by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR
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Question: I feel like I was thrown into my position without the proper training. Yes, I was “onboarded” by the university in terms of policies and procedures, but I don’t feel like I’ve been given the right tools to succeed in my actual department role. What are some things I should do to feel better equipped to contribute and understand my role and the department culture?
Answer from Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR: The workplace is dynamic, ever-changing, and constantly moving. Hiring managers, department heads, and the human resources department might lose sight of one individual in the fray. While some organizations do a great job of orienting people to the institution, very few do as well onboarding the person to their total responsibilities. Orientation is about administrative matters of policies, procedures, pay, benefits, and other paperwork. Onboarding relates to getting a person off to a good start with their position, their department, and the institution itself. Onboarding involves the work, team, culture, rituals, and practices of the enterprise.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of one’s direct supervisor to ensure that the onboarding process is successful — whether formal onboarding procedures are available or not. A capable manager will take responsibility for pulling together the resources and activities necessary to make certain their employees are ready and able to fulfill their duties. If the manager is not making things happen, you should prompt them since you are unlikely to be successful without their support. Good onboarding includes access to resources — financial, technology, tools, information, and the like. Knowledge of the rules of the game — both formal (policies and procedures, etc.) and informal (culture, preferences, history, practice, etc.) — is essential to learn early on to avoid rookie mistakes. For this reason, being assigned a buddy, partner, or mentor is the best way to get off to a good start.
My advice would be to develop a checklist of the key things that you feel you need to get going at work. A little bit of internet research will serve you well here. Search for onboarding checklists and then curate your own list of things that make sense for your situation. Also consider the book, “The First 90 Days,” or articles similar in title and content. Once you have the list, share it with your supervisor and say that you want and need their support to complete the list. He or she will be duly impressed with your initiative and will likely assume responsibility for ensuring your list is completed — or appoint someone else to assist you. They will immediately see the wisdom of the effort and may feel a little guilty for not having already put these items into place.
A key part of the process that cannot be overstated is the human element. To understand the culture and to create camaraderie and team spirit, there must first be an emotional bond. This is forged one-to-one and one-by-one with the people of the organization. Therefore, onboarding should include at least three pairings. First, you should have someone in the human resources department that you can ask questions about the mundane and administrative part of the transition. Second, there should be a departmental buddy to provide unfiltered information about the work, the work environment, and perhaps even the department head herself. The departmental buddy should be someone with exemplary knowledge and proficiency with work that is similar enough to yours to be most helpful. This person and your supervisor can work together to identify resources and other support systems specific to your new responsibilities.
Finally, there should be someone outside of the department who can serve as a confidante. This person allows you to ask the proverbial “stupid questions.” New employees who do not know what to do or what to ask do not want to reveal their shortcomings or insecurities to their teammates or new supervisor. Having someone outside of that inner circle who can help guide you is invaluable. If an external buddy is not assigned, you should seek out someone. Members of your search committee or people who are natural campus ambassadors that extend an unsolicited olive branch are good candidates. Very few people turn down an invitation to a free lunch. A kind librarian who sets you up with a library card or an information technology professional who spends an extra ten minutes chatting with you after she has installed your computer may be good candidates, if other opportunities have not availed themselves.
You are smart to appreciate the fact that no one succeeds alone and to know that additional preparation and support are needed when starting a new position. Developing one’s own checklist of needed actions, activities, and relationships is a great first start. Following this checklist and focusing on the people part of the process rounds out things nicely, as support from others is the best means of getting the tools, resources, and support necessary for success.
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