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Orientation program sends new hires in the right direction

Staff orientation ensures a good start on the job. No matter what the work, the employer/employee relationship is made or broken in the first 90 days, says the director of administration at a 37-attorney office in California. It’s during those first three months that people conclude either “I’ve made a good decision” or “What have I gotten myself into?”

So to point new staffers in the right direction, she has set up what she terms a “welcome orientation.” It’s a 2 1/2-day program that provides a full understanding of the job, the firm, and the people.

The more somebody understands up front, “the stronger the relationship,” she says. To like the job and be successful in it, a new hire needs far more than “Here’s your desk. Here’s the handbook. Let me know if you have any questions.”

A running start

The orientation starts even before the hiring is official—when the job offer letter goes out. That letter gives the link to the firm’s internal website where the newcomer can find the staff handbook plus all the employment forms that have to be filled out.

With the forms completed ahead of time, the staffer doesn’t have to spend the first day with paperwork but can start immediately getting to know the firm and the job. On the first day of work, she meets with the staffer and spends an hour or more explaining the firm’s history and culture and what the job is all about.

Then she sends the newcomer to two days of meetings with the heads of the administrative departments to learn about the services they provide and the procedures everybody follows in their areas. The head of office services, for example, outlines the administrative support the firm provides and explains things such as how to bill for copies. The record manager covers the library, explains online services, and covers things such as how to create new client files, how to request files, and how long it takes to get a file from storage. In the accounting department the staffer learns how to make check requests, fill out expense reports, enter time into the billing system, and handle client checks. In the IT department is an overview of the computers from the basics such as how to turn on the system to the not-so-basics such as how to use the document management program.

And along with the instruction, the staffer gets a booklet covering it all. The admin director adds that the orientation varies according to the job. A secretary, for example, would also spend time with the assigned attorneys to find out how they want the phone answered, the mail opened, the calendar organized, and so on.

Three months with a mentor

But it doesn’t end there. To help the new hire learn the fine details of the job and also adjust to the firm, there’s a mentor assignment. The mentor is someone who has experience in the position and who is also a good performer. The mentor covers whatever might have been missed in the orientation and serves as the person to whom the staffer can turn for questions and advice.

The relationship is informal but not without structure. Mentor and newcomer meet for lunch once a month for those first three months, and they do so on the firm’s tab. During those meetings, they talk about the job and about things that can make the work easier for the new staffer.

In addition, there’s a one-time lunch with all the other staff in the department. The purpose there is to help the staffer become a part of the department and also to promote teamwork.

How was it?

At the end of the three months, there’s a full meeting with all the department heads, and the purpose there is to ask for the staffer’s opinion on the orientation—whether there was too much information or not enough and if there’s anything the staffer would change about it.

The answers have brought about some adjustments, she says. For example, the firm originally required that everybody take an online course in sexual harassment within the first 10 days of employment. But the new staffers said it would be easier to take the course during the two orientation days so they didn’t have to spend time on it while trying to learn the new job.

The general response, though, is a good one. What the firm finds is that the new staffers “say the same things over and over”—that the orientation gives them all the information they need to start the job and that it shows them the firm cares about its employees.

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