Bringing employee orientation online at MD Anderson


For many of us, employee orientation has traditionally been an excruciating experience: longwinded presentations about the company and the usual song and dance about what’s required of new staff.

That was exactly the case at MD Anderson, one of the largest cancer centers in America.

“Initially, our employee orientation program was two days of ‘Death by PowerPoint’ – new employees sitting in a dark auditorium watching presenter after presenter, some of whom were decent, some of whom should have never gone on stage.

“Our approach was very traditional – ‘here’s what you need to know right now.’ We told employees what we were supposed to tell them,” recalls Mickey Donnelly, Head of Learning and Development at the Houston-based cancer center.

At the end of one of the sessions, Donnelly chose employees at random asking them about the hospital’s evacuation procedure (RACE).

“Only 1 in 10 answered my questions having just sat through a long presentation! Only about half could tell me what the letters stood for. So we were conveying messages, checking boxes but not meeting the spirit of what we really do.”

Another problem had to do with who was presenting the information to employees. In some cases, presenters were appointed based on whoever was available in that particular department that week. As a result, some of the information that needed to be covered wasn’t.

Moving online

In 2006, Donnelly and his team decided it was time for an overhaul. That meant making the orientation program more learner-friendly ensuring that employees had a central place to go to access the information needed to do their jobs, as well as a place to turn to look things up should they need a refresher.

The solution: move the employee orientation program online.

But before doing anything, Donnelly needed to get executive buy-in, which he ultimately received. But not before tackling their doubts and fears.

“When I first went to my manager, he said what I proposed was way too much money for orientation especially shooting narrators on green screens and incurring site update costs of $50,000 per year. Senior executives were convinced you couldn’t do orientation online while meeting our compliance with regulations,” he recalls.

Looking at current figures of a 97% on time completion rate in 30 days and a 45-day completion rate of 100%, it’s obvious that Donnelly has proven them wrong.

Program content

When creating the site, Donnelly looked toward a user-friendly design principle so employees would be able to manage their time wisely, spending about 5-10 minutes a day on the site to access the information they need.

“We deployed the program through our learning management system of e-learning. We evolved the platform so that employees could access it from anywhere and so we could have a record of completion for each employee.”

The e-learning format consists of employees answering questions centered around the following topics:

• MD Anderson’s vision, mission, values and history;

• Infection control such as frequent hand washing;

• Environmental health and safety;

• Emergency and evacuation procedures;

• Diversity and inclusion.

All questions are in conjunction with the Joint Commission, M.D. Anderson’s regulatory agency. And in some cases, Donnelly rewards employees with a free drink in the cafeteria for correctly answering the questions.

“One section of the orientation program tells a patient story to show where we came from and why we are here. We also have videos featuring our President talking to employees about their particular areas,” Donnelly points out.

To alleviate bandwidth issues that frequently occur when launching company videos, MD Anderson only embeds internal videos onto the site. Other videos are stored on YouTube and linked to wherever relevant in the onboarding process.

Keeping it personal

On the onboarding site, employees are greeted by narrators on screen, welcoming them to MD Anderson.
Each narrator consists of fellow employees at the hospital. However, when it comes to issues of an ethical nature – such as doctors forbidden to accept kickbacks from medical suppliers – those topics are handled with innovative animation.

“You can’t have a doctor on there saying he can’t take brib
es so we have animated characters at a recognizable MD Anderson location describing a situation and asking employees what he/she should do about it. Employees interact with the characters,” Donnelly explains.

Three phases to onboarding

According to Donnelly, the onboarding process at MD Anderson typically consists of 3 parts:

1. Linking: communicating to new staff before they even arrive on campus, providing details such as benefits information and relevant forms they need to fill out.

2. Landing: the first 30 days of employment. Employees are instructed on compliance regulations needed to be met, information on who’s who at MD Anderson as well as information on the hospital’s vision and mission and how everyone will work together. In other words, “the networking portion” of the onboarding occurs during this phase, Donnelly explains.

3. Living: Working more closely with hiring managers to facilitate employees’ orientation.


Of course, employee retention comes into play when creating a new orientation program.

When Donnelly came
on board in 2003, MD Anderson employed 12,000 people. Nine years later, the hospital is up to 20,000 employees.

“We knew we were in expans
ion mode and had to come up with a way to help people stay around a lot longer.

“MD Anderson is in the middle of the Texas Medical Center. The TMC consist of 42 little institutions and 6 large hospitals in a 5-block radius. We all need nurses, phlebotomists. But we need them to stick around. We have different generations coming in. They expect engaging content to be available online so we’re also looking to ‘cater to the crowd,’” Donnelly says.

Numbers indicate the true effectiveness of the online orientation program. Donnelly says the center has done calculations seeing a whopping $6 million a year savings on reduced turnover. This includes ad costs for job listings, time spent on onboarding and lost opportunities.

“When we first implemented our online orientation program, we were sitting on 28% fist year turnover – one of three employees weren’t making it through the first year. We’ve seen turnover as low as 9%, and we’ve stabilized around 12-15%” Donnelly points out.

To date, MD Anderson generally hires about 4,000 new employees a year at a $50,000 rate of recruiting, selecting and training new staff.

Everything old is new again

MD Anderson’s online orientation is so engaging that even longtime employees have been checking it out.

“A year or so ago, we had 6000 current employees complete the program. When they first started at the hospital, they fell asleep during their onboarding process,” Donnelly teases.

What’s next? 

While the online program has been updated five times in accordance with changing regulatory standards, Donnelly says he and his team are taking steps to ensure further engagement and interactivity for incoming staff.

Bulletin boards and chat rooms will be added to provide Q&A opportunities between new and established employees at the hospital.

This will enable MD Anderson to “push out of a virtual environment and move toward a real environment with conversations with real people,” Donnelly says.

He continues, “We want to take things to the next level with a more social-based platform for new employees. We even want to connect with them before they even step foot on campus, sending them useful links right away to engage them while providing opportunities to ask questions up front.”

The updated online platform will be launched in September with links to Twitter feeds and MD Anderson’s LinkedIn page. There will also be a link to the hospital’s Yammer feed showing information collected among leukemia research groups for example, as well as details on employee benefits. Employees not yet on campus will have access to relevant external links; once on board, they’ll then be able to go beyond the firewall and access the Yammer feeds, intranet links and other internal information.

In addition to improving the online orientation site, MD Anderson managers will be trained online on how to onboard staff more effectively so employees will see the same journey from two slightly different perspectives. That way, onboarding can take place at local levels – not just as part of HR.

Donnelly says, “Our aim is to build communities and create linkage. We want to create Velcro for our employees – ‘you can leave M.D. Anderson but you will hear a giant ripping sound when you do.’”