First Minutes are Critical in New-Employee Orientation

Employee orientation programs ought to be less about the company and more about the employee, according to new research by Daniel M. Cable, Francesca Gino, and Bradley R. Staats.
by Carmen Nobel

The first few minutes of new employee orientation, if done right, can lead to happier and more productive workers and, ultimately, increased customer satisfaction. Unfortunately, a lot of companies do it wrong.

In many firms, employee orientation focuses solely on corporate culture and identity of the new workplace. There's a lecture about the firm's history and another about standard operating procedures. There's a packet of information from human resources, emblazoned with the firm's logo, and maybe a coffee mug to match.

The underlying message: Welcome. You should be proud to work here. Please fit in accordingly.

But research suggests that employee orientation ought to be less about the company and more about the employee. In their paper "Breaking Them In or Eliciting Their Best? Reframing Socialization around Newcomers' Self-expression," published in the March 2013 Administrative Science Quarterly, a research team finds that shifting the focus to an employee's personal identity leads to an increase in both employee retention and customer satisfaction.

"Organizations will talk about recruiting from outside the company because they need new ideas and new blood, but then there is this tendency to shut off the new and basically transfer the corporate culture over to the new employee," says Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who cowrote the paper with Daniel M. Cable of London Business School and Bradley R. Staats (HBS MBA '02, DBA '09) of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. "It was interesting for us to think about how part of your identity seems to go away as you go through that process."

“It was interesting for us to think about how part of your identity seems to go away as you go through [the orientation] process.”

Previous studies have shown that employees are especially productive and happy when employers encourage them to use their individual signature strengths on the job, but historically those studies did not consider the employee onboarding process, Gino says. The researchers hypothesized that companies would see positive performance results by emphasizing employee individuality from day one, testing their hypothesis through a series of field and lab experiments.

For starters, they conducted a field study at Wipro, a major business process outsourcing company based in Bangalore, India, that provides telephone and chat support for its global customers. Traditionally, Wipro's orientation for call center employees consisted of an informational session about the company, followed by several weeks of training in which new call agents must demonstrate proficiency in English, as well as an aptitude for following standard procedures during customer calls.

Individuality was not just discounted; in some ways it was expressly discouraged. "As a service role, the job can be stressful, not only because employees must help frustrated customers with their problems, but because Indian call center employees are often expected to 'de-Indianize' many elements of their behavior—for example, by adopting a Western accent and attitude," the paper explains.

Wipro was dealing with a big dropout dilemma; more than half of its call center employees quit only a few months after training. "Wipro presented us with the problem of figuring out whether there was anything we could do to reduce turnover," Gino says. "We thought it was the perfect environment to test whether we could make a difference just by changing something minor in the onboarding process."

Identity Experiments

In the field experiment, the researchers divided batches of new call agents into an individual identity group, an organizational identity group, and a control group. The control group went through the traditional process, focused on firm awareness and skills training. The two identity groups received the same training as the control group, but also an additional hour-long presentation, which varied according to the group.

In New-Employee Orientation First Minutes are CriticalFor the individual identity condition, a senior leader at Wipro spent 15 minutes discussing ways in which working at the company would enable the newcomers to express their individuality. Next, the new call agents completed an exercise ranking the individual strengths they would exhibit if stranded on a life raft at sea; they also spent time considering how their responses might differ from their colleagues'. Then, the agents answered a series of questions about their individual strengths such as, "What is unique about you that leads to your happiest times and best performance at work?" Finally, the agents shared their strengths with their future officemates.

At the end of the session, employees in the individual identity group received fleece sweatshirts embroidered with their individual names, along with a name badge. They were asked to wear them for the duration of employee training.

For the organizational condition, new employees spent 15 minutes listening to a senior Wipro leader and a "star performer" at the company talk about why Wipro was a singular place to work. Next, the newcomers spent 15 minutes writing answers to questions such as, "What did you hear about Wipro today that you would be proud to tell your family about?" Finally, the group members discussed their answers with each other.

At the end of the session, employees in the organizational identity group received fleece sweatshirts embroidered with the company name, along with a badge. They were asked to wear them for the duration of employee training.

Seven months later, the researchers looked into whether the orientation changes affected how long the newcomers/agents chose to stay with the company. "Considering we just changed one hour on the first day of orientation, the results were amazing," Gino says.

The turnover rate in the control group was 47.2 percent higher than that of the individual identity group, and 16.2 percent higher than that of the organizational identity group. And turnover was 26.7 percent higher in the organizational identity condition than in the individual identity condition. Additionally, employees in the individual identity group had garnered higher customer satisfaction scores during the seven months than those in the control group.

To further study the reasons behind the findings, the researchers conducted a similar experiment in the controlled environment of a university lab. They recruited 175 college students for a three-hour study, conducted over two consecutive days. The students were told at the start that they would be working on a series of tasks, including data entry. All participants completed day one of the study (receiving $35 for their trouble). They were given the choice of whether to return on the second day (in which case they'd receive an additional $15).

As with the field experiment, some participants were placed in a control group, others engaged in activities that stressed individuality (creating personalized nametags, for example), and some focused on the identity of the organization (such as creating a logo for the research lab).

After the experiments, participants filled out a short questionnaire about their experience in the lab, indicating their level of agreement with statements such as, "Within this research team, I felt like a distinctive person." These were meant to measure what the researchers call "authentic self-expression."

Lab participants in the individuality group reported higher levels of authentic self-expression than those in the organizational group. Individuality group participants also performed better and faster on data-entry tasks than those in the other groups. Furthermore, those in the individuality group were much more likely to return to the lab on the second day, indicating that the opportunity for self-expression is indeed directly related to employee retention.

Lessons For Businesses

For employers, the implications of the findings are pretty clear: "Given that the standard, organization-focused approach of employee socialization is so common, it would benefit managers to think about an alternative approach where there's more room for newcomers' self-expression, Gino says. "This is a pivotal stage of the employee/employer relationship, and there are ways to emphasize people's individuality so they can bring it out into their jobs. To Wipro's credit, after seeing the results of the study, the company redesigned its employee orientation process such that personal identity socialization is a part of it."

NOTE TO READERS: In the next step of this research, Professor Gino and her colleagues are looking to discover which aspects of self-reflection during employee orientation are most likely to lead to a happy, effective workforce. For example, will the results differ if employees reflect on their weaknesses as well as their strengths? If you think your company would be interested in participating in a field study on this topic—and possibly improve employee retention and productivity—please write to Francesca Gino directly at

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • Nauman Lodhi
    • Business Manager, Sorcim Technologies
    Being a business manager in a small IT firm for last many years I have found that the first few hours of a new employee cast long-lasting impression on him/her. The impression is not limited to how s/he perceives the organization but also how s/he consider the organization safe for career grooming. I encourage the team -- of which new employee is becoming a part -- and the team-lead to mingle with the new folk. Simple tools like social media platforms are even helpful!
    • Deon Binneman
    • Reputation Strategist, Deon Binneman
    Interesting and in line with an article I wrote on my blog May 2010 Catch them early - An Employee's First 30 Days

    A Proper Orientation program can go a long way to creating a platform for the employees future growth. If we consider that reputation manifests itself through communication and the experiences that a stakeholder has a with an organization, then this process is crucial to preventing reputation risk in any organisation.

    By ensuring that we have dedicated and focused employees who understand the value of reputation as an asset can go a long way to preventing the manifestation of Reputation Risk.

    So to assist your reputation management efforts, I have prepared a document for you called ' The First 30 Days - An ORIENTATION PROGRAMME with a Difference'' which you can get by contacting me -
    • Hughe
    • HR manager, Nonprofit
    Perhaps focusing on employee identity during orientation helps reduce new employee "buyers remorse", reducing the tendancy to ask themselves if they made the right decision to accept the job. Focusing on employee identity may also reinforce the personal reasons that the employee chose the job. Too often we ask the employee to be able to rhyme off the corporate mission statement and values, when its more important that they have strong personal reasons for working with the company, and that those reasons are recognized and valued.
    • Subhasish Saha
    • Group Chief Technology Officer, Apeejay Surrendra Group
    I cannot agree anymore with the author. Personal Identity, conducive environment to foster individual identity and expressions are the key factors to excite and retain employees. Moreover, organizational creativity is dependent on a positive environment. The future is "empowerment" - an Enterprise 2.0 organisation.
    • Kapil Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    I had been somewhat at a loss to understand what our induction trainings, wherever these are formally imparted, are in fact meant to lead to. Thus, this seemed an inevitable routine laid down in the HR Manual. More often, this was of little tangible benefit to the organisation.
    This article shows what all this needs to be. Wipro and some others are really investing time, energy anr other resources for a real concern for their new recruits who naturally get a feel of oneness and therefore assured continuity.
    Such programmes need dedicated insiders as holding programmes superficially would lead nowhere and would be a waste of all the effort.
    • Patti Quinn
    • Director, Michaels & Associates Learning Solutions
    I really like the idea of tapping into an employee's strengths as a key element in the new hire training program! When developing custom training programs for our clients, we also recommend developing a more holistic approach to new hire training to build employee skills and confidence while making them productive earlier. There is a big difference between a quick orientation and a more thorough onboarding program.
    • Rick Bauman
    • Partner, HM&M
    Well done. Draws attention to a critical element in on-boarding.
    • Tom Gilmore
    • Principal, CFAR
    Very thoughtful study that shows the power of first feeling taken in as an individual before the 'shoulds' of orientation and socialization. In work with board orientation in non profits, we also found the value in first amplifying their distinctive characteristics, their fresh perspectives before being oriented to how the board operates.
    • Srinivasan
    • Director, HP
    Interesting article. Always felt that people have to be inducted, and have been a firm believer that within 90 days after joining the individual become "one amongst us (meaning the existing folks in the org.).
    Hence I always request people to use that 90 day period to bring to the org what they can add (without being influenced by the internal org.)

    However, I am surprised to see that just the first day (and a couple of changes) has had a huge impact. Definitely an eye-opener.
    • W G Prasanna Kumar
    • Director, National Green Corps
    Doesn't it also depend upon what role the individual is to perform. I have had experiences of individuals with opportunities to cast their roles being best performers as well as non performers
    • Dominic Kotarski
    • Director, Sarcio Group
    Francesca, thanks for creating this article, I believe you've hit on a void space that needs to be addressed in all corporations and organizations around the world. All to often we're crunched for time and feel we need to cram our company's culture into the new hire instead of allowing them to bring their full self into the company and make suggestions from their new perspective that could possibly add more value to the company culture.
    • Kiran.Chada
    • Free Lance Leadership Consultant, Independent
    Seriously,when I started my career the same thing happened.Huge packet of information & more to read.End of the orientation process I was left with no other choice except being a grain in thousands of employees.Changed three different organizations(Large) & I could not find an internal(Company) social identity even after thorough company orientation.A common orientation is scheduled for all the new employees,though they move into different roles and functions later.Employees are unable to link and form a social association but to our nightmare end-up reporting to a tyrant manager.This is common to all at their initial career.Well,this ordeal was for a few years and at the entry level,mid-level in organization.I haven't had the experience at the Leadership role.How & by whom the leaders are oriented!
    • Mary Tehan
    • Social enterprise owner, Ultimacy
    I concur with the research findings expressed in this paper and would go further to say, that it is also a leadership trait to engage with new employees in this way. For example, during the interview process the interviewers play a pivotal role in inviting and encouraging individuality as an organisational need, to the interviewee. It establishes a relationship of share-power and share-responsibility for organisational goals and outcomes. As a former manager I used to declare how much a relief it was not to have to know everything all the time, and that I had other people I could turn to (regardless of position) to help reach outcomes of shared-excellence. This also means that an employee is entitled to state on their CV their contribution to a company's success (and not just the managers). Great research! Great topic!
    • Maria Buno
    • Director of Hospitality Services, North Hawaii Community Hospital
    There is no doubt that orientation can either make or break the mental attitude of the new employee. In most cases, I believe companies are so worried that the employee will ignore rules and regulations of the company that they try to squeeze in every bit of information in an 8 hour period. What I have observed is that after a long day of facts thrown at the new employee he/she often times don't even remember the relevant facts. I like the concept of focusing on the new hire and teaching them the culture that is important to the organization so that they can be a good patient advocate as well as a good patient ambassador.
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Director, Soul-Chaplain Consultancy
    This is fascinating stuff, especially the descriptions of the experiments - thank you!
    Joining an organization or team is very significantly a social process, and like all social processes is most effective when it is personalized - there is no such thing as a totally impersonal human interaction. And like any other interaction, a personalized orientation (or 'induction' to many organizations) is firstly about feelings. Engaging a new employee's feelings appropriately guides and influences all that follows.
    • Prof.Biswajeet Pattanayak
    • Professor & Director, Asian School of Business Management
    It is an excellent work. I think organisations should realize that it is a two way process. The new employee also should get ample opportunities to express himself/herself to show case his identity and talent. A new employee can bring lots of value to the table from his previous job experience and also life experience.