All aboard Featured

10:00am EDT July 22, 2002

It may be tempting to put your new employee to work on his or her very first day on the job. But employers who take the time to show that new person where they fit in, using a structured new-employee orientation program, may avoid personnel headaches later.

“Most, if not all, companies have some type of orientation going on, whether they know it or not,” cautions Barry K. Lawrence, spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management, in Alexandria, Va. New employees are especially receptive to signals sent by their employers, and plunking them into a cubicle or onto a production line without so much as an introduction sends the worst message, Lawrence says. “In this tight labor market, your orientation program could be the difference in whether that new employee is going to take that other job they’re being offered,” he notes.

Each business orients new employees to its policies, procedures, expectations and culture in different ways. But there are some things human resource experts agree all effective orientation programs share:

  • They orient early. “If a new employee could get his or her orientation within the first month of being hired, I think that would be ideal,” says Gary Thompson, director of human resources at the College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio.

  • It’s not just about benefits anymore. “We in that orientation process need to give employees instruction on how to receive constructive feedback,” says Bernard McKay, an organizational development consultant for Liaison Consulting Group, Inc., in Glencoe, Ill.

  • It’s the boss’s job, too. Victoria Villalba, president of Victoria & Associates Personnel Services, Inc., in Miami, says companies in which she places new employees find workers more productive when the CEO and other executives take time to greet them.

“The focus is really on trying to make the employee feel as though they are working for a small company,” according to Robert Morgan, vice president of human resources at Interim Services, Inc., in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Smaller companies have a natural advantage when orienting new employees, since department heads and executives are usually more accessible. But Interim—which placed 400,000 temps and temps-to-hire last year and employs 5,000 people on its own—works hard to make new hires welcome and comfortable. Many of the company’s tactics are easily duplicated at smaller firms with limited resources.

New employees are paired with one of about a dozen experienced Interim guides. The guides, who serve two-year terms, call new employees at home the night before the first day of work to answer questions about parking, dress code, office space, etc. “In our company it’s a real honor to be selected” as a guide, Morgan says. “We’re choosing people who we really feel are exemplary employees.”

Villalba emphasizes the need for positive, upbeat role models, preferably with executive-grade titles, to run and lend gravity to the orientation program. McKay adds: “If you treat this as a meaningless, something-I’ve-got-to-do activity, and then walk out of the room, the employee is simply going to forget whatever you’ve told him.”

Interim also runs an internal “passport” program to assure new workers visit each department. Over about four weeks, the employee is expected to introduce himself or herself to each department head, get a tour, ask questions and solve minor problems, such as insurance coverage forms in Morgan’s human resource section.

Introducing new employees to departments with which they may have little interaction helps them see their place in the organization. “You can’t even work in the mailroom without being strategic, if you’re doing your job right,” Lawrence says. “That guy in the mailroom could come up with the idea that saves you $1 million.”

Once their passport is stamped, the new employee proceeds to a two half-day orientation class on the values, mission, achievements and goals of Interim. Pay, vacation and benefits are not key to orientation, Morgan and other HR managers insist; these are usually best handled during breaks in the workday by a supervisor, or during the passport tour by a department head.

After orientation class, Interim holds an “astonishment reception” at which graduates tell newer employees of exceptional customer service encounters, new processes or assistance rendered to another employee. “That’s where we really start to build the culture,” Morgan says.

Touring employees in all departments can boost each person’s appreciation for the contributions of others. “We want our custodian to feel just as proud of the work he does,” Wooster’s Thompson says. “A computer programmer may not have a problem with self-esteem. But we want that computer programmer to know that the custodian isn’t just a guy who couldn’t get a better job.”

Orientations don’t need to be as long or elaborate as Interim’s, the experts agree. But the same elements are shared by all successful programs. “We want [new hires] to know where to go, or who to ask, or what to read to solve whatever problem they may have” on their own as often as possible, Thompson says.