As we start a new academic year, our thoughts turn to newly arrived students on campus. But what about new academic staff?
Many colleagues begin a new contract at this time. I did back in 1989. And the memories of my first day still linger: deserted corridors, locked doors, a desk hurriedly found for me in a shared but empty office. I saw this lack of welcome as a challenge, and quickly found my feet.
Much has changed in higher education in the past 30 years; however, academic staff induction can still be problematic. A couple of years ago, I undertook a survey of the literature that revealed similar induction problems in Australia, South Africa and the US, among other countries. I discussed this with colleagues, including Jannie Roed from the University of West London, and we found a mutual interest in induction.
Our work and research with academic colleagues suggested that induction problems were common in UK universities, too. We also felt that there was a connection between poor induction experiences and poor staff retention. This led us to analyse the 2015 induction experiences of 30 staff who had moved from other professions into academic roles in five UK universities.
Each individual had a different story to tell. Even within the same university, induction experiences differed. Some had very formal inductions, with the whole of their first week given over to training, which they found rather overwhelming. Others had nothing at all. Like me, they arrived, were found somewhere to sit, and were left to sort themselves out. Coming as they did from other professions, they found this incredible.
Individuals responded to their induction experiences in different ways. Some resigned before we had finished our study. In fact, our 31st participant left before they could even be interviewed. Others bounced back. They loved their work as academics, loved the perceived autonomy, loved the interaction with students, and this made up for any shortcomings they had encountered. It seemed that, for some, a lingering resentment could be discerned. Like me, they would never forget the unexpected loneliness of their first days.
So how can we get staff inductions right? It appears that many universities have replaced old informal induction approaches with prescribed systems for staff recruits. Nonetheless, departmental and managerial priorities mean that implementation of these induction processes can be rather hit or miss. How else could new starters in the same institution end up with vastly different experiences? Our participants volunteered many suggestions for improvement of induction, some of which replicated the processes that were already officially in place but which didn’t seem to be working in practice. So I have four recommendations.
Tackle induction strategically
Monitor the costs of failed induction in terms of staff turnover. Share best practice across the university. Train managers and support staff to spot potential leavers early, and reward departments that meet or exceed staff retention targets.
Do as you would be done by
Involve new staff before they begin their employment. Use social media and technology to create a virtual campus where recruits can familiarise themselves with their new environment. Contact the recruit a day or two before their start date to welcome them and to resolve any outstanding issues. Have their workspace ready, ensure they are introduced to co-workers, and provide an online “quick start” guide to local working life.
Remember that everyone is different
Recruits are individuals and will vary in their training and support needs. Not everyone needs a mentor or to undertake basic training courses, but some do. An induction programme should also benefit both the recruit and the university, so it should be a two-way process that helps the inductee find and fill their niche.
Keep in touch
As well as contacting a new staff member before they arrive and on their first day, a manager should maintain open communication with them over the subsequent weeks. Work priorities should be clear and goals should be achievable, agreed and monitored. If, after all this, a recruit decides to leave, allow them to feed back any issues anonymously via a third party.
If you feel that I’m suggesting the glaringly obvious, have a word with a few recent recruits in your institution. Things may have changed or it may be that, as in those five universities we looked at, things aren’t going as smoothly and consistently as they should be.
Supportive and mutually beneficial induction won’t prevent every new staff member from leaving, but it could make all the difference to the next person you employ.
Virginia King is a senior research associate at Coventry University’s Centre for Global Learning: Education and Attainment. Her research on staff inductions with Jannie Roed and Louise Wilson was recently published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.