological contracts and ethical assumptions of employees’ and create an organizational culture that generates greater long-term wealth while serving the needs of their work force (Caldwell et al., 2011).


The virtuous continuum as an ethical framework for leaders and organizations

Figure 1

The virtuous continuum as an ethical framework for leaders and organizations

12 ethical perspectives and their ethical implications for onboarding

Ethical perspective Basic summary Organizational impacts Employee perceptions and ethical implications
Self-interest (Protagoras) Society benefits when we pursue self-interest without encroaching on others’ rights Seeks to optimize long-term wealth creation Excellent onboarding and quality training enable new employees to quickly become contributors in creating organizational wealth (cf. Caldwell and Hansen, 2010)
Utilitarian benefit (Bentham and Mills) A law or act is “right” if it leads to more net social benefits than harms Recognizes the need to identify costs, benefits, and impacts of choices The return on investment of onboarding saves an organization money in the long run and increases commitment (Pfeffer, 1998)
Personal virtues (Plato and Aristotle) Standards must be adopted to govern relationships and articulate virtuous behaviors Organizations must govern per correct principles and virtues Creating an excellent onboarding process is congruent with the virtuous obligations that leaders owe to others (DePree, 2004)
Religious injunction (St Augustine) Compassion and kindness must accompany honesty, truthfulness, and temperance Honoring relationships equates with interpersonal respect and kindness Treating employees as valued “Yous” rather than as “Its” honors the obligations of religious injunction (Buber, 1996)
Ethic of government regulation (Hobbes and Locke) “Live by both the letter and the spirit of the law in honoring duties owed to others, but remember that the law by itself is a minimal moral standard” Complying with the letter and spirit of the law builds trust and increases personal commitment Treating new hires as valued partners and with a concern for their best interests is not a legal obligation but complies with the spirit of the implied contract between the parties and is an important means of building trust (cf. Caldwell and Clapham, 2003)
Universal rules (Kant) Inspired rules govern action, resulting in the greater good for society Universal rules and values impact organizations and leaders Kantian rules mandate that individuals are treated as valued ends rather than as means to ends (Kant and Wood, 2001)
Individual rights (Rousseau and Jefferson) An articulated list of protected rights ensures individual freedom and protects individuals Organizations are obligated to honor duties owed to individual members Employees are likely to view organizations as owing them a complex series of “covenantal” duties and rights (Covey, 1992)
Economic efficiency (Adam Smith) Seek the maximum output of needed goods and the maximization of profits Acknowledges the importance of wealth creation and value Onboarding is win-win benefit that maximizes value creation (cf. Bauer, 2010)
Distributive justice (Rawls) Avoid taking any actions that harms the least of us in any way Organizations owe individuals fair treatment always Ineffective onboarding harms employees who are under great stress and impedes their ability to succeed (Acevedo and Yancey, 2011)
Contributing liberty (Nozich) Avoid actions that interfere with others’ self-fulfillment and development Acknowledges the obligation to assist employees to become excellent Poor onboarding conflicts with the ethic of contributing liberty because it undermines the effectiveness of new employees (Bauer, 2010)
Ethic of self-actualization (Maslow) Seek to fulfill one’s highest potential and to maximize one’s ability to contribute to creating a better world Recognizes that fulfilling one’s potential serves all stakeholders The ethic of self-actualization is best served by empowering new employees and helping them to succeed (Smart, 2012)
Ethic of care (Gilligan) Emphasizes the importance of creating caring relationships and honoring responsibilities to those with whom relationships exist Focuses on the importance of each person and helping them to honor their responsibilities The ethic of care enables new employees to honor their responsibilities to others. It is also a duty owed to them which demonstrates that the organization cares about their welfare (cf. Cameron, 2011)


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Further reading

Mayer, R.C., Davis, J.H. and Schoorman, F.D. (1995), “An integrative model of organizational trust”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 709-734.

Mitchell, L.M. (2007), “A framework for facilitating adaptation to organizational transition”, Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 20 No. 5, pp. 721-739.

Corresponding author

Cam Caldwell can be contacted at: