Making a Great First Impression

If you're only going to teach your employees one class ...

By Maggie Bayless, ZingTrain Founding Partner. Originally written for Gourmet Retailer Magazine

How do you welcome new hires into your organization? Do you hand them an apron and point them in the general direction of the deli counter? Do you have them attend several days of classroom training before they ever talk to a customer? Do they learn about your organization’s history and vision from someone in leadership? Or do they get their information from the disgruntled employees out on the back dock?

How we welcome new staff into our organizations sets the stage for their future success—or lack thereof. We want to do everything we can to help people be successful, contributing members of our team as soon as possible. One of the best ways I know to get staff off on the right foot is to create a good orientation class—and offer it on a regular basis.

Why offer an orientation class?

First and foremost, so that new hires hear what you want them to hear. Let’s face it; it doesn’t take employees very long to decide what working in your organization is going to be like and whether or not they’re happy about being there. Presumably, you think they’ve made an excellent choice in coming to work for you. An orientation class is an opportunity to explain why joining your organization was a good decision.

What goes in an orientation class?

An effective orientation class:

Gives new hires an overview of the company’s history and your organization’s values or guiding principles:

  • How did you get started?
  • What are you known for?
  • What have been the defining moments or turning points?
  • People want to know who they’re working for.

Highlights the current organizational priorities:

  • Are you focused on increasing revenues or improving profit margins?
  • Which products or product lines are being promoted?
  • What are your standards when it comes to customer service?
  • People want to know where they should direct their energies.

Shares a vision of where the organization is headed:

  • What is the vision for the business in 3 years? In 5 years?
  • What are the opportunities for individuals to move up?
  • An inspiring vision is one of the most effective ways to motivate staff.

Clarifies expectations of staff and defines their role in the organization:

  • What do you expect from staff?
  • From yourself?
  • Clear performance expectations are directly linked to employee job satisfaction.

In addition, an orientation class provides an opportunity for staff to meet organizational leaders and to network with other new hires. You know you’ve got it right when people leave the class feeling connected to others in the organization and saying, “Wow! I’m glad I’m working here.”

You may have noticed that completing administrative paperwork and other human resource issues aren’t included on the above list. Those topics do need to be addressed with new staff, but at Zingerman’s we’ve found that there is an advantage to covering the administrative issues in a separate session. Why? Because although it is necessary, paperwork is almost never exciting. And we want people to leave our orientation class feeling really excited.

Who should teach the orientation class?

Quite simply, the leader of the organization. One or the other of our founding partners, Ari Weinzweig or Paul Saginaw, has always taught Zingerman’s orientation class. These days Zingerman’s includes 8 separate businesses, with about 500 employees. Nevertheless, Ari or Paul teaches “Welcome to the ZCoB (Zingerman’s Community of Businesses)” at least twice a month. Given all of the other demands on their time, the fact that they make themselves available to teach this class sends the important message that Zingerman’s values all new hires—whether dishwasher, bread baker or new manager. (There are orientation classes for each of the individual businesses as well—taught by a Managing Partner of that business.)

Ari says that teaching the new staff orientation class “is one of the best possible uses of my time. It’s the most effective way I know to convey our organizational mission and values.” Based on the feedback that we get from staff, he’s right. Most employees have never worked for an organization in which the CEO welcomed them personally. It makes a strong, and very positive, impression. On the other hand, when businesses delegate teaching the orientation class, usually to someone in human resources, the message is inevitably diluted.

Should employees attend the orientation before or after they start working?

There’s no simple answer to this question, because there are advantages and disadvantages either way.

Originally, we had only Zingerman’s Deli and a class called simply “Deli Day One.” Every staff member attended the class on their first day of employment, and no one was scheduled to work a shift on the floor until they had completed it. There are some real advantages to this approach. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that everyone starts on an equal footing, hearing the same message and covering the same material before working a single shift. On the other hand, sometimes the next class isn’t scheduled for 2 weeks, but you want someone to start training on the floor tomorrow—a situation that is common in growing businesses.

At Zingerman’s we now offer our orientation at least twice a month, and we schedule new staff to attend as soon as possible after they are hired. One benefit of the new timing that we hadn’t anticipated is that staff who have already worked several shifts can better assimilate the content and apply it to their jobs. Staff are more likely to raise practical issues and give real-life examples, so the class has become more interactive. However, we have noted two main disadvantages of this approach: 1) there’s no longer the guarantee that everyone on the floor has been through the orientation class and 2) there’s less pressure on department managers to schedule new hires into the orientation class once employees are already on the floor working.

The Bottom Line

Every business is different, so every orientation class will be different. What’s not different is that all employees have a better chance of being successful if they understand where they fit into the big picture and that’s where training, via a good orientation class, can help. No one has a clearer vision of the big picture than the organization’s leader. The clearer you are about that vision yourself, the more clearly you can lay it out for your staff, and the more successful your employees—and thus your organization--will be.