Please—no more lectures or slide presentations

Schools break with tradition to find creative ways to onboard new employees

Each year, the University of Nebraska, Omaha, hires several hundred new administrative or office service workers, says Cecil Hicks, who himself was hired in May as the school’s HR director.

Although onboarding new hires can range from a one-day orientation program to a year-long mentorship, Hicks believes the first day of anyone’s job should be memorable. So for now, he’s focused on developing a creative orientation program that exposes new hires to the university’s history, mission, culture and people.

At some schools, onboarding is fairly cut and dry. New employees attend a half-day orientation that is filled with PowerPoint presentations, lectures and information about the school’s policies. The lucky ones are temporarily assigned a buddy who guides them through the school’s maze of people, policies and politics.

But is that any way to make a lasting impression? Will it help your recruitment and retention efforts? Hardly.


Onboarding is a time to show off what’s great about your institution. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate the school’s unique culture and accomplishments. If done well, new hires can act as your school’s ambassadors, promoting your successes, good works and efforts to everyone they know.

That’s exactly what Hicks has in mind. One idea he’s considering will promote the school’s teamwork- and community-oriented culture. New hires may participate in a scavenger hunt game during their employee orientation.

“You can create some synergy around things they might not be aware of, like culture and how they can get engaged and make a difference,” he says.

Other colleges are taking a similar approach. Since the culture at Loyola Marymount University supports an inclusive environment, new hires are given opportunities during orientations to start building work relationships with others, including university President David Burcham, says Dustin Reece, director of learning and organizational development at Loyola in Los Angeles.

“The president welcomes everyone, gets to know their names and asks questions to understand what they will be doing at the university,” says Reece. “It reflects our culture to have the administration connecting with everyone. No one feels like they are out in left field.”

Washington State University launched an executive onboarding program, perhaps the first of its kind for deans on up among higher education institutions. HR and senior adminsitrators name an on-site mentor to guide new hires through their first six to 12 months, says Theresa Elliot-Cheslek, associate VP for HR services and Chief HR officer.

Make it real

When Ramin Sedehi served as a vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania, facilitators used problem-based learning during employee orientations. They used real examples of difficult situations and asked hires how they would handle.

Now director of the higher education practice at Berkeley Research Group in California, Sedehi says this approach not only introduces how decisions are made at the school, but also helps employees learn to be successful.

HR also offered new hires brown-bag lunch discussions on such topics as: How can I solve problems here? How do I deal with financial challenges? What are some obstacles that people encounter?

While creative onboarding programs may be fun, Sedehi says HR should never sacrifice effectiveness for creativity. Programs must be evaluated for their overall value, and for their ability to help employees develop realistic expectations, which better positions them to succeed.

“We didn’t say this is a wonderful place, and everything runs beautiful,” Sedehi says. “We talked about some of the ways people got past problems, cost-neutral solutions, collaborating with others, or finding champions who are willing to help move your idea forward.”

But moving forward can be difficult, and it’s easy to fall back on traditional onboarding practices. You may need to push tradition aside and develop some fresh approaches that help employees feel there’s no place they’d rather work.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.


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