Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Build Your Own Orientation

We’ve had some discussions on campus recently about new employee orientation, which starts in a few weeks. The general consensus seems to be that some sort of orientation is called for, but nobody seems terribly happy with the current version.

The constituency for the orientation is new employees across the college. That means faculty, but it also means full-time staff from various offices. (The faculty start with the staff for the first week, then have a separate series of faculty-only meetings focusing mostly on classroom issues.) The idea is to help the newbies put faces to names and offices; to go through some basic information on employee benefits; to make some statements about the mission of the college and its commitments to fairness and diversity; and to introduce a few basic policies.

In the past, it was a two-day event, with fairly significant griping by the end of the second day.

Then it morphed to a one-day event with a series of 90-minute followups monthly for a semester. By the end of the semester, though, attendance flagged badly.

Since many sets of eyes are better than one, I’m hoping to crowdsource a solution to this. Given that certain institutional needs have to be met -- for legal reasons, for example, it’s useful to be able to say that everyone was introduced to the sexual harassment policy -- is there a way to make new employee orientation more useful and compelling for the new employees?

Do you remember anything particularly good (or awful) about your own orientation? If you could have constructed it , what would you have done differently? (And no, “Not having one” is not an option.)


Pay them to come, say $100 or so.
there is no possible way to make these things enjoyable. you might be able to make it tolerable, but barely.

offer free food. make it good food. have lots of cake.

give everyone a t-shirt for the event.

don't publicly give thanks to the people who put on the event. they got paid to do it, and they put on an event that no one wanted to go to. everyone there will be thinking "i work my ass off every day, and no one applauds me."

get the job done as quick as possible. don't let this thing be an all day event if it can be done in 4 hours.

if you have Q&A, dismiss everyone and let people with questions stay afterward; else, everyone feels obligated to sit through a Q&A that they dont care about. i can't stand it when that happens.
I'm not in a school setting; But I think this could still apply.

When I run new hire training (in a corporate setting) I invite a "spokesperson" from each of the various departments that the new hires will have to work with (i.e., travel, document production, copy center, library resources, payroll, supplies, etc) to give a talk for less than one hour. Although, I tell the managers that the hour is theirs to do with as they please, I suggest that it is best if the information is limited to "just the critical stuff." This is just enough to let the new hires know about such services but not overwhelm them with too much information.

Some of the departments would actually use only about 15 minutes (not a whole lot to say about using photocopiers), while others would use the whole hour and be very creative with things such as skits. (the ladies from payroll did a wonderfully funny skit on how to NOT fill out timesheets and then bitch to them about not getting paid! an otherwise boring subject that they made fun). The main idea is that I am not running it, the individual departments are providing what they think is important. I am only providing the framework and time schedule.

It is also helpful to suggest that each department prepare a handout such as phone numbers, who to contact for which issue, instructions for filling out travel requests, etc. Something for the new hires to "take-away" from each hour. This later morphed into a new hire website to cut down on paper usage.

Sometimes the department spokeperson would come to our office, others would have the new hires come to them. I left that choice to the departments. I then would schedule things so that the new hires didn't have to sit for too long. We also provided lunch at the company cafeteria.

As far as the legally required stuff; that I leave to HR for the first half of the day. By having that first and in the HR offices I feel that it comes across as being more serious.

HR also provides a binder with their paperwork and with several blank spaces for the handouts to come from the other departments.

New hires still feel somewhat overwhelmed. Something that I think cannot be totally avoided; but, at least this way they have something to set them on the correct career path.

Good luck!

P.S. Those follow-up seminars never work. Either they have needed the information before the scheduled seminar, or they have already found out and don't bother showing up.
Build in a mentorship angle so that new hires get to meet someone to whom they can turn with questions etc. And having lots of cake seems like a great idea! (the verification for this is 'scones' which would be lovely too!)
A battle-scarred AD once told his faculty that in vaudeville, even the headliners only got 15 minutes. After that, attention flags.

That's a lesson for both classroom and these orientations. Only very rare presenters can speak effectively for longer. The organizers have to break it up.

Powerpoints are invariably awful. There are no exceptions. If I told you that people stood up for 45 minutes, handed out their bullets on paper, read their bullets aloud, pointed at their bullets on the computer screen, and that their bullets were all about effective classroom teaching and avoiding long lectures, would you believe me? Of course you would, you've been there with me in these faculty development/orientation days.

It's crazy-making, and it's degrading to have to sit through something so ill-conceived and lazy.

I always feel that the not-so-subtle message of this sort of welcome-back is that faculty time is without value but is 'owned' by the school and that we have no more right to crtical thought than a goose being force-fed for eventual pate.

Sometimes an online tutorial/test can satisfy legal requirements for OSHA or harassment policies. No one takes any of that stuff seriously anyway, so it might as well be given its perfunctory, meaningless due that way, which at least is quick.

We once had an elaborate spills and chemicals presentation, warning us to never take chances, always treat unknown substances seriously. Fine, but a month later when I had a mysterious drip from the ceiling onto a student's workspace, I called the presenter and he giggled, telling me to prop a coffee cup under the leak and carry on.

Again, it's crazy-making. I know about coffee cups without a morning's training! It's abusive to subject people to elaborate lectures the lecturer does not himself believe in.

And you wonder, dd, why faculty have such a battitude some days.
Lots of breaks (ideally with food). The most valuable thing I got out of my orientation was the chance to meet other new people outside of my department. And during the sessions more efficiency would be nice--- they kept trying to engage us with silly games when we were actually eager for the information, especially about the area and student body.
Let me take issue with anonymous 6:23.

Mentorship is fine in theory, but when administration gets into the business of formalizing it and 'hooking up' people, it turns into an embarrassing waste of time all around.

Being a mentor to a younger colleague has been the crown to my career--deeply wonderful to 'teach' a peer--, but we found each other, worked out our relationship, and did things our way.

How else could it possibly succeed?
No games. Please, for the love of all that is holy, no games.
Totally agree with 7:38 (-k-).

Really, what you describe doesn't sound as if it needs the time allotted to it. Two full days and then monthly followups?? Gah. So more efficiency, definitely food, and (much as I despise them, because it still takes the same amount of time) try to dump some of the mandatory training (sexual harassment and ethics are the two required here) into an online format, to be completed at the employee's discretion.

I like the idea of a website, with all the useful numbers and links on it.
Give the group information that is important to the whole group then break them out into their classifications and give them the information that applies to their classification. As an exempt (non-hourly) employee I was beaten down in an orientation session for an hour about how to properly complete a timesheet. Don't waste my time with irrelevant minutiae, even if you present it in a humorous format.
As I was leaving the private world 4 years ago, a lot of the official policy trainings (such as discrimination, ethics, time accounting), was being dumped into online formats. Specifically, there was an automated 20 minute powerpoint type presentation with a quiz question every 3 minutes or so that you had to answer correctly to move onto the next section. You signed in with your employee number, "attendance" was tracked electronically, and someone was down your throat if you hadn't completed it by X day.

In my mind, orientation should not be more than a day long. Instead of the follow-up seminars, follow it with an online format. Perhaps pay them to do it with $10/module.

Also, DO NOT schedule orientation for 2 weeks before the term. I hate cutting summer travel short for orientation, particularly when I've taught summer school until 2 weeks before the term. It should be scheduled less than 5 days before the start of the term.
Ask employees who have been with the college for a year what they liked and didn't like, what was useful and what was not. Anyone around longer than that will have forgotten what it was like.
Drill it down to the minimum required information, and intersperse with discussions of benefits and other things that are meaningful to the new person.

To me the goal should be three-fold; first, to get the legal crap out of the way in as brief a way as possible. Second, tell me what I want to know about MY benefits, vacation time, etc. Third, give me the briefest idea of what resources are available on campus and where to go to get the details of how to use them.

The most useful thing I ever left one of these sessions with was the URL of an orientation website that had links to ALL of this type of information - it became my homepage for the first few months while I got used to where everything was and who to talk to.

Oh, and I agree on the food thing - good quality food will keep people there and sugar will keep them paying attention.

But realistically, a half day should do it. Remember that they aren't going to RETAIN most of the information you are pouring into their heads. People are anxious to get to their new jobs, see their new team that they will be dealing with day in and day out and get an idea of that stuff, not sit in a room with a bunch of people they may never see again.
I can tell you one way not to go about it:


Drag people in during one of the busiest times of the year. Force them to spend hours of their own time being transported to the event. And feature keynote speakers who have never actually done the job that they are telling the audience how to do.

"Simmering resentment" is a good way of describing the reaction.
My worst orientation experience was a week long marathon of reading mind-numbing Standard Operating Procedures.

Don't get me wrong, these SOPs contain incredibly valuable information. But as a new employee, receiving this amount of information, without context or motivation is extremely inefficient. Employees that want to be good at their jobs end up seeking out the details of this information when the time comes to use it (just in time).

That being said, I would suggest the orientation be filled with high level topics and pointing the employee at the source of where the details of information can be found.

...I'm assuming here that all the details are well organized and in a standardized location...
Add a campus tour. Seriously. It can be incredibly helpful to have had one of the admissions tour guides (or someone similarly knowledgeable) take people around. I wish I had had one before I started my latest job. It would have made answering parent questions at New Student Orientation ("No, ma'am, I'm not sure where the office of undergraduate instructional education is..") less embarrassing.
Information dumps suck, universally. Can't you instead find a way to provide the needed info if FAQ sheets and telephone support, so people can get the info when they need it?
My long answer can be read here, on my blog, from a couple years ago.

One thing not mentioned in my blog was that my orientation included a whirlwind tour of campus facilities that was EXTREMELY valuable in both the short and long run.

My short answer is that our HR program probably goes too fast and definitely lacked a succinct one-page handout showing our fringe benefits and the choices to be made. What we got was a mess, an assemblage in a wide variety of styles and clarity produced by each vendor. What we still probably need is a couple of faculty there to translate between HR and human, but the HR people probably know there is a law or policy that prohibits that sort of clarity.

Informal mentoring by several math profs who have made insurance and investment research their avocation is the better path.

In contrast, our faculty "training" program is too long and is, in general, covers things that are totally irrelevant to teaching either science or math at the college level. Many of the observations in that blog article deal with this. Put that same time into team building within the department, in the form of group as well as individual mentoring, and you might get more of a payoff. It has been great that our new faculty know other new faculty from other parts of the campus really well. It is really bad that they hardly know some of the faculty in their own department.

Although it is good for new faculty to meet new staff, since there is nothing like knowing someone who works in one of the hidden parts of the college, most of the concerns of these two groups are wildly different. Faculty, for example, are concerned about those classes that will taught real soon now. They need to know the secrets of getting a syllabus printed fast. They need TIME, without distractions, and a ready source for answers much more than they need a Powerpoint lecture presentation about not lecturing with Powerpoint.
I don't remember the orientation I attended at my first job (in 1993--well, I remember that I looked around the room and looked for someone to sit next to, and the woman I decided looked friendly enough turned out to be my best friend. Oh, and I remember a weird presentation where some high mucky-mucky used a felt board with a train on a track to illustrate some points about getting tenure on the tenure "track" AND I remember his advice to simply plan out every single moment of every class in advance of the semester and thus save time for research. Might have worked for him, but not working in my field.)

two years ago I did orientation at my current job. It was a 2 day affair that was often stultifying, b/c it was panel after panel with powerpoints or lectures. But what I did like: the campus tour, which gave a little bit of history. The resource fair at lunch, which let me browse around campus resources of all sorts and gave me a sense of what's available for students. The "what it's really like to live here" panel with 4 faculty members who just talked about random things about living and working here. The history of diversity reform on campus (that was a good powerpoint--lots of photos of campus history that was often very dramatic). I felt like I learned a lot about the history of the campus from someone who was passionate about it.

most of the practical stuff, like how to fill out a travel reimbursement, I'd have preferred to read on line (which of course I had to do anyway since I didn't remember the demo).

And I liked that the HR folks where there to take up all my benefits forms and check for errors.
Unless there are points you really feel you must drive home for legal reasons (sexual harassment policy) or because people getting them wrong will have immediate consequences (the emergency shower pulls in the bathroom aren't handles to help you get up off the toilet), don't give people any information they couldn't get by reading a policy or procedure on their own.

One can only hope you've hired faculty and staff who are smart enough to read and understand information on their own. Make sure they know where to go if they have questions, but don't treat them like idiots.

Oh, and free food never hurts.
Totally agree with the idea of having representatives from each area/department (bookstore, IT, and so on) give a brief intro to what they do. This also gives the orientation participants someone they "know" in that area if they have questions/problems later.

Also agree with having the event run less than a full day. With good food.
I think you've answered your own question about why people don't like orientation.

You wrote: "Given that certain institutional needs have to be met -- for legal reasons, for example, it’s useful to be able to say that everyone was introduced to the sexual harassment policy" -- well, there's your problem. You conceive of orientation as intended to serve the institution (e.g., make its lawyers happy) rather than to serve employees. As long as that is your mindset, orientation is going to suck.

As a new employee, nothing is worse than being forced to waste my time on some pointless time-waster that exists solely for compliance and CYA (because management doesn't have the guts to tell lawyers no) or that is some manager's pet initiative that he got out of a management book at the airport. Employees can smell that kind of time-wasting crap from a mile away. It's corrosive to morale.

But I don't expect anyone to listen to me. Organizations will continue to focus on CYA compliance and pet initiatives that aren't actually necessary, because that's how the system is set up.
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