by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., and Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
You know how it is.
Early on in life you learn its importance.
As you learn about job-hunting, its value again gains prominence.
And now, as you are about to start at a new job, it reaches a critical state.
What is it?
It is the impact of first impressions. In categorizing people, we all take shortcuts, and first impressions about people often turn into long-term perceptions and reputations — which are good for people who make positive first impressions (the halo effect), but bad for people who make negative first impressions.
“I think the early days are when your boss and colleagues form the most lasting impressions about you,” observes Ann Marie Russell, a program coordinator with AmeriCorps. “This is when they make assessments about your ‘typical’ behavior — the ‘type’ of person you are. If you have any attendance/punctuality issues in the first few days or weeks, you’ve already lost a significant battle — their confidence in you. People will take you as seriously as you seem to take yourself — and your work,” says Russell, a psychology grad from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
And in the workplace, during those first few early days where you are meeting everyone — and everyone is meeting you — first impressions about you and your future potential can make a major impact on your future success with the organization.
“You have to realize that first impressions are remembered,” says a general-business major, “and even if you talk to someone who isn’t related to your job . . . they may know someone who is. Watch what you say and do. Things can come back to haunt you.”
Not to worry, though; in most situations, employers don’t expect you to knock their socks off or hit homeruns during those first few weeks. Most employers realize that there is a learning curve for most positions. So, there is often an unofficial grace period while you settle into your job.
How can you improve your chances for making a great first impression when you’re starting a new job? Here are 20 tips — along with some comments and suggestions from job-seekers who have been there — to help you make a great impression.
Have a Positive Attitude
Nothing works better — in all situations — than having and expressing a positive attitude. Let your enthusiasm for being part of the team and the organization show to everyone you interact with. And always leave non-work problems at home.
Dress Professionally/Blend in With Co-Workers
You should never underestimate the importance of dressing professionally in your new job. And in the beginning, even if your department has casual days, you should dress professionally because you never know when you’ll be called out to meet a top manager or key client. “Dress how you want people to perceive you because it plays a huge role in how you are initially treated,” advises Desiree Devaney, a financial analyst with GE Capital Credit. “Perfectly groomed means efficient and reliable in work; unkempt means disorganized and therefore difficult to trust with different assignments. After awhile, people realize these things do not necessarily correspond, but initially, your looks and dress are your representation to them.” (See lots more comments from rookie workers about dressing for success in our collection of entry-level quotes, How to Make the Best Impression in Your First Days on the Job.)
Show Your Team Spirit
You are now part of a work team, and teams work together to solve problems and get the job done. Show loyalty to your co-workers and focus more — initially at least — on sharing any recognition you get with the team. Always give credit to the team.
Learn Co-Workers’ Names Quickly
No one expects you to have everyone’s name down pat by the end of the first day or week, but if you are bad with names, now is the time to research some of the neat memory-aid tricks you can try to use. Certainly, as soon as possible, learn the names of every member of your team. And if you are in a situation in which you forget a person’s name, the best solution is simply to apologize and ask the person’s name again.
Ask Questions/Ask for Help
No one expects you to solve all the organization’s problems on your first days on the job — nor that you know everything — so, relax a bit, and always ask questions or ask for help when you need it. Remember that it’s better to ask before you’ve completed the task the wrong way and wasted all that time. “Be open-minded,” suggests an English language and literature grad. “I think when you are just starting out, it is easy to feel somewhat competitive; you may feel that you have something to prove. In effect, that kind of thinking will probably land you in the unemployment line again. Be co-operative, LISTEN, ask questions — no one expects you to know everything — and communicate openly with colleagues and supervisors.”
Take Notes/Go to Orientation
Unless you have a photographic memory — and few of us do — consider taking notes on all the various systems and rules of the organization. And no matter how boring they may sound, attend all orientation sessions. Nothing gets old faster than someone repeatedly asking how something works; such behavior shows a lack of attention to detail.
Be a Self-Starter; Take Initiative
In most situations, in your first days on the job, you will be given small doses of work — to let you get your feet wet. As you finish assignments and are ready to handle a bigger workload, take the initiative and ask for more assignments. Whatever you do, don’t just sit there waiting for your next project. Agrees Ali von Staudach, senior account executive for CNET Networks, “Be proactive. Don’t wait for an assignment. Stick up your hand and ask for something to do,” advises von Staudach, a communication studies grad.
“Volunteer for things even though you don’t know how to do it or what needs to be done to accomplish it,” suggests Stephen Magennis, whose first job out of college was as a benefits analyst for Hewitt Associates, Orlando, FL. “There will be people [who need] help, and they will appreciate your efforts to start making an immediate impact. Many times, there may be some tasks that you can accomplish with a little guidance, which will probably free up time for someone who needs to work on more important items,” Magennis offers.
Discover Everything About Your New Employer
In theory, you should have already done your homework during the interviewing process, but there is always more to learn now that you are on the inside. “Get an employee handbook” exhorts a MBA grad with an information-technology concentration. “Don’t act or think you know more about everything than your peers.” In addition, gather all those reports and company literature and read up and become an expert on your organization.
Work Full Days
“Be on time, come in early, stay a little later,” suggests von Staudach. “Even though I have a 9 to 5 job, it has been expressed to my co-workers and me that our director expects us to be in at 8:30 and stay past 5 p.m. because it looks like we are go-getters and into our jobs.” There’s nothing that can affect your reputation faster than routinely coming into work late or leaving work early. Especially in these first days/weeks on the job, be sure you get to work early and leave no earlier than when the majority of your co-workers leave. An engineering grad adds, “Be dedicated and flexible. Once you have established yourself, you can leave early, go out for lunch, shift your hours, or take work home with you. But in the beginning, be totally dedicated to being there all the time and picking up as much as you can possibly handle.”
Establish a Good Attendance Record
Just as with working full days, it’s important to show up to work every day and establish a good attendance record. Yes, there will be emergencies, and yes, you may get sick, but as best you can, try to make it to work every day during those first weeks/months on the job.
Avoid Office Politics and Gossip
As with any social organization, the workplace is full of rumors and gossip. Your mission is to keep your nose clean of all of it — and be sure not to associate too often with the office gossips or risk having your image associated with them. “DO NOT get involved in any trash talking around the office,” says an English education grad. “Don’t — repeat — don’t solicit gossip.”
Magennis agrees: “Stay out of the office politics for as long as possible,” he says. “It’s inevitable that you will be exposed to them sooner or later, and you will most likely participate in them as well as it’s human nature. But stay out of the game for the first few months.”
Keep Personal Business on Company Time to a Minimum
Studies show that just about everyone conducts some amount of personal business on company time — checking email, making dinner reservations, buying stuff online. Your goal is to keep your personal business to a minimum and stay focused on work.
Take Advantage of After-Hours Activities
Many organizations have formal or informal after-hour activities, such as sports leagues. Get involved — even if only as a cheerleader — because these types of activities are great ways to bond with your co-workers. Do be on your best behavior during these outside-work activities, though. “If attending happy hours with co-workers, never drink more than one drink,” suggests Anne Johnson, senior corporate relations coordinator for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Johnson, an economics grad from the University of Dallas, goes on to recall, “A co-worker that started about four months after me came to a happy hour with us and had too much to drink. Now, no one will invite her again. You don’t want to make a stupid mistake like that.”
Listen More than Talk
“Listen, Listen, Listen … don’t act like a know-it-all right off the bat,” cautions one entry-level worker. “The idea is to communicate that you have some very marketable skills and you are here to learn and apply your skills to help the organization achieve success.” One of the hardest skills to learn for some of us — especially extraverts — is that, when we are new to the organization, it’s better to listen then talk. You don’t want to get the reputation as the office know-it-all — or worse, someone who always has to have the limelight. If you have a legitimate contribution, make it, but if not, do more listening and absorbing those first days on the job.
As we say repeatedly throughout Quintessential Careers, it’s up to you to track your accomplishments; no one else will do it for you. Tracking your accomplishments is great for any number of reasons — for your personal satisfaction, for raise and promotion meetings, and for future job-hunting. To ensure that you stay on top of tracking your accomplishments, read our article, For Job-Hunting Success: Track and Leverage Your Accomplishments and use our Accomplishments Worksheet.
Nothing works like kindness and genuine appreciation. So, show your appreciation to everyone who helps you learn the ropes during your first days on the job — from your co-workers to receptionists to the human resources folks.
Find a Mentor
You don’t need to jump on this task your first day, but as you get introduced to senior staff, begin thinking about developing a mentoring relationship with a member of management above you — and outside your department — in the organization. Mentoring has numerous benefits, from a simple sounding board to someone who helps direct and advance your career within the organization.
Get and Stay Organized/Set Goals
If you’re one of those super-organized people, this tip will be easy for you. The rest of us, however, need to develop a system for keeping track of meetings, appointments, assignments, and projects. Get an organizer or planner and keep on top of all your work. You certainly don’t want to miss an early key deadline or meeting. And as you look ahead, set goals for yourself — and then strive to achieve them. “I set goals for myself,” notes a 2001 education grad. “I wanted to appear professional in my dress, posture, and speech. I wrote that goal on index cards and put them everywhere.”
Keep Your Boss Informed — of Everything
Your boss is not a mind-reader, so keep him/her informed of how you are doing. Especially in those early days, meet with your boss to further establish a rapport and relationship. “Request meetings with your boss on a consistent basis to review performance. Express interest in moving ahead and ask what else you can be doing to get to that next step,” advises von Staudach. Be sure she/he knows you are a self-starter and hard-worker. Just don’t bring the boss every little problem; instead, for minor issues, ask for help from co-workers.
Meet and Network with Key People in Organization & Profession
“Network,” advises von Staudach. “Join an organization outside of work. Take additional classes to stay ahead in your field. Take advantage of every opportunity to network with key people in your organization and profession — attend staff meetings, professional organization conferences, trade shows — every opportunity to meet colleagues in your field. Just because you have a new job does not mean you suspend your network; constantly manage and grow your network of contacts because you never know when a problem or opportunity will arise. And networking with key people can also help you in finding one or more mentors.
Similarly, a psychology grad cautions against getting too comfortable: “Keep setting goals, networking, and keeping your ears open. Most college grads will switch positions or companies many times before the age of 30.”
Final Thoughts on Your First Days on the Job
Being the newest member of the organization — the rookie — is both challenging and exciting. You’ll be faced with both difficulties and opportunities, and your goal should be to make the most of all situations. These 20 tips should help provide you with some insights and direction as you approach that new job, but don’t worry if you don’t make a perfect first impression in those early days on the job — few of us ever do. Remember to relax, keep your mind open, get to know your team members, and do your work — and you should go far in making a lasting impression and reputation.