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Rethinking New Employee Orientation

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All organizations have some kind of employee orientation program, but few put much thought into it, and the processes are typically dominated by filling out forms and reviewing boring employee manuals. Smart organizations are taking this process much more seriously to ensure that employees have a much deeper understanding of how the organization works and their role in it. The result is a workforce that can (finally) take real ownership over their jobs.

When that new employee shows up for her first day of work at your company, what kind of orientation can she expect? Every company is unique, of course, but there are certainly some common elements I have noticed in orientation processes:

Introductions

You will likely bring your new hire around the office where she has the opportunity to interrupt important people who are doing important work so she can say hello, state her name, shake their hands, and say something bland like how happy she is to be here. Both the new employee and the person she is meeting will each forget the other’s name instantly.

The Welcome Video

If your company has some budget, you may even be able to forego some of the introductions by having the new employee watch the company welcome video, in which some of those important people present warm and fuzzy descriptions of the organization and its culture on camera. There will typically be a palpable difference, however, between the impression conveyed in the video about the organization and the feeling she gets walking the halls.

Binders and Forms

Last but not least, you will bury her under a set of manuals, project binders, and HR forms that will keep her busy for the rest of the week as you (gratefully) get back to your real job. She will read them, retaining about 10%, and will likely never open them again.

Okay, perhaps this is a "glass-half-empty" version of the new employee orientation process, but there is likely enough of this description that is consistent with practices at your organization to make you at least a little bit nervous.

New employee orientation simply does not get the attention it deserves. We generally try to cram as much information transfer in as possible in a short amount of time in ways that don’t interfere with what everyone else is doing and allow the new employee to start doing actual work as quickly as possible. After all, it has been hard with that position vacant, so we really need her to just start doing her job!

But if the purpose of orientation is to enable that new employee to effectively do her job, our attempts to do it quickly and without interruption are self-defeating. We need to rethink the orientation processes with the end in mind. We want to take people who are completely new to our system and somehow enable them to be fully functioning, powerful employees—people who really own their job and can be proactive. We want people who solve problems before they get too big and take action when action is needed.

If that’s the behavior you’re looking for from your new employee, what does she need to get there? Certainly more than a 30-minute video and a 300-page manual. She needs a much deeper understanding of the organization—how it works; what drives success; how all the parts are connected (or not connected). She needs to understand the official authority relationships (indicated on the organizational chart) as well as the unofficial relationships (typically only known and expressed by insiders who know who the real go-to person is for any given issue). She needs to know what’s valued in the culture. She needs to know what is important strategically, and why. I know it’s a lot, but if you want the powerful ownership behavior described above, this is what she needs.

So you need to give her some time. Orientation simply cannot be limited to a small number of days and accomplish the goals above. At a presentation I was giving to Public Affairs officers in the U.S. Air Force, they explained to me that their "new employee orientation" process is a bit more extensive. They call it "boot camp," and it is eight weeks, residential. That’s a lot of time to invest in new recruits, but it’s done with a clear purpose. When those recruits finish boot camp, they deeply understand the Air Force, their role in it, how it works, and what they need to do to be successful. This is particularly critical in military organizations because if these new "employees" end up in battle, they won’t usually have time to check the manual, or even ask a superior officer or a peer what to do. When the bullets are flying, they simply need to take the right action.

Zappos, the wildly successful online retailer, doesn’t run its employees through an eight-week residential program, but its on-boarding process does take four weeks, and it makes everyone in the company go through the same training that the customer service reps go through—specifically because they are committed to a culture of customer service. Lawyers, accountants—whatever the position—they will go through training and spend time answering phones. It takes more time, but it yields employees who deeply understand the company.

You may not have the resources of the Air Force or Zappos, but you can still create that powerful ownership behavior in your new employees by expanding your orientation efforts in different ways:

  • Connect new employees with specific mentors or focused peer groups that they can use as ongoing resources for learning the deeper aspects of your culture and process.
  • If you’re large enough, connect new employees into groups that cut across departments. They can learn from each other and this can help combat that silo problem you’ve got, too.
  • Make learning about the organization a specific part of new employees' jobs and their deliverables over the first six to twelve months. Orientation can’t only be something the organization "does to" the new employee. Give them some responsibility.
  • Include skill training in areas connected to your culture. If you value direct communication and open and honest exchanges, for instance, you may need to train new employees in conflict-resolution skills. Not everyone comes to your company with the same skill level in areas like that.

These are just some ideas to get you thinking. You will have to develop methods that are unique to your situation and work within the resources you have, but you should start rethinking your new employee orientation today.

Our current approach, with its focus on data dumps and compliance, is not providing us with employees who can take ownership, be true leaders (even at the bottom of the hierarchy), and proactively solve problems. Organizations that figure out how to shift their processes to help develop employees with those qualities will have a competitive advantage.

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