The importance of orientation Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2007

Companies often expect new hires to “hit the ground running,” but are businesses giving employees the resources and guidance to do this? According to a recent survey developed by Robert Half International, companies may be hindering new employees from performing at their best by not providing them a formal orientation program. The survey was conducted by an independent research firm and included responses from 492 full- or part-time workers 18 years of age or older employed in office environments.

“Only a small percentage — one third — of the workers we surveyed received any kind of formal orientation program from their company,” says Phil Willingham, senior regional vice president of Robert Half International, the world’s first and largest staffing service specializing in accounting, finance and information technology.

Smart Business spoke with Willingham about the importance of a formal orientation program and the key elements of a good plan.

Why is it important to have a formal orientation program for new hires?

Eighty-seven percent who underwent a formal orientation said that it helped them prepare for success within the organization. A formal orientation program increases the likelihood that employees ramp up more quickly because they feel supported and guided during the first days with the company. Employees who receive a formal orientation feel comfortable in their roles more quickly and achieve a sense of belonging. These attributes provide a good foundation for work productivity.

From the company’s perspective, providing a formal orientation helps get the new hire up to speed quickly and helps with retention, which reduces the high cost of turnover.

Why don’t more companies have a formal orientation program in place?

It could be an expense issue — or a perceived expense issue. Or it may be time constraints. Growing companies are often stretched thin and unable to dedicate the necessary resources to develop a formal orientation program, which takes planning to put together.

What is the advantage of a formal orientation program versus an informal one?

Many companies already have some kind of informal orientation in place that may be effective in helping the employee feel comfortable. However, the value of a formal orientation program is in its consistency: It provides employers with an opportunity to reinforce the company’s values and set expectations, and it also lays the groundwork for keeping the company’s message consistent.

Not having a formal orientation program doesn’t necessarily mean employees won’t be successful. But the first days of work at a new company leave a lasting impression. The more thorough the orientation, the better new hires can acclimate quickly, learn what resources are available to them and gain a sense of the corporate culture.

What are some key elements of effective formal orientation programs?

At the very least, supervisors should give new hires a tour of the office, introduce them to their colleagues and explain security procedures. Make sure you invite senior management to meet with the new employee; an appearance by an executive or other company leader adds credibility and weight to the session. If this is not possible, a high-quality video could be a good substitute.

The first couple of days are also a good time to discuss the history of the company, explain the corporate culture and give some basic tips on what the new hire can do to succeed in the company. This is also a good opportunity to talk about short-term expectations (what is expected within 30 to 90 days — which can also coincide with a training schedule) as well as the long-term vision (what is expected of the employee in the span of one to five years).

The important part of a formal orientation is that the message is coordinated and consistent throughout. The ideas conveyed in the orientation should reflect those expressed during the recruitment process and how the company presents itself to the outside world, as well.

The first days also need to include a meeting with the Human Resources Department for formalities such as giving the new employee a handbook, information about benefits, vacation time, etc. It is also important to give the new employee a list of key contacts in the company — which can help speed up communication when an issue or a question arises.

A good orientation program is an ongoing process. Managers should ensure the orientation process doesn’t end when a person leaves the formal session. A mentoring program is an excellent way to provide ongoing guidance and support beyond the first few weeks on the job.

PHIL WILLINGHAM is senior regional vice president for Robert Half International in Houston. The company has more than 350 staffing locations in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, and offers online job search services at www.rhi.com. Reach Willingham at (713) 339-1060 or by e-mail at phil.willing-ham@rhi.com.