The Whirlwind of a New Job

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HR Magazine, June 2001The new employees at a high-tech company on the West Coast were puzzled when their manager handed them five-year pins on their first day of work. The manager then explained that it was so clear that they were going to thrive on the job that he might as well give out the pins immediately. It sounds hokey, but it sent a message to the new recruits that they had the managers confidence and that they belonged at the company.

Not all managers choose to take such an unorthodox approach to welcoming new employees. But new employee orientation (NEO) initiatives are getting more creative and comprehensive, and they are moving away from those painful sessions with stacks of HR forms and dusty videos.

The new style of orientation program focuses on affirming the new employees decision to come on board, conveying a sense of the companys culture and making the new recruit feel a productive part of a team as soon as possible.

The goal of NEO should be to have the person psychologically join the organization from the first day, says Bob Schultz, a consultant based in Grand Rapids, Mich., who works with retail, manufacturing and other companies on orientation programs for line supervisors and hourly workers.

Orientation should provide corporate basicswhat you are and how the companys leadership is definedbut this information is really just nice to know from the new hires perspective, says Schultz. What they really want to know is, What is this job about, how can I do it and what is the supervisor like?

And most companies still do this poorly, says John Sullivan, head of the HR program at San Francisco State University. Many NEOs could qualify as the customer service process from hell because the programs are not focused on the new employees satisfaction.

When you buy a new car, [a good] salesperson calls you one week later to see if youre happy with the car, Sullivan says. He believes employers should take the same approach with new employees.

In many organizations, the first few weeks on the job are similar to navigating blindfolded through a jungle with no one to lead you. Sure, you may know the location of the rest room and how to get coffee each morning, but most employees wont know for several months where to turn to find the best resources to complete a crucial project.

The key to these new NEOs is to substantially reduce this join-up period, or the time it takes for a new employee to reach full productivity. Reduce your join-up time and you will reduce your turnover rate, according to Catherine Dixon-Kheir, director of organization development at Alignment Strategies Inc., a management consulting company in Washington, D.C. Her firms research consistently finds that one of the main reasons new hires leave a company is because they didnt receive the proper guidance.

Companies are starting to get that message. In a survey released this year by Manchester Inc., an HR consulting firm in Jacksonville, Fla., nearly 60 percent of the companies cited improved orientation programs as a way to increase retention rates among frontline employees, up from 39 percent in 1998. Nearly one-third said improved orientation could boost retention among executives, more than double the 15 percent from 1998. And the percentage saying it helps middle manager retention jumped from 22 percent in 1998 to 43 percent today.

Get Them Early and Often

Sullivan is the former chief talent officer at Agilent Technologies, based in Palo Alto, Calif., a high-tech equipment spin-off of Hewlett-Packard (HP) and among the current Fortune magazine list of 100 best employers. He developed a number of unconventional approaches to cement the relationships of new employees with the company, such as sending flowers to a new hires spouse on the first day of employment and sending home Agilent T-shirts for the new employees family.

Empirical evidence drove some of the changes Sullivan pioneered. If you study it, everybody comes up with the same conclusion[NEO] is a huge deal, he says. A lackluster first few days can trigger an employees sense of buyers remorse and might double your turnover rate, with a direct bottom-line impact due to recruiting and training costs, Sullivan notes.

Indeed, more companies recognize this correlation and are measuring the relationship between orientation programs and retention, according to The Training Clinic, a consulting firm in Seal Beach, Calif., which periodically surveys companies on how they conduct new employee orientation. It says 16 percent of the companies surveyed now review orientation and its relationship to turnover. In addition, 6 percent of the firms review accident/safety records, and 6 percent review increased productivity indicators as they relate to orientation/training programs. In previous studies, no firms reported measuring bottom-line effects of orientation programs, according to Jean Barbazette, president of The Training Clinic.

Through his work as a consultant to Silicon Valley and Fortune 500 firms, Sullivan has developed a set of tools for employers to use to cut join-up time and to remove some of the more frustrating aspects of a typical orientation. He notes that H-P gives new employees the typical stack of HR forms to fill out prior to their first day. Its a waste of time on the first day, he says. Employees should be meeting people. Another tool is to send the employee new business cards at home, in advance, to signal the companys commitment to the new hire.

Corning Inc., the New York manufacturer of advanced materials and a recognized NEO leader, takes the same approach. Even before newly hired employees come on board, they receive a Welcome Kit, which includes a checklist to help them decide what questions to ask once they get to orientation. New employees are required to conduct interviews with co-workers in their business units to get to know their colleagues and understand the business.

Sullivan recommends using tools such as these to connect new employees and their managers right from the start. While working with an employer where most of the managers were technical people, he developed a document he dubbed the You Do Not Have the Right to Remain Silent form.

It turns out that technical managers often are terrible people managers, which leads to communication problems and employee frustration, he says. So, new employees were told on their first day to fill out the form and explain to their managers what frustrates them the most, what would excite them most about work and what would cause them to look for another job.

Mediocre managers became pretty good managers because now they had a manual describing what excites the new hire, Sullivan says. The result can be a shortened ramp-up time to productivity and employee satisfaction.

At Corning, new hires also go through an intranet scavenger hunt exercise that requires them to use information learned during orientation and to demonstrate that they are comfortable with using the companys intranet system.

Boot up at Boot Camp

Some companies indoctrinate new employees through immersion-type programs. MicroStrategy, a Vienna, Va.-based business that specializes in data mining, has an in-depth orientation program called Boot Camp that sends a strong message about its corporate culture and seems to work well for its employees.

While MicroStrategy has weathered some rough times recently, including a precipitous drop in the value of its stock and a round of massive layoffs, the company continues to hold a spot on the Fortune best employers list, and employees loyalty to the company and to its charismatic founder, Michael Saylor, has been widely publicized.

The mandatory boot camp process provides an opportunity for new employees to start soaking up MicroStrategys corporate culture, says Vince Gabriele, the companys director of global staffing. The essence of this program is introducing people to the culture and giving them a common bond.

Gabriele says there are parallels to the armed services boot camp, which breaks you down and then builds you back up. The boot camp is not strictly an orientation session; it also is a training process that culminates in testing.

Experts advise companies to make orientation programs specific to certain types of employees instead of running all of them through the same one. To wit, MicroStrategy has three boot camps that target different groups of employees: a three-day general corporate boot camp; a two-week sales and marketing boot camp; and a five-week technical boot camp. All MicroStrategy employees, who work in 18 states and 35 countries, must go through some form of boot camp. While HR handles recruiting, the firms training directorate, known as MicroStrategy University, runs the boot camps.

Boot camp is no walk in the park, although it does include team-building activities in a park. Its not meant to weed people out, but its not meant to be a cake walk either, Gabriele says. We want people to be challenged because thats really part of our culture. He adds, People have certain bad habits that sometimes dont translate to the MicroStrategy business. We try to show you how we do business. What is surprising to people is the level of intensity that boot camp requires.

Gabriele acknowledges that some new employees have a hard time accepting the idea that they must go through boot camp, a requirement stated in every employee contract. He notes that the most resistance has come from seasoned professionals whove been around 15 years who complain about going through boot camp because they thought they knew it all. Gabriele adds, We ask a lot of the individuals when they go through boot camp. Once they [accept] the idea, they do well.

The final exam for the basic corporate camp consists of 20 to 25 questions on material presented over the course of three days in areas such as MicroStrategys products and the companys structure. Gabriele says company founder Saylor concluded years ago that he wanted all employees from the receptionist on up to CEO [to understand] what our mission was, so if you were asked at a party or social gathering, you could articulate what we do.

For the marketing camp, the final test is to give a mock marketing presentation, while testing is ongoing throughout the technical boot camp.

Recent MicroStrategy hire Suzanne Thill says the corporate boot camp started her off on the right foot. Typical training sessions for me have just been a couple of hours going over HR policies. Through boot camp, I got a really good understanding of what the company does, says Thill, a senior paralegal in MicroStrategys general counsels office.

The team-building exercises at a local obstacle course were helpful, Thill says. Even though when youre doing them, you dont quite realize what the goal of the exercise is, later it helps you take a step back and understand the importance of teamwork in the workplace and trust-building.

Thills only criticism of the process was that it was too short. I wish it were another day or two because by the time you actually got to have relationships with the new people who are coming on board, and the barrier breaks on the shyness, you feel like you didnt have enough time getting to know them. She adds, A lot of them are going off to different parts of the country or the world.

Gabriele notes the 15 or 20 new recruits may go off in different directions, but now have a contact within those directorates. Indeed, some boot camp alumni stay in touch through reunion dinners.

Building a Foundation

Getting new employees to feel they belong is a key goal at BORN, a Minneapolis-based e-business consulting firm that sits high on the Fortune list of best employers. The firms recently revamped NEO program is called Foundations for a reason.

Because of Foundations, right from the start employees get a better understanding of what BORN is all about, says Jana Bertheaume, the companys vice president of recruiting. What started as a three-hour program with a dinner has evolved into a three-day program that begins with one day in the employees local officethe firm has locations in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Seattlefollowed by two days at BORN headquarters.

Because our consultants work at client sites and are connected to BORN sometimes only via e-mail and voicemail, it is hard to gain a sense of belonging, Bertheaume says. That sense of belonging is one of the goals of the new Foundations orientation program.

At the local session, which is always held on a Monday, the new hire learns plenty of need-to-know information, such as where the kitchen is located, who the local colleagues are and where he or she will sit, says Tracey Drakulich, director of the Foundations program.

From there, the employee is flown to Minneapolis to join a group of three to 10 other new hires. The first morning is very much about the meat and guts of the organization, what we are striving to be, says Drakulich. At this point, BORN rolls out pre-loaded laptops for the new hires so they are ready to run through a help-desk curriculum and use the latest software.

The morning ends with a lunch with BORN in-town executives, who are required to have the lunch as a standing date on their calendars on nearly every Tuesday, says Drakulich. During the afternoon, the focus is on HR concerns, the legalese we have to get through, primarily using an online format, followed by a tour of BORN headquarters.

The second day in Minneapolis is an interactive, fun-filled day, says Drakulich. This includes what she calls BORN storiestestimonials from about 30 employees across the company who describe real issues they faced when they were new. Following the testimonials, company officials review training opportunities and the firms community service requirements. The day wraps up with a computer game show geared toward revisiting all the topics weve hit upon, Drakulich says.

BORN had planned to review the program, begun in October 2000, at the six-month mark. The firm is hoping to establish a follow-up process with employees at the three-month and six-month points to find out if their initial expectations are being met. But BORN has been collecting feedback from new hires on an ongoing basis to help direct the review process.

Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, Drakulich says, while word-of-mouth of the programs success has prompted existing employees to ask if they can go through the process even though they are not new.

The Foundations program is expensive, acknowledges Bertheaume, largely because of the cost of flying in new employees from around the country. It is an investment, she says. While turnover has not been a problem for BORN, the high level of competition for skilled employees has driven the company to focus on improving orientation programs to make retention rates even higher.

Use High-Tech Shortcuts

At PeopleSoft, a business software company in Pleasanton, Calif., getting new employees comfortable with technology is a key component of its orientation program.

We talk a lot about the resources that will get them started in their first week or two at PeopleSoft, says Shannon Williams, orientation program manager. As at BORN, new employees are given laptops loaded with software, and computer training is built into the orientation process.

New employee Jori Keogan, who works in PeopleSofts marketing and communications department, says the companys approach reduced her learning curve. One of the keys to her success and immediate comfort was use of the companys intranet site, which new employees are taught how to navigate during orientation. The site includes plenty of company information available to all employees, but its particularly valuable to new employees, Keogan says.

Keogan previously worked for a Fortune 500 company for several years, which she describes as a very good company but one in which orientation consisted of a half-hour in the cafeteria. At that company, she had to call around to figure out who could answer her questions early on. At PeopleSoft, she cuts out the middle man and uses the intranet site to answer her questions.

Other helpful shortcuts included computer passwords that were up and running, immediate activation of company ID badges and being able to order business cards and office supplies using the intranet site. In other companies, you go through orientation, then you wait a couple of weeks and get your computer. Then you wait another week and you get your ID, and it doesnt work, she said.

After orientation I was very productive, Keogan says. I knew where I should go.

Another way to use the company intranet site is to post all the materials presented during orientation to reinforce the messages and the content. Consultant Sullivan suggests posting a rogues gallery of names and photos on the intranet. This gives new employees a reinforcement of whom they have met, which reduces some of the inevitable social awkwardness of failing to remember someones name.

First Impressions Count

Companies should realize that doing it right from the moment a new employee walks in the door is important for recruiting purposes and helps the company establish its brand, Sullivan advises.

Its just like a new restaurant, he says. If all the people walk out and tell their friends its a crummy restaurant, thats it. The game is over. Youve just blown your brand.

Charlotte Garvey is a freelance writer, based in the Washington, D.C., area, who reports on business and environmental issues.
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