Is Your Employee Orientation a Mind Numbing Experience?

In this post I address that specific part of the overall onboarding process known as orientation. In many companies, orientation includes a dreadful review of the employee handbook, a booklet largely written by attorneys to make it easy to fire people.

During orientation a cheerful person from human resources says, in essence, “Welcome to our company! We’re thrilled you’ve decided to become a member of our family. Before we go any farther, we want to make sure you know the reasons you can be punished — up to and including termination!”

Human communities need rules to function effectively. Clearly stated expectations contribute to great relationships. But we go way beyond clarifying expectations. We make everyone sign a document (usually the last page of the handbook) attesting that they have read the rules. We need the signature, of course, in case we have to prove in court that they were aware of the consequences of not abiding by the rules. We start building our case for termination on their first day of work!!!

Many readers will cite numerous reasons why this is a good idea in today’s litigious business environment.  Even if you believe such rules are a good business strategy, even if you would prefer not to have them but consider them a necessary evil, I encourage you to be honest about whether they contribute to engagement and retention. Here’s a hint: They don’t.

The best orientations I’ve seen focus most of their time helping new employees understand the values and beliefs of the organization, along with the expected behaviors. This allows people to decide whether their personal values harmonize with the organization’s. It invites them to join emotionally, to get excited about what the organization stands for in the world, and ultimately to make a commitment to enliven those values through their work.

But if you have a strong culture, it’s not for everyone. Ritz-Carlton and Zappos, for instance, encourage people to opt out immediately if they’re not willing to make that commitment. Zappos even offers each new employee $2,000 if they wish to opt out.

For this to work, by the way, the description of cultural values cannot be fiction. When employees leave orientation, they experience the culture directly. If the difference between the described culture and the experienced culture is too great, disengagement sets in immediately.

When was the last time you reviewed your orientation and your handbook? Are you proud of the way they express your brand?

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg



6 thoughts on “Is Your Employee Orientation a Mind Numbing Experience?

  1. Larry,

    As usual, great points. However, I do believe you are discounting the “ability” of an employee to quit on the spot. Most employees, especially in this day and age of higher unemployment are so thankful for the chance to work that they don’t consider “culture” as an obstacle to receiving a paycheck. Perhaps this could be true at a more senior level, but I have been unemployed a few months now and if I had an opportunity for a job, I would work hard to understand and adapt to the culture to be successful.


    • Thanks for this perspective, Michael. You’re right many people cannot just waive off a job, even if it’s not the ideal fit. That being said, based on your comment you’d make a commitment to do your best to adapt to the culture. And what more can we ask of any employee at any level?


  2. Great thoughts here. Mind numbing is an apt description for too many orientation programs. I totally understand the need to walk through the handbook on Day 1. Since the handbook and other “check box” items are necessary evils, my question would be: why can’t these items be engaging and interesting (as opposed to mind-numbingly boring)? I’ve been through a number of new hire orientation sessions, but I remember very few. If we’re going to take up a new employee’s (and an HR person’s) precious time, why can’t it be time that is interesting, engaging, thought-provoking and memorable?


  3. I like to balance the importance of culture, values and branding along with the priority of reviewing the employee handbook and any other applicable policies and procedures. However, I don’t approach Orientation from a mind-set of “…we want to make sure you know the reasons you can be punished — up to and including termination!” Instead, I approach it from a mind-set of, “I want you to be happy and successful in your job, but here are some ways that employees can take a path that doesn’t lead to favorable results.” Instead of “building a case for termination” on their first day of work, I prefer to think of it has helping new hires plant seeds to their success, whether they have joined the company for a season, a year, or perhaps, a career. Brian Washburn is right. Some HR people give robotic Orientation sessions while just reading from a script or reading directly off of boring PowerPoint slides. Zzzzz, right? Not all HR people are natural public speakers, and that’s okay! Just ensure that someone on your HR team has the natural talent to be such a dynamic presenter that they are able to make so-called boring material… engaging and memorable!


    • Thanks, Dan. In addition to your remarks, I think we can challenge ourselves to break out of the group presentation mode that, as you point out, requires talented public speakers to be effective. Even for the policies and procedures section, I’d like to hope that facilitators who are not great public speakers can seek alternatives – such as participative, fun discovery learning activities – so that the issue about soft public speaking talent is minimized.


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