Great Workplaces Are Committed to Great New Employee Orientation


This week jargon entered my workplace when we welcomed a new employee, and I was treated–after the fact–to the delicious term “onboarding.” If you work in a large museum, it may sometimes feel like a large ocean liner on which you set sail each morning only to return to your home port when the sun goes down. There may even be staff members who see themselves permanently confined to steerage, while people with the fancier positions–say, curators–frolic in first class. But onboarding? Really? I sometimes think that non-profit leaders believe that borrowing phrases from the Harvard Business Review makes them sound knowledgable, but like so much in life, actions need to follow words. So if you still call it orientation, but make an employee feel welcome and know she made a good choice joining your museum, that’s what is really important.

This was our third new recruit in three years so you would think that we would have the process down by now. In fact, you might hope we have a process. We don’t. That is to say HR does a magnificent job, and employees arrive at our doorstep, insured, benefitted, and parking stickered. The rest is up to us. Or you.

If you’re a small shop, the meet and greet of new employees may happen organically. You welcome an employee, show them their work space, meet with them to talk over the job, which presumably you did during the interview process, but now it’s for real, and then engage them with both colleagues and work. You may take them out to lunch or invite them to join volunteers for coffee. Barring water in the storage areas, your website being hacked, a major donor’s name misspelled, you give them a week or two to get their feet wet, to find their place, or whatever metaphor you want to use. You see them daily, you check in, you make sure they know both the parameters of their job, along with short and long term goals. You watch. You listen. And you hope they’re the self-evolved individual who persuaded you to select them in the first place.

If you’re a leader, a new employee’s honeymoon period is also the moment to understand (again) how your staff works, individually and collectively. There is a saying among English teachers that all novels are driven by a character leaving or arriving. Nowhere is that more apparent than the workplace. New employees sometimes bring a team’s strengths and weaknesses to the fore. So be alert. If you aren’t supervising the new team member directly, check in with those who are. Watch for all the values you want and believe your organization models: transparency, equity, imagination, self-awareness. Are your assistant directors or curators engaging the new employee in ways that are meaningful and helpful? Were reasonable goals set for weeks one and two?

Be mindful too if your new employee is a “first”–a first person of color, a first openly transgender or queer person, the first man in your education department or even someone whose physical handicap challenges your workplace in new ways. Being a first is a difficult role. Don’t make your new hire the spokesperson for her demographic. Presumably you didn’t hire her for PR value. You hired her because of her unique set of talents and abilities.

Why does any of this matter? Because your museum matters, not just as a collector and interpreter of art, history or science, and not just as a hotbed of ideas and imagination, but as a great workplace. You want to be the cool place to work don’t you? And searching, hiring, and training new staff is a time suck. You want them to stay, to flourish, to do great things. Not leave in tears and wonder why the heck they ever applied to your museum in the first place.

Tell us how you “onboard”. Or just tell us all the workplace jargon you can’t stand.

Joan Baldwin

2 Comments on “Great Workplaces Are Committed to Great New Employee Orientation”

  1. pretty much the way you describe is how I “onboard” plus a whole lot of mentoring. I also fill in the blanks, how to access certain documents, policy on company vehicle or expense claims. We are also the HR department. Make sure they are greeted their first day.

  2. This is a good article. Describing what should happen after you hire an employee, seems almost as important as hiring the employee in the first place. I never thought about it, but the two go hand in hand. I recently wrote about a time I hired the wrong person on my blog, but now i wonder, could we have done more for him? You can read about my experience here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s