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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 34, No. 22 • November 25, 2002

The H.R. Doctor Is In

Precious Moments Lost

Remember when you were a new employee? You were excited, wide-eyed, and full of anticipation mixed with a bit of apprehension. No matter how long ago you began your public service career, things haven’t changed. The new employee of 2002 is just as excited and just as nervous as you were.

Unfortunately, something else has not changed much either. It is the fact that most agencies do not organize or implement an orientation program that effectively captures a great opportunity to convey the organization’s vision and expectations.

Typically, new employee orientation programs are paperwork festivals in which the new employees are placed in immediate risk of developing a hernia because they are loaded down with pounds and pounds of paperwork. Much of the orientation process involves lengthy monologues by speakers reviewing a host of policies and instructing the employees to “turn to page 42.”

Many organizations do no formal employee orientation at all. Rather, the newly hired employees are dropped into a workplace wilderness and are expected to create their own orientation programs by trying to find people who will be able to answer their questions, show them the location of the restrooms and show them how things are really done.

Newly hired or newly promoted supervisors fare even worse. The lack of orientation for people who are the direct representatives of the organization and, therefore, its pathfinders in preventing or, unfortunately, creating liabilities, generally do not receive the training and confidence building they need to begin their new work.

Failing to organize and create a spectacular orientation program represents precious moments lost to the organization, the employee, and the employee’s family. According to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found for the plaintiff in an employment case where training was not provided, a failure to train also constitutes “reckless indifference” and an “extraordinary mistake.”

An ideal orientation program minimizes the paperwork and emphasizes the vision. It conveys the commitment of the organization to ethical and innovative public service.

It should begin with a transplant of knowledge to the employees about how valuable their role is in making a difference in their community, and how very dependent citizens are on the services provided by the government.

It should begin with a clear presentation of the fact that counties and cities often serve vulnerable people, including children, the elderly, inmates, unconscious persons in auto accidents, mentally ill persons and others who need to be protected or secured. No matter where an employee works, an overall look at the scope of agency services is valuable for developing an educated team member with a positive attitude.

Orientation is a great time to involve members of the employees’ family. The best performing employees share their enjoyment of work as an integral part of the other key elements of their lives. If the employee and the employee’s family understand the work and have a chance for their questions to be answered, the employee will be more effective. The converse is true as well. An employee who is frustrated at work may well carry that frustration home and create a compounding dysfunction in their family life.

What better time to begin financial planning and retirement planning with an employee than at the time of hire. It is to the agency’s advantage, as well as to the employee’s, to develop financial responsibility early in the person’s career, discussing the wonders of deferred compensation or the availability of the credit union. Perhaps the agency might take the step of automatically establishing a deferred compensation account and “seeding” the account with a deposit of some relatively small amount in order to encourage the employee to begin the savings habit. The account could be cancelled if the employee chooses not to participate.

A wonderful opportunity also exists to introduce the employee to charitable giving through payroll deduction. Many organizations participate in United Way campaigns. Highlighting this participation right at the beginning of an employee’s career also works to the agency’s advantage by instilling a sense of community responsibility that does not stop at 5 p.m. on Fridays.

Of growing importance to the employees, the family, and the agency is health. The orientation is a great time to begin a discussion of what should be high on an agency’s agenda — disease management and wellness. Perhaps arrangements with the health insurance provider or a nearby hospital for the distribution of a gift certificate, good for a free health-risk assessment, for a smoking-secession class, a mammography, or a prostate cancer screening could be featured. Hopefully, the agency offers a Weight Watchers™ program or some fitness activity that can ultimately contribute to an employee’s being healthier and more productive.

Certainly high priority policies should be reviewed, including workplace violence prevention, the agency’s policy against sexual harassment, race or gender discrimination.

How to start a great orientation program? Invite a sampling of employees, including new employees, to participate in an orientation focus group. What knowledge would have made your first months on the job easier? What could we have done? Critique your current efforts constructively and respectively. Survey agencies “in the neighborhood” for best practices. Consider a joint orientation with a nearby agency. Many of the subjects will be common to any number of counties or cities, such as ethics and high-priority policies mentioned previously. Such a joint program can later feature breakout groups to focus on each individual agency’s benefits or programs.

Use multimedia, including video tapes and CD-ROMs that the employees can take home to watch later with of their families. There is also no reason why general information about the organization could not be viewed at 2 a.m., on a home computer via the Internet.

Finally, make sure that every manager and executive in the organization understands what is happening in the orientation program and why it is so important. Invite them to attend and to hear the county administrator for elected commissioners explain and greet the new employees, and express the agency’s expectations about their contribution and value.

An orientation program can be a precious moment gained in helping employees represent the agency effectively and ethically, instead of a boring process that leaves the employees disoriented and comatose.

The HR Doctor hopes that you are never disoriented!

All the best,
Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •