First impressions matter – a lot

The Law Society of Upper Canada’s orientation program strives to improve retention and productivity by making new employees comfortable and glad they joined
By Lav Shelat
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/03/2004

Any time a new employee walks through the door at the Law Society of Upper Canada, the organization acts quickly to help the person get started on the right foot.

The Law Society views orientation as an investment in the retention of talent. It has recently implemented a new orientation program. Based in Toronto, the Law Society of Upper Canada is the self-governing body for all lawyers in Ontario. Orientation must meet the expectations and needs of professional lawyers, but at the same time take into account other jobs that range from call centre representatives to auditors to security officers. Therefore it is important that orientation balances the needs of a wide variety of talent. The essence of the program is to introduce people to the culture, give them a common bond, teach the importance of teamwork in the workplace and provide the tools and information to be successful at the Law Society.

Retention is directly linked with how well an employee has been integrated into a new culture and the helpful tips they receive to get their work done. First impressions are important. They help establish a frame of reference for everything that follows in an employee’s career. A good orientation can build confidence and help an employee become fully productive sooner.

In the past, before the new program was launched, new employees were given only basic introductions to immediate co-workers and managers, as well as an overview of what went on in their department. They were told little about the bigger picture for the entire organization. In exit interviews, departing employees often expressed the need for a better orientation.

Senior management wanted to improve the integration of new hires into the organization and shrink the learning curve. New employees wanted, and needed, more guidance to land on their feet and hit the ground running.

Gathering ideas

In creating the new program, a focus group was held with people from across the organization to discuss ways to improve the transition for a new hire. In a focus group with recently hired employees it was suggested that the integration into the organization needed to focus on quick acclimatization with the culture by early interaction with the senior management team, learning about the organizations dos and don’ts and where to find information and tips on how to be successful.

Armed with feedback from the senior management team, input from managers in the focus group and from recently hired employees, the organization designed an orientation experience that details what must be done to ensure new employees feel as comfortable as possible.

Now, new recruits receive more information about key contacts, organizational policies and procedures, as well as a better understanding of workplace practices such as how to access resources and who to go for what information. Networking opportunities give new staff a chance to connect with key decision-makers and learn more about how their work relates to others across the organization.

Be prepared for the first day

A new process to ensure that all employees are able to function from the first day was created. This means all the departments involved in the new hire’s initial entry have to carry out the assigned tasks. The facilities department prepares the employee’s work station and makes sure the employee has appropriate security clearances and ID card, as well as access to the intranet and e-mail.

Hiring managers are given a comprehensive checklist that identifies for the manager and the new hire what needs to be done to ensure the employee, and the organization, start off on the right foot. This check-list includes:

Day One:

The manager meets the new hire to take her to her place of work, go over necessary documentation, provide essential information, briefly discuss work expectations.

Day Two:

Provide a detailed profile of the work unit or department, go over the organization charts, who’s who, and a high level overview of the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Days Three through Five:

Detailed discussion around work expectations.

Ongoing:

Checking-in on the new hire’s progress, reviewing goals, providing feedback.

Every couple of months, a one-and-a-half day in-class organizational orientation session is held for all employees hired during that period. The day begins with a welcome address from the CEO followed by 25-minute sub-sessions by each of the functional directors (members of the senior management team) outlining the operational strategy, divisional structure and goals, and answering questions on how it all ties together.

The HR department also conducts a more detailed session covering the performance management system, job evaluation methodology, some of the key policies and the benefits program. And everyone goes through a mandatory half-day session on the prevention of workplace harassment and discrimination, facilitated by an external consultant. New managers undergo a full-day of training on this subject.

Throughout the one-and-a-half day program, sessions are interspersed with activities that are both fun and informative. In ice-breaker sessions, participants talk about their roles and how their jobs interplay with those of other participants. In the “Acronym Challenge,” participants are divided into teams and compete to unravel the many acronyms the Law Society uses ubiquitously within the organization.

New recruits are provided with an employee guidebook that includes all the presentations, key information and organization’s policies. An intranet site is kept up-to date for all employees to access needed information on policies and procedures.

Also, the presenters provide interesting stories about the organization’s history. And at the end of the in-class sessions, the new hires are taken on a historical tour of Osgoode Hall, a landmark building.

The in-class orientation session is conducted after the new hire has been with the organization for at least a month so that she can better assimilate all the information and can provide feedback on how to improve the orientation experience. The feedback is used by facilitators when renewing presentations or adding topics that are more relevant.

Avoid information overload

One of the challenges has been how to provide all the necessary information without overloading new employees. In some organizations, new recruits are provided with a barrage of information and glitzy corporate videos on the very first day.

At the Law Society, most of the new hires are experienced professionals. It is a waste of time to have them go through an overwhelming first-day exposure.

When experienced professionals join a new organization, they are looking for well- packaged pieces of information, organized to be useful at the right time. The Law Society has tried to do that by creating staggered “learning moments” — in-department orientation in the initial days followed by in-class organizational orientation, and complemented by intranet-based information so that employees can choose when to learn.

While the program has been up and running for less than a year, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. One manager said, “New hires now are better informed about our culture, policies, procedures… they seem to have a better sense of what is expected to succeed.” Another manager said, “After the introduction of the orientation program, it has become easier to carry out the performance discussions because employees know how their work impacts others… and how it all fits together.”

In some cases employees have asked if they can go through the process — long after they’ve stopped being a new hire.

Though the initial feedback has been good, enhancements to the program are being considered. For example, formalizing a buddy process so that each new hire has a mentor for the first couple of months; complementing the in-person presentations with topical videos; engaging the new hires by encouraging them to participate in volunteering initiatives.

Over time, a good orientation program will continually improve internal communications, strengthen a work team and be a valuable piece in all HR initiatives and offerings.

The first few weeks of employment should be looked upon as a great opportunity for an organization to create a very vibrant networking community of colleagues. Once an employee feels part of that network, the flow of information is unrestricted and performance goals are rightly viewed as contributions to each others’ work.

As one senior manager put it, “The orientation program is truly a best practice. Teams perform exceedingly well when they have needed information and clear objectives. High performing individuals and teams tend to stick to the organization that shares and provides a learning environment.”

Lav Shelat, human resources manager at the Law Society of Upper Canada, can be contacted at lshelat@lsuc.on.ca or (416) 947 3440.

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