Working 101

New summer student? A guide for bosses

Remember your first job. You arrived early, nervous and anxious to please. You were willing to learn anything, and wanted to be good at your job. You wanted to get along with your co-workers, and do things well enough that the company would keep you or hire you again next summer, or at least give you an excellent reference.

But for some, the first day at work was a bad experience. Your supervisor forgot you were arriving that day so he hurriedly sent you back to personnel, or rushed to find you a desk. He asked someone passing by to give you some work to do. Everyone stared at you, and no one invited you to join them for lunch. You didn’t really understand the work you were supposed to do but didn’t know who to ask for help, and didn’t want to look dumb. You wished you had never taken the job, and you certainly never wanted to work for that company when you graduated, and you shared your experience with all your friends.

This is the experience of many summer students. The tragedy is that establishing good relationships with summer students, interns and co-op students is the most effective recruitment strategy an organization can undertake.

So what are the purpose and benefits of orientation?

Orientation is the formal process of familiarizing new employees to the organization, their jobs and their work units. The goal is to get employees productive more quickly by formally introducing them to their work, managing this entry, and easing them into the culture of the organization.

Orientation is the beginning of socialization, the process by which employees are indoctrinated to the organization’s culture — its norms, values and ways of doing things. Employees learn what is expected of them in terms of appropriate work behaviour and acceptable performance.

Students may one day become full-time employees, so the orientation they receive on a summer job could in reality be the only opportunity to properly introduce them to the organization.

The ideal orientation

So what does an effective orientation program look like? After a student receives a job offer, the HR department sends information on the company’s structure, mission and benefits, and invites questions. All forms are completed before the first day on the job. The supervisor calls before the first day, arranging the exact meeting place and time and sends some information on the unit, the names of co-workers and the job description.

On the first day, the supervisor spends all day with the student usually talking about the department, the intern’s role in it, describing the exact job duties and arranging times to ask questions or just talk. Time is taken to introduce co-workers and explain aspects of the workplace’s culture norms. The supervisor then takes the student out to lunch with one or two colleagues.

The supervisor assigns some simple work, and offers guidance at more complex levels. The student is given a clear understanding of how long it will take to achieve proficiency in the position near the level of co-workers. The supervisor tries to alleviate performance anxiety by saying “most workers find this task difficult,” or that “it takes at least two days to figure out this system.”

About two weeks later, the HR department holds an orientation session for new recruits, explaining the company, its goals and stakeholders. Why two weeks later? Because now the new recruit can start to absorb this information, and thus becomes more meaningful. If it had been given on the first day, the employee would have suffered from information overload. (Consult the orientation checklist on page 18 for an overview of the items that should be discussed during orientation.)

Good orientation will accomplish the following objectives.

Lower turnover

Orientation programs can contribute to organizational effectiveness by helping to reduce turnover among new employees.

Students can easily feel like resigning the first day on the job. They can feel stupid or that no one likes or accepts them. They can’t understand why the company or their supervisors can not spend any time to help them fit in and to help them be more productive.

But the employee in an effective orientation scenario feels accepted, knows that his supervisor wants him to succeed, and feels he will get the help needed to succeed. He likes his new position and wants to stay.

Most turnover occurs in the first six months on the job and ineffective orientation is a principle reason. Early termination is costly to the employer. Proper orientation has been shown to cut recruitment and training costs associated with early terminations.

Increased productivity

An employee who takes part in a well-designed orientation program is going to become productive sooner. He knows exactly what he is supposed to do and where he can go for help. He is assured that the organization will provide the assistance needed to become competent, and anxiety about performance is reduced.

Improved employee moral

The more time and attention the organization, that is the HR department and the supervisor, give to the new employee, the happier he will be. The more time that is invested in making the new employee comfortable in the new job, the more satisfied he will be with his job.

Lower recruiting and training costs

Employees who are happy with their jobs will tell others. In some tight labour markets, such as computer animators or mechanical engineers, the collegial network is close knit, and putting out the good word on a company can facilitate recruitment.

One important aspect of a positive student work experience is the attention of a supervisor who takes a role in a student’s professional development. An organization with a reputation for providing a meaningful development experience will find it easier and less expensive to recruit students.

When the supervisor takes an active role in coaching and mentoring a new employee, training costs are also reduced. A manager acting as a coach — an advisor in a non-threatening manner — can teach far more about job productivity and success than any trainer in a training course. Because the manager knows the job, can identify weak areas, can provide praise and provide incentives for learning, the learning process is far more effective.

Reduction of new employee anxiety

New employees are anxious about their performance, and supervisors can do much to calm them.

Let me describe an experiment at Texas Instruments. This is a classic study and very important because there are so few studies on orientation.

Texas Instruments knew that new employees were anxious about whether they could succeed on the job. Experienced assemblers did not make the job any easier. They subjected the newcomers to hazing that made them even more anxious.

You’ve probably faced this hazing. I did as a summer student doing a clerical job. I wanted to type as fast as I could to get the letters done, but this annoyed the experienced employees who had developed a comfortable output level, so they teased me at first. “Is that a fire on your key board…going so fast…producing friction?” And then they would accidentally bump me so I would have errors to correct.

Hazing exists as part of an initiation into a new setting. In corporate life, employees deliberately try to get new workers to accept the power structure, and one way to do this is by ridiculing what they know or can do. (This of course is differentiated from behaviour that would be hurtful and, at the extreme end of the spectrum, inappropriate or even criminal.)

Hazing is a part of acceptance into the crowd but it increases anxiety, and affects productivity. So Texas Instruments decided to offer a new type of socialization. They gave one group of new employees an additional six hours of social orientation (in addition to the two hours on benefits, and so on given to everyone). This social orientation focused on four points:

•New employees were assured that their chances of succeeding on the job were good. They were told (truthfully) that 99 percent of new employees reached production standards within four weeks.

•New recruits were warned about the hazing given to all new assemblers and told to take it in good humour and that it was not personal.

•They were told to take initiative in communicating with the supervisor and that they should raise problems or questions and that it did not indicate that they were stupid.

•They were given brief bios of their bosses so they could know them as people.

What happened?

The social orientation program resulted in:

•50 per cent less training time;

•80 per cent less waste;

•a 30 to 50 per cent decrease in product costs;

•reduction of absenteeism and lateness by 50 per cent; and

•reduction of early turnover by 40 per cent.

It’s important for HR professionals to treat orientation programs as essential steps in the retention of employees, and recognize they serve as key recruitment strategies for future employees.

Monica Belcourt is a professor of human resources management at York University in Toronto, director of the International Alliance for Human Resources Research (www.yorku.ca/hrresall), and lead author, of Managing Human Resources, ITP Nelson (www.nelson.com) from which this article is adapted.

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