In the course of her career, Sarah Symes has been involved in various workplace orientation programs ranging anywhere from "three days, two days, one day to no days kind of thing."
But Ms. Symes says she had never experienced anything "as awesome" as the week-long session Vancouver City Savings Credit Union puts all recruits through, whether they are joining as front-line employees or members of the board of directors.
At the end of immersion week, as Vancity calls it, the new hires are given a choice: "If this wasn't exactly what you thought you were signing up for and you want to bow out, we'll give you $1,500 and you can just go," says Ellen Pekeles, senior vice-president of operations. "Nobody takes us up on it; it's pretty rare."
Ms. Symes, who joined the staff of the credit union this past December as a human resources consultant, was immersed in the corporate culture from Day 1. After being greeted by executives and given an introductory briefing on Vancity's business model (it's a member-owned co-operative), she and her cohorts were off to see for themselves the type of social enterprise the credit union supports in addition to its more traditional banking activities.
They spent the afternoon at Skwachays Lodge and Residence, which is owned and operated by the Vancouver Native Housing Society. Profits from Skwachays's boutique hotel – which includes a sweat lodge and "smudge room for spiritual healing" – are used to house and support aboriginal artists and patients travelling to Vancouver from remote areas to receive medical treatment.
"I knew they [Vancity] were largely respected within the financial services industry and I knew that they had a lot of involvement in the community, which is something I wanted to be a part of, but didn't really know the depth of the involvement until I actually went through the immersion program," says Ms. Symes, whose previous experience included stints with a national law firm and a major retailer.
"It [Skwachays Lodge] was very cool, very inspiring. I have heard the term impact investing. You can read about it, but you don't really see or feel the impact as much until you go and see first-hand what we are doing."
Ms. Symes also spent a day at a branch and an afternoon at the call centre, "where we heard what our members are calling in about to get an understanding of what their needs are."
The Conference Board of Canada reported in a 2011 study that successful orientation, also referred to as onboarding in HR circles, "reduces the time it takes new hires to get up to speed, increases productivity by improving employee engagement, and lowers new hire turnover."
However, in many instances, the courtship is over as soon as the sought-after candidate has accepted the job offer, with some new arrivals offered little more than a security pass and a place to sit, human resources consultants have found.
While employers typically invest a lot of time and energy on recruitment, the process shouldn't end there, says Julie Labrie, president of Toronto-based BlueSky Personnel Solutions.
No matter how experienced the new person is, he or she will inevitably have questions during the first days, weeks and months on the job and the manager should be available to address them.
Whether or not there is a formal orientation program, "the availability of the manager is key" to how successfully new employees will establish themselves and add value to the organization, Ms. Labrie says. "You can't just throw them [new employees] into a room and not talk to them all day."
Ms. Pekeles says the previous orientation program at Vancouver City Savings Credit Union "was the kind of program you would see in any financial institution. …
"It was all about policies and rules and employee rights and things like that. … But employees didn't really learn what Vancity was all about, so we put all the boring stuff aside and decided that we really needed to focus on our business vision, our business model, our values," Ms. Pekeles says.
The credit union's executives participated in the first immersion week, alongside the new recruits, when the program was launched three years ago. The program has since been expanded to all 2,500 Vancity employees, who also wanted the opportunity to learn all aspects of the business and visit community partners such as Skwachays Lodge. "We have had some external participants from other credit unions. We invited our regulator to come," Ms. Pekeles says.
Ms. Symes found the experience invaluable. "It gives you the context for what your role is going to look like. You have your day to day, but what is the purpose of your role and how does it impact the members?"