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“Orientation – Smart Starts, Part II”

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


Smart Starts, part two
Orientations That Advance Individual Performance, Team Work, and Organizational Achievement

A good orientation provides a new employee (or volunteer) with a context to interpret and understand the day to day events of your organization.

The elements of an orientation generally include:

  • the “big picture”, i.e.: the history of the movement, and the current dialogues and debates of the movement,
  • the “medium picture”, i.e.: the history, mission and vision of your organization, (as well as the organization’s philosophies and values)
  • and the “focused picture”, i.e.: those things that will help the employee understand her/his job and her/his role within the organization and the movement – which includes policies, safety protocols, a job description, and a training plan.

In the August article, we looked at a couple of exercises to engage your staff team in thinking about and creating a more meaningful orientation process for new employees and volunteers. In this article we’ll touch on each of the elements of orientation and some ideas for making orientation activities serve both your new and your existing employees. Next time, we’ll wrap up this series on orientations with an in-depth look at how to make tours and employee introductions into inspired learning tools for orientations, for the organization as a whole, and for your visitors.

history of the movement and your organization

History is incredibly valuable in providing new employees with context because it sheds light on the theories and events that have led to current thinking and practice. History offers fantastic opportunities for story telling, and stories are much easier to remember and to incorporate into concepts than a series of facts.

The history of the movement is long and fascinating, and can lead to valuable conversations and insight for your organization about how your work fits into the larger picture. If you are unfamiliar with the movement’s history, contact the ASPCA – the oldest humane organization in the nation – as well as organizations in your region with long histories. Ask for copies of their archival material that you can use to build your staff’s knowledge of the movement’s history.

Take a look at your organization’s time line and seek out the people and/or artifacts that can tell the stories of your history and milestones. These stories, when shared in a staff meeting, not only provide context for your new employee, but also begin to create a group history for your entire staff. Just like in a family, as the best-loved stories are told and re-told, the group acquires a sense of common roots.

mission and vision of the organization

Your mission should tell you three things: who you primarily serve, what your organization primarily provides for that population, and towards what ultimate purpose. Your vision is a picture of what you expect to have achieved toward your ultimate purpose in the next five to ten years. Vision is a tangible picture; for example: “all dogs and cats will live inside a home with human guardians who care for them,” “the city will have spacious dog parks accessible to every neighborhood,” “citizens will use non lethal methods to address wildlife issues in their yards and community”. You could give your mission and vision statements to your new employees in writing, but you could also bring your mission and vision to life for your new employees and, in the process, facilitate learning and team building for your other staff, as well.

Recently I asked a group of staff people to write down their organization’s mission. Each person got a “click” and a chocolate for every word they got right. There wasn’t a lot of clicking…but there was a lot of laughter. Since no one on staff knew the actual wording of the mission statement, we had a great conversation about the intent of their mission. Then we expanded this conversation to look at how each of their individual actions advance the mission every day. There were, in fact, a couple of new people in the room, and they were quite able to engage with the existing staff around mission “activity”. Probably today if I asked this staff again, most of these people still wouldn’t be able to recite their organization’s mission statement verbatim. However, they all know the many places they can find the mission statement in writing and, better still, they can all convey the essence of their mission and their singular roles in achieving the mission. A fun group conversation about what your mission means and how people work towards it every day can go a long way to helping all of your staff focus in the same direction.

core values or guiding principles

Your organization’s core values or guiding principles are those things that provide ultimate direction regardless of a given situation. For example, “We treat all people and animals with respect, kindness, and compassion,” or “We believe in the intrinsic value of all life and work to preserve life to the best of our ability.”

Everyone on staff should possess a copy of your core values or guiding principles and these documents should be revisited (and, if appropriate, revised) annually with (board and) staff to see that they are in sinc with your actual direction and activities.

Since core values or guiding principles help staff to make decisions in the constantly changing, rarely black-and-white world of shelter operations, a great exercise here is to create a few scenarios or dilemmas. Bring these scenarios to a staff meeting along with your list of core values. Divide your staff into small groups and ask each group to work together to solve a dilemma using your core values as their guidelines. After 15 to 20 minutes, have each group report out to the larger group so that you can have a full group conversation. Remember that you’re not looking for exact “right” answers as much as you’re looking for both individual and group thinking and problem solving.


There are generally two kinds of policies that you want your new employees to be acquainted with. Personnel policies outline such things as hours, dress code, benefits, hiring and firing practices, etc. Within the first few days of a new hire’s employment, the person in your organization responsible for Human Resources (HR) should explain these policies in detail to your new employee, provide her or him with a copy of these policies, and have your new employee sign an “acknowledgment of receipt of personnel policies” which goes into the employee’s file. [Note that whenever personnel policies are revised, all employees must receive the revisions in writing and should sign another “acknowledgment of receipt” for their individual files.] If you don’t have anyone on staff with a solid HR background, it’s a good idea to contact your state employment office and/or an employment lawyer for assistance designing or improving your HR policies and practices.

The other policies you’ll want to introduce to your new employees are those policies that govern your service delivery. [Note that many people confuse policies with procedures. Policies represent general philosophy which guide procedure. Procedure is the actual “how to”. For example, “XHS is committed to ending overpopulation by ensuring that adopted animals do not add to overpopulation” is a policy. “Schedule the surgery appointment or secure a signed contract and neuter deposit” is a procedure.]

Policies are best “brought to life” during the normal course of operations. Give new employees an opportunity to shadow senior staff executing a variety of daily functions. Shadowing creates abundant opportunities to demonstrate policies at work, and provides examples to inspire later conversations about how and why each policy was created. These follow-up conversations make great learning opportunities at staff meetings, as well, so that staff from various departments will keep current on “what” your organization does and “why” in various circumstances. [Click here for a debrief format for shadowing]

safety protocols

Safety in shelters is serious business. Your safety policies and procedures not only protect your organization from liability and work loss, but they also communicate your care and compassion for your employees. New employees should be trained in your safety policies and procedures immediately upon hire. For help making safety issues more interesting to your staff, consider asking for a consultant from OSHA to conduct a safety tour and training for your group. Alternatively, a local health care facility or manufacturer may have a lively and creative safety professional who would be willing to volunteer some time to teach safety to your staff.

Notice that the orientation activities we’ve been looking at here…story telling, “what’s our mission?”, scenario exploration with core values, and debriefing…all involve many staff team members in the process of orientation. This team engagement serves multiple management goals: it underscores your culture of team work for new and existing employees, it creates opportunities for team members to exercise critical thinking skills and to practice their own teaching skills, it spreads the work burden of orientation among many players, and best of all – it makes orientations more fun. From dog training we know that the more we make learning fun, the greater the likelihood that the learner will both learn and look forward to more learning. That’s a pretty smart start for a new employee!

[Watch for the 3rd and final article in this series on Orientations in November, when we’ll look at designing tours that bring your mission, vision, and values to life.]

Debrief to Enhance Learning

[Note: Adults learn best when they are able to “do” and then actively think about and process the “what” and “why” of their activity. This debrief format is designed to help new employees or volunteers learn more when they shadow senior staff people. It can also be adapted to improve learning from all kinds of activities.]

Remember that the purpose of orientation is to create a context for understanding. To help a new employee make sense of all that s/he observes while shadowing, arrange for a “debrief” conversation with the new employee, the senior staff person, and/or the employee’s supervisor. At the debrief, follow a simple agenda:

1. Check in.
Set a positive and safe tone for learning by explaining the purpose of the debrief (to make sense of the last four hours of activity), sharing the agenda (which follows), and asking how the person is doing.

2. What?
Work together to briefly reconstruct a list of experiences the new employee observed. (For example, “let’s see…we handled two dog adoptions, you got to see a really emotional cat surrender, several animal return-to-owners, taking a cruelty complaint, and umpteen phone calls.”)

3. So what?
This is a two part process.
First, the senior staff person or the supervisor goes through the list from #2 and highlights examples of policy issues from the day’s events. For example, in facilitating the two dog adoptions, what policies was the senior staff person considering and how did she use the policies?
In the second part of “so what?”, allow the new employee to ask any questions about what s/he observed. Often new employees have questions such as, “why was that woman giving up her cats if she was so upset about it?” or “how did you know that man would be a good home for that little dog?” Questions such as these are great opportunities for senior staff and supervisors to talk about organizational mission (ultimate purpose), values (how we behave towards our mission, our customers, and the animals), and policies (our bottom lines or limits).

4. Now what?
Here the senior staff person gives the new employee “next steps” for her/his learning based on the topics and questions discussed in steps 2 and 3. For example, written materials on adoption philosophy, policy, and practice will make sense to a new employee now that s/he has had a chance to observe and ask questions. Or perhaps the new employee has raised questions that fall into one staff person’s particular area of passion and expertise. If so, an appropriate “next step” would be to arrange for a meeting between this staff person and the new employee.

Fifteen to 30 minutes of debriefing a shadowing experience using the “what, so what, now what” process will significantly help your new employees to make sense of events and connect your day to day operations with your goals and mission. This debrief exercise is also a useful model for debriefs during staff meetings to facilitate group learning.

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

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