Mix of online, face-to-face programs ensure success in orientation

EllisDon system takes staggered approach, encourages feedback
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/28/2011

A few years ago, the orientation program at EllisDon was done manually. New employees were provided with “hefty” packages to peruse but, with workers spread across Canada, it was a challenge.

“Areas did their own orientations and maybe not as consistently as we would have liked,” says Mary Grace Truchan, manager of learning and development at EllisDon in Mississauga, Ont.

With the launch of an online program in October 2008, the 1,000 or so employees can now access the system anytime, anywhere and at their own pace. Plus, the costs are lower, says Truchan.

“Many a forest was cut down to produce that (old package) so we are seeing, from an environmental footprint, it’s really quite beneficial,” she says. “It’s information we feel is very important about the organization and it’s provided in modules, in little chunks, versus getting everything dumped on them in their first week or first month.”

The whole system took almost one year to set up, with help from an external provider. HR also made a point to talk to the manager of payroll benefits to ensure the most frequently asked questions were answered in the payroll module. And while there were a few bugs with the background technology, overall the launch went smoothly and was well-received, says Truchan.

“It was really a positive thing because people were impressed by having that accessibility when they wanted, and if they wanted to go back and do something, they knew where to find it,” she says.

The new hire experience

For a new EllisDon employee, the online orientation system begins with an automatic but customized welcome message sent to his email address. The employee is then told how to access the system and encouraged to complete several modules, at various stages: from day one, week one, month one, leading up to year one.

“This information is really designed to just help them get comfortable with the organization as quickly as possible and know what’s expected, what they need to do, so they can do amazing stuff,” says Truchan.

The first module includes a president’s welcome in a 20-minute video that explains the company and its values. A 10-minute welcome video from HR follows, talking about mentoring, EllisDon University, learning and development opportunities and role expectations. There is also a link to a web page talking about the company’s core values.

In a “who is who” module, new employees are also shown a high-level organizational chart from the top down to the director level. This gives them a sense of how the organization is structured and includes photos, titles and responsibilities.

“It puts faces to names, so for those individuals who go out to the job site, who may not have the opportunity to meet some of these leaders, when the leaders do come on to the job site, they can recognize them,” says Andrea Mallone, human resources manager for Eastern Canada at EllisDon.

Sections about the payroll process and health and safety, featuring another video clip, are also included.

“Safety is number one at EllisDon. We’re the leader in safety in the industry, so we obviously put that upfront very quickly,” says Truchan.

An hour-long video telling the history of EllisDon and what makes it unique and successful is also delivered in the first week, she says. There is also a copy of the employee handbook and a benefits summary. And new employees are introduced to “Edge Builder,” a project financial management system. This gives a high-level overview of the tool and explains more structured training will happen later.

At the end of each section, an interactive “Do you recall?” section features a series of questions about the modules. It’s not a quiz, so there are no punitive results, says Truchan, but it checks to make sure employees are taking away the information provided. If they answer correctly, they are told, “Congratulations.” If not, they are told the correct answer.

Module helps new managers

A week two module is designed for new managers, with content specific for them. A new manager entry plan covers topics such as how to get to know your team and department, the importance of being clear on people expectations and how to evaluate performance. There’s also a self-assessment section titled “Why should anyone want to be led by you?” along with articles providing further guidance.

“That’s to help them really just be conscious of, ‘What are the behaviours your people need to be seeing?’” says Truchan.

At the 90-day mark, the system delivers a voluntary new-hire employee satisfaction survey. It asks for honest feedback about their first 90 days, such as meetings with senior leaders, clarity around performance evaluation, the orientation process and their biggest challenges. Those who complete the survey are sent a leather portfolio branded with the EllisDon name and if people provide really positive feedback, their managers are sent an approving email.

“Every survey that comes in, I look at it and if there’s stuff where I think there might be an issue… then I follow up with that manager,” says Truchan. “The whole idea is to make sure that employee gets what they need so that they’re feeling comfortable and getting up to speed as quickly as possible.”

Throughout the orientation, managers are sent progress update emails on how their employees are doing. This is not meant to be punitive but can send out red flags if someone is not completing the modules, perhaps because of time issues, she says. Then it’s the obligation of the manager to free up some time for that worker.

“Some people go through the whole thing in the first week,” says Truchan. “They really do take it seriously and they understand it is a real benefit — it’s a privilege to have this information presented in this way.”

At the end of the first year, the online orientation tells employees about the performance management program — what to expect from your leader, how it’s a collaborative process and how it’s also about actively helping yourself in your own development.

Along the way, HR is always tweaking the program. For example, the organizational chart has to be updated, along with new policies, says Truchan. And in the coming year, some enhancements are being considered, such as incorporating harassment training — currently done live — into the mix.

“I’m waffling on that because it’s such an important front-facing moment with our new employees,” she says. “I know, from an efficiency perspective, I should probably make it part of e-learning but I really don’t want to lose that opportunity with the new employees.”

And with the January 2012 deadline for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, a training module around that might also be added, says Truchan.

“It’s a really great vehicle to address some of the mandatory compliance aspects. That way, we know people are getting it done.”

Face-to-face also involved

New employees are not just welcomed online at EllisDon. HR makes a point to sit down for an hour with newcomers when they first arrive. This gives them a level of comfort and establishes a relationship upfront, so employees know whom to contact if they have questions, says Mallone. HR will go through the online portal with them, outlining where to find information.

“We try to take that anxiety away by going through some of our systems,” she says.

The most common questions concern payroll, benefits, training and mentoring programs and the performance review process, she says.

About two months later, HR sends an email to the managers to ask how the new employees have been doing. The managers are encouraged to sit down with each employee for an informal conversation to open up some dialogue.

Overall, this intensive orientation — using online and face-to-face programs — definitely helps with retention and engagement, says Mallone.

“They’re not going in blind — they can feel the support on day one.”

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