Setting the Direction with New Employee Orientation

New employees get up to speed faster and stay on the job longer if they successfully complete a comprehensive orientation program. Numerous studies come to this conclusion (you can find some of them at www.shrm.org). So why are so many orientation sessions dull, cursory, and formulaic?

A well-designed orientation should help new staff feel welcome (“we’re glad we picked you; we really needed you”) and safe (“this is a good place to work, and we’ll help you learn how to shine”). Structure the orientation content around the outcomes you want. These typically fall into only a few areas: welcoming new people and integrating them into the fabric of the organization; telling them where to go, whom to see, and what’s expected of them as they start their jobs; and completing administrative paperwork.

All new employees should attend an orientation during the first two or three days (even before they officially start the job is fine, although you should certainly pay them for the time). Wait any longer, and they have to figure out too many things by themselves; the initial sense of being abandoned to sink or swim is not that easy to change. It’s better not to wait even if only a couple of new folks are starting this week and there are a few more next week; show that the organization is willing to invest immediately in making the relationship smooth and successful.

An orientation checklist is a useful tool for managing three separate chunks of the process. The first is to confirm that all the physical materials that need to be prepared are in place (ID badges, desks, headsets, forms) and that all participants are notified of time and place. The second purpose of the checklist is to guide the presenter through delivering all the necessary information to be covered during the session. Last, it becomes a ready reference tool to help newbies recollect what information they received and what they’re responsible for.

When it comes to the session itself, appearances and perceptions count. Provide refreshments. New people don’t know where to get their own snacks yet, and food always makes the employer seem gracious and hospitable. Make sure printed materials are fresh and if possible personalized. There’s nothing like a folder or binder with your name on it to prove that someone has thought about your presence. The complete opposite impression is created if handouts are fuzzy recopied copies, already bent and used.

Don’t miss out on covering important aspects of the physical plant. Provide both a tour and a map for subsequent reference so that it’s easy to find the bathrooms, the break room, the supervisory station, the training room. etc. On the same tour, you can conduct the meet-and-greet portion for both departments and colleagues. (On a side note, do notify incumbent staff that the tour will be coming through so that they can remember to act like good hosts. It helps the integration process a lot when experienced colleagues actually look as if they enjoy their work; a smile or the lack thereof is a particular giveaway.)

How detailed the orientation should be varies depending on whether it will be followed by a formal initial training class. Even if there is a training class to follow, allow time to introduce and demonstrate company products or services or, at the least, to show photographs of customers using product or engaged in the company’s services. You can save the factual and detailed product knowledge that’s a crucial part of training, but the orientation should create a positive impression and engage new staffers’ curiosity. If there will be no subsequent formal training class, give new employees the big picture they may not get once they’re on the job. Include the history of the company, where it fits into the industry, and a high-level summary of the plan for the next few years. Point out the linkages between everything you tell them and the company’s vision or mission.

On a more personal basis, you’ll need to deal with individual details of employment, including payroll and tax forms, attendance policy, performance expectations (unless these will be handled in subsequent training or in the department), lists of pertinent contact numbers, and the employee handbook, if you have one.

Be sure that whoever conducts the orientation is an effective, persuasive presenter and not just an expert on the subject matter. This individual should have well-honed skills of observation and listening so that he or she can tune in if something’s awry or if someone is uncomfortable or not responding properly. There should be plenty of give and take in the session; lively interaction helps keep participants involved instead of leading them to nod off or ignore details. A more-intensive dialogue also helps the presenter to gauge the level and appropriateness of response of the group.

Because there are numerous forms to fill out and detailed and technical questions about timecards and log-in codes to answer, some companies give the responsibility of orientation to thorough, bureaucratic individuals. Keep in mind that a skilled presenter can cover the boring stuff and make it seem interesting, but a boring person can befog even the most interesting, useful content.

And when it comes to the human touch, consider setting up a buddy system. The Gallup organization’s research into job satisfaction and retention makes it clear that employees who feel they “have a friend at work” are more likely to feel satisfied with the job and tend to stay longer. So creating the opportunity for new employees to meet a potential new friend has got to be a plus.

An experienced peer employee who is a successful performer, selected for a combination of functional competence, positive attitude, good communication skills, and interest, can be a more-personal source of helpful information and supportive interaction. Newbies may not want to ask their supervisors potentially embarrassing questions about the restrooms or which employees to tiptoe around. Other comforting buddy roles and responsibilities include explaining when and how to get supplies and the best places (or safe foods) for lunch.

Depending on the detailed functional training the newbies will receive in their assigned departments, you might want to use the close of the orientation to highlight the upcoming training process or to establish some of the developmental milestones they should expect to hit along the way. The orientation serves as a guided tour to the rest of the employment experience; it helps to be clear about the landmarks your new employees will see on the rest of the journey.

Liz Kislik is president of Rockville Centre, NY-based consultancy Liz Kislik Associates.

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