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Do You Know What Your New Hires Think About Your Orientation Program?

by Sep 3, 2008, 6:23 am ET

In my last article on onboarding, titled “Your Onboarding Program Needs A Pair Of Fresh Eyes,” I shared a rather humbling personal experience. In the article, I described the mistake I made that was analogous to the one many employers make in their employee orientation and onboarding processes:

They forget to examine their orientation and onboarding process from the perspective of their new employees.

This creates two problems for employers interested in creating an onboarding process that leads to maximum employee retention and engagement:

  1. They don’t realize the negative perceptions they inadvertently create through mindlessness — perceptions that can lead to employee retention problems or diminished engagement.
  2. They forget how confusing, complex, and daunting things look to someone without institutional knowledge of “how things are done around here.” Because of this, processes that might seem obvious and easy to navigate if you’re an “old pro,” are anything but to the newcomer. Thus, they inadvertently dampen the new employee’s enthusiasm by adding unnecessary frustration and anxiety.

This is why you must borrow the “fresh eyes” of your new employees. They can see things you can’t.

I was reminded of this — and the impact of careless orientation and onboarding — by an interview I did recently with a former college senior, who, as part of a business class, participated in a bank’s orientation program. Here are some of his observations, along with a bit of commentary.

Since he requested anonymity, I will refer to him as “Brandon” as I share his observations.

Am I Welcome Here?

Brandon and his fellow business major classmate were told to arrive at the bank in the morning, prior to the time the bank opened for business.

They were greeted by a locked door.

“We had to call to have someone meet us. I can just imagine 10 people showing up for orientation and each having to call to be let in. That’s not a very good first impression,” observed Brandon.

I can understand why the bank would keep its doors locked if it didn’t want customers to come in at the time, but they could have either warned the employees or made some other arrangement to work around that awkward introduction.

What’s the Message?

If you’ve read my earlier articles, you might remember my mantras:

  1. Everything Matters
  2. Think Experience
  3. What’s the Emotional Takeaway?
  4. What’s the Perceptual Takeaway?

Imagine you are a new employee and you are locked out of your new place of employment. What perceptions would such a first impression create?

Perhaps:

- “This isn’t the friendliest place in the world.”
- “This is an impersonal place.”
- “You’re just a number here.”
- “This is a poorly run outfit.”

Does Your Orientation Program Shout “Second Rate” Or “Best in Class”?

Brandon went on describe the PowerPoint presentation he sat through in the orientation program:

“It didn’t leave any taste in your mouth. You’re thinking ‘OK, that was a nice PowerPoint presentation. You could have sent it to me at home and skipped that part, and I could have gotten right to work.’”

As Brandon’s comments reveal, inefficiencies and redundancies don’t go unnoticed. They also don’t create the kind of “This is a world class company” impression you need to create.

Compare Brandon’s experience with the Perceptual Takeaway created by Southwest Airlines. At Southwest, prior to new hire orientation, new employees receive an email link to a website that delivers a “pre-orientation program.” At the site, they learn more about Southwest as an employer and their unique culture.

At the site, new employees also find out what they can expect on their first day at work, helping to reduce potential anxiety.

According to Director of Onboarding Cheryl Hughey, when the company developed the online program, they wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a boring info-dump, but rather a fun experience that reflected Southwest’s fun employer brand.

Not only does it save Southwest time and money by freeing up about two hours of employee orientation program time to cover other material, but it communicates intelligence and efficiency to the new employee. It leaves the Perceptual Take Away:

“They do things right here.”

Being smart about how you conduct your orientation program is especially important with Gen X and Gen Y employees, who are more likely to cast a critical eye toward their new employer. As Lynn Desjardins, a VP at the NHHEAF Network Organizations, notes: “Just as you’re judging their performance, they are judging yours.”

Thus, the more intelligent your process — including the intelligent use of technology — the greater your “Employer Cred” with new employees. This is especially important to the type of employees you most want to attract and retain: the most talented and professional. The “cream of the crop” wants to work for an employer who is also best in class.

I Guess They Don’t Care About Employees Here

Brandon noted that there wasn’t any water available for those attending the orientation program until later in the day, nor were he and his fellow attendees asked to introduce themselves until mid-way through the program. Both made him wonder about whether this employer really cared about its employees.

You might think about his assessment: “Don’t be so picky; this is just a little oversight on your first day at work. Don’t go crazy extrapolating this to what your employer is like as a whole.”

While that argument might be rational, that’s not how human nature works.

Think of yourself. Haven’t you been treated poorly by a clerk, salesperson, or waitstaff, and generalized your feeling and impression to include the entire business? We’ve all done that. From one encounter, we surmise that “They have lousy service here.”

That’s how the human mind works. It’s designed to generalize. If that’s not bad enough, add to this our tendency to jump to conclusions in ambiguous situations. This is called “Premature Cognitive Commitment” by cognitive psychologists.

Because humans by nature need to make sense out of whatever is going on, and because we are more likely to feel anxious when we don’t, we naturally try to “figure things out” when placed in new, ambiguous situations.

Like a new job.

Because we’re hungry to make sense of our new situation — in this case our new employer and what it’s like to work for them — we’re very alert for clues. Because of premature cognitive commitment, we’re likely to come to a conclusion about our new employer that is hard to shake, despite later evidence to the contrary.

If the receptionist is friendly, we’re likely to think “This is a friendly place.” If the orientation program is run efficiently and effectively, we’re likely to think “This is a well-run outfit.”

Conversely, as in Brandon’s first day at work, if we experience thoughtlessness and carelessness, we’re likely to assume this is characteristic of the employer as a whole — whether it is or not.

Find Out What Questions They Want to Ask

In previous articles on onboarding, I discussed the importance of making it safe for new employees to ask for the information they need. Because they are likely to be more reticent about speaking up, for fear of being seen as “high maintenance” or “needy,” new hires need to get the message that questions are welcomed.

It was fascinating to hear Brandon comment on his experience with asking questions:

“I noticed a little bit of hostility from the trainer when I would ask questions. Instead of explaining, he would sound like he was defending. I was pretending I was joining their company and was thinking about what questions I would want to ask if I were going to be working here. He didn’t seem used to it. But if you don’t how to explain what’s on the screen, don’t put it up.

Myself, I’m not comfortable asking questions if I’m in a new situation, and don’t know how that question is going to be received. In this situation, though, because I wasn’t worried about what they would think, I would ask.”

While some employees ask questions and challenge people regardless of their position and status, many are reluctant to. But just because they’re not asking the questions, doesn’t mean they’re not wondering.

This is why you must interview new employees and find out:

  1. What information they want most as new employees, both to do their job and to make their “new employee experience” as stress-free as possible.
  2. What you can do to make it easy for them to speak up, give feedback, and get their questions answered.

So Now What?

So, now, besides asking your new hires the above questions, also ask them for feedback on each step of your orientation and onboarding process. Ask them what Emotional and Perceptual Takeaways each moment of truth left them with.

If you do, you’ll probably be quite surprised.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • ken white

    Loved this article .
    We have a recruitment TV show in Alberta Canada with many top Employers.
    We produce video profiles of employment opportunities of these businesses and in some cases we produce an orientation video for new hires to watch with ease at their homes.
    This also gives the family a chance to get involved in that process.

  • D Franklin

    Great Article, David. We all need this reminder to view our organizations with ‘new eyes’. I would apply this to every aspect of our business – what messages do we send not only new hires, but tenured employees as well as customers? How often do we walk by something amiss (safety, performance,etc) not seeing it? “Oh would the gift the giver gives us, that we see ourselves as others see us”.-Robert Burns
    Appreciate your excellent insight -as usual you are spot on.
    Deb

  • Mike Avery

    One of the tougher elements is that you can leave multiple messages with a single act.

    Take the Southwest Airlines example above of giving new employees their orientation over the net at the employee’s home, on the employee’s time, with the employee’s computer and using the employee’s Internet connection.

    It is showing the new employee that they don’t want to waste time. But who’s time are they conserving, the employee’s time or the companies?

    Is it an example of “the right way to do things” or is the company – not so subtly – telling the new employees that “while you are in our employ we will have no regard for your home life, and we will have no compunctions about having you work for us in ways and at times when you will not be compensated for that work”?

    Whether or not Southwest intended to give that impression, or whether they feel as I suggested they might, the message they are sending is far from unique in today’s business climate. Remember when most employees could leave their work behind them at the end of the day until the next work day?