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Warmer welcomes, fatter profits
Making new hires feel at home helps FORTUNE's 100 Best Companies to Work For boost the bottom line.
By Robert Levering, FORTUNE

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Construction manager Dirk Porter was surprised by the lively orientation he received after joining David Weekley Homes in Dallas. He and other newcomers were flown to the company's Houston headquarters for a two-day program. There they were greeted with cheers and whistles by dozens of staffers, who then formed a giant receiving line that included company president David Weekley.

Next, new and old "team members" alike gathered for a free lunch. The following morning the group participated in a teamwork exercise of building a house with Legos. Porter's previous experience in the construction industry was quite different. "They would just throw you into the fire," he recalled.

Many of FORTUNE's 100 Best Companies to Work For welcome their new employees in distinctive ways. These events help newcomers to better understand the company's culture, which in turn makes them more effective in their new positions. And having more productive employees translates into a fatter bottom line. To wit: over the past 10 years the average annual shareholder return of the publicly traded FORTUNE "100 Best" firms has been 50% higher than the S&P 500.

Swishing and spitting like a team

At Starbucks (Research), new baristas and executives alike spend their first full day at the "Starbucks Experience." The initial hour is devoted to a coffee tasting of a half-dozen or so different brews -- complete with a ritual of sniffing, swishing and spitting that would do a Napa Valley wine tasting proud.

At the outdoor gear maker REI, new recruits do community service work as part of their orientation. And Wegmans charters a jet to fly all new full-time hires for newly opened stores to a headquarters orientation that includes meeting CEO Danny Wegman.

Most "100 Best" companies make a point of welcoming people into the "family" or "team," not just as hired hands. To underscore this difference, many firms avoid the term "employee," instead calling them "team members" (Whole Foods (Research)), "colleagues" (American Fidelity), "associates" (Marriott (Research)), "partners" (Starbucks), and even WaMulians (Washington Mutual (Research)), and Yahoos (Yahoo! (Research)).

And, of course, you don't welcome people into the family by just handing them a bunch of insurance forms to fill out and sending them off to their work stations. You make an event out of it. Call it a "celebration," like they do at Car Max -- or hand out welcoming gifts. Investment bank Robert Baird sends a bouquet of flowers to every new associate's home, while eyecare benefits provider VSP gives new hires a silver picture frame.

Chatting with Chambers and Gates

More often than not, the top folks themselves welcome the new additions. At the Vanguard Group, either CEO Jack Brennan or a managing director attends every "Welcome Aboard" session for the company's new "crew members." Cisco (Research) CEO John Chambers hosts a "Chat with Chambers" for groups of new employees several months after they start with the company, and Microsoft's (Research) Bill Gates sometimes leads the orientation Q&A session.

The "100 Best" companies also generally don't treat orientation as a one-time event. They see it as an acculturation process that takes time, typically 90 days to a year. Nearly all assign a buddy or mentor to the new hire.

Goldman Sachs (Research) has a Day One Orientation, which is followed by a series of emails that are sent to new employees for their first 100 days with tips to help them to fit into the company's culture. Between six and 12 months after joining Goldman, newcomers attend a one-day symposium, led by a top officer, to give them an opportunity to discuss the firm's values of "teamwork, meritocracy, and integrity" through case studies.

Edie Hunt, a Goldman managing director, insists that how well the firm integrates new employees can have a huge commercial impact. She points out that when employees understand what teamwork means at Goldman, they can be more effective.

What's more, Hunt says a good orientation program can reduce turnover: "If these people feel more welcomed on the way in, maybe they'll stay with us longer."

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Adapted from Robert Levering's book Giftwork: Lessons in Productivity from the World's Best Workplaces, to be published next year.

See the full list of FORTUNE's 100 Best Companies to Work ForTop of page

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