Orienting New Co-op Workers

Orientation:a familiarization with and adaptation to a situation or environment."

Recently hired people need training both in skills and tasks required for their newjobs, and in the policies, customs and expectations required of all employees. Cooperative businesses have the further responsibility of orienting new workers to the operating principles of co-ops.

Research in adult education shows that people are most open to learning in the first few days on the job, even the first few hours of the first day. This is the best opportunity you will ever have to pass on a positive vision of the co-op's organizational culture. Yet all too often, under pressure of running shorthanded, management throws new workers out on the floor to sink or swim. Not only does this leave them feeling inadequate and uncomfortable. They may be exposed, in their impressionable first hours, to the more burned out or low performing people on the staff, who might pass on a different vision ofthe workplace.

A lot of co-ops rely on written materials for their orientations. This is a mistake. In my experience, a significant percentage of the adult population, even though literate, does not retain lengthy written information. A surprising number of people don't even read what they are given, despite good intentions. I've seen a lot of staff mailboxes stuffed with old unread memos.

There is no substitute for face-to-face meetings in the orientation process. Since most people are uncomfortable with sitting still while being told a lot ofinformation, convey some facts while walking around the building, pointing things out. It helps to give new employees, as well as the orienter, a checklist of topics to be covered. This gives them a sense of where they are in the process and may help them feel less overwhelmed.

A great logistical challenge is scheduling orientations and sticking to the schedule. If a new person's supervisor or co-workers continually delay giving time away from the job for orientation sessions, or if the orienter allows a lot of interruptions, the unspoken message is that organization doesn't really value the information being transmitted.

People learn best when given "the big picture," a sense of where they fit in. However, throwing a lot of information at a new worker all at once is overwhelming and counterproductive. Orientations should be taken in phases. I'm suggesting a sequence of five phases for an orientation program, of which the last phases are quite open ended. You may find a different grouping or ordering of subjects better for your particular situation. In designing your orientations, one of your best resources is the experience of your more recently hired people.

Phase 1: The Basics

Basics are things people want to know the first day in an unfamiliar workplace to allay anxieties such as how the kids can reach them in an emergency or when they'll get lunch. Once the basics are dealt with, they can settle down to effectively learn the job itself. This phase includes filling out the paperwork for W-4s, I-9s and personnel files.

Examples of basics: space to keep personal items, location of bathroomsfices, parking, when to pect the first check, time cards, overtime, break time and lunch, personal phone calls, phone messages, purchasing food, discounts and freebies for workers, any benefits provided from the beginning (rather than after a trial period.)

Safety should be considered part of the basics. Many co-ops pay lip service to safety but spend no time or resources promoting it. Making a point of safety in the orientation is a definite statement that the co-op places a high value on worker safety. Examples: what to do in case of an accident; internal reporting; location of fire extinguishers, fire escapes and first aid boxes; workers compensation; safety announcements.

At the latest, this first phase of orientatin should take place at the beginning of the first day on the job. Ideally, you should schedule time specifically for the orientation, a day or more before the job starts.

2: Personnel

Personnel topics might just as well go in "the basics," but I separate them in the interest of having distinct blocks of time, with breaks, to prevent an information overdose. All personnel policies should be written in a policy handbook which you can review with the new worker.

Examples: time off, vacation, sick leave, time of raises, evaluations, criteria for evaluation, grounds for disciplinary action (see that they are understood, without undue emphasis), insurance plans and other benefits, access to personnel file.

Again, this phase could well be carried out before the new person starts; certainly it should happen no later than the first week on the job. An hour seems plenty, but this information is crucial to the person's sense of the co-op's fairness to its workers. You should take as long as necessary to answer questions and follow up on it later, at the time of the first evaluation.

If you use substitute workers, especially if you hire permanent employees out of a sub pool, subs should receive the basics and the personnel phases. The value of orientations beyond this level depends on the nature of their work, and on sub turnover.

Phase 3: The Business

The business phase is an introduction to the mission, history and structure of the organization, its products and its customers. This phase could involve several sessions, starting during the first month, before the new person's impressions begin to harden. This information is an important part of building loyalty. Don't assume it's self-evident.

Mission: Even if the co-op is too large for the general manager to be involved in every hiring, s/he should be included in the orientation process. In some businesses, the manager meets with new employees to pass on her/his personal vision of the company. Although a co-op is owned by many people, the manager is responsible for setting the tone in the workplace. Written goals and purpose statements should also be in the policy handbook, but that is no substitute for a sincere personal statement from the co-op leadership.

History: Here are some ideas to make this subject more lively than a written account in the policy handbook: Put together a scrapbook with local newspaper articles and pictures of former and present buildings, trucks, customers, products. Set up an informal meeting with a longtime worker or member to give new people an appreciation for what it took -- long hours, low wages, a sense of working in a movement with a shared vision -- to build the business to where it is today. Find a student at a local university to do an oral history project on tape.

Internal structure: Review board, management, departments, and where the new person fits in. An organizational chart is a good visual aid. A problem experienced by larger businesses is excessive departmentalization, when staff don't understand the daily realities of other departments and don't go out of their way to help. With employees too new to their department to have taken on "us and them" attitudes, you have the opportunity to expose them to produce or deli or night stocking by scheduling them to work several hours in different areas of the store. (I still haven't heard of any practical way to do this with cashiering or bookkeeping.)

Customers: Discuss expectations for customer relations, a sense of who the customers are, how the coop serves them. It's not enough to make statements in the employee handbook. In Thriving on Chaos, Tom Peters comments on how retail stores often spend most cashier training hours on operating the register, with only passing mention of customer relations: what a message that sends!

Members: Explain how membership works, the member labor system, signing up new members.

Products: Beyond the training that each employee receives in her! his specific job, the orientation should cover the co-op's position on product line, an understanding of "natural" and "organic," where to find products and where to find answers to customer questions. Purchasers could give a short presentation featuring actual products.

Phase 4: Cooperatives

A phase on cooperatives builds on the previous one and should take place over several months, starting no later than the end of the trial period. The co-op principles probably need some explanation. Point out the existence and location of the articles and bylaws.

Board of Directors: Review board members, committees, elections, staff seats on the board, board role in hiring, evaluating and compensating management, where to find board meeting minutes. Arrange for the employee to attend a board meeting (ideally, paid to attend once).

Make new people aware that the co-op is part of a national network. Send them to a regional co-op conference. Get someone in from your co-op wholesaler or a regional co-op organization to speak to a group of new workers. If you're near enough, arrange a tour of your co-op wholesaler. There are several national resources for co-op education. NASCO and NCBA have printed materials. Make Cooperative Grocer and any local co-op publications available to staff.

This may be an appropriate place to bring up the politics of food. Look into organizations that lobby in support of organic and sustainable agriculture and which have literature, perhaps speakers and slides.

Phase 5: Management

If the co-op has a designated personnel function, it is a natural extension of the hiring process for that person to conduct orientations. As the person involved in recruiting and interviewing new employees, s/he will be familiar to them and will be knowledgeable on personnel policies. One person orienting all new workers makes for consistency.

Ifyou have no personnel function, one person could coordinate orientations in addition to her/his regular job. Having a checklist to follow, a policy handbook and written materials to give out makes this task less time consuming. It is important that this person show enthusiasm for the co-op and the new employees, even during a hectic day.

Supervisors could conduct orientations if their workload permits adequate attention, if they follow a checklist to ensure consistency, and if they've worked at the co-op long enough themselves to have an overview.

However, it's good for new workers to get a perspective outside their immediate work group. A co-op where I used to work assigned each new worker an advocate from a different department; advocates provided a friendly, informal connection and gave suggestions about where to go with problems or ideas. While not a substitute for centrally coordinated orientations, an advocate's involvement could help take the load off the supervisor.

In evaluating orientations, get written and verbal comments from new workers as they go through the phases of the orientation. The evaluation at the end of the trial period is a good opportunity. How could we have presented it more effectively? Did they learn what they most wanted to know? The knowledge and presentation of the orienters also should be evaluated. Remember that planning and implementing orientations is a dynamic process, changing in response to the needs of the organization and the new workers.

See other articles from this issue: #033 March - April - 1991