Welcoming Newcomers Through Orientation
Kalervo Hiltunen, the Director of the Department of Biochemistry, pays a visit to each of his researchers a couple of times a day. Here he is chatting with Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Anbazhagan Padmanabhan (second from the right) and Doctoral Student Leonardo Garma. Departmental Secretary Pia Askonen is responsible for the orientation of new employees.
Text and photo by Anna-Maria Raudaskoski
When over half of a department's staff comes from other cultures, efficient practices for welcoming and introducing newcomers to the University community are called for. Over the years, the Department of Biochemistry has developed a model that has proven to work.
The staff at the Department of Biochemistry is over 90 members strong and it includes employees from 15 different nationalities. Persons with foreign backgrounds make up 52 percent of the staff and over 60 percent of researchers. Kalervo Hiltunen, the department's Director, is the only Finnish professor.
It requires a lot of organisation and planning to introduce newcomers to the culture, practices and goals of the University, faculty and department. At the Department of Biochemistry, this process of familiarisation begins even before the employee has been hired.
"Good researchers could find work anywhere they wanted. We have to act as fast as we can to get the pick of the litter," says Kalervo Hiltunen. This is why the department promises to help potential employees with their work permits and visas as well as with finding accommodation and a job for their spouses while the application process is still ongoing.
New researchers are asked what they need for their work before they arrive in Oulu. "A researcher might make a long and meticulous list, down to a single pipette. We never say we can't afford something. We go through the list together with the researcher and think about what we are going to do about the things we couldn't fulfil straight away. Later we can ask the person what he came up with," Hiltunen says with a laugh.
The Departmental Secretary Pia Askonen ensures that everything goes smoothly when the new employee arrives in town and that all the basic necessities concerning the employee's new home are in order. The employee is given an orientation folder with all the necessary instructions and advice.
The department also offers the newcomer a "survival kit", which contains dishes, mattresses and other essential items on a loan basis.
Joint-Meeting Once a Week
The newcomers learn the ropes in the beginning of their employment. "We do not dictate how you should act, but we familiarise you to our methods without you even noticing it. We have people who are responsible for seeing that everything goes smoothly and that everybody does their job and cleans up after themselves," says Hiltunen.
He brings up the so called "3-4 month slump", the time when new employees' initial excitement begins to fade. "You can tell by the way a person walks when they have reached this stage."
At this point the employees are given new work tasks and they are included in the community almost by force to re-ignite the spark.
Hiltunen takes a trip around the department twice a day to chat with his staff and "pick up on the problems". The department ensures that nobody is left alone in their office and that everybody understands what is being said. This is why the working language is always English if there is even one person present who does not understand Finnish.
There is a tradition at the Department of Biochemistry that no staff member can get out of, unless it is because of teaching duties, sickness or a work-related trip: every Tuesday morning the whole staff gets together at 9:00. This meeting is also the place where new employees are introduced to their colleagues.