It's an everyday challenge in any big company. A new employee arrives in the office and joins a team knowing little about the new position, the colleagues or the organisation as a whole. The sooner he or she is fully integrated into the company structure, the more the company can benefit from that employee's skills and potential. And well-integrated employees are typically happy employees, too.
The parallels to the situation of a host family with a new au pair are obvious. The au pair arrives at her new host family eager to take on a new role there. But to begin with she (or he) is uninformed and usually very uncertain about what that role really is and what the requirements of her position in the family structure will be.
What is really involved in bringing new au pairs successfully on board and giving them a productive role in the family "company"?
The two parts of the onboarding equation
Business theorists see the onboarding success of new employees being affected by what the hiring organisation does (on the one hand) and what the new employee does (on the other hand):
- What does the newcomer (au pair) need to do in order to find a place in the new organisation (family)? (Adjustment behaviours)
- What can the family do to make the au pair adjustment go smoothly? (Socialisation tactics)
Basically this boils down to thinking about what your au pair should focus on to quickly find a place in your family, and what you can do to help make this happen.
Adjustment behaviours (for an au pair)
So what should your au pair be doing in her first days and weeks in your home to get on board fast and effectively?
Business experts identify three basic types of activity:
Information seeking. A new team member (and a new au pair) needs to take active steps to fill knowledge gaps. That means asking lots of questions to find out what's really going on. "Where is the kids' school, what's the going to bed ritual, where is the bus stop, what's the family policy with computer use" and a hundred other questions...
There is so much to learn. An effective au pair needs to be asking lots of questions to get the information that she needs to do her job.
Feedback seeking. This is a little bit different from information seeking, but also has a lot to do with proactively overcoming knowledge deficits. Instead of asking about matters of fact, the newcomer seeks out feedback from key individuals in the team (namely the family members) about her performance. "Am I being too strict with the kids?" "Do you like your sandwich with mustard?" "Are you warm enough with one blanket?" By actively inquiring about how her efforts are being received, the au pair starts to develop a sense of what is expected of her and what she needs to be doing.
Network building. As a newcomer to an organisation puts information and feedback together, a network of relationships develops. For an au pair in a new family this is obviously crucial. Her role as a contributing family member depends on being an integral part of the family network – on combining information and feedback to establish warm and trusting relationships.
Socialisation tactics (for a family)
In business management, a basic distinction is made between formal and informal socialisation of new employees. Formal socialisation works through different activities like step-by-step orientation programs or specific training courses that address knowledge gaps that employees typically have and which need to be closed for an employee to function successfully in the new situation.
For host families, the equivalent of this formal socialisation can take a variety of forms. Many families develop a Family Handbook to give to their au pairs. This lets the host family give a lot of important information about the au pair's duties and about family practices and rules in a concentrated form. It also is a document that can be used from one au pair stay to the next. This reduces the socialisation effort for future au pair stays and lets onboarding techniques improve as the family learns from its evolving experience with different au pairs and incorporates this knowledge into their Family Handbook.
Another option for formal socialisation are online training courses focusing on au pairing in particular or important skill sets – like first-aid or language competence – that can make an au pair more effective in her role. The Australian company Sitter Train, for example, offers a six-hour course that gives new au pairs valuable information about the needs of young children, household safety and specific features of being an au pair in Australia.
Learning by doing
For informal socialisation, the basic method used in a company setting is on-the-job training, the famous learning by doing. This is reinforced by the intentional development of strong anchoring relationships. This, of course, is absolutely essential in au pairing. The host parents typically come to have a sort of mentoring role towards their au pair, and the developing connection with the children in the family give the au pair a special emotional grounding in the new situation over time.
Informal socialisation thus is taking place day by day and hour by hour as soon as the au pair stay begins. In a sense, one could say that one of the main ideas behind au pairing is to give the au pair an opportunity to become socialised in another country. When this socialisation is successful, then the family has the benefit of an added adult member working towards the shared family goals.
And how do you do it?
Here at our AuPairWorld Blog, we're always interested in the experience of experts – that means you as host families and au pairs. What do you do to help an au pair find a good place in your family? Or as an au pair, what has been important for you in successfully taking on your new role? Use our easy Blog email link to share your ideas and experiences and tips and we'll pass them on to readers in future articles!