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Orientation or Onboarding?

Think about your own experience as a new employee. What was it like? Did you attend a formal orientation session? To what degree did the orientation (or lack thereof) affect the way you viewed the organization, your boss, and your co-workers? There is no shortage of stories from employees who arrive at work the first day and are immediately disillusioned. Many new employees find that onboarding and orientation are only afterthoughts for their new organizations. And those who join organizations that do have structured orientation programs often walk away from the session dazed, anxious, and overwhelmed. Why? 

For starters, the typical new employee orientation program is boring. Like many training programs, it is presenter centered and lecture driven with little or no opportunity for participant interaction. This traditional approach is characterized by too many facts, figures, and faces packed into too few hours. Then, when new employees finally get to their work sites, far too often no one is prepared for their arrival. 

But what can be done? What can you and your organization do to ensure that new employees feel welcome, informed, prepared, and supported? How can you help them acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that will ensure their success? 

The answer is clear: develop a structured, integrated employee onboarding program with new employee orientation at its core. 

Keep in mind that onboarding is more than just new employee orientation. Onboarding is a process, and the orientation program is an event, one of the first steps in the onboarding process. Because the orientation program is the employee’s first significant exposure to the organization, it must be an enjoyable experience. A thoughtfully planned and delivered program sets the tone and ignites employees’ excitement and enthusiasm for the organization and their new role. From the beginning, organizations need to focus on helping new employees integrate into the organization and begin to build relationships. Employees who feel welcome and valued from day one will experience greater job satisfaction, better job performance, and decreased stress. As a result, organizations will benefit from increased employee engagement and retention. From the organization’s perspective, this is the perfect opportunity to communicate and help employees embrace and internalize the organization’s philosophy, values, norms, and culture. 

Overview of Onboarding and New Employee Orientation

Onboarding, which is also known as organizational socialization, is the process through which new hires acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that will ensure their success in an organization. An effective onboarding program begins before the new hires’ start date and continues through their first days, weeks, and months on the job. This process helps employees to feel welcomed and prepared through orientation sessions, training programs, informal printed materials, videos, and the use of technology. Organizations with successful onboarding programs create a comprehensive onboarding plan, establish clear roles for the key stakeholders, and develop robust orientation training sessions. Here are important elements of successful onboarding:

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  • Involve all stakeholders in the onboarding process.
  • Use a blended approach to new employee orientation.
  • Get executives, human resources, managers, and other employees involved in both planning and presentation.
  • Develop a formal written plan and share it with all stakeholders.
  • Incorporate active learning methods.
  • Make the orientation program informative, memorable, and fun.
  • Use technology as part of the onboarding process.
  • Make sure onboarding is consistent in both structure and implementation.
  • Prepare the employee’s work area and provide necessary tools and resources well in advance of the first day.
  • Use milestones and “check-ins” throughout the employee’s first year to monitor progress.

The Onboarding Road Map

Effective onboarding programs start with a written plan that outlines specific components, actions, timelines, goals, responsibilities, and available support. This road map is shared with everyone in the organization and provides a way to measure the success of the program. Breaking down timelines into segments can help give structure to the plan:

  • Prior to employee’s first day
  • First day
  • First week
  • Within first month
  • Within 60 days
  • During the first 90 days
  • Ongoing follow-up.

The onboarding plan would include preparation for the employee’s arrival; the organizational orientation session; follow-up activities such as check-ins, webinars, mentoring, training, and evaluation; and the departmental orientation session. 
The onboarding road map also identifies those with primary responsibility for the onboarding activities. Of course, the most obvious people involved are the new employees and the facilitator/ trainer who designs and delivers the orientation program. However, many more people need to be part of the onboarding process, including organizational leaders, the human resources (HR) department, the training department, and the employees’ supervisors. 

Support from organizational leaders is essential to successful onboarding. Before you begin to design your program, spend time up front getting their support, buy-in, and participation so that you can be clear about what they want to accomplish in the new employee orientation program. They should participate not only in the design of the program but also in its implementation, as guest speakers and participants (preferably in person, or through video conferencing, video recording, or Skype). 

HR professionals will take primary ownership of the orientation and onboarding program. In addition to designing and delivering the orientation session, they are responsible for initiating the onboarding process by sending a welcoming letter, appropriate forms, and organization information to the new employees. They will also ensure that new employees are set up in the payroll system and receive identification badges and other necessary information—everything they need to feel part of the organization from day one. In addition, HR personnel will serve as coaches for the employees’ supervisors and as facilitators and coaches for the new employees, providing tools, training, and feedback from selection throughout the entire transition. 

Although HR staff will be the primary drivers of the process, they must involve others in the organization as presenters, panelists, and advisors. The employees’ direct supervisors are pivotal in assimilating and integrating new employees into the organization in general and into the work unit in particular. They are responsible for making the employees feel welcome, setting clear expectations, and ensuring the employees receive the proper training and resources they need to perform well in their new jobs. 

And, finally, the new employee also has a role to play in the process: completing the required employment forms and pre-arrival assignments, attending the orientation session, participating in any online discussions and activities, and taking the initiative in seeking information from others. 

Still don’t know where to start? I’ve developed comprehensive new employee orientation workshops to ensure organizational onboarding is done right for the benefit of all employees, regardless of job level or function. You can find my two-day, one-day, and half-day agendas, as well as the resources trainers need to deliver practical, interactive sessions, in New Employee Orientation Training

About the Author
Karen Lawson is a noted international consultant, speaker, and author. As founder and president of Lawson Consulting Group, she has built a successful consulting firm specializing in organization and management development as well as executive coaching. Her extensive consulting and seminar experience includes team development, communication, leadership, and quality service across a wide range of industries. Clients include a variety of prominent organizations from financial services, pharmaceutical, telecommunications, manufacturing, healthcare, government, and education. In her consulting work with Fortune 500 companies as well as small businesses, she uses her experience and knowledge of human interaction to help leaders at all levels make a difference in their organizations. Karen is the author of 13 books, including the ATD Press titles Leadership Development Basics and Improving On-the-Job Training and Coaching. She has also written chapters for scores of professional collections and numerous articles in professional journals. In addition, she has created several assessment instruments and developed new, cutting-edge learning tools and delivery methods, including a 12-session professional development audio series for managers, web-based training programs, and teletraining courses. Karen is one of only 400 people worldwide to have earned the Certified Speaking Professional designation from the 4,000-member National Speakers Association. She has received numerous awards for her outstanding contribution to the training and speaking professions. Karen was named one of Pennsylvania’s “Best 50 Women in Business” and among the Philadelphia Business Journal’s “Women of Distinction.” She has been actively involved in professional organizations, such as the National Speakers Association and the Association for Talent Development, holding leadership positions at both the local and national levels. She is also an active member of the Union League of Philadelphia.
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