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Getting off to a good start

By Donald L. Caruth, Gail D. Caruth and Stephanie S. Pane Haden

Executive Summary
Following effective employee orientation procedures can make the difference between a new hire’s long, productive career and short-term failure. A proper orientation introduces the organization to the new worker, gives the employee a favorable impression of the organization and helps the staff member adjust to the new workplace.

Getting new employees off to the right start is essential. Those first few days, or even weeks, on the job are a “make-or-break” period for many workers. The difference between long-term job success and short-run departure often hinges on effective employee orientation. This article outlines some simple steps for assuring that new staff members get off to a good start.

Orientation is the process whereby a new employee is familiarized with the firm, the job, the work group and other terms and conditions of employment. It is both a formal and an informal process. On the formal side, the human resources department may conduct classes that introduce the worker to company history, policies, codes of conduct, health and insurance benefits, and other items of importance, or the new worker’s supervisor, following a prescribed format, may introduce the employee to the requirements of the job, departmental operations and other employees.

On the informal side, there may be no formal classes. There may be, on a new worker’s first day, simply oral explanations delivered in one-on-one fashion covering major items of importance, or the new worker may receive an employee handbook to read. In other cases, the supervisor may, without adhering to any formalized procedure, explain the job and introduce the new worker to other employees in the work group, identify starting and quitting times, and tell the new employee about the lunch hour.

Purposes of orientation

Whether it is accomplished formally or informally, employee orientation has five general purposes. For orientation to be effective, it must accomplish each of the following purposes.

1. Introduction to the organization and its history, traditions and culture. Every organization has its history, traditions and culture – its own way of doing things. An essential purpose of orientation is to give new employees this sense of what the institution is about, what it values, where it has come from, where it is now and where it is going. Whether it is the “HP Way” (Hewlett-Packard) or McDonald’s restaurants’ four key values, new hires need to understand organizational culture and how they will fit into it.

2. Creating a favorable impression of the organization. A second purpose of orientation is to create a favorable impression of the organization and the job. It is not unusual for a new employee to have doubts about the new organization and the new job even after learning of its history, traditions and culture. Consequently, the orientation process must attempt to demonstrate that the organization is a good place to work and that each job is vital to successful operation of the firm. A word of caution is in order, however. It is very easy, and perhaps tempting, to go overboard in this area. The impression conveyed to the new worker should be an honest one. If it is not, employees soon will discover the truth for themselves and become disillusioned.

3. Adjustment to the organization. For many people, the first few days on a new job can be a frightening, tension-producing or anxiety-laden experience. There is much to be learned – new procedures, new methods, new requirements. There are new people to be met and new customs and traditions to be absorbed. The new employee may feel at a loss unless the organization makes a deliberate attempt to ease the transition into the job and surroundings.

The immediate supervisor plays a large role in helping the employee make the initial adjustment to the organization. Explanations concerning the job, introductions to members of the work group, familiarization with the physical surroundings, and information regarding break times, lunch times, and so forth are a few of the basic things a supervisor needs to do to make the new worker feel more comfortable with the job and organization.

Integration of the new employee into the formal work group is also important. Often, this can be accomplished best by assigning the new person to work with a senior employee. The mentor not only trains the new hire but introduces the new hire to the other workers and generally sees that he or she is made to feel part of the total work group.

Of special concern may be the problem of easing the adjustment of women or minorities into the work group, particularly where the group previously has been predominantly white males. Without proper introduction to the work group, employee turnover may be higher for members of protected classes than those in the more traditional work group. A supervisor has the additional responsibility in this case of preparing the work group in advance for the arrival of the protected class employee. The supervisor should reiterate the organization’s policy on equal employment and state the expectations of behavior from current employees.

4. Information about the job and performance expectations. Another purpose of orientation is to give the new employee specific information about how the job is to be performed, the quantity of work expected and quality levels that must be maintained. It is axiomatic that people cannot be fully productive unless they completely understand what is expected of them. Not knowing what is expected, they may set their own bogus performance standards, either too high or too low. Or they may grow frustrated with the job and become another number in the organization’s turnover statistics. It is clearly the responsibility of the immediate work group supervisor to assure that each new employee has a thorough understanding of what is to be done on the job, how it is to be done, why it is to be done, when it is to be done and where it is to be done. Proper explanation of these matters not only reduces turnover, but also assists employees in becoming productive workers as rapidly as possible.

5. Information about policies, rules and benefits. The final purpose of employee orientation is to furnish the worker information concerning a host of items that are important not only to the employee but to the organization as well. Among those items are the following:

  • Policies relative to promotion, vacation eligibility, outside employment, ethics and the like
  • Work rules concerning time clock procedures, labor hour reporting, absence reporting and so forth
  • Employee services such as discounts on merchandise, tuition refund programs, recreational opportunities, child care or elder care centers
  • Benefits related to health insurance, life insurance, profit sharing, retirement plans and other forms of indirect compensation

Some of this information will come from the supervisor, while other parts will come from the human resources department, often in the form of an employee handbook or, increasingly, from a Web site.
It is estimated that between 60 percent and 80 percent of the current work force in an organization is not only new to the organization but to the job market as well. The new work force many companies have to deal with includes either late entries or re-entries of women, people who were formerly self-employed, recent high school and college graduates, and individuals who have made career changes. Undoubtedly, many of these people have anxieties about entering an organization – anxieties that can be alleviated through an effective new employee orientation program.

Stages in effective orientation

An effective employee orientation program has four stages. These are described below in the order in which they typically occur.

1. Human resource department overview. For the vast majority of employees, the first day on a new job begins in the human resources department. There are forms to be completed, insurance options to be exercised, beneficiaries to be designated and other administrative details to be attended to just to get a person on the payroll and enrolled in an organization’s benefit programs. At this time, the new employee usually is given some general information about the company, its policies, procedures, compensation, etc. An employee handbook or a Web site also may be provided. Some companies use new employee checklists such as the one shown in Figure 1 to ensure that human resource representatives cover all basic information with the worker. Additionally, information may be provided about the company’s products, services, locations, subsidiaries and other matters pertaining to the overall organization.

2. Supervisory indoctrination. The new employee’s supervisor is responsible for the second stage of the orientation program. Items covered include an overview of the department, job requirements, safety procedures, break and lunch times, specific work rules, location of restrooms and cafeterias, a tour of the department and personal introductions to other employees. It is beneficial to use a checklist here, too, so that the supervisor does not neglect to mention any item of importance. A supervisory orientation checklist is shown in Figure 2. Comparing this figure with the previous one reveals that the immediate supervisor must explain a number of job-related details, whereas the human resources department is basically concerned with benefits, services and company overview. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the key role in successful orientation is performed by the work group supervisor.

3. Formal orientation. Formal orientation typically takes place in a classroom and is conducted by a member of the human resource staff. These sessions may be as short as one or two hours or as long as a full day, depending on the importance the organization attaches to new-hire orientation. Shorter sessions generally focus on benefits and employee services; longer sessions tend to include company history, products, processes and even presentations by high-ranking company representatives. Orientation classes fulfill two general purposes: They provide in-depth explanation and discussion of matters that are important to new employees, and they introduce new employees to each other so that the new person’s acquaintances are not limited solely to her department or sphere of operations.

Employee orientation classes usually occur after a person has been on the job for a while – at least a few days and sometimes several weeks. Some experience on the job and with the organization affords the new worker time to formulate questions that might not otherwise surface if formal orientation was held the first day of employment. While it is critical that a new employee be given adequate information about the company and job on the first day, information overload may occur if too much is provided at that time.

4. Follow-up. For orientation to be effective, there must be some form of follow-up and evaluation. During the first few weeks on the job, the immediate supervisor should work closely with the employee to clarify any misunderstandings and see that the employee is properly integrated into the work group. The human resources department also plays a part in follow-up, either by working with the supervisor or by directly contacting the employee.

Training supervisors for their role in orientation

Of critical importance to any successful orientation program is training for supervisors so that they can carry out their key roles. The human resources department can provide the new employee with a great deal of organizational information, but only the supervisor can fulfill the function of integrating the employee into the work group.

In training supervisors, the following points about orientation should be emphasized:

  • Orientation is an investment in people since it prepares new employees for organizational entry and successful job performance.
  • Effective orientation reduces employee turnover, thereby saving money for the organization.
  • Proper orientation enables employees to become productive more quickly.
  • Both positive and negative features of the job should be explained to the employee.
  • Orientation is not limited to the employee’s first day on the job; nurturing and support may be needed for several weeks.
  • The supervisor should explain her likes and dislikes relative to job performance.
  • All questions, comments and concerns on the part of the employee should be considered important and addressed appropriately.
  • Introductions to other employees are crucial and should not be handled perfunctorily.
  • Details, such as the location of restrooms, lunch periods and time clock procedures, should not be overlooked because little things can make a big difference to the new employee and his adjustment to the organization.

Following the procedures outlined above will help assure that your firm’s new hires get off to a good start that will lead to their long-term success and to your firm’s continued success.

Donald L. Caruth is professor of management at Texas A&M University, where he teaches courses in human resource management and business strategy. He is a senior professional in human resources and a freelance writer. His articles have appeared in numerous journals.

Gail D. Caruth, a former human resources manager, is a consultant specializing in training and development. She is a senior professional in human resources and a freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in a number of professional journals.

Stephanie S. Pane Haden is assistant professor of management at Texas A&M University-Commerce. She teaches courses in human resource management, organizational behavior and management skills development.

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