Adaptation of new civil service employees: Experience of the State Customs Service

Adaptation of new civil service employees is a process that requires a lot of attention, because it creates an effective basis for the future work of the employee. 

First and foremost, it is an opportunity to learn the goals and values of the particular state body, with the tasks, ethics, rules. It is the understanding of these things that allows newcomers to feel “in the right place”, feel less stress, and therefore start performing their duties faster and more efficiently. 

An example of high-quality onboarding was the Startbook guide for beginners — a manual for newly appointed employees of the State Customs Service.

It is a modern tool to facilitate the adaptation of newly appointed customs officials, where they will find answers to most of the questions that will arise in the first months of work. It was developed by the State Customs Service together with “EU Public Management Support Programme for Ukraine (EU4PFM)”. 

You can download the Startbook here.

We discussed the value of the adaptation process for newcomers, hiring when competitions have been suspended, and mentoring in the civil service with the representatives of the State Customs Service. 

— How urgent is the need for new employees for the State Customs Service today? (How many vacancies are currently open?) 

— The State Customs Service is constantly taking measures to hire new customs staff. According to the Action Plan for the Implementation of the Personnel Management Strategy of the State Customs Service of Ukraine for 2021–2024, we mostly hire graduates of specialised higher educational institutions with which we signed the relevant memorandums of cooperation and interaction. Currently there is a large-scale process of reassigning the staff from customs offices who worked on the border with the Russian Federation/Belarus to customs offices in other regions, mainly in the western part of Ukraine. Therefore, the largest number of vacancies are in Volyn, Lviv, Zakarpattia and Chernivtsi customs offices, as well as in Odesa customs office.

— How do you recruit people when there are no competitions, what does the procedure look like? To what extent does the state of war complicate this process?  

— Despite the tense situation, the State Customs Service is making all necessary efforts to ensure proper selection of customs personnel.

A special subsection was created on the website of the State Customs Service in the “Work with personnel” section in order to optimise and centralise the candidate search process. It contains a list of information that anyone who wants to work in customs can send to [email protected].

Such information is considered and sent to the relevant territorial body of the State Customs Service according to the region of Ukraine specified by that person.

Under the procedure for appointing personnel in accordance with the legislation during the period of martial law, the person must submit an application, a completed passport form in the established format and documents confirming Ukrainian citizenship, education and work experience of such persons.

In addition, within the State Customs Service each candidate is thoroughly checked by the Personnel Department, the Department of Internal Security and a specialised unit, after which they are approved by the Head or the Acting Head of the State Customs Service.

The most pressing problems are: insufficient level of wages and material and technical support of customs offices, reluctance of young people to work at remote checkpoints, a significant number of reorganisations of customs which does not allow a full assessment of the need for personnel.

The leadership of the State Customs Service is actively working to improve the situation, including cooperating with members of parliament of Ukraine on the adoption of relevant legislative changes.

— What professional personnel does the State Customs Service need the most now? 

— The greatest need for personnel in the State Customs Service is, of course, on the western border of our country since the load on it has increased significantly after the beginning of the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation. First and foremost, these are positions that involve customs clearance at checkpoints across the state border, as well as at internal customs. There are vacancies in many other customs offices.

— Why was there a need for a handbook for newly appointed persons, and have you already used it for new employees?

— The State Customs Service has always understood the need for such a tool for working with personnel, but its practical implementation became possible within the framework of the EU4PFM programme. Experts of the programme and responsible officials of the Personnel Department of the State Customs Service performed a huge task developing the Startbook — a special guide that contains all the necessary information for a newly appointed person. The Startbook has been actively used for new employees of the State Customs Service since April of this year. A version of the Startbook for local offices of the State Customs Service will be created soon.

— How important are the first three months of work for new employees for further professional growth and establishing communication with colleagues? What challenges can new employees face at this stage? How to help effectively deal with them?

The specifics of customs authorities require rapid adaptation of new employees, especially those who are hired for operational positions. The first three months of work are crucial to start developing the official as a professional. During this period, the official should not only acquire professional knowledge and develop skills, but also understand the role of customs authorities as a whole. In addition, the person may be vulnerable to corruption risks. The approach of the State Customs Service to overcoming the challenges that the newly appointed officials will face is based on the following elements: 

— The Startbook includes answers to questions for beginners that arise most often and serves as a guide. Did it prove to be useful during the three months that it was actively used by newly appointed officials? Can you give an initial assessment of the results? 

— The Startbook provides a comprehensive overview of the State Customs Service and its role in the state administration system. It contains information about the history, main tasks of the State Customs Service, its symbols, as well as other elements of corporate culture. In addition, the Startbook contains useful information on the first steps and general advice for a newly appointed employee. We have already received positive feedback about the Startbook not only from newly appointed employees, but also from those officials who have been working in the public administration system for many years. Many of them note that they are generally pleasantly surprised by the updated procedure for the adaptation of a newly appointed employee in the State Customs Service, as it allows such an employee to feel as part of the organisation from day one.

— Mentor for a newly appointed employee: who are they, how is this cooperation structured? 

— Mentoring is a professional relationship in which an experienced person helps another person develop specific skills and knowledge to accelerate professional and personal growth. Leadership is an important component of mentoring. Mentoring helps create an environment of satisfied, motivated, productive and qualified employees. This, in turn, improves the overall quality of work, develops leaders and improves communication between employees at all levels. Mentors are selected from among experienced and highly qualified officials who have experience working in customs, possess high professional, moral, ethical and personal qualities necessary for mentoring, are respected and have authority in the team. The main task of the mentor is to adapt the newly appointed official to the work process, corporate culture and to promote their further development. Mentoring consists of providing consultations, advice and explanations to the newly appointed employee on issues related to the performance of his/her duties, providing assistance in the development and improvement of his/her own abilities and skills. The mentoring institute is an important component of preserving institutional memory in customs.

— What criteria are used to evaluate the work of a new employee (and, consequently, make a decision about further cooperation)? 

— Any person appointed to a position at the customs office has to go through a probationary period which lasts 1 to 6 months. During such period the officials must perform the tasks assigned to them in accordance with their official duties. The performance of these tasks is comprehensively monitored which involves checking the quality, timeliness and effectiveness of performance indicators, including those defined in the contract.

Startbook should make it as easy as possible for newcomers to the customs service to start their career in the service,” said Jurgita Domeikiene, Team Leader of the EU Public Management Support Programme for Ukraine (EU4PFM). 

— Why is it important to pay significant attention to the adaptation of newly appointed employees? And how to train new employees in terms of training and corporate values?

Jurgita Domeikiene (J.D.):  Corporate onboarding came to the public sector from business, while mentoring in the civil service was more informal and mostly existed as a common practice, with no formalised procedures. Therefore, an onboarding process is necessary to improve the performance of newly hired employees, as well as to reduce turnover (because if employees can’t adapt, they often leave the service). 

In order to retain new employees, the initial stages of their employment should be as easy as possible. Studying a short, clear and understandable work procedures and corporate values helps achieve this goal. The employee handbook is an important resource to help employees during the onboarding process. A well-prepared, informative and professionally designed Startbook allows newly appointed employees to receive important information about the organisation’s policies and procedures, as well as all important practices of this organisation. The employee handbook helps newcomers transition to the corporate culture and work environment, prepare for the new job and responsibilities, and feel comfortable in their organisation. Customs is very complex in theory and in practice, its complete description would take many volumes. That is why it is so important to give a new employee a basic understanding of the profession from the very beginning in the form of a “pocket book”. With its help, a young employee will quickly and successfully learn the details and subtleties of skill, join the team and build a successful career.

— In general, how does the onboarding process and such tools as Startbook help with management? 

J.D.: Such tools improve the adaptation of a new employee to the work regime. If we consider the latest onboarding models, they also improve the atmosphere and corporate culture, as new employees can also transfer their knowledge to mentors. This employee book defines the organisation and methods of cooperation. It helps create a fair and productive work environment, as it also spells out the organisation’s expectations, obligations and responsibilities. Young people come to customs from other places, they are representatives of a new world with new technologies and new thinking. Therefore, the learning process is mutual — during the onboarding the newcomer receives all the information about the organisation and the work environment, while the organisation also benefits from the knowledge that the employee brings. The ancient Romans had a saying “docendo discimus” which means “by teaching we learn”.

— Are there plans to introduce similar manuals for other public authorities? Who should initiate such a request? 

J.D.: The Tax Service already has a similar manual, and the Ministry of Finance has also received instructions on the development and implementation of such a tool. As for the initiative, it should come from the personnel management service of the public authority, which, in turn, should have the support of the management. Within our project we had a complete understanding with the management of all public authorities we cooperated with. Therefore, the development and implementation of similar manuals for other public authorities can be discussed at the initiative of the personnel management service of these authorities. At the same time, it is important that such an initiative has the support of the management and is taken into account in the general strategic plan of such authority.

— Why is reforming HR function so important? And what, in your opinion, needs to be radically changed in this area? 

J.D.: Human resource management is key when it comes to the performance of any organisation — neither IT solutions, nor procedures but people who achieve results. People with relevant competencies are needed in every organisation so human resource management should be based on competencies. For several years, experts of the EU Public Management Support Programme for Ukraine (EU4PFM) have been raising awareness of Ukrainian public finance management institutions regarding the competency-based approach to human resource management. 

The experience of public services of different countries shows that the integration of the competency model into the organisation’s performance management system leads to clearer standards for assessing the skills of civil servants, increases the clarity, level of trust and consistency of decisions regarding human resources management. The quality of selection of civil servants is improving. The efficiency of career management for civil servants is also increasing, and their training is organised more efficiently. I believe that such an approach will work in Ukrainian context and that it can be very useful for Ukrainian civil service. Currently, a competency model for Ukrainian customs is being developed based on the European competency model for customs with the help of EU4PFM experts. This is another joint activity of the Customs Service of Ukraine and EU4PFM, which is implemented together with the Startbook project.