All Aboard ResLife! Keys to Successful Staff Onboarding From The Perspective of a Higher Ed Grad

Many professionals in residence life begin their professional staff journey with time as a paraprofessional under their belt. Some served as an RA at their undergraduate institutions. Others took on a different residence life role, perhaps navigating front desk operations or in-hall mentorship relationships. However, many professionals enter the residential world with little to no departmental experience. Many will have acquired their skills for the position working elsewhere at an institution; others will have never worked on a college campus at all. With such a broad range of personal and professional narratives, navigating the facilitation of an effective employee orientation program can be a daunting task. However intimidating the duty proves, onboarding and orientation are some of the most pivotal elements of ensuring the long-term success of professionals in any role. 

In this post, I plan to shed some personal perspective on these matters utilizing my personal, professional, and academic pursuits as a basis.

Entering my second year as a higher education graduate student and assistant hall director, I can confidently say that I’ve grown plenty from the experience. This fall, I found myself at a very unique intersection of experiences. I’m currently in my third semester as a residence life professional while simultaneously being in my first semester at a new (and completely unrelated) associateship in a different department. All the while, I remain a student fending for the work-life balance that seems very far away for many student affairs professionals. Interestingly, the class content of one of my current courses has aligned perfectly with what my life currently entails. 

As a second-year, I’m now in the position to instruct and provide insight to my co-assistant hall director; I show her the ropes that I made it my mission to climb last year.  I’m also in the midst of job searching, a process that feels foreign after six straight years of looking forward to the next academic and educational experience. These can both be intimidating milestones. My graduate program’s Special Topics in Higher Education course was designed to assist with some of these tumultuous feelings while also advancing our professional knowledge of topics that may not have previously been highlighted. The topic that has been most relevant to me thus far is that of onboarding. I have the unique perspective of starting at square one of a new job while also providing support to someone at square one of my retained position. Needless to say, I’ve been able to engage in a lot of reflection about onboarding processes. 

So far, my experience has led me to identify three important elements of onboarding: intentionality, continuous engagement, and work culture integration.

Be Intentional About It 

This is somewhat straightforward. It can be quite easy to get stuck in a rut or allow onboarding processes to become stagnant and fall by the wayside. While smaller and mid-sized institutions certainly are not exempt from this, I find that it may be even easier at large-scale institutions. Large institutions often have a considerable number of employees and a wide range of departments, all of which may function in differing capacities. In other words, there may be bigger fish to fry, and shifting an already established onboarding and orientation process may not be a priority. However, the nature of colleges and universities inevitably welcomes young and diverse groups of employees. As times change, so too do the values, perspectives and preferences of the incoming generations. There will always be a mixture in the age range of employees. Nonetheless, it couldn’t hurt to evaluate the ways that the current structure of onboarding and orientation could be adapted to suit its audience. Regardless of age or generation, it is of good habit to continually evaluate the effectiveness of a process for your department. 

Good Ideas for Practice: 

  1. Conduct an Annual Assessment with Employees: Collect data and get a feel for how employees who surpass the 1-year mark at the institution feel about how their journey adjusting to the institution went. Ask questions that will require employees to detail feelings towards the beginning, middle and current segments of their occupation. 
  2. Purposeful Job Interview Questions: Structure a final question or two of the employee interview to reflect on what incoming employees might require or prefer for an optimal adjustment period. Make note of this information, and attempt to apply it.
  3. Create a Committee: Having a committee dedicated to continuously evaluating and improving onboarding processes is a good way to incite innovation and change. Members should likely rotate if feasible.
  4. Have Goals: What are the outcomes you’d like your staff to reach to conclude that the onboarding was indeed “effective”? Determine these outcomes based on a combination of departmental goals and employee input.

Learning Doesn’t Stop Here 

A significant flaw in many onboarding set-ups is the failure to continue to emphasize the content of orientation while on the job. Orientation day (or days) can feel like an immense and unhelpful information dump for many employees. It is, of course, necessary to get all of the information across. However, simply providing the information in the most bare minimum way without any room for application only breeds forgetfulness and confusion. The better approach to onboarding is to ensure a continuous emphasis on the information that was provided. Many organizations believe that their employees are set after six months of adjustment. Realistically, proper onboarding can take up to a year.

Good Ideas for Practice: 

  1. Strategic 1:1 Conversations: If you are a supervisor, structure your 1:1 meetings to include a conversation about growth or apprehension in the onboarding process and job tasks. Come prepared to your meetings with questions about a particular content area or job task. Ask genuine questions 
  2. Be Open Minded: Create a space of authenticity and learning. Assure employees that questions are welcome and answer accordingly. 
  3. Check-Ins: 1:1s can often seem formal. Feel free to check-in with your supervisee with very simplistic questions such as  “how are you doing” or “what have you been up to”. This will leave the door open for any questions and demonstrate care and concern.

Where Am I? 

Organizations have their own cultures. This is particularly true as it pertains to colleges and universities. In a field where professionals are encouraged to move “around” in order to move “up,” new employees will inevitably face the confusion of unspoken rules that were never uttered to them once. While challenging, finding ways to communicate the needs of both your team and its individuals will be beneficial in the long run. Social standards and norms exist within all spaces, and oftentimes they are constructed by the people in the environment. This is particularly true in higher education environments. How will you communicate these standards in a way that new employees can understand?

Good Ideas for Practice

  1. Practice Self-Awareness: Host sessions for the discussion of the ongoings and shared meanings practiced by the department. These sessions can be virtual and anonymous, allowing people to divulge their experiences and observations about the unspoken rules of the department. 
  2. Organizational Culture Document: Create a document that describes the values of your department’s culture. Goals, outcomes and public values are one thing. Cultural understanding is another. Use the document to communicate department cultural standards. This will help with communication and allow an employee to observe themselves accordingly.
  3. Be Honest: Understand that some employees may choose not to stay at your institution based on some of these standards. Employees also have the right to decide whether an organization’s culture is a good fit for them or otherwise. Employees contribute and collaborate on your team. They have value and are owed authenticity. 

At my new job, I found that many of these processes fell into place. Some elements were more present in my first job than in the second. No department is perfect, and continuous improvement should be a goal of the organization regardless of the department. Overall, introducing organizational information can be a tough task. Even so, we owe it to our colleagues and employees to help facilitate a productive environment.

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