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You’ve Got a Friend – at Work: How Peer Buddies Help New Employees Fit In

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Since 2007, Millennium has run a formal Peer Buddy program. Within this HR initiative, an experienced employee acts as a confidante for each new hire and helps him/her acclimate to the "ins and outs" of the biopharmaceutical company over the course of 3 to 12 months, explains Pamela Saras, senior director of staffing and workforce planning at Millennium. 

The Peer Buddy serves as the ultimate "go-to person" for the new hire. Among other things, the newbie can learn from the Buddy when to use a company credit card (and when not to), where to get the best lunch and how to follow the unstated "dress code." "We really want (the Buddies) to be there for them to answer any question possible," explains Saras. These inquiries may include fairly standard questions, as well as those that the new employee is reluctant to ask his own manager.

However, the Buddy’s responsibilities do not extend to training the new employee, says Saras. Their role is strictly to help the employee adjust, rather than assist her in performing job functions.

Millennium started this innovative program when human resources revamped their onboarding program six years ago, according to Saras. Since that time, more than 500 new employees have benefitted from the Peer Buddy program. This attention to the "people" side of the business contributed to Fortune Magazine naming Millennium among its 100 Best Companies to Work For in the United States this year. Millennium was also cited the #1 Place to Work by The Boston Globe in 2012.

The Peer Buddy program enriches the work experience of both the new employee and the Buddy. Dr. Dow says that Dr. Dezube has been instrumental in helping him adjust to the culture of Millennium, a big change for both men from their past careers as practicing oncologists. Employed by Millennium since 2010, Dr. Dezube remembers "the kindness showed to him" by his Peer Buddy, and wanted to help someone else in turn. Saras finds this sentiment to be true among the Peer Buddies. "People want to help, and want to give back," she explains.

Millennium’s success with the program resulted from a collaborative initiative between the company’s Staffing and Learning & Development organizations. Following the results of new hire focus groups conducted in 2011, Millennium developed a Peer Buddy Orientation that includes a 30-minute e-learning course designed by EnVision Performance Solutions, an award-winning instructional design and performance consulting firm based in Sharon, MA.

Within the program, a Millennium recruiter and hiring manager choose a Peer Buddy for each new employee. In some cases, the Buddy may be from a different department than the new hire depending on the role, says Saras. The Staffing organization administers the program by tracking assignments, monitoring completion of Buddy training, and surveying both the Peer Buddy and new hire at the end of the assignment.

In the case of Drs. Dezube and Dow, the decision to pair the two was easy. The men originally met during Dr. Dow’s third year at Tufts Medical School, when Dr. Dezube was the intern who oversaw his work. Dr. Dow remembered him as "friendly and approachable." After many years in private practice as a hematologist-oncologist, Dr. Dow reconnected with Dr. Dezube to learn about working at Millennium, paving the way for their future professional relationship. 

Though not routinely offered at all companies, a Peer Buddy or similar program has been introduced at other organizations, including Kids II, an infant and toddler product company headquartered in Atlanta, GA. Heather Crawford, vice president of human resources at Kids II, created the Peer Guide program two years ago when she revamped the company’s onboarding menu.

As with Millennium, each new hire at Kids II is paired with an experienced employee within the first week of employment. The Guide shows the new employee around the office, introduces him to colleagues and helps him adjust to Kids II’s fast-paced culture. "The goal is to build a connection between Kids II and the new employee from Day 1, and for the new hire to quickly get acclimated and immediately feel part of the Kids II team," explains Crawford.

An important part of the company’s full-cycle onboarding program, the Peer Guide gives new hires not only valuable assistance, but also a positive impression of Kids II from the start. "It’s the first experience the new hire has once they’ve come on board, so it’s important for them to understand how we function and see how we care about each individual employee," says Crawford.

Similarly, Millennium incorporates the Peer Buddy program into the onboarding process from the beginning. Saras says the Buddy introduces himself to the new employee on his or her first day, and initiates their first meeting soon after. To facilitate lunch meetings, Millennium will soon provide the Buddies with lunch vouchers to its café.

The Peer Buddy program is just one part of Millennium’s comprehensive onboarding process, according to Sara Benyamini, a learning and development specialist at the company. An orientation session instructs the new hires in the history of Millennium, the organization’s drug pipeline and the company’s culture. In addition to meeting regularly with her Peer Buddy, the new hire also will meet with the Human Resources Business Partner at her three-month anniversary to discuss her progress and receive informal feedback from the hiring manager following six months of employment, explains Benyamini. Millennium asks all new employees to complete survey evaluations and conducts new hire focus groups to further refine its onboarding program.

Onboarding is one of the practices that positions Millennium as a coveted employer in the Boston area. Millennium can boast employee turnover in the single digits, says Saras. "Our onboarding program, including Peer Buddies, is something for which we receive accolades."

With their monthly Buddy check-in winding down, Drs. Dezube and Dow conclude their meeting and return to their respective responsibilities. Dr. Dow says it is helpful having another oncologist at Millennium who also has a clinical background, and he appreciates Dr. Dezube’s guidance and friendship. "Bruce has been diligent about scheduling regular meetings, and has been helpful with practical things."

Kathy Harvey-Ellis is a freelance marketing and public relations professional who works with EnVision Performance Solutions, an award-winning instructional design and performance consulting firm in Sharon, MA.

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