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  • What is a staff orientation program?

  • Why run a staff orientation program?

  • What are the elements of a staff orientation program?

  • How do you conduct a staff orientation program?

Imagine starting a new job in a community-based organization in a new area. You accept the position, show up for work on the agreed-upon day, and the director shows you your space, welcomes you to the organization...and leaves. That's it - your introduction to your new position. You're on your own to learn all the ins and outs of the job and the organization - who your co-workers are, who does what, what the pitfalls of your position are, where to eat lunch...all of it.

Do you think you'd be likely to be able to do your best work - or any work, really - in the first few weeks or months? More important, how would you feel about working for this organization? Would you have confidence that these folks had things under control, that they'd thought out what they were doing?

Fortunately, most organizations don't operate this way. New staff members are generally given at least some idea of what they're supposed to do, introduced to other staff, shown around, and made to feel welcome. Most organizations find it useful to conduct a short informal orientation, or - if they have the resources - a longer, more formal one, for all new staff, so that they'll learn much of what they need to know to do their jobs before they actually start working. Yours can do the same.

What is a staff orientation program?

The word "orientation" literally means being turned toward the east, i.e. getting the basic information that tells you where you are and how to get where you want to go. Orientation to a new job should give a staff member the basic information about the organization, her position, the target population, and the community, so she, too, can understand how to get where she wants to go. All or most of an orientation, therefore, should best take place before the job starts.

In reality, however, many organizations find it hard to schedule orientations right away, and new staff members may flounder for several days or weeks before they get any official introduction to the organization. It's worth it to make time for an orientation when it's needed - before and while the new staff member actually begins working. Conducting an orientation at the right time makes more sense not only for the staff member, but for the organization as well. You'll save much more time in the long run, through the staff person knowing what he's supposed to do and how to navigate in the organization, than you'll save by putting it off.

Staff orientation programs may look either formal or informal, may be as short as a day or may continue through a month or more, may or may not include some training.

The organization should think out beforehand what a staff orientation for that organization should look like.

  • What's important for staff to know?
  • Does the organization have unique features that are especially necessary for staff members to understand?
  • What's different about the target population?
  • Who are the important people, within and outside the organization, for this staff person to meet?
  • What impression of the organization do you want new staff members to walk away with?

None of the answers to these questions should be left to chance; they have to be included in the orientation.

The point here is that a staff orientation program is more than simply telling people a few things about the organization. It's a coherent, planned introduction that combines information, experiences, and a transmission of the values and culture of the organization (more on this later), all of which are aimed at giving new staff members the foundation they need to do their jobs and to integrate themselves into the organization and the community as easily as possible.

Why conduct a staff orientation program?

An orientation for new staff can be a boon to both those staff members and the organization. Some specific advantages to such a program include:

  • It allows new staff members to hit the ground running. If they have a clear understanding of the organization, their positions, and the community, they can jump into their jobs immediately and start to make a difference.
  • It instills new staff with confidence in both their own ability to be effective - because they know they have the information and contacts they need - and the organization which has had the foresight to provide them with that background, and made them feel a part of the operation.
  • It improves the possibility - through facilitating a good start and providing appropriate background - that people will do a good job over the long term...and stay longer with the organization.
  • It makes life easier for others in the organization, by eliminating the need for new staff members to ask them constantly for information and advice.
  • It enfolds the new staff member into an existing social structure, thereby helping him to feel comfortable and to bond with others, and at the same time helping to improve the organizational climate (the way the organization "feels" to those who work in and have contact with it).
  • It formally welcomes new staff to the organization, and makes them feel that they have support for doing a good job.
  • By familiarizing new staff members with the organizational culture (see below ), it increases the chances that they will fit well into the organization, and absorb and become part of that culture.
  • By making staff knowledgeable and better-prepared, it builds the organization 's reputation in the community, leading to community support and better services.

A well-conceived and well-run orientation can thus address all the factors - logistical, professional, social, and philosophical - that can help a staff member fit into the organization and do the best job she can.

What are the elements of a staff orientation program?

A note: The folks at the Community Tool Box are aware that most small - and many larger -- organizations don't have the time or resources for a formal orientation. An orientation may encompass a look at the organizational manual, a few introductions, or even less. What follows is a picture of the ideal: what you actually do will depend on your resources and the demands of your situation.

The main point here is that the more information and comfort you can provide to a new staff member at the beginning, the better. If your organization's current orientation consists of "Come on in and look around, and we'll put you to work," you might think about what you can do to make a new person a bit more at home. You don't have to run a full-day orientation to do that.

So you're convinced - a staff orientation program is a great thing, and can really benefit your organization. Now you're faced with the question of what such a program should consist of. Orientation to just about any position needs to include introductions to the organization, the target population, the community, and the position itself. The following are some elements that might be included in each of these introductions.

Much of the material suggested below can be conveyed in numerous ways - in person through conversation or discussion, in a workshop, through an activity, in printed form (either as a hard copy or on a website), etc. Since the effectiveness of various methods of presentation varies from person to person, the ideal is probably to try to communicate information in different ways - some face-to-face, some independent reading, some observation, for instance.

Introduction to the organization

History.

Even if the organization is brand new, it has a history: the conditions that made it necessary, how it was started and by whom, how it garnered support, and how it got to the point of hiring staff. If the organization has been around for a while, its history includes, in addition, those who have worked in it, its accomplishments, its past challenges and how it overcame them (or didn't), changes in direction, etc.

You may want to do some thoughtful editing here, both for length and for content. A new staff member doesn't need to know every minute of the organization's history to get the picture, and she doesn't necessarily have to know every negative or stupid thing the organization or its employees have ever done. At the same time, the history shouldn't be sanitized: if you've gone through tough times, that's part of the character of the organization, and employees should know about it.

All of this is important to understanding the organization as it currently exists. Equally important, it gives new staff members access to the references to people and events that are part of the common language of the organization, and that allow one to be an "insider".

Mission.

Your organization has - or should have - a mission statement, and new staff members should have a copy of it and be given a chance to discuss it and digest what it means. They should also understand clearly what the real mission of the organization is if it's not stated directly in the mission statement.

The mission statement may explain what the organization does, but not necessarily what it stands for (or vice-versa, but that usually comes under the heading of organizational problems). What it does may be community health promotion or adult literacy, for example, but its real goals may be social change or economic development. If your mission includes an unstated agenda, it's crucial that new staff members understand that from the beginning.

Organizational philosophy.

Often tied in with its mission, an organization's philosophy guides its structure; the roles of various people within it; the way it treats its employees, volunteers, participants, and colleagues; the methods it uses in whatever programs or services it provides; and its ethics.

In an ideal world, an organization's philosophy is a conscious choice, arrived at through careful thought by its founders, or through discussion and compromise by a larger group. In reality, many, perhaps most, organizations express philosophical foundations that are simply assumed or that have developed unexamined over time. If you haven't thought out or examined your organizational philosophy, this might be a good time to do so.

If your work is to succeed, your philosophy should be consistent with the goals of your organization. An organization that strives to help a community become more democratic, or to empower a disenfranchised target population, is likely to find itself running in circles if it treats its own staff members in ways it wouldn't treat members of the target population, for instance, or places a high value on job status. Philosophical consistency is a necessary foundation for an organization comfortable with itself and equipped to do its work effectively.

Methods or strategies.

While some organizations leave it up to staff members to decide how they'll do their jobs, others have set ways of accomplishing their goals. A particular drug treatment program may advocate an individual approach for all participants, while another may rely only on therapeutic groups. One adult literacy program may use phonics exclusively, a second only as one of a broad range of techniques. An organization's choice of methods may be based on research, past successful (or even unsuccessful) experience, experimentation, intuition, conventional wisdom, philosophy, inertia, or some combination.

If your organization employs a particular method or technique, it's important that new staff members understand both what the method itself is, and that they are expected to use it. Learning to use the method itself should be part of staff training, but at least a brief explanation of it and the reasons for its required use should be included in an orientation.

People.

An organization is actually no more than the people who do its work and give it life. Perhaps the most important task of a new staff member is to become familiar with those people and to understand what each of them does. To the extent possible (depending upon the size of the organization, whether people are full-time, etc.), new staff members should meet individually with the following:

  • Administrators. In small grass roots and community-based organizations, where there is often little distinction made between administrators and line staff (those who work directly with the target population and do the specific work of the organization), it's usually important to get to know everyone well. In addition, administrators generally have a broad perspective on the organization that is important for a new staff member to be aware of.
  • Line staff. An opportunity to find out how veteran staff members do the work of the organization, and, for new line staff, to learn with whom they share the most philosophically, and whom they're most comfortable approaching for help and advice.
  • Support staff. Receptionists, maintenance people, technology coordinators, etc. often are the glue that holds organizations together. Many have close relationships with participants as well as with other staff, and may orchestrate the logistics of the organization as well. Knowing them well and understanding and respecting what they do can be key to the quality of anyone's life in an organization.

It's also necessary for new staff to understand whom to approach with specific problems. Who functions as the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) coordinator, for instance? Who handles affirmative action? Is there a union, and, if so, who are the officers? Who administers the benefits program? Who's in charge of payroll?

Organizational structure.

Organizational structure includes several components:

  • Structure of responsibility. Who reports to whom, who's responsible for what areas of the organization's work, who makes things happen.
  • Decision-making structure. Who participates in what decisions; when various people can act independently and when they need to check with someone else; who shares in hiring, grievance, conflict resolution, and other decisions.
  • Governance structure. Role, structure, and membership of the Board; actual powers of the director and other administrators; parts that others - line staff, participants, community - play in the governance of the organization.
  • Physical/geographical structure. Depending upon the size and geography of the organization, anything from where people's desks are located in the (one and only) office to where various sites are located in different towns and what happens at each.

Logistics and day-to-day routine.

This area covers the "rules" of the workplace, and the small pieces of knowledge that make it possible for everyone to function in the course of a day (much or most of this information might be conveyed in print that new staff members can read on their own):

  • Equipment. The availability and location of copiers, computers, phone systems, CD and DVD players, VCRs, etc., and instructions for and restrictions on their use (e.g., participants get computer priority during times when programs are in session).
  • Materials and supplies. Where everything is kept; the routine for ordering; how you get access to what you need; petty cash.
  • Time issues. Expected work hours; payday; arrival, lunch, and quitting time; extra work times (Board meetings, community meetings, etc.)
  • Benefits. How to take a vacation, personal leave or sick day; how to use health insurance; comp time; travel reimbursements; etc.
  • Office routine. Who opens and closes the workspace, where restroom keys are, who answers which phones, security procedures.
  • Quality of life. Good places to eat lunch, where to park, soda machines, spring water, coffee, food rotation for staff meeting.

Supervision.

There are two facets of supervision that new staff members need to know about: the basic information about who supervises whom (including whom the new staff member supervises, and who supervises her), how often, and in what areas of practice; and the more complex issue of the organization's attitude toward supervision.

There are at least two ways of looking at supervision. One consists essentially of the supervisor as watchdog, making sure that the staff member does her job right, and follows the rules of the organization. Too often, this has been the model followed in education, the one that generates horror stories of teachers being fired because their skirts were too short, or because they were critical of an assigned text.

The other view of supervision sees it as a mentoring relationship, aimed at improving performance through constructive feedback, suggestions, and discussion of situations. This is the model used most often in counseling and psychology, and more frequently now in education, medicine, and other areas. It is, in the writer's opinion, far more effective and useful than the other, and more likely to lead to real improvement in performance.

Policies and procedures.

It's important to have a clear set of policies and procedures that explain and govern the various tasks and relationships necessary to keep the organization running. You may even have a handbook that lays out the ways in which the organization operates and explains how to file a grievance, how to deal with a personal conflict, how to handle a participant complaint, hiring and firing issues, etc. Even if you have a handbook, however, it's a good idea to call new staff members' attention to important issues as part of their orientation. Then, at the very least, if they find themselves in difficult situations, they'll know that there are policies that cover them.

Organizational culture.

Every organization has its own culture, developed over its life. The culture is the result of the organization's history and of the thinking and behavior of its founders and former and current staff. It may change a small amount with each departure from and new addition to the staff, but is generally fairly stable, and includes not only standards for behavior, but the in-jokes and references that everyone in the organization is expected to know and respond to.

If your organization is new, you and those you hire are forming its culture even as you read this. You can just let that happen, or you can discuss the issue and make some choices about what sort of culture the organization wants, and what would reflect the character it wants to have. How it treats both staff and participants, the formality or informality of its style, its openness, even its furniture (Does it choose to spend its money on expensive furniture or on its mission?) - all can reflect and shape its culture.

Some of the areas governed by organizational culture that new staff members should be aware of:

  • Dress. Every organization has a dress code, whether formalized or not. If everyone wears jeans, the one person who dresses up will stand out, just as someone wearing jeans will stand out in a workplace full of suits. The dress code may be that there is no code - everyone dresses as she pleases. Whatever the formalized or unspoken dress code is in your organization, new staff members should be aware of it.
  • Work expectations. Everyone may get paid for 40 hours a week, but some organizations expect staff to work much more than that as a matter of course. Others are far more relaxed - you can go home when your day's work is done, regardless of what time that is. Still others expect 40 hours a week or more, but allow enormous flexibility as to when those hours are put in.
  • Smoking. Is smoking OK in the building? Outside? In the next town? Many organizations feel extremely strongly about this issue.
  • Food. Is food in the office OK? Expected? Are you expected to bring in food to share on a regular basis (even if this is unstated)? Can you eat at your desk, or in the course of a program? Can participants eat during programs? Are there specific food and drink rules (no food near the computers, for example)?
  • Children. Can staff or participants bring children to the workplace if necessary? Never? Only in emergencies? On a regular basis?
  • Work relationships. How do people treat one another? Is there an effort to treat everyone equally? Is there a family atmosphere, or is everything kept formal? Do real friendships develop? Do staff members see each other outside of work? Do these friendships sometimes transcend position (i.e. the director or a Board member becoming close friends with a support staff person or a participant)? What about language? Gender relations?

Understanding the organizational culture will help a new staff member become "one of the bunch" more quickly, and reduce the uncertainty (and the stress) of a new situation. It will make his transition into the organization and the work easier.

Introduction to the target population

If the organization's work is targeted to a particular group, new staff members should learn as much about this group as possible in orientation.

Identification.

Toward whose benefit is the work of the organization directed? The answer to that may have to do with the income, race or ethnicity, age, gender, native language, place of residence, basic skill or education level, disability, physical or mental health, homelessness, immigration status, workplace, unemployment, or almost any other characteristic of a particular group of people. The target population may also be a whole community.

Demographics.

How many of these folks are there in the community? Where do they live? Where do they work? What's their level of education? How many of them speak English? (A lot of this information can be gleaned from census data or town reports. You may or may not want to get that detailed in an orientation.)

The best way to begin to understand the target population, of course, is to meet and talk with as many of its individual members as possible. New staff should be introduced to program participants, leaders of the population that the organization works with, knowledgeable elders, etc., and encouraged to get to know them as people.

Characteristics and culture.

If they are culturally distinct (e.g. immigrants from the Cape Verde Islands), what are the defining elements of their culture? What do they eat, wear, believe, hold dear? What are their families typically like? Are they, as a group, demonstrative or undemonstrative, hospitable or suspicious, tolerant or intolerant of differences? Do they all speak the same (non-English) language? (In Boston's Chinatown, for instance, where once virtually everyone spoke Cantonese, now you can hear several Chinese dialects, Vietnamese, and Thai, among other languages). Do they have particular social taboos or imperatives?

It is often the small things that define a culture for those who belong to it. In France, when greeting a crowd of friends, you have to kiss everyone on both cheeks. You can't just wave to the ten people on the other side of the room - you must go over there and greet them formally. If you don't, you're a hopeless social failure. Understanding and participating in the small rituals can mean the difference between acceptance and ridicule.

Strengths and needs.

Why are they the target population, and what are their specific strengths, needs and issues? Is the organization trying to address all or only some of these? How did it choose, or did the target population itself do the choosing?

Interaction between the organization and the target population.

How are members of the target population best approached? What seems to work well with them - what kinds of programs and initiatives do they respond to? Who are the key individuals in the target community? How does one establish credibility and build trust in that community?

The more new staff members know or can learn about the target population before they start work, the less likely they are to make costly mistakes.

Introduction to the community at large

Unless she lives in the community in which she'll be working, a new staff member needs to know a number of things about it.

"Community" can be interpreted in different ways by an organization. It may mean the town in which the organization is located. But it can also mean an urban neighborhood, a rural area that encompasses several towns or villages, a particular cultural or social group, a housing project...almost anything that defines a group of people as having something in common. It is the community as your organization interprets it that you should be considering here.

Demographics.

The size, diversity (and what groups constitute that diversity ), average income, average education level, etc.

Economics.

Types of business and industry, major employers, types of housing, nature of different areas ("wealthy" vs. "poor" parts of town, e.g.), level of employment. In general, what's the community's socio-economic status?

General characteristics.

What are the schools like? How much crime is there? What issues do people care about? Who do elected officials tend to be? Is the community largely liberal, largely conservative, or somewhere in between? Is it socially tolerant? Do people from different groups mix, or do they stay separate, even if relations among them are good?

Institutions.

What do the power structure and the governing bodies look like - and are they the same? What are the important institutions in the community (hospitals, banks, major businesses, etc.)? What are the faith communities? How powerful are the various media, and what are their biases?

Organizational relationships.

Who in the community does the organization know well and/or work with, among both individuals and other organizations and agencies?

Introduction to the position

You may have had the experience of starting a new job with very little knowledge of the job itself, and with the expectation that you'd simply figure out what it was you were supposed to do. If so, you understand clearly why new staff members need more than that if they're going to be effective. Some basic information would include:

  • What the job actually looks like day to day. The job description is a start here, but there's also the question of what the person in that position actually does. What will an average day look like...or is there no such thing as an average day? What are the real activities that the new staff member will find himself engaging in? How much of his day will be occupied with meetings, with working directly with participants, with community outreach, and/or with paperwork? It's only fair that he should know what to expect.
  • Unstated job requirements. It may not be in the job description, but staff members may be expected to pick up and deliver participants, intercede with welfare workers or the court system, act as counselors, or perform other functions. If anything outside the job description is expected, new staff members should be aware of it.
  • Trial period. Is there a trial period - a period during which either the individual or the organization can end the employment without any bad feeling or negative reports? Many organizations write a three- or six-month trial period into any staff contract. If there is a trial period, the new staff member should be aware of the criteria on which she'll be evaluated at the end of it.
  • Regular evaluation. Many organizations evaluate staff performance regularly (usually annually). If you have a regular performance evaluation, the orientation should specify how often evaluations are conducted, what form they take, what the grounds for evaluation are, what is done with the final evaluation, how it is used in the organization, and who has access to it.
  • Expectations. We've already mentioned unstated job requirements, but there may be other expectations that have to do with the organizational culture. How many hours are staff members really expected to work? Does staff get reimbursed for work-related travel (other than commuting)? What's the policy on personal phone calls, or on weekend events in the community that the organization is involved in? Are staff members expected to engage in community fundraising? Is there comp time?

Compensatory time, or comp time, is time taken off from work to make up for unpaid overtime. Many organizations can't afford to pay for overtime, but do offer comp time.

How do you actually conduct a staff orientation program?

Actually conducting a staff orientation, in addition to planning out the topics to be covered, takes some consideration of a number of issues. First, however, you need to think through what the orientation is really meant to do.

Decide at whom your orientation is aimed. Are you going to orient everyone in the organization, or only some people? Will there be different orientations for different positions? Once you're clear on your audience, the rest will follow logically.

Is it a group or individual orientation? If you're a new organization, or if you've just gotten a new pot of money, you may be hiring several people at once. A group orientation offers some advantages over an individual one: new staff members can discuss issues among themselves, some may ask important questions that others in the group wouldn't have thought about, and you can plan group activities - role plays, for instance - that might help people understand their jobs and the organization better. Another advantage of a group is that the focus of the orientation is less likely to get lost in the day-to-day work of the organization if there's a group to consider.

All of this raises the question of whether you should wait until you have a group of new and relatively new employees before you conduct an orientation. Despite the advantages of a group orientation, putting off an orientation is usually a bad idea. The new staff member needs the support and knowledge at the beginning. By the time you get around to it, she may have already learned much of what she needs to know. She may also be frustrated that she had to do it on her own, and had to endure the stress of not understanding the organization, and not knowing what she was supposed to do. By waiting, you'll have lost the point of the orientation.

Clarify what you want to accomplish. Is the orientation meant simply to introduce the new staff member to others in the organization, or do you hope that it will equip her to start right in on her job? What are your goals here? Answering that question will help you reach your next decision.

Decide on the content of the orientation. Knowing whom you're orienting and to what purpose should give you the basis for determining how much of the content laid out above you want to include. Will you go through the personnel policies? Will you take the new staff member to visit other sites or other organizations? Are there observations or activities that need to be included?

Start by laying out the specific content areas that need to be covered. Then, for each of them, you may be able to see what would be the best format and method to cover that area, and who would be the best person to present it.

Decide whether the orientation will be group or individual. To some extent, this will be determined for you by your situation. If you've just hired one new staff member and you're not planning to hire others in the foreseeable future, then an individual orientation is in the cards. If you're new or are overhauling your organization, you may be hiring several people at once, and a group orientation probably makes more sense. If you're constantly recruiting volunteer staff, you may want to run group orientations on a regular basis - perhaps every other month, or three or four times a year.

Choose your format and methods. The format of your orientation is the medium through which material is presented. You could present it face-to-face, post it to a website and ask people to read it or download it from there, give them information in print, involve them in activities, send them off on their own to talk to and/or observe staff of your or other organizations, ask them to watch a video or listen to an audiotape, or combine any number of these and other formats. Varying the format is one way to keep the orientation interesting and fresh.

Methods are the techniques you choose to present the content of your orientation. As is probably clear from the previous parts of this section, you have a range of possibilities in deciding what to actually do in an orientation. The whole thing can be conceived of, for instance, as a straight presentation of information...which will probably be dry and boring, and most of which the new staff member will forget as soon as it's over. It generally makes more sense to think in other ways:

  • Practice participatory planning and implementation. In addition to veteran staff, participants, and others, ask new staff members themselves to help plan out the orientation. What are they most anxious about, or what do they consider most important to find out? What or whom in the organization would they like to learn about first? How do they think they could do that most effectively? By involving them directly in the planning and presentation, you'll pull new staff members in and give them ownership of the orientation process. They'll then be far more likely to try to get as much as possible out of it.

Another advantage to running a participatory orientation is that, if you're a grass roots group, it probably reflects your organizational philosophy, thus reinforcing it in the minds of new staff.

  • Think active. There is certainly room for straightforward presentation of material, but most people learn best - and are most interested - when they're doing something. That "something" may be as simple as being engaged in discussion or as complex as acting in a role play or guiding a group problem-solving activity. Varying presentation styles and keeping people active will hold their interest and cement their learning.
  • Take or send new staff members on field trips. The best way to understand a community is to walk, or, in the case of rural areas, to drive through it. The best way to find out what other organizations are doing is to visit them, talk to their staffs, and observe their work. Whether in the company of a knowledgeable guide - a member of the target population, for instance - or alone, new staff members should get out and see for themselves what's going on in the world they'll be working in.
  • Encourage as much personal contact as possible. Other people - staff of your and other organizations, participants, members of the target population, folks in the community - offer the best information, as well as the potential friendships and good working relationships that both ease the transition into a new job and continue to make the job pleasant when it's no longer new.
  • Remember that different people learn differently. Some people take in information best by seeing, others by hearing, still others by touching and manipulating. Some tend to look at the big picture, others at the details; some prefer a step-by-step approach, others a more diverse and intuitive one. It's important, especially in a group orientation, to be aware of presenting material in different ways. Not only does this raise interest levels, but it's also more likely to speak to the diversity of learning styles in a group. Possibilities include:
    • Conversation and discussion: Personal contact helps learning for many.
    • Observation: Seeing the actual practice of what you've talked about or learned.
    • Text: Reading printed theory, policies, or other material.
    • Computer-based learning: On a website (your own, the Tool Box, or some other) or through some other channel (by e-mail, or on a professional list-serv or chat group).
    • Lecture or blackboard/newsprint presentation.
    • Multimedia: Video and audiotapes, computer, etc.
    • Direct experience: Role plays, practice with feedback.
    • Journals: Writing about orientation learning and experience may set them in the mind.
    • Involve as many current staff, Board, participants, volunteers, and administrators as possible. The diversity of people will not only help to increase the scope and effectiveness of the orientation and the knowledge base of new staff members, but will also make them feel that they know people in the organization, and contribute to their comfort as they start work.
    • Practice what you preach. If your organization uses specific teaching or presentation methods with participants, or advocates certain ways of approaching people, those methods should be reflected in the way you conduct your orientation.

Decide who will conduct the orientation. In the ideal world, the orientation would be conducted by the person or people who know the most about the areas covered. In reality, most organizations don't have the resources to make this happen.

In small organizations, orientation may be conducted by one person -- probably the director or the new staff member's supervisor. In a larger organization, many people may be involved, each presenting information about her particular job or responsibilities. In either case, a new staff member should meet with all other staff, either individually or in small groups, both to get to know them and to understand what they do and how they fit into the organization as a whole.

If the orientation is conducted by a number of people, it is still important that one person oversee the process, acting as the main contact for the new staff person and making sure that he gets appropriate information, completes assigned tasks, has no trouble arranging meetings, and gets his questions answered.

Decide on the length of the orientation. Knowing the content and your goals, you should be able to estimate how much time you'll need to run the orientation you want to. You may run an informal orientation (some conversation, introductions to other staff, some reading to do), which may take up part of the first day, or be spread out over a few days. Another possibility is a formal orientation (i.e. a carefully-structured series of presentations, activities, meetings, etc.), each part of which lasts a set amount of time. Or you may choose to designate an orientation period at the beginning of a staff member's employment, during which she may be working, but may also be involved in orientation-related activities. In the former cases, orientation might last only a few hours or a day or two. In the latter, it could last a week or a month, or even several months, and would probably include initial training.

  • Formal orientation. If you run a formal orientation of only a few hours or a day, it will probably involve the direct presentation of a lot of information. You may ask a variety of veteran staff members, participants, or others to take part in the presentation, and/or you may ask new staff members to seek out and talk to certain people on their own time. Training will be separate from orientation in this case, although it may immediately follow it.
  • Orientation period. An orientation period may last as little as a few days or a week, or as much as three or four months. If it's short, it could be pure orientation time, during which the staff member does nothing else, or it could fit in around a work schedule. During this time, the new staff member will get some direct information, and also spend a good deal of time meeting with other staff members, Board members, participants, people from other organizations, and others who can cast light on her job and its context. She might also observe or shadow other staff members, read relevant material, be trained in necessary areas, become familiar with the community or target area, etc. In any case, the orientation is her job, or part of it, for this period.

If you designate an orientation period that encompasses staff members' first few weeks or months of work, it still makes sense to ensure that they get the important information and introductions they need before they actually begin work. Then the rest - organizational history, for instance - can be passed on over time as they learn their jobs and settle into the organization.

An advantage of a long orientation period is that it gives people the time to absorb what, in most organizations, is actually a considerable amount of information. If it's all handed to a new staff member at once, she'll forget at least some of it before she turns around, and only have to relearn it anyway.

As is true for most of the material in this and many other sections of the Community Tool Box, the above refers to an ideal world, one in which there are the time and resources for a proper orientation period to take place. In reality, especially in a small grass roots or community-based organization, the position has probably been empty for longer than it was supposed to be, other staff have been working overtime to do the job until someone could be hired, the new staff member is going to have to start work the instant he appears, and no one in the organization has time to spare to actually run an orientation.

Even if your organization can't devote much time solely to orientation, however, it's absolutely crucial to regard at least the first week or two as an orientation period, and to support a new staff member by providing information, helping him to make contact with other people inside and outside the organization, and introducing him to the community. It will make all the difference in the long run, both in the quality of his work and his attitude toward the organization.

When an organization hired a new Associate Director, she had to start instantly on a grant proposal that was due only days after she began work. The Executive Director worked with her on the proposal, and made sure she spent some time every day getting to know other staff members. He took her to every meeting he had for the first six weeks or so of her employment, so she could meet people from other agencies and the community, and understand the issues that the meetings addressed or exposed. In daily conversations, he tried to tell her everything he could about the organization that wasn't obvious or available from printed material. As a result, she was able to write a successful proposal, and to slide seamlessly into the job. She ultimately became a key figure in the development of the organization.

Evaluate your orientation each time you run it. Evaluation will help you make your orientation more effective, which, in turn, will make your staff more effective. An evaluation should include feedback from those evaluated, and can be built right into the orientation itself. A final piece of the process might be reflection on what has taken place, and some ideas about what was missing, what was particularly helpful, and what could have been done better.

You might also consider asking staff members to reevaluate their orientation after they've been on the job for a while. At the end of the orientation, they may not yet know what's most or least helpful, and what they'll use or not use. They might have a better perspective on those issues in three or six months.

Create some sort of marker for the end of the orientation or orientation period. A small party, an official welcome to the staff, the presentation of keys...something that puts an official end to the orientation. This kind of closure - and it doesn 't have to be tremendously formal - can help to facilitate the transition from "new " to "regular" staff member.

In Summary

An orientation at the very beginning of their employment is an important tool in helping new staff members understand and adjust to the organization and their jobs, and to become effective as soon as possible. It also gives new staff members the chance to meet their colleagues and to start the process of becoming integrated into the organization.

Orientations should include introductions to the organization, the target population, the community, and the job itself, as well as an evaluation and something to mark the transition to "regular employee." If you can run a timely orientation for new staff members that includes these elements, as well as whatever else you and they feel they need to know to do their jobs well, you'll probably have done much to forge a long-term relationship between them and the organization.

If you've never run an orientation for new staff - or if you're a new organization - now is a good time to create one. If you've been running orientations for years, you might reexamine yours, and see how it could be improved to better serve your organization and its new staff. An orientation that does its job can improve both the effectiveness of your organization and the quality of life for new staff members.

Contributor 
Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Note: With the exception of the Ron Kaufman article, these websites demonstrate different forms of orientation and different ways to use the internet as a tool for or supplement to a new staff orientation. They aren't meant as models, but simply as examples.

The Big Picture in Adult Education. A supplement to the orientation for new Boston -area Adult Basic Education and English as a Second or Other Language teachers developed by the Adult Literacy Resource Institute. Includes links that relate to various parts of the orientation. This sort of thing can be used as a teaching tool or as a way to make available more material than can be presented in the orientation itself.

Help New Employees Start Off Right. An article by Ron Kaufman, a Singapore-based consultant, about new staff orientation in a business context. Containing some useful information about orientation, this seems to be one of few internet-available articles on this topic, and is reproduced in numerous places on the Web. This particular version is courtesy of the Colchester (VT) Business Network.

The University of North Carolina Medical Center uses its website to publish an outline of the new nursing staff orientation, with information on forms that need to be completed, and information regarding various policies, requirements and reminders.