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Overlooked aspects of employee orientation.

Overlooked aspects of employee orientation

Whenever a new employee began to work at our lab, something was missing. Since formal orientation at our institution can take place at any time during an employee's first month, those all-important first days were not considered part of the process. Yet they were certainly perceived as such by new employees and current staff.

This unofficial orientation period had no structure. New employees shyly kept their distance from the rest of the staff. I decided to look into what our lab could do to help new employees feel comfortable and committed to teamwork from the start. I discovered that we often overlook simple ways to put new colleagues at ease. * In mourning. Employees coming from another job naturally face a period of stress as they adapt to new demands and changes. Some individuals feel much more than stress at this time; they feel a sense of loss. The mourning they do is not necessarily for the job itself but for something they feel they've left behind: workplace friendships, a daily routine, even a familiar commute.

Supervisors can help relieve newcomers' grieving by familiarizing them quickly with their workplace and the people with whom they will work. It reassures new workers to know that their supervisors will be available to guide them through the many changes a new job presents.

Most people make career changes in anticipation of learning new skills and enhancing those they have. But at times, new employees remain more loyal to the job they left behind than to the one they now hold. They may hesitate to learn new methods and procedures, referring instead to the way they are accustomed to doing things. Patience and training usually quiet such apprehensions - although it may take time.

This was the case when a secretary started working for our laboratory half time. Although she had worked at a college before, it was not in a large university setting like ours. The position demanded more computer skills than had been required in her other job. In addition, she was now dealing with college student clients, whereas before she had dealt mostly with adults who were older.

To ease her through these changes, we explained how the university works and the various situations she was likely to encounter with students. We spent extra time training her on the computer. During her first year with us, she took continuing education courses. Several months ago, when our other part-time secretary left to attend college, we were able to add her hours to our secretary's. Our formerly uneasy secretary, now a whiz at the computer and at ease with college students, promptly accepted the additional hours and came to us full time. The reason? Thoughtful, long-term orientation. * Culture shock. Trying to learn new work area layouts, procedures, and even computer systems during the first week can make technologists wonder why they left their old jobs. A dizzying change in work environment can produce culture shock - not, by the way, exclusive to new employees.

Culture shock was the result of a transfer of one of our technologists from the central lab in our hospital to a similar job in an alternate-site lab in the emergency room. Suddenly she had to deal with far more people and do different kinds of work in an everchanging environment. Another technologist had similar feelings after transferring from our central lab to a smaller Stat lab, where turnaround time sped up from being a flexible hour or two to a mandatory 10 minutes. Good orientation programs go far toward relaxing the stress of such changes and preventing new workers from being terminally overwhelmed. * Preparation. A comprehensive orientation program requires extensive preparation. One person or committee within the laboratory or hospital should be designated as responsible for reviewing and updating the program regularly. Figure I lists some questions that orientation planners should ask themselves. Preparation for orientation must begin long before the new employee's first day.

Figure I

Questions supervisors should ask

themselves regarding orientation

What do I want to impress upon employees on their first day? What basic information will make them most comfortable? What key policies and procedures would help them avoid making mistakes right away? How can I help them get to know their colleagues most easily? What task could they be taught to do well quickly for a personal sense of accomplishment? What positive experience can I provide for them to talk about when they get home?

One nice touch is for the supervisor to send a personal note of welcome or congratulations to the worker's home shortly before his or her first day. When a faculty member was about to join our institution's pathology department, we sent her such a note of welcome. She stopped by the first day to say that the note had relieved some of her anxiety about starting her new job. Even though she works in another building, she has made a point of visiting us often. That first friendly contact made an indelible impression.

Each person in our department lists information of which the new employee should be aware. The list includes such factors as the official hierarchy; our personal working styles, including an explanation of who works at a quicker or a slower pace; and the names of immediate family members and when they might call.

Receiving a sincere warm welcome the first day helps the new worker feel comfortable about asking questions. If you can arrange to have a name plate or identification pin ready in advance, do so. You might start the day with a coffee break to celebrate the hiring of the new employee and to introduce the staff to their new colleague.

Other tips: * Develop a packet of information that includes a letter of welcome from the laboratory director, a map of the building, a guide to the telephone system, and a schedule of upcoming in-service presentations, meetings, and celebrations. * Hand the employee a typed card containing the names of coworkers and their phone and room numbers. In a large facility, you might prepare another card giving the locations of restrooms (and deliver it early in the day!). * Ask the employee about personal preferences in lab supplies. * Hold an informal chat about personal interests. * Teach newcomers one task to instill an early sense of accomplishment. Don't overload them on the first day.

Provide the employee with a written outline of the main points you have discussed for future reference. Include the phone numbers of people who can answer questions about procedures, computers, and the phone system. Having contact names and numbers handy will encourage the employee to ask questions and meet coworkers from the start rather than continuing to depend on the supervisor exclusively.

At our hospital, various departments have prepared materials for new staff members. The staff development department created a two-page brochure that provides basic facts about the university and hospital. Pamphlets from the university's orientation department explain fringe benefits. To supplement these, each of our labs is currently developing a procedure and policy handout that will contain specific information about its own division, including such laboratory-related matters as which tests are to be run first and how weekend rotation is organized. * All-inclusive manual. Our division of the pathology department decided in 1985 that we needed a general office procedure manual for our employees. Each member of the program faculty and office staff was assigned to write a few sections. Since I deal with students and personnel and am responsible for our computer disk library, I described the procedures for creating and maintaining student and personnel files and for labeling documents and computer disks.

Updated annually by faculty and office personnel, the manual includes times of regularly scheduled meetings and explains who takes part in them. One section describes our telephone system.

Each employee keeps a copy for reference as needed. Having a comprehensive compendium of information has been especially valuable when faculty members, laboratorians, or office workers are on vacation or out sick and someone must be able to assume their duties quickly. * First week. During the first week, release the new employee to his or her immediate supervisor for longer periods of time. Meet with the newcomer often to provide information about the organization's procedures and policies. This is the time for supervisors to help the new employee establish relationships and develop a sense of belonging - two often unstated objectives of orientation.(1) Figure II summarizes information new employees need on the first day and by the end of the first week.

Figure II

What new employees need to know

On the first day Working hours, breaks, lunch periods Location of bathrooms, water fountains, cafeteria, lounges, supplies Smoking policy How to be reached at work by family How the phone system operates Paydays: dates, how checks are delivered Whom and when to call when ill or detained Institution orientation dates (if different from lab orientation) Special words, terms, acronyms used in the lab Primary health and safety procedures

By the end of the first week Overall layout of facility Job description Organization's personnel structure Raises, promotions, fringe benefits Evaluation dates Probationary and disciplinary procedures Overview of key policies, procedures, objectives Staff development and CE opportunities

Encourage your staff to be good listeners in both official and casual conversations. A new worker may feel more comfortable suggesting ideas with a colleague than with a supervisor. The new employee may be accustomed to another lab layout or a different way of performing a test. Since the other setup or procedure might help improve yours, coworkers should draw out details about such differences rather than dismissing them and, if something seems worth a try, pass it on. This policy has benefited us.

One lab employee, for example, suggested organizing our workbenches differently. We did, and it increased efficiency. Another's simple suggestion was to move glass test tubes from one drawer to another; this enhanced our workflow. A third new employee recommended a type of automated pipette she had used because she felt it was more accurate. After testing it, we agreed and switched brands. * Continuing education. Good employee orientation begins at the interview and continues as a long-term process that moves smoothly into staff development. A good example is to urge new workers to participate in continuing education programs from the start.

Supervisors often hesitate to provide staff development for fear of losing good employees to promotions. Bored employees, however, tend to be a detriment to the lab and to move on to what they perceive as greener pastures.

Employees in our lab participate in four levels of CE, which range from each division's in-house programs to national meetings. In each division, a presentation, usually on a technical matter pertaining specifically to that section's work, is given once a month by someone in the lab or by an outside speaker. If the topic is likely to be of interest to other divisions, they are invited. Departmental CE applies to anyone in the lab. We have seen technical programs, presentations on personal development, and even a travelogue when one of our pathologists showed slides from his trip to China.

Faculty, office, and laboratory staff members earn CE credit by attending state, regional, and national meetings in their specialty areas. CE credit is available through programs at the university itself and through the university hospital, which conducts teleconferences and holds staff development workshops. * Titles and responsibilities. Another way we motivate new employees is to create supervisory positions that require special knowledge, coursework, or at least interest to attain. In this way we have appointed a quality control specialist, a CE coordinator, research and development specialists, and technical specialists. Those who assume these positions are expected to become expert in the appropriate area and to teach others about it. Our technical specialists, for example, learn the intricacies of certain lab instruments and teach everyone in the lab how to use and troubleshoot them.

Employees who work toward new positions learn what it takes to be a manager and to grow within the organization. Knowing there will be ample opportunities for growth makes new employees feel that their increasing expertise will be of value to themselves and to the institution.

Sometimes the ideas for each person's continuing education spring from performance evaluations. During evaluations, management discusses goals and five-year plans with each worker and outlines ways to work together to achieve these goals. In our program, we draft our own goals based on departmental goals and take them to our performance evaluations. Later we speak with the program director about how to attain goals during the following year. Observing this process helps new employees start to establish their own goals immediately. * Keeping "up." Maintaining new employees' enthusiasm and encouraging them to make suggestions keep them from becoming set in their ways and averse to change.(2) If management learns to do this correctly, the staff's perspective will remain as sharp and fresh as on their first day.

To accomplish this, hospital as well as lab management must be committed to the entire orientation process. Make sure trainers who show new employees how to do their jobs are knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Provide continual follow-up.(1)

The right attitude is typified by a lab manager at our hospital who is known for welcoming employees' suggestions. He is inundated with ideas every week. The laboratory staffers look upon it as a contest to see how many of their ideas will be incorporated into the lab's daily operations. * Length. Orientation programs have traditionally been considered a short sample of a regular workday. That concept is changing. Management is learning that longer, more intense, and more realistic orientation programs teach new employees the values and prevailing culture of an organization better and help them develop more loyalty to it from the start.(3) A field as technical as clinical laboratory science requires at least six weeks to three months.

In a laboratory near ours, the employee orientation program is 18 months long. There is a great deal for a new employee to learn at this laboratory, which is considered to be at the leading edge of technology. The manager there won't consider hiring people unless they will commit themselves to staying for three years. He feels so much time and money is spent on orientation that if new employees leave in two years or less, the laboratory will lose its dual investment of time and money. * Result: Retention. At a time when it is more pressing than ever not to lose good employees to a neighboring facility, laboratories must let their new employees know that they are vital contributors to the organization. The various subdivisions of the laboratory make it easy for employees to lose sight of being part of a larger picture. For this and many other reasons, we routinely urge our staff to interact with people in other departments both casually and in hospital work groups on continuing education, public relations, computer oversight and development, and other matters. Interdepartmental interaction helps employees put things in perspective and realize the importance of teamwork.

Facilitating a new employee's development into a comfortable and enthusiastic staff member is the goal of a well-planned orientation program. If that enthusiasm can be maintained, staff retention will naturally follow suit.

(1) Milhovich, G.T., and Boudreau, J.W. "Personnel/Human Resource Management," 5th ed. Planno, Texas, Business Publications, Inc., 1988. (2) Shea, G.F. "The New Employee." Reading, Mass., Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1981. (3) Luthans, F.; Hodgetts, R.M.; and Rosenkrantz, S.A. "Real Managers," Cambridge, Mass., Ballinger Publishing Co., 1988.

Ruthanne R. Hyduke is assistant director, clinical laboratory sciences program, University of Iowa, Iowa City.
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Author:Hyduke, Ruthanne R.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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