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“Orientation – Smart Starts, Part I”

Bert Troughton, MSW, Director, SFSPCA / ASPCA Strategic Alliance


Smart Starts
Orientations That Advance Individual Performance, Team Work, and Organizational Achievement
(Jump to: Integrating Team Work into Orientation)

A few years ago, a UCLA study on customer service revealed that within the first seven seconds inside your door, customers decide one of three things: they like you, they don’t like you, or they don’t care whether they like you or not (in other words, they’re indifferent toward you). Once people have made up their minds, of course, they behave accordingly. This is more proof in a large body of scientific and anecdotal evidence of the power of first impressions. A new employee’s first impression of the organization, the people, and the job is equally powerful in influencing her or his attitudes and behaviors. Clearly, shaping the new employee’s first impression is a matter of utmost importance. A well planned and executed orientation is your best tool for this purpose.

The basic function of an orientation is to provide a new employee with a context for 1) interpreting events and information, and 2) deciding how to respond or behave. A good orientation, in other words, helps everything to make sense. When things make sense to us, (i.e.: when we understand) we feel more confident. Confidence, in turn, leads to a positive attitude. And a positive attitude has at least two things going for it: 1) it increases our capacity for learning, and 2) it’s infectious – and therefore – self reinforcing. Put these two attributes together, and you’ve got something pretty cool happening for your organization – people are learning, and feeling positively about it, and those positive feelings, make people want to learn more, which makes them feel more positively, and so on. Now here’s a contagious condition that most managers would welcome in their shelter! Heck, imagine the ramifications of a learning and positivity epidemic?!

Believe it or not, the topics within an orientation that can initiate this kind of positive learning cycle are pretty basic. These include the history of the organization and the movement, the mission and vision of the organization, the organization’s philosophies and values, policies, and safety protocols. Additionally, facility tours, employee introductions, job descriptions, and training overviews are usually part of an orientation. Now you may be thinking that your orientations routinely include all of these topics, but you’ve yet to see that “positive learning cycle” take off in your organization. That’s because these things constitute the “what” of an orientation, but “what” is only half the story. To utilize orientations to an organization’s greatest advantage, we need to focus on the “how” of the orientation. In this article, we’ll explore designing orientations as a team development and learning activity. In subsequent articles, we’ll look at specific exercises to create more meaningful, interactive orientation activities for each of the basic elements of orientation.

Integrating Team Work into Orientation

It’s helpful to think of orientation not so much as a one time event, but as a process – a process that ideally begins the moment the new employee enters the organization, and continues throughout the first few weeks – or even months – of her or his tenure. Everyone on staff can play a role in a new person’s orientation. In fact, your team will benefit tremendously by sharing in the responsibilities of creating and implementing a good orientation. In essence, the orientation says “welcome, we’re glad you’re here” over and over to your new employee. It also communicates that you value your employees enough to invest a lot of time in helping them to succeed.

The place to begin, of course, is planning. Ask yourself (and your staff) some basic questions in order to help you develop the learning objectives of your orientation. In other words, what do you want people to be able to do once they’ve completed their orientation? For example, at the Monadnock Humane Society where I used to work, we set the following learning objectives for our orientation program: “Participants will be able to… 1) represent the organization accurately, 2) identify and use communication channels appropriately, 3) direct the public to MHS resources appropriately and effectively, and 4) exemplify the MHS internal “humane community” culture.” Once you’ve established your learning objectives, it’s easier to select topics and design learning activities to bring your orientation to life.

Nearly all of the topics and activities of orientations are opportunities for practicing team work and team learning. Making orientation a team activity, spreads the work and responsibility among a number of players. Additionally, team orientation provides multiple opportunities for refreshing staff knowledge, improving team communication and work skills, and reviewing and improving your day to day practices.

To get started engaging all of your team in orientation, ask them to revisit their own experiences of being new. Here’s an exercise to help with this.

Think back to your first day here and the time leading up to your first day. Can you remember what you were thinking and feeling? Write down your answers to the following questions:

1) How did you share the news of your new job and with whom?
2) What was the best part of being new?
3) What would you have really wanted to know or understand about the organization, the people here, and your job when you first started?
4) What about a new person starting here makes you most excited? (for yourself, for the organization, and for the animals)
5) What do you have to offer a new person starting here? (include skills, insights, values, aspects of your personality, etc.)

When everyone has had a chance to write down their thoughts, ask the group to share their answers so that you can create lists on a flip chart. This is a variation on a brain storm – so you’re not looking for “right” or “smart” answers, just honest thoughts and ideas. Once everyone has had a chance to share, and you’ve accumulated the group knowledge on flip chart pages, you can all sit back and ponder the next set of questions together:

A) How can we capture and support the enthusiasm of new people?
B) How do we want new people to feel here? How can we help them feel this way?
C) What do we want new people to be able to do once they’ve been oriented? (see “planning” above for some ideas)
D) What topics are important to include in orientation?

This conversation with your staff will both facilitate the development of better content for your orientations and immediately initiate more involvement from staff members in the orientation of new employees.

While you’re in the process of developing a new, more thorough orientation process, remember that orientation is a lot about providing a helpful framework – so give new employees some essential pieces of that framework right away…such as a quick tour of the facility, introductions to other staff (especially those staff who the employee can go to with questions), and copies of the organization’s mission, personnel policies, and safety protocol. As the days and weeks unfold, you and your staff can engage in other orientation activities to integrate new employees into the team and the work. Designing good orientations does take a good deal of time and energy, but the benefits to your new employees, your team, your day to day activities, and your overall mission are well worth the investment.

© 2002 Bert Troughton
Re-prints with permission. Contact Bert at

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