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The First 30 Days: The Most Critical Time to Influence Employee Success
Reprinted from EMPLOYMENT RELATIONS TODAY, Summer 1999

By Cheryl Mahaffey

The first 30 days on the job are a critical time for new employees. Your actions can cement a long-term relationship or set a pattern of employee underachievement. New employees are embarking upon an exciting new adventure. They want to feel that they have an important role to play in the organization, and that their work, knowledge, and skill will be valued and appreciated. Employers who invest time and effort in conducting a thorough employee orientation will be sending a powerful message to their new hires, a message that says: We care — and we will take positive steps to ensure that your first days on the job are successful. Use the orientation period to build the foundation of a solid working relationship with new employees. The world of work is rapidly changing and it is time to take a careful look at your employee orientation policies to make sure that they are effective for today's rapidly changing workplace.

Rapidly Changing Workplace
The workplace — influenced by an explosion of technology — has changed far more rapidly in the past half-century than ever before. Many current management practices and procedures were developed to serve a different work environment, and a work force with a different set of experiences, expectations and values. In many companies, preboomers (born 1935 - 1945), boomers (born 1946 - 1965), and busters — also known as Generation X (born 1966 - 1980) struggle to work together effectively.

A brief look at the evolution of corporate information exchange illustrates how technology has changed workplace relationships. When preboomers entered the workplace it was paper based: carbon paper and "dittos" provided the best means of sharing information. Then the 1960s heralded the introduction of word processing and copy machines, through most of the boomer generation's work life, corporate information was still paper based. Information was difficult to locate and time consuming to share.

Now, information is available digitally at the touch of a button, and can be shared around the globe in a manner of minutes (see Exhibit 1). The interactive nature of information sharing and retrieval makes today's workplace a far more "open" environment than the workplace built by the preboomers, and developed by the boomers. Yet many of the policies and procedures followed by major companies were developed to serve this previous work environment. Granted, the policies have been updated to reflect current realities, but not enough consideration has been given to how the revolution in workplace technology has changed employee interaction.

New Workforce Demographics
Changing workforce demographics require that we understand the differences between generations of workers, and adopt new practices that will help to blend the needs and desires of boomer managers and their techno-savvy younger employees. In many ways, the workplace is a more difficult environment than it was when boomers were first entering the workforce. Preboomers had the expectation that if they were loyal to their employers they would have jobs for life. The layoffs in the 1980s and 1990s signaled an end to this social contract between employers and their employees. Frequent changes of jobs and careers are now commonplace. Some experts estimate that busters will change not only jobs but careers an average of six times during their lifetimes. The buster generation is also the first in many generations that does not expect to inherit a lifestyle superior to that of their parents. While the preboomers were able to support a family quite comfortably on one income, many workers today find that dual-career families are a financial necessity. Additionally, employees are constantly connected to the workplace with cellular phones, E-mails, and pagers, making it impossible to truly get away from it all.

These issues combine to make the employment relationship between employee and employer far different today that in times past. This change is illustrated by the growing trend towards a temporary workforce. Today, almost one-third of the workforce consists of temporary, part time, or contract/consulting workers. (In Europe this ratio is even larger.) Despite this trend, some employers have been able to capture the loyalty of their workers, balancing the needs of the organization with the needs of the individual, even for those at the entry level. Clearly, managers who learn how to satisfy the desires of their twenty-something employees will also have found the key to managing the worker of the future.

Managing the New Workforce
The lives of the busters are defined by an increase in amount of education (though not always quality) and a slow transition to adulthood. They tend to be less confident than their predecessors about the stability of jobs, earnings and relationships. For these reasons, younger workers crave feedback and autonomy. Given these workplace dynamics, what can employers do during the critical new employee initiation period to set the stage for long-term employee satisfaction and retention?

Perhaps the single most important item is to convey to the new hire the goals and focus of the company as a whole, and provide clear direction as to the role which the employee will play in achieving these goals. The twenty-something busters also need to have clear deadlines for tangible results, and then be allowed freedom to manage their own time and work to achieve these results. If possible, managers should break up projects into little pieces so that the employees can claim ownership for their own parts of the process. Employees want to know that what they are doing is valuable. Give the new employee frequent feedback — make sure they understand what you expect and when you expect it and then refrain from micro-managing. Employees are also looking for balance in their lives, and managers who demonstrate that they understand the work and personal needs of their employees will have an advantage in retaining the best employees.

Attract and Retain Top Employees
In a tight labor market, good candidates are in great demand. As the competition for skilled employees grows, employers need to double their efforts, not only to select and land skilled employees, but also to be the employer of choice in order to retain them. Employers who are able to understand and balance the dynamics of the new work environment will be the most successful in attracting and retaining top employees.

Some employers, even within industries which traditionally experience a high level of turnover, have struck this balance. For example, turnover was one of the most significant problems which faced David Allen at Zooms as he was struggling to develop a more efficient and effective organization. Within the convenience store industry, turnover currently averages more than 150%. According to Allen, "We were really good about the high-tech stuff. We love computerized pumps and fancy buildings. But what we just didn't get was the people stuff." Allen realized that he would need to make significant changes in his corporate culture in order to adapt his organization to the needs of his workforce and to provide improved customer service. His answer was to focus his attention on the needs of his entry-level workers. He instituted an effective employee selection system and a detailed employee orientation program that completely documented everything a person needed to know to be a productive sales associate.

Allen recognized that "For someone who makes a minimum wage, the first day at Zooms is the stress equivalent of losing your best friend or moving. If you want to take the stress out of the first day and get your employees to smile, you need to make sure that they have the initial training they need to perform on the job." The new program enabled employees to make the transition into the demanding front line sales associate position with a minimum of stress and a maximum of satisfaction. As a result, turnover was decreased by 50%. This reduction in turnover translates directly into improvement in the bottom line.

Convey Your Corporate Vision Early On
One of the most powerful ways to capture the attention of new employees is to provide a compelling vision of their future with your company. First impressions can be lasting ones, yet employee orientation is often one of the most neglected functions in the company. There are countless horror stories of situations in which new hires are shown to their desks and given a pile of orientation reports and papers to read. This "sink or swim" technique is exceedingly stressful for the new employee, and creates a first impression of a company that does not value its people.

A careful orientation, on the other hand, lets new employees know your company values people. It provides the best opportunity for managers to help new employees to adjust, understand, and succeed with the company. An effective orientation is more than just a personnel manual or a set of policies to read. A successful orientation should give employees a vision of the company and a clear understanding of how their actions support the process. If new employees can understand how their actions support the organization's goals, you will be well on the road to getting the best out of your new employee.

When Transamerica Occidental Life Insurance Company wanted to ensure that corporate values were properly conveyed to new hires, they embarked upon a project to operationally define these values. Focus panels were held with employees, supervisors, and top management to obtain examples of employees' job behaviors that would illustrate how the corporate values were enacted in actual work situations. David Carpenter, then CEO, put together a personal message to his new hires which described his corporate vision and how employees within the company were living these values every day in the workplace. This video introduction allowed him to communicate directly with new employees, making sure that the message he wanted to send to new hires was personally delivered.

The importance of conveying your corporate vision to new employees cannot be overstated. The more effectively you are able to communicate your vision to your new employees, the quicker they can become important contributors to your organization's success. In today's business environment, where the pace of mergers and acquisitions is increasing, it is also necessary to orient the personnel within entire branches, companies, or facilities as they become part of a new organization.

Silgan Containers Corporation is another example in which new-hire orientation was critical. In a short period of time, the company grew from 12 plants to more than 40. Vice President of Human Resources, Schuyler Todd, wanted to find a way to make sure that the corporate culture and expectations for excellence that had made the company strong were captured so that as new plants came on board, personnel would be able to understand the values which had driven the corporation's success. A series of focus panels were set up to capture the competencies required for plant managers. This process became the foundation of a management training program which not only ensured that new hires were oriented to the values of the corporation, but also so that personnel in newly acquired plants and facilities could be exposed to the corporate culture in which they were now working. Todd observed that, "The process of identifying competencies helped us to clarify the skill-set we demanded of managers, and made us more effective in communicating our expectations." As a result, an effective selection, orientation, and training program was established and a process initiated to help bring new plants into the corporate culture.

Conduct a Thorough Orientation
Employers need to invest time and resources in conducting a thorough orientation program. The work done to develop an effective orientation program will ensure that you have laid the foundation for a long-term positive relationship with your new employee. A well-developed employee orientation program is more than just the first day, basic survival information. Orientations should be extended to encompass a full 30 days of integration into your company. Many companies have found it valuable to plan several orientation sessions over the first few days or weeks so that new employees will not hit "information overload" too soon. It is also important to re-emphasize the most critical information, because some of the information which is given early on in an employee's career will be forgotten in the stress and excitement of assimilating into a new job.

Orientation on the first day should begin with the most important information for basic job survival. Information that is fairly generic in nature can be conveyed by the Human Resources department with little help from the immediate supervisor. This information includes the basics needed to understand the broader system of the company. Although this information is critical, it can tend to be a bit dry. It is recommended that this information be given in a brief overview and then revisited as the policies, procedures, and issues are first encountered in the workplace. Generic orientation information includes:

  • policies and general procedures of a non-specific nature,
  • benefits and compensation,
  • safety and accident prevention issues,
  • employee and any union issues which are applicable, and
  • physical facilities.

A more personal and job-specific orientation should be conducted by the immediate supervisor and/or manager, so that the content of the information is specific to the new employee's role within the organization. Information which should be covered in this orientation period includes:

  • history of the company,
  • mission statement and guiding principles,
  • goals of the organization and,
  • how the employee's job relates to these goals,
  • specific job responsibilities, expectations, and duties,
  • introduction to co-workers and other members of the broader organization,
  • layout of the workplace.

A realistic job preview is important to help new workers understand the good, the bad, and the ugly about the job. Every job has its share of problems. Give an honest description of potential negatives and the obstacles which will be faced, and make sure that the employee is willing to accept and deal with these realities.

Establishing a clear communication channel from the very outset is also important. New employees need to know that there is someone to turn to when they are seeking information or answers. In addition, just knowing their manager or supervisor maintains an open door policy can help new employees overcome first day jitters. Discussing the company's communication culture can also help new employees navigate their way through the unknown.

Emphasize People as Well as Procedures
It is important that the orientation emphasize people as well as procedures. Employees should have a chance to get to know the people within the organization and be given guidance with respect to how they should shape their interactions with these individuals. Many companies have found that establishing a buddy system is extremely valuable. A buddy is assigned to spend time with the new employee and assist in introducing the new hire to others in the company, supplying important elements of the company culture which may not be conveyed in a formal employee orientation program.

The orientation period is also an important opportunity to resell the company and the quality of the employment opportunity to the new hire. So include aspects of your company's culture which can energize and excite the new employee. For example, company success stories, career path opportunities, and training and development opportunities need to be introduced at this stage in the process.

Shape the Employer-Employee Relationship
The employee orientation period is the formal initiation of the employee-employer relationship and your first opportunity to help to shape it successfully. Use this time to engage your new employees, and make them a part of your corporate vision. As Walt Disney, one of the most innovative of visionaries, once said, "You can dream, create, design, and build the most wonderful place in the worldŠ but it requires people to make the dream a reality." Use your employee orientation period to create an environment in which good people can grow to be committed long-term employees.

Exhibit 1
Changing Workplace Dynamics


Preboomers (1935 – 1945)

(1946 – 1965)

(1966 – 1980)

Structure of Workplace

  • Hierarchical
  • "Company Man "
  • Employee/employer contract
  • Team concepts introduced
  • Chain of command less important
  • Downsizing/mergers
  • Collaborative team concepts flourished
  • Frequent changes of job/career
  • Trend towards outsourcing
  • Temporary workforce
  • Networking/creating strategic alliances


  • Paper based
  • Deliberate
  • Television/motion pictures provide opportunity to expand communication channels
  • Electronic
  • Increased (demand for) speed
  • Active
  • Word processing, fax, voice mail
  • Growing dependence on visual communication
  • Digital
  • Interactive
  • Instantaneous response
  • Constant connection to office

Social Trends

  • Realistic
  • Fought for principles
  • Mechanically savvy
  • Concern for ethics
  • Expanding global concerns
  • Idealistic
  • Talked about principles
  • Technologically challenged
  • Concerned about diversity
  • Results-oriented
  • Two-income households normative
  • Pragmatic
  • Mission driven
  • Technologically savvy
  • Global mindset
  • Understands diversity
  • Process-oriented
  • Lifelong learning

Cheryl Mahaffey
Cheryl Mahaffey is the President of CM Consults. Cheryl specializes in the development and evaluation of employee selection procedures and training programs.

Cheryl consults with businesses around the country to design and implement human resources programs which will allow them to evaluate and select the BEST possible employees. Cheryl is the author of the American Banking Association's Hiring Guide, and PSI's Questions and Answers on Employment Testing, and Accommodating Employment Testing to the Needs of Individuals with Disabilities.

Copyright 1999, Employment Relations Today. All rights reserved.




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