Starting Your New Job

Your first days on a new job bring challenges and opportunities to learn.

Posted Nov 06, 2013

I recently heard a truly hilarious Ira Glass public radio interview about someone’s first day on a job. Called Squirrel Cop, it features the bumbling efforts of a new police officer trying to help some new homeowners with a squirrel in their attic. It doesn’t go well. I don’t want to spoil the humor, so I highly recommend you listen to it or read the script here. Warning: don’t drink anything or you’ll be doing spit-takes.

Having just started a new job myself (going from The University of Texas at Austin to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC), I particularly related to this story. The takeaway learning from the policeman’s experience was: Know your limitations—and don’t try to take on a task you’re not really prepared to do.

That’s good advice, and it got me thinking about first days on a new job and what we need to know about them. I have come to realize that starting a new job in your fifties isn’t all that different from starting a new job in your forties or even in your twenties. Some things stay the same. And I’m going to assume you already know to work hard, develop a good relationship with your supervisor, and start contributing when you can.

So here’s my list of other things to keep in mind, and I hope you will add more insights and stories:

1. Prepare to be stupid. OK, that might be a little harsh, but it’s my way of saying it’s OK not to know everything immediately. For me, the ego killer was when a colleague at another school asked me to fax her a document and I realized I had no idea how to work the fax machine and had already forgotten the passcode. Not to mention I work in an H-shaped building and I kept getting lost. I could never figure out which staircase to take or which side of the building to exit. It was always a pleasant surprise when I actually found the correct exit and didn’t have to walk around the outside of the building to get where I wanted to go.

2. It’s OK to ask questions and get help. People like to help. If you’re lucky (like I am) you’ll work at a place where people fall all over themselves to help you. Ask for advice. Check out your perceptions on office situations. Identify the office person who knows it all—there’s always at least one—and take advantage of their knowledge. In my office, that’s Vicki. If you want to know anything about the OPCD at Wake Forest, ask Vicki.

3. Don’t say anything you don’t want repeated. I was given this advice years ago in grad school by a very wise professor and I think it particularly applies to a new job. You’re the “newbie”—people are going to talk about you so don’t give them negative fodder for that discussion.

4. Don’t talk in the elevator or the bathroom. You don’t know who’s in there with you. This sage advice came from a training coordinator at my first professional job with Woodward & Lothrop department store in Washington, DC. The trainer shared a story of another management trainee who complained about the store’s management in an elevator, not realizing that the president of the store was standing behind her. She had a short career at Woodies.

5. Be friendly to everyone. You don’t know who might be able to help you out in the future and being nice never hurts anyone. Particularly if you’re not only in a new job, but are in a new location, your work site might be the source for future best friends.

6. It’s OK to be anxious. I’m a control freak, so I do things like show up 30 minutes early just in case there’s traffic. (Which has turned out to be rather humorous in Winston-Salem. Winston-Salem’s traffic report usually consists of a fallen tree limb somewhere. Austin’s could go on forever naming all the streets with accidents or traffic tie-ups.) If there’s something to obsess about, I will do that. And new jobs just intensify that. It’s OK. Anxiety can provide you with energy and focus. Everything gets easier with time.

7. Let people know who you are outside of work. Mention your hobbies or interests—you’ll get lots of good restaurant recommendations, places to visit, etc. I stumbled onto a perfectly wonderful music jam called “The Unbroken Circle” just because someone told me to contact the Dean of Admissions when I mentioned I play the guitar. Turns out she's a mighty fine autoharp player, and I have met some of the best people through that jam. I have also latched on to great writing groups and local writing conferences thanks to colleague recommendations.

8. Do your best to remember faces and names. I’ve never been great at this, and I have managed to re-introduce myself to people I’ve already met. In fact, I introduced myself at a meeting to someone I had had lunch with a few weeks before. (See #1.) I tried putting pictures with names on a chart on my wall to keep track of everyone, but it started to look like one of those Law & Order SVU suspect boards so I took it down. I will just have to work harder at mnemonic devices. And I’ve learned to say, “Nice to see you” rather than “Nice to meet you.”

9. It’s OK to be overwhelmed and homesick for awhile or wonder if you made the right choice. Everything is so new and you lose the traditional comforts you took for granted in your previous job, not to mention your friends and colleagues.  Nothing can replace Chuy’s, Iron Cactus, or ZTejas in Austin, but Winston-Salem has different but equally good BBQ (sorry Texas) and great restaurants like The Reynolda Village Tavern and Milner’s American Southern. Give yourself time. Unless your new job is completely heinous, don’t bolt. Give it at least 6 months, preferably a year.

10. Choose your workplace wisely. If you select a great place to work, your first day is just the start of an excellent experience. I have been very fortunate in my career. I have worked at some of the best colleges in the nation as well as excellent businesses and nonprofit organizations. I’ve learned a lot from them all.

Now… who has a first day on the job story—or sage advice-- to share?

©2013 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit: Victor1558 Flickr Creative Commons