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The First Day On The Job

The person who started work this morning is as close to a "model employee" as you'll ever get. Some companies find ways to keep newcomers that way.
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EACH YEAR, AT LEAST ONE OUT OF EVERY five American workers takes a walk. It will happen more than 20 million times in 1986 alone: an employee will leave his or her job and, in most cases, take another job at another company. Whatever the reason -- cutbacks due to automation, opportunities for professional advancement, the simple desire to do something different -- the process goes on constantly. In fact, it's going on right now. For some 80,000 Americans, today is "the first day on the job."

If the numbers describe a kind of macro turbulence, the experience of starting a new job is no more tranquil. For most people, it's a lot like a child's experience of entering a new school. The day before is often filled with anxiety, laced with pure, unmitigated fear. Will the job be as challenging as it looks? Is the opportunity for advancement as real as I was led to believe? Will I fit in? Did I make the right decision, after all?

But these feelings usually give way to a sense of exhilaration and expectation. There's the desire to succeed, to contribute.There's the chance for a new beginning, free of the numbing staleness of the old job, unencumbered by the politics that plague every workplace. From this perspective, the individual who joined your company at 9 o'clock this morning is, attitudinally, at least, as close to a "model" employee as you're going to get.

Not for long.

If your company is like most companies, that first day on the job is a crushing bore. Instead of being inspired and challenged, your new employees are told where to find the paper clips and legal pads. They get assigned desks and telephones, and they fill out forms until their fingers ache. They meet people, dozens of people, all of whose names are forgotten by lunchtime. Then there's the copy of the "Employee Handbook: Policies and Procedures." As for the job, hey, don't rush it: they can pick up that stuff as they go along.

All of this has an effect, of course, and it's not the one you want. Then and there, a seed is planted, a nagging suspicion that those initial hopes and expectations were wrong. The perception grows that this company is no different from any other company. Small wonder that your "model" employee soon becomes no different from any other employee. Then you sit around with your fellow managers and wonder about declining worker productivity and whatever happened to the work ethic. Is it the public school system, or parental laxity? Drugs, perhaps? A Japanese conspiracy?

Well, we're here to make an argument, a modest one perhaps, that it's partly your own fault -- and that you could do yourself a big favor by changing the way you bring new employees into the company. What's called for is some sort of well-considered introduction to the business, something that actually explains what your company is about, where it came from, who its customers are, how your company is different from any other company they have ever worked for. That's the important stuff to get across the first day on the job; it's the housekeeping chores that can be handled as they go along.

This is not a radical proposition. When you think about it, "introductions" are standard fare in almost every aspect of our lives. A good maitre d', for instance, will go out of his way to tell you what's special about the menu. (A great one will also whisper what to avoid.) A good writer will launch an article with a lead that lets you know what the story's about and why this one is different from the one before. And a good chief executive officer will somehow always find time to give valued customers, bankers, or investors "the grand tour."

New employees, on the other hand, usually get stationery supplies and employee manuals that often seem to be written by a malpractice attorney, or by a fellow who writes assembly instructions for children's toys. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Nowhere is the need for orientation for new employees more acute than in growth companies, where everything is still evolving, from the purpose of the business to its methods and procedures.Yet, ironically, these are the very companies in which arguments against orientations are most often heard. Bookstop Inc. is a case in point. A four-year-old book-retailing business based in Austin, Tex., it puts new people to work in one of its stores with virtually nothing to prepare them for the experience. As far as Gary Hoover, the founder and CEO, is concerned, orientation programs are for big companies and have no relevance to a small growing company.

Hoover's feelings go back a decade to his first job out of college, at Citibank, in New York City. He recalls the meetings with the personnel department and the catered receptions for new employees. Like other large bureaucracies, says Hoover, Citibank "had to struggle to make people feel human," something that just isn't an issue at Bookstop. "Around here, we say, 'Jump in and get your feet wet.' And we don't make any bones about it." Employees, he argues, are perfectly able to pick up what they need to know the old-fashioned way: by watching their peers and asking questions.

But who are these seasoned peers watching over the new hires at Bookstop?Given the company's recent growth, chances are good that they themselves have only been working there a few months. In the past year alone, after all, Hoover has added six stores, hiring some 150 new employees. It is, we suppose, conceivable that Hoover's vision for Bookstop -- one that has allowed the company to flourish thus far in a brutally competitive industry -- is being communicated osmotically through the growing ranks of new hires. More likely, Bookstop is currently engaged in a risky corporate rendition of the party game "Telephone."

This is not to suggest that Hoover's concerns are out of line. He, like many small-company founders and CEOs, has good reason to fear that most insidious of corporate afflictions -- bureaucracy. Just ask Blair Brown of Charrette Corp., a commercial art and office-products supply company based in Woburn, Mass. Several years ago, Brown and his partner decided that the company, with 200 employees, had to get serious about its orientation procedures. "People were learning about the company by ducking bullets," says Brown. With the best of intentions, Brown created a personnel group that would have responsibility for bringing new employees into the company.

The problem was that the new personnel people, by and large, did not know Charrette's business. They could hardly acquaint newcomers with its fast-moving marketplace, or explain how the business worked, because they did not understand these things themselves. "It's a very transaction-intensive business," Brown explains, "and we sell to lots of different markets." New employees had to learn to be effective in this setting, but the individuals responsible for orientation hadn't the faintest idea how to teach them.

So, recently, the company has changed its approach to orientation. Upon joining the company, a new person still meets with the personnel group -- trimmed from five to three people -- to get a rundown on benefits. But the real introduction to the company comes from working side by side with a veteran who's been cutting deals for years. To facilitate process, Brown has gone so far as to rip down the walls between offices, recreating what he fondly refers to as "the bullpen days," when everyone worked in a tiny storefront and was within earshot of everyone else.

Of course, some managers would cringe at the thought of slowing down their most productive salespeople by pairing them with new hires. Others, however, see such a "buddy system" as an opportunity to increase overall productivity and add to the ranks of the top producers. "Formal orientation," says Brown, "doesn't hold a candle to sitting next to a good, experienced co-worker for a month or two." He can't quantify the cost of this approach but he knows he was losing out under the old setup.

Job rotation -- or "cross utilization" -- is another effective technique for acquainting new people with the business. Probably its best-known practitioner is People Express Inc., which uses cross utilization to help control its total labor costs. By showing employees how to handle multiple tasks, People has more flexibility in scheduling workers than most other airlines.

Other companies use much the same system for orientation purposes. At W.L. Gore & Associates Inc., new "associates" (as employees are called) take a long voyage through the business before settling into their own positions, regardless of the specific job for which they're hired. A new sales associate in the fabric division may spend six weeks rotating through different areas before beginning to concentrate on sales and marketing. Among other things, he will learn how Gore-tex, the company's patented fabric, is made; what it can and can't do; how Gore handles customer complaints; and how it makes investment decisions.

Peter Gilson, who heads the fabric division, concedes that the process can be expensive and dull: there are days when a new employee does a fair amount of "standing and looking." But even then, he says, newcomers learn how things operate and how ideas move through the system. "You get to see the whole picture," agrees Steve Shuster, a 26-year-old sales associate, who went through the process in 1983. "And you see that motivated individuals can get an awful lot accomplished at Gore."

To a large extent, Gore's approach to orientation reflects the beliefs of its 73-year-old founder, Bill Gore (see INC., August 1982, page 34). But personal conviction is not the only reason for introducing job rotation. Skyway Freight Systems Inc., for example, adopted a very similar system as a matter of survival.

For its first seven years, Skyway had distinguished itself from other express-delivery companies by means of a clever marketing strategy that required a highly motivated work force. While such competitors as Federal Express emphasized speedy, and expensive, deliveries, Skyway offered its customers -- mainly larger companies -- somewhat slower (two to five days), but very reliable, service, at a significantly lower price. The company's welltrained operators were able to track every shipment and inform a customer of its precise whereabouts at any hour of the day or night. During crunch times, moreover, every employee was expected to pitch in -- to pick up phones and to enter data in computers.

But three years ago, it all began to unravel. As a result of Skyway's growth -- the company was up to almost 70 employees -- it was promising far more than it could comfortably deliver. Founders Jim Watson and Bob Baker began to notice that some of the newer employees weren't even able to answer routine customer inquiries. Worse still, they had no idea who in the company would know the answers. As a result, they were putting customers on hold for a few minutes or telling them to call back. "It was an awful feeling," recalls Watson. "We were sounding more and more like our competitors -- or New Jersey Bell."

With the help of a former teacher, Skyway developed a creative orientation program aimed at showing every new person how the business works, and why Skyway does things the way it does. They call the system "walking in the other person's moccasins." During the first week, each newcomer follows a customer order from pickup through delivery and learns about every aspect of data entry, tracking, and billing. New employees meet co-workers throughout the company, and see how the various functional areas interact with one another. "It's not that we like being in the training business," Watson explains. "It's that we like quality. Our customers expect it. So if one person in the accounting department doesn't understand the commitments we've made to our customers, that undermines our entire goal."

Like Brown of Charrette, Watson can't quote you a figure on the cost of the new prientation program. What he does know is that it's helped the company upgrade its service and create a loyal -- and growing -- clientele. At the same time, it has had a demonstrable impact on employee morale and turnover. This, in turn, has allowed the company to concentrate on finding new people for expansion, instead of having to hunt down replacements.

Watson is so convinced of the program's value that either he or co-founder Baker meets individually with each new employee for at least half an hour. During these sessions, which typically happen at the end of the first week, Watson or Baker ask about the employee's background and review the highlights of the company's history. They also make a point of telling each newcomer about Skyway's current goals, and the individual's role in reaching them.With several new people joining the company every month, the employee meetings can add up to a lot of time, says Watson, but it's one more way to show how Skyway is different. "We want them to know that we're real people and that we're counting on them."

When you think about it, such meetings represent an opportunity for the chief executives of small growing companies -- an opportunity that their counterparts at large companies simply don't have. To that extent, it may also represent a competitive advantage. Such, at any rate, is the view of Al Burger, the founder of "Bugs" Burger Bug Killers Inc., a pest-control company with approximately 600 employees. Every two months or so, 15 or 20 recent hires from around the country come to the company's Miami headquarters, where they are put up at a nice hotel, given the use of rental cars at company expense, and exposed to 12 days of special training. Burger even goes so far as inviting everyone to his house for a meal. All of this in an industry notorious for treating workers the way it's supposed to deal with insects and rodents.

Before each new group of employees, Burger spends the better part of an afternoon pacing the floor and talking about what has made the $30-million company so successful, and how the new hires can be part of that success. Burger shares his personal pride in building a pest-control business that promises "perfect service," and he offers his own recipe for fighting failure. "I tell them that they'll make mistakes, that they'll have their ups and downs, and that there will be those days when they're sick or exhausted," he explains. He warns them that, late at night, when nobody's around, there will be temptations to scrimp on quality, to compromise on service. Safe as it seems, Burger says, it's a dangerous thought: they're always better off asking for help than cutting corners.

"We once lost a chain of 22 restaurants because a guy spent six minutes instead of two hours," he tell them. That was 10 years ago, and the company never got another chance. "But it was really my fault," Burger says, as if to remind himself of the incident, "because I hadn't told people that it could happen."

Last updated: Jun 1, 1986




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