Internal Communications: First impressions

Inductions should not be viewed as a one-off necessity but as a vital tool in nurturing new recruits, finds Adam Hill.

The early weeks in a new job are a vital time for integrating an employee into the values of your organisation - the ideal time to inspire them before bright-eyed becomes dead-eyed.

And this does not have to mean brainwashing them into saluting the flag while singing the company song. 'What we see, hear and experience in our first few weeks of a new job shapes how we feel about the company and the role that we're in,' says Nick Wright, Fishburn Hedges head of internal comms. 'Effective communication from the company at this time is a vital component in shaping those perceptions and our motivation to contribute.'

Although elements such as where the toilets are and how the phone system works are clearly important to someone joining a company, it is vital that line managers know the importance of your induction process in terms of setting the tone. Informal lunch with a line manager and some kind of 'buddy' system within the company can work well, for example.

Keeping hangdog cynics out of the way for a while is also probably a good idea, but if you have too many of those then you are perhaps guilty of treating induction as something that you do and then forget about.

'Challenge the assumption that induction is "a one-off procedure that HR delivers for new starters",' agrees Helena Memory, director of specialist internal comms agency Hedron.

Instead, a company's internal communicators must put across the message that the process is part of managers' relationship-building with recruits and a crucial way for people to develop lateral relationships across the organisation - relationships that can include your clients and other stakeholders.

Treating the idea of induction as simply a short course that new joiners simply have to attend may seem like an obvious mistake. But Richard Bloomfield, director of internal comms firm Synopsis, says: 'Organisations manage to shoot themselves in the foot with astonishing regularity. Inductions, if they are done well, should be viewed as a process over time and not a single event.'

Inductions

Perhaps the only thing worse than having no induction is subjecting recruits to one that is bureaucratic and off-putting. 'Communication signals are all-pervading, from the office environment - from the reception area to our own workplace - to the way in which we are greeted by colleagues,' says Wright.

'The more formal communication activity also plays a significant part - for example the induction, or welcome, process; the scope of the process itself; the materials we are given,' he adds.

Something as straightforward as sending out reading material in advance may help in settling people into your organisation as soon as they arrive. 'Can they hit the ground running and feel they can contribute?' asks Howard Krais, senior internal communications manager at law firm Eversheds.

At the other end of the 'sink or swim' school of induction lies Stalin-like propaganda. Yet if you have not hired simpletons, why believe that they will be taken in by a vision of your company that bears no relation to reality? 'People are looking forward to induction in the main,' points out Krais. 'They're not stupid and won't fall for a false impression that they know you can't live up to.'

Encouraging people to develop relationships and networks with colleagues, and take responsibility for their own learning, can also help to integrate recruits. Following an acquisition, one FMCG company used its products as the focal point for induction, with employees from both companies setting up product kiosks at offices and factories. They then talked with one another about, and tried, the products they developed, manufactured, marketed and distributed.

This approach demonstrates how induction can be made to relate to performance, says Memory.

But it is no good saying something like 'we are known as an innovative organisation' if you don't explain how that relates to a new employee's day-to-day working life. 'You have to avoid the "so what?" factor,' says David Silver, director of internal comms agency Intercommunic8. 'The implications of statements often aren't followed through, leaving people thinking: "But what does that mean to me and my job?"'

Listen to new recruits

Organisations should also find time to sit down with recent employees in the first few months to establish what they thought of the process.

'Listen to its most recent customers - new recruits - and involve them in regularly evaluating its impact and designing improvements to keep it fresh and relevant,' suggests Memory.

In addition to finding out what they think of induction, you should also be using the process to tap what your new recruits know. Bloomfield explains: 'Find out what the experience is of people who've come from competitors or similar markets. As part of your induction you should be saying: "We can learn a lot from this person."'

It is conceivable that your induction process is even contributing to problems in the workforce. At William Hill's call centre business, where employees take telephone bets, the staff attrition rate was 'appalling', admits group HR director David Russell. In fact, it was close to 100 per cent. That has dropped to 55 per cent over the past three years, while in the company's betting shops division the turnover rate has dropped from 48 per cent to 34 per cent over the same period. Although much of this is down to improvement in the recruitment process itself, Russell puts some of that down to a more sophisticated induction where new staff are eased into the working environment. In the call centres it now takes four weeks to go through skills training. 'And it is probably six weeks before someone gets up and running (and deals with customers),' says Russell.

The company has found that time to be a cost worth incurring.

HR presence

Internal comms functions need to be working closely with human resources departments, helping managers work out how induction can help them and their teams to achieve their objectives.

'All too often induction is described as non-existent, a waste of time, boring, providing nothing of real value,' says Memory. 'Pay attention to it as you would any other engagement activity. Above all, treat induction as a strategic issue. Because if you don't, no one else will.'

It is largely down to internal communicators to ensure induction is an integral element of every recruit's experience. What new staff don't want is a whirlwind tour taking in the company vision, the location of the canteen and a brief 'hello' from a senior director before being stuck at a desk and told to get on with it - leaving them with an overwhelming sense of having made a ghastly mistake. Because by then it's too late for both of you.

INDUCTIONS AT THE BBC

Russell Grossman, BBC head of internal comms 'The BBC has 28,000 staff, plus 12,000 or so freelances. People come in on a contract to work on a particular programme and then go again.

'In the old days, if you got an induction at all, that was something.

But how formal or structured it would be was entirely at the discretion of the local manager, and in many cases they would be told to learn on the job, which was not satisfactory.

'We found that, unless you got to them quickly, people were socialised very rapidly, particularly if they were part of a team of up to 20 people.

The problem was they were socialised in the values of that team (and not of the BBC as a whole). In April 2003 we introduced a mandatory three-and-a-half-day induction scheme for anybody on at least a three-month contract. On it were questions like: What's the BBC for? What are its aims, objectives, values? What can you expect from the BBC in return?

'New recruits are given hands-on experience of radio and TV production because that's the core of our business. There are two other critical points: one, it is a mixed group, so you are meeting people from all over the BBC with different areas of expertise and responsibilities; and two: we keep them in touch afterwards on the intranet, Connect.Gateway, which they sign up to before they go on the course.

'Before Greg Dyke, each division did what it wanted, working in silos, but the idea of "one BBC" is one of his legacies.'

When we launched it there was some scepticism initially but some members of the board have been on the induction.

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