Starting a New Position: A Challenge for the Nonprofit and the Professional

Spring official began on Thursday, March 21, with the vernal equinox. This is the time of year when people look for employment and those who are employed may seek a change of position or organization. When employees do begin their new position, they and their employers encounter a number of challenges.

The process officially begins when an employee is looking for a position; I have written about these issues in earlier columns, “Deciding Where to Work” and “Negotiating in Good Faith”. Once the mutual decision has been made by the employer and the employee to take the position, then the person has to be integrated into the organization. Unfortunately, enough thought is not always given to this integration process, which is so essential to facilitating the person’s entry into the ranks of the nonprofit.

This process starts with how the nonprofit prepares for the employee’s first day. One of the most important messages a thoughtful integration process communicates is, “We are planning for your arrival and we know that a framework is important for you as you begin this new job.”

Many employees do not know what to expect when they come to work for the first day. Sharing the day’s schedule with them before they show up for work would enable the new hires to enter the agency with some expectations of what will take place. Think for a moment what an e-mail with a schedule of meetings for the first day communicates to the person beginning a job.

When designing the employee’s first day it is a good idea to schedule meetings with the director of the agency, with professional and administrative staff, as well as a briefing on office procedures. These meetings will enable the new employee to begin to understand how the office works and who is who.

The meeting with the staff should send this message: “We are really glad you have joined our staff and we would like you to meet the rest of the people in the nonprofit.” I know this sounds elementary, but I have heard more than a few times that new employees were never given the opportunity to meet their fellow workers. They came to the nonprofit, were welcomed by their director or supervisor, and taken directly to a space that was the office assigned to them. They were given files, records, reports, or minutes to read so they could understand what is happening as they begin their job – but not the chance to meet their co-workers and hear from them what was what.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with providing relevant background information to the new employee; however, he or she needs a context for the material being assigned. Sometimes the new person is not even given this reading material, but is told that it will be assembled as soon as the relevant staff member has time to put it together. This certainly does not make the new hire feel welcomed or that co-workers were anticipating his or her arrival.

Preparing the new employee’s space so that he or she can get settled immediately is very important. Too often the employee is told, “We were hoping to have your office ready for your arrival, but the person responsible just had a baby or got sick or did not have the time to do so.” There are few things worse for a new employee than to have to walk around the agency, carrying all the material he or she receives the first day and not having a chair, a desk, or a telephone from which to receive and initiate phone calls. The line, “We will get you an office as soon as we can,” just does not ring well and does not communicate this message: “They are really glad to have me here.”

In addition to a dedicated space and a telephone, having a key to the nonprofit is very important. It is best if new employees can come and go as needed to do their work, without depending on someone else to get to the office first or having to leave before the last person locks the door. Making an extra copy of the key, and then providing the security code for the alarm system, makes someone feel very welcomed.

These structural issues, which reflect planning and preparation by the director and staff, help make the first day meaningful and fruitful. In addition, there are professional issues that have to be considered.

At some point during the first day it is essential that there be an in-depth discussion of the employee’s assignments and responsibilities. It may entail a more detailed discussion of the job description that was presented during the hiring process and then providing an explanation of specific tasks that should be completed during the first few weeks on the job. If there is a history to the projects and programs on which the new hire will be working, then he or she should receive written material and, if there is no written material, then the names of those who can provide the relevant information. Of course, these people should be informed that the new person has been hired and that he or she will be asking them to meet or at least talk on the phone.

The employee’s supervisor is the most important person in preparing, easing, and integrating the person into the professional and informal environment of the organization. The process should be planned out so that both the new hire and the veteran employees are sensitive and aware of the importance of making him or her feel welcome. The more the beginning is planned, the faster the new person will become part of the staff team in the nonprofit.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.