Successful Onboarding: Creating an Environment Where New Employees Can Succeed

Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 25, Number 3 (January/February 2021), pgs. 18-20.

By Janeen Williams, User Services Librarian at Texas Tech University Law Library and Allison Reeve Davis, Librarian Manager at Littler Mendelson

Strategies, guidelines, and a checklist for creating a structured, purposeful, and engaged onboarding process.

Onboarding is exciting for both new employees and the law library. The organization has likely operated short-staffed for a few months, and new librarians are hopeful for new challenges and opportunities. A methodical orientation program is the first step to creating a successful environment for new staff and the institution. Employers provide training and orientation to welcome new hires to the law library, make them feel part of the team, align them with institutional initiatives, and teach procedures. These goals are not reached as a result of a few emails or brief meetings. It takes time for someone to feel confident in a new job. It is also imperative for managers and existing staff to recognize that they possess institutional knowledge and acknowledge that an expectation of early retention of all new information is untenable. Structured, purposeful, and engaged onboarding will alleviate future struggles with integrating a new hire into projects and the library’s culture. Additionally, a standardized onboarding process helps to ensure that all new employees are given equal opportunities to succeed.

Goals for Orientation and Onboarding

New employees lack three areas of knowledge necessary for job success and satisfaction: policies and procedures, institutional culture, and colleague personality. Policies and procedures are passed down through manuals and training. The other two types of knowledge are tacit and challenging to transfer. A manager’s response to continued inquiries from a new librarian should not be to ask them to memorize or refer to previous emails, because new hires should feel comfortable contacting colleagues, requesting meetings with management, and asking questions. However, gaps in knowledge need to be addressed early in a librarian’s tenure. The goal is to provide undocumented information in a methodical trajectory that also encourages collaboration and continued communication throughout the first few months after a new hire begins.

There is a balance between spacing out information and keeping a new hire engaged. We all remember new jobs where, during the first two weeks, we read manuals front to back with little hands-on experience. This scenario creates boredom and confusion over the job description. Instead, offer a variety of emails, videos, meetings, and task training to keep the day interesting. Below are strategies for creating successful onboarding programs that can easily be adapted across various institutions.

Before the New Employee Arrives

Planning is essential to identify knowledge gaps and potential onboarding pitfalls. First, assess what already exists. You likely have an arsenal of emails, procedural documents, peer trainers, and human resources (HR) videos at your disposal. List those documents and communications, including their contents, and create a schedule for distributing them and the completion of tasks. In most institutions, managers cannot alter the HR orientation process. Paperwork, instructional videos, and technology training are mandatory and must be completed in the timeline dictated. Within your own department, however, lies more flexibility.

Do not try to go it alone. Enlisting a team of more recently hired librarians provides a wealth of insight. Ask, “What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started?” The answers may be surprising but will highlight knowledge gaps that should be incorporated into an orientation program. Following an assessment of what you already have and a review of staff suggestions, you will be able to plan for a captivating orientation that combines a mix of in-person meetings, emails, printed materials, and peer-to-peer contact.

Librarians become experts in their library environments. They are expected to know the library building and the library collection well enough to navigate the physical space efficiently and direct patrons to appropriate resources. Patrons frequently ask librarians for directional assistance to get to meetings, special programs, and lectures. In her former position at the Law Library of Congress, Janeen and her co-workers created a plan for a new employee three months before their arrival, one that addressed the unique challenges of the setting. They drafted a detailed orientation schedule for the first two weeks of employment that included building and collection tours. The Library campus is spread across three buildings, and it has the largest law collection in the world. Within the first couple of weeks of starting, managers or mentors should give a tour of buildings and offices to the new hire. Incorporating time for building and unit tours ensures new employees gain familiarity with the physical space, and it is a great way to spend time before task training begins or software access is secured.


True mentors are often found through organic comradery development, but at the start of a new librarian’s tenure, it is a great idea to pair them with a friendly face. Part of the mentor’s responsibilities may be planning onboarding schedules and training with milestones for new employee integration. All staff in the organization should make the new employee feel welcome, but selected mentors take on a more involved role.

New employees can have a difficult time building new relationships in large organizations. For this reason, Janeen created a new role to help support new librarians. The new role was a “buddy.” The buddy was an informal source of information for the new employee, such as the tacit knowledge about the team’s culture. This tacit knowledge can make a big difference during the probation period because this is when “fit” of the employee will be determined.

In congruence with relationship building between new hires and supervisors, new employees can benefit from building a relationship with experienced co-workers. Working together, managers and colleagues can create a trusting and open environment for new employee curiosity and learning. Peers may be more experienced in the tasks required of the new hire and may speak more candidly about the environment and culture. Tacit knowledge, like the work culture, undocumented practices, and work styles, can be difficult for a new employee to grasp. Peer mentors provide not only job-specific instruction but supportive guidance in the employee’s new environment.

After Arrival

Once training schedules have been set, materials evaluated, and mentors chosen, new hires are on course to succeed in their first few months.

HR Orientation

As mentioned, HR requires a schedule of paperwork, in-person training, and a variety of training videos. It is essential to provide new hires time to accomplish these early tasks and be ready with other activities to fill gaps in time. At many institutions, HR activities span the first two weeks of employment, but they rarely require a full day’s attention. If you know the new employee will not have access to email for a few days, print out their schedule, job description, and any procedural documents. During these early days, sprinkle a variety of tasks into the schedule, such as library welcome and training emails. See above for a checklist of orientation activities to welcome a new employee and create a thriving environment.

Schedule of Emails

A schedule of emails helps engage new employees while leaving time for HR obligations. Send no more than two per day. Examples of preliminary emails with brief descriptions are provided above in the Checklist for Creating a Successful Onboarding Program.

In-Person Meetings

Schedule regular but brief meetings with the new librarian to cover the most crucial information conveyed in videos, orientation sessions, or emails. Between emails, articles, and meetings, the new librarian will be able to build a notebook for future reference, and policy and communication expectations are set together.

In-Person Big-Topic Training

At Littler Mendelson, two formal, in-person orientation sessions are required for new librarians, but the sessions are also open to those who already work in the department. There is never any shame in reacquainting oneself with important topics. The first session covers online legal research cost recovery, and the second session covers the basics of the law, the legal marketplace, and specific issues in labor and employment practice. Outside of everyday tasks and expectations, managers of all library types should consider what big-picture topics provide deeper insight and understanding of the institution’s mission and goals. Providing new hires and veterans with these trainings helps ground them in the fundamentals and serves as a foundation on which to build their careers.

Process Training with Peers

While all new librarians require training in their new roles, training should be spread out and reinforced throughout the onboarding process. Working with peers on various tasks in a weeks-long schedule ensures that the new hire gets to know their colleagues and is not overwhelmed by being introduced to all duties at one time.

The onboarding process serves the important purpose of introducing the new employee to their new job and new work environment. The employer sets the stage for employee success by creating a welcoming environment, establishing clear expectations, and encouraging open lines of communication. Purposeful orientation increases the likelihood that the new employee meets or exceeds expectations.

Creating a Successful Onboarding Program

  • HR orientation schedule and deadlines.
  • Assess and incorporate knowledge gaps.
  • Create schedule of preliminary emails and what will be included:
    • Welcome and bio: invitation for a brief meeting and introduction to colleagues, request for a short bio, and initial tasks of signing up for library distribution lists and exploring the intranet.
    • Jargon and orientations: familiarize oneself with institution and department services, big library projects, acronym library, database IDs and passwords, and required orientations.
    • Department policies and professional development: attachments, including library-specific email and paid time off procedures, resources for career growth and networking, expectation of email and in-person communication with manager.
    • Philosophy of librarianship at your institution: overview of research request types, library sub-teams, quotes about librarianship philosophies on service, best practices, and service standards.
  • Articles and PowerPoint presentations.
  • Build new employee handbook.
  • Assign peer mentor.
  • Schedule regular in-person meetings with supervisor and peers.
  • Look for additional resources to help introduce new law librarians to the profession, such as:
    • “How to Read a Legal Opinion,” (Kerr, Orin. 2007, The Green Bag 11, no. 1 (Autumn):51-63.),
    • “A Guide to Fee-Based U.S. Legal Research Databases” (Lee, Jootaek and Strojny, Brittany. 2018,

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