January 15, 2004

Practical Tips for New-Employee Orientation


By Alicia Abell

Unlike many employees, Tricia Cornell doesn't recall orientation day at her current job as pointless or boring. At the Center for Victims of Torture, in Minneapolis, where she has worked for the last year and a half as a communications specialist, staff members constantly work with and hear about people who have survived unspeakably horrible experiences. To manage the effects on employees themselves, orientation at the center includes a presentation on "secondary traumatization" and "self care" for workers exposed to human suffering.

This aspect of the orientation stuck with her, Ms. Cornell says, because of what it communicated to the new employees: "The explicit message was, 'You're a valuable resource. We care about you. You need to take care of yourself."

Another focus of orientation day, she recalls, was making employees feel that they were working toward the same goal. Rather than concentrating on paperwork or procedures, she says, the orientation attempted to promote a broad understanding of how the charity works: Representatives from each segment of the organization talk to the new employees, explaining what their departments do and how it relates to the whole. "It was actually a pretty great day," Ms. Cornell says.

A good new-employee orientation like the one Ms. Cornell experienced has far-reaching benefits, say job trainers and human-resources consultants. Not only does it put new employees at ease and get them excited about their jobs, but it also helps reduce worker turnover.

Employers have suspected a link between orientation and retention for years, and now data are starting to prove the correlation, say professionals who conduct or design new-employee training programs. Organizations that give workers a comprehensive orientation can expect turnover to decline by as much as 50 percent within two years, according to Deliver the Promise, a consulting group in San Anselmo, Calif., that focuses on employee orientation and coaching.

Employee turnover is extremely costly -- up to two and a half times an employee's annual salary, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, a private publisher of information on labor and other topics in Washington. "In comparison to that loss, orientation is dirt cheap," says Andrew Klein, a consultant at Mercer Human Resource Consulting who works out of the New York company's Washington office and helps nonprofit clients attract and retain staff members. "If you only save one employee from leaving, the orientation pays for itself."

While the details of new employee orientations depend on the organization, the best programs have certain elements in common. Here are recommendations from job trainers and nonprofit managers on how to prepare new employees for their jobs.

Set goals. It seems obvious, but orientation programs should exist for a reason, says Les McKeown, chief executive officer of Deliver the Promise. "Most new-employee orientations don't even have goals," he says. "That's part of the problem."

Appropriate orientation goals, say charity managers and trainers, could include the following: getting new employees up to speed as fast as possible, helping them feel welcome, and connecting them to the group's mission.

Don't worry, says Mr. McKeown, about making the process festive. "A new employee orientation shouldn't be there so people can have fun," he says. "That sounds terribly Grinch-like, but it's just not a sustainable goal." And, he cautions, don't confuse orientation with what Mr. McKeown terms "induction" -- giving people information about such items as health and safety regulations or retirement plans. "Orientation, in contrast, is setting people off in the right direction, telling them how to use that information," he says. "It's saying, 'Here's something you can do.'"

Deal with paperwork before day one. Experts recommend having employees complete some of these induction-type tasks -- such as filling out forms and reviewing benefits information packets -- in advance. "One of the most offensive things I've seen done is benefits orientations where they walk you through stuff," says Ken Park, a self-employed management consultant in Media, Penn., who works extensively with nonprofit organizations. "You're sitting there doodling and thinking, 'I could take this stuff home and read it myself.'"

Administrative items such as computer passwords, e-mail accounts, and identification badges should be set up and activated ahead of time, says Mr. Park. "It shouldn't be, 'The tech guy will be in tomorrow, and we'll set you up then, '" he says.

The same goes for office supplies, says Katrina Higgins, deputy director of operations at the National Youth Advocacy Coalition in Washington, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gay and lesbian young people. Ms. Higgins makes sure new employees' desks have pencils, staplers, tape, and other basics before their first day. "This way," she says, "they can concentrate more on their actual work instead of running to me every five minutes, saying, 'Do you have a pen? '"

Some organizations even print and send business cards to new employees before they start. Completing these types of details in advance not only is efficient, consultants say, but it also sends a message to the new employee that the organization recognizes their importance.

Orient newcomers right away. Some organizations stick to rigid orientation schedules, says Mr. Park, holding orientations only every six weeks or waiting until the group has a critical mass of new employees. That's too late, he says, and doesn't help new workers get connected to the organization. Furthermore, he says, "as a supervisor, you should never start a person if you're not going to be there. Otherwise, the person feels unimportant."

It is fine to maintain orientation schedules -- just plan employee start dates around them, consultants say. At the International Rescue Committee, in New York, which provides aid to refugees, new employee orientations are held biweekly, and, says Brandon Berrett, the group's human-resources manager, "we try to have people start on the days of orientation."

Giving employees important information up front not only quells first-day jitters, says Mr. Berrett, but it also makes sense administratively. "All of the logistics are already taken care of in one step," he says.

Emphasize the shared vision. Because so many people join charities out of a belief in their mission -- often taking a pay cut to do so -- it is especially important for nonprofit employees to make all new colleagues feel part of the charity's mission, says Mr. Klein. "Don't tell people they're here to fill out invoices," he says, "but connect their work to finding a cure for cancer."

A shared vision also extends to the principles upon which the organization is run, says Ms. Cornell. For many charities, these include honesty and transparency. At the Center for Victims of Torture, the director of development shared a rough version of the charity's budget with the new employees during orientation. "I was struck by the openness and trust that implied," says Ms. Cornell.

Be honest with new workers about any rough times ahead, says Mr. Klein. "If they want to know how the place is doing financially, tell them honestly if the last quarter wasn't so good," he says. "Employees want to trust you, so it's important to introduce them to culture and environment in an honest way."

Pay attention to who's in charge. "Management needs to pay some pretty good attention to who's doing their orientation," says Mr. Klein. "Whoever is leading it needs to have some public speaking skills and enthusiasm -- not someone who mumbles or doesn't like his job."

It is also important for the executive director to be personally involved in the orientation, consultants say. A welcome from the charity's leadership, in addition to being inspiring, sets a pattern for open communication. "Ninety-nine percent of all orientations are a monologue," says Mr. McKeown. "There needs to be some kind of dialogue about the new employees' own goals, and the best time is during that high-level, who-we-are-as-an-organization welcome by a bigwig."

Put comfort first. First day-priorities include understanding the mission of the organization, interacting with supervisors and co-workers, and showing new employees around, says Mr. Park. "I shouldn't have to ask where the lunchroom is," he says.

Clarifying the organization's dress code ahead of time is another way to put new hires at ease, says Mr. McKeown. It may sound unimportant, he says, but "surveys show that what to wear is one of the things new employees are most nervous about."

Go from general to specific. "One of the dumbest things people do is run information-intensive programs on the first day, when people are least likely to retain it," says Mr. McKeown. Information retention can be as low as 15 percent on the first day, he says, citing his company's research on 27,000 employees.

Instead, he advises presenting an overview of the organization, including its history and mission, on the first day and then matching new employees with a "buddy" in their department for a few days. "Get them minimally up to speed and let them experiment with what they do and don't know and how they can apply it to job," he says. "Then stick them in a room for training. The information is much more valuable then."

The optimum time for this more job-specific orientation, he says, is 3 to 10 days after an employee starts. Depending on the position, such training can last from a few hours to a few weeks.

Emphasize hands-on training. Managers should give new employees specific examples of the type of work they will be doing and allow them the opportunity to practice, says Mr. Park. "Make people think," he says. "Have them apply what you're teaching."

Build on learning opportunities that already exist in the regular workday, he says. "If a group has a staff meeting every week, work with them then," he says. "Don't take them up to the mountains for two days and teach them how to be good buddies. Work with them in the context of what they're already doing."

Measure the program's success. Employers should spell out the desired results of the orientation beforehand, trainers say. These goals should be directly linked to the needs and feedback of managers, says Mr. Park. This is something the International Rescue Committee is working on right now, says Mr. Berrett: The group's human-resources department plans to sit down with hiring managers to see how the department can better support them. After identifying the program's goals, supervisors should also help evaluate whether those aims have been met, trainers say. This gives a more accurate measurement of success than evaluation forms filled out by the new employees immediately following orientation.

Consider orientation a process, not a one-time event. Employers should constantly refine their orientation programs to reflect changes in the organization and its employees, trainers and charity managers say. One way to do this is to follow up. Mr. McKeown suggests going back to employees and supervisors 60 to 90 days after the orientation ends and asking how it worked: "Ask them, 'What things are a waste of time? What things should be added? Did you get this? Do you have any questions? '"

For Ms. Higgins of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, it is important that her employees know she always keeps an open door -- that she is always available to talk and answer questions. Orientation doesn't have a finite end, she says: "I consider it ongoing."

Does your organization have an orientation system for new employees? How does it work? Is it effective? Tell us about it in the Job Market online forum.