February 13, 2012

How can I optimize my first day on the job?

Filed under: Q&A, Readers' Forum, Success at Work

In the February 14, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to make the most of the first day on the job:

I am starting a new job soon and would like your suggestions on how to make a great first impression. I can do the handshaking and small talk, but what else? I’ve read that one should meet with the boss at the end of the first day for a check-in. I really want to do this right and show that I’m part of the team.

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

My Advice

It is indeed a good idea to stop by your boss’s office at the end of your first day to say thanks for the job and to check in. I’m glad that you’re thinking about the impression you will create. Too often, new hires are too nervous to think at all during the first day! Monitoring how you’re doing is an important part of achieving success.

I encourage you to apply this perspective not just to your first day, but to your first week, first month, three months, six months and first year. Asking for and getting good feedback is a great way to become part of the team.

Check in with your boss regularly to ensure you’re meeting expectations and that you understand your objectives. Be diplomatic and be confident.

If something goes wrong, or just feels wrong

(Sorry, this part is only in the newsletter… Don’t miss next week’s edition. Sign up now. It’s free!)…

After you’ve been oriented and after you’ve been assigned your first tasks, take time to outline the work you are to do. Also outline how you’re going to do it, including an overall strategy, specific steps, tools you will use, and so on. Include estimated (or mandated) milestone dates along with measures of your own performance.

Then sit down with your boss and go over your written outline.

  • Ask for comments and suggestions about your work plan.
  • Ask how you might tune it to match the company’s and the department’s style.
  • Discuss how your work will contribute to the company’s (or department’s) profitability.

This establishes an important kind of self-monitoring that will build your credibility.

If your boss responds positively, ask to meet managers and staff in departments “upstream and downstream” from your own, to learn how your work fits with theirs.

It’s very smart to start out on the right foot. But then you must demonstrate periodically that you’re not just doing the work — you’re thinking about how it affects the company’s success. After all, that’s what you were hired for, right?

(Once you figure it all out and you get good at your job, remember this: Don’t be afraid to do the job your way. Regular talks with your boss can make this possible.)

Best wishes on your first days!

What’s your experience been when starting a new job? What did you do to optimize your success? And… how did you screw up in those first few days or weeks? We’ll all learn something from everyone’s stories — please post and join in the discussion!

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18 Comments on “How can I optimize my first day on the job?”
By Steve Amoia
February 14, 2012 at 11:37 am

“One in 25 new employees quits on the first day. Talk about a waste of time and money! A statistic like this one really makes you think about what goes wrong in the recruiting, hiring, and onboarding processes.”

Kevin Sheridan, “Building a Magnetic Culture.”

By Chris
February 14, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Politely introduce yourself to all the support staff/clerical workers in accounting/payroll/purchasing/maintenance/IT/etc. They’ll help you learn the mechanics of day-to-day paperwork (and overlook your inevitable mistakes) so you can concentrate on doing your actual job. They’ll also help you learn the political landscape.

If there’s a receptionist (rare, these days) introduce yourself and get to know her*. She knows more about what goes on in the company than most.

(* Yes, her. It’s usually a woman. If it’s a man, fine, substitute appropriate gender pronouns.)

By lynda
February 14, 2012 at 6:42 pm

My Steve sounding a little bitter! Hope you have a happier evening than you did morning! :)

By marybeth
February 14, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Good points Nick. I also agree with Chris that introducing yourself to the sec’y/receptionist and making her one of your new best friends is a good idea. Chris is right–she knows everything that is going on in the company/agency/dept., even more than the boss.

@Steve: Ha! In the job I had before my last job, I wish that I had quit on the first day. It would have saved me aggravation, stress, and more.

It was my first day on my new job. I had already met privately with my boss, then she took me to HR to fill out the paperwork. Afterwards, we headed back to her dept., where she introduced me to the others in the dept. I politely and cheerfully went around, learning names, shaking hands, saying that I was happy to be there and looked forward to working here and with them. But one woman…upon being introduced to her, I extended my hand and said the usual pleasantries (nice to meet you, etc.), and she looked me in the eye, looked at my hand, looked me in the eye again, then turned and walked away without acknowledging me. She let me know that she had seen and heard me, and that she was snubbing me. I’d never seen her before, never worked with her or anyone in her family at other jobs. The boss didn’t say anything, and I was shocked at the rude behavior. She was supposed to train me in some tasks, but she didn’t. She refused to answer my questions. Months later I learned that she doesn’t “take well to new people” (and no, she wasn’t autistic or didn’t have any certifiable mental or emotional problems)–if you were with the company for less than 20 years, you didn’t exist in her mind.

The boss didn’t say anything–didn’t explain her to me, and to my knowledge, didn’t say anything to this “colleague”. She was a sniper too–sniped at my clothes (I wore suits and dressier clothes until I saw that the others dressed more casually on a daily basis), that I didn’t have a leather jacket (what are we, in 8th grade?), that I didn’t buy snacks twice per day from the coffee cart when it made the rounds (we had a cafeteria in the building, and twice per day they sent a coffee cart around to the depts–those buying coffee and a sugary snack could easily spend $5.00 each time–$50.00 per week, not including lunch), that I drank tea (so I must be sick–never occurred to her and her cronies that I drank tea because I preferred it to coffee), that I didn’t buy lunch at the cafeteria (too expensive–I brown-bagged it), that I chose to take a walk on the trail around the building during my breaks (criticized me for it, when 5 of the 6 others in the dept. were severely obese–well over 300 pounds), criticized me for not joining Weight Watchers (brought in by a number of employees in multiple depts. who wanted to lose weight, though how this was accomplished with the extra creamy lattes and peanut butter fudge pie and death by chocolate giant cookies from the coffee cart twice per day is a mystery).

In hindsight, I should have taken that employee’s treatment of me that first day (and the boss’ turning a blind eye to it) as a indication that this wasn’t going to work out for me and quit. I didn’t quit because I didn’t have another job, so I stuck it out until the junior high school sniping and pettiness (and it got worse) drove me nuts. I was out of work for about a month, then got my last job.

Steve, sometimes there’s ignorance as in the employee not being informed about what the job will be, or being told on day one that he’ll be doing a different job than the one he was hired for. Sometimes the employee gets there and realizes “holy shit, there’s no way any human being can do this job, so I’d better quit before I get in too deep and get fired”. Sometimes the employee assumes there will be training, and there is none. Or that colleagues will be there to help, then he witnesses juvenile behavior and instances of back-stabbing/throwing others under the bus (it is just a matter of time before it happens to you).

I gave it a chance, hoping that this woman was just having a bad day and unfairly took it out on me. Later I realized that was who she was, her personality. In hindsight, I should have quit sooner, like on the first day.

Nick made a comment about candidates’ treatment–how you’re treated by employers during the interview process is the best its going to get. I guess I would extend that to the early days on the job. It’s like when you first go out with someone–he’s on his best behavior, then relaxes and lets his true personality show as time goes on (or she, as the case may be). I should have know that if this is how I am treated on day one, and this colleague gets away with that kind of behavior, it isn’t going to get any better–it will get worse.

So pay attention to how your colleagues and other support staff treat you and others! Don’t ignore bad behavior!

By G
February 14, 2012 at 10:33 pm

marybeth’s example is just one of the many incompetent bosses. Even the ones who are fairly competent are often pretty terrible at directly supervising their employees and just assume that if no one is complaining that everything must be going well.

So it’s usually up to you to ask for guidance. Start out by meeting everyone, of course, as people have suggested above. If you don’t get any specific guidance from your new boss about what exactly you’re supposed to be doing (with priorities and deadlines) by the end of the day then go right in to visit the boss and ask for that information. The really wimpy bosses won’t want to say so get them to agree to a short time, maybe the first week, and plan on going back. Make it look fairly informal but make sure you get priorities for future assignments and feedback for past ones. Mark your calendar to make sure you keep on doing this. You’ll know you’re going back often enough if you never catch yourself wondering whether you’re doing the right and/or expected thing.

And good luck!

By Steve Amoia
February 15, 2012 at 10:48 am

@Lynda

Not bitter at all. I did a book review a few weeks ago and was struck by the first-day statistic. The author also stated a few other facts about our discussion here this week:

“According to HR Solutions’ Research Institute, only 59 percent of employees believe their orientation was adequate. The way new employees are treated on their first day is extremely important in building a long-term relationship. As with any new relationship, first impressions count.”

“More than 59 percent of all employees who leave an organization do so between six months and one year after their start date. Of those who stay, another 50 percent leave before two years of employment.”

@Marybeth

Exactly. That is what Kevin Sheridan discussed in his book. Also that the costs involved on both sides for someone leaving quickly should give pause for thought. In terms of candidates and employers understanding the requirements/expectations of the job.

By Nick Corcodilos
February 15, 2012 at 5:11 pm

My favorite statistic about hiring comes from a Columbia U researcher who will remain nameless til I find the citation… but it goes like this… the correlation between performance in a job interview and performance on the job is about ZERO.

@Steve A: For now I’d love to get the citation for that 25% statistic, which doesn’t surprise me at all. Overall, I think employers do a lousy job of hiring.

@Lynda: Guess I’m having a bad day, too! ;-)

By marybeth
February 15, 2012 at 5:35 pm

@Steve: that is a scary statistic (re the number of new employees who quit on the first day). What I wonder is if that statistic is qualified and quantified–why did those people quit? Did they show up for their first day and learn there was to be a trial by fire? No training? No one to help them? Did they see other employees leaving, hear bad things about the company from others? Did they get there and realize that despite having successful interviews with the hiring manager, the culture was toxic? Sometimes you and the boss/hiring manager can hit it off, but you’re lied to and don’t realize until you start that you won’t be working with the hiring manager–you’re working with someone else, who hates you on sight.

Sometimes candidates don’t ask the right questions during the screenings and job interviews. And sometimes they do ask the right questions, but they’re treated like mushrooms–kept in the dark, fed manure, so the truth only becomes apparent when they arrive for work.

And sometimes it is that HR or the hiring manager or someone else didn’t do their due diligence–they screened out all the right people because they used keywords, used age cutoffs, being unemployed, etc. as ways to not to have to look at people’s actual abilities.

Interesting too that only 59% of employees think their orientation was adequate. In my case at my second-to-last job (the one with the witchy colleague), the boss didn’t train me–she turned over training to others in the dept. There was no rhyme or reason–it depended upon their schedules and what else they had to do. The other problem was the witchy woman–the others excused her behavior, but if I had to ask her a question because I was learning on the job, she was more likely to give me a wrong answer, then throw me under the bus, or not give any answer at all. That’s inadequate training. I’m a quick study, but that doesn’t mean I intuitively know everything, and I would think that being new means there’s going to be questions.

At my last job, there was no orientation at all. My first day on the job was the guy I was replacing’s last day on the job. I had about 2 hours with him–just enough to learn where files were, what the password was for the computer, and that was it. There was no one else to ask, and I remember being confused at times, not knowing the answers, and I’d call the Graduate School for guidance. I introduced myself, said which dept. I worked for, that I was new, and I hoped they could help me. Sometimes they could help–and other times they’d say “that sounds like it is a program/dept. question/issue”–meaning I needed to find a faculty member, or, more likely, figure it out myself, and ask him or her, or they’d say “that sounds like a Cont. Ed. issue”, then I’d thank them and call Cont. Ed.

Yes, you’re right. First impressions matter. I’ll always always always remember the witchy colleague at my second-to-last job, and the junior high mentality and culture of the place. I wouldn’t wish that kind of experience on anyone.

Re the last job, despite the rocky start, it worked out okay, for a while. My first three bosses (first one resigned due to not getting any support from other faculty and the dean, and getting undermined by faculty; second and third ones retired) were really good. One didn’t know a lot because she wasn’t given support and she didn’t know that help was available from the Grad School, which would have made the program run more smoothly. The other two were there longer, and knew the system better, but they retired. Then the last two bosses were from hell. Piled on more and more work, didn’t respect my hours and deadlines (or anyone else’s), didn’t communicate with me, didn’t bother to learn what I did to make the program run smoothly (and it did run smoothly).

I stuck it out, hoping it would get better. It didn’t. If either one or both of the two bosses who retired had stayed, I’d still be there. Sometimes a job can start fine, then management or ownership or even other staff change, and depending on who you’re dealing with, then the job can go from being a good one that you like to one that is unmanageable, undoable, and one that you hate.

You’ve probably heard the statement that people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their bosses/managers. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

You can be the most pleasant person in the world, easy to work with, but if the people around you are difficult or the culture is toxic, then it isn’t a good fit. You might be able to do a fantastic job, but if your colleagues and supervisor are horrible, then it doesn’t matter.

By Steve Amoia
February 15, 2012 at 6:47 pm

@Nick C.

The one in 25 who quit on their first day reference was according to Judy Enns, Executive Vice President of HR Solutions/Eastridge Administrative Services per the notes section of the book.

@Marybeth

You will have to read the book. :)

Jokes aside, the points that you raised likely cover many of the scenarios.

By Jane Atkinson
February 15, 2012 at 7:45 pm

I recall Richard N. Bolles making a similar remark about large proportions of employees quitting shortly after being hired.

I also seem to recall him saying something along the lines of choosing employees by pulling names out of a hat being more effective than the traditional interviewing process.

I think that this would have been around 1995 or so, and I don’t think I have that copy of What Color is your Parachute any more. But have things really changed that much since then?

Maybe he was having a bad day, too. :)

By Don Harkness
February 15, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Nick gave good advise. Another way of saying it is to on board yourself when there’s none done by the company & your boss. Just balance the checking in. 1st day, end of 1st week, and roughly the schedule Nick noted…but also note what he didn’t say, not every day, not every week, else you’ll cross the line into being perceived as insecure, needing your hand held etc.
Also good advise in getting to know everyone else, the support teams. They’ll be a source to take questions to and not be in your boss’s face constantly..and it won’t hurt the support folks feeling that someone cares what they do
And “secretary” is too general. You particularly want to know and get on good terms with your bosses admin/gate keeper. They will be plugged into the gatekeeper network & know really well what’s going on, and your bosses admin knows your boss to a T and can keep you out of trouble.
I worked for a guy, a great boss really, but he had this one problem…about once in a quarter he’d go on a long lunch, a toot, and be six sheets to the wind afterwards. He did a personality flip and was not a nice person to be around. Fortunately his admin (who didn’t approve) would throw a polite body block on you if you were heading for his door and tell you it wasn’t a good time to meet with him as “he was sick”. It only took once to fail to crack the code to figure it out…when she said he was sick..hide.
Where we work, we’ve decided to put into place a strong on boarding program, ranging from orientation and selected training (admin, vocational, technical) and then follow up to see how it’s going (I’m a recruiter/HR there). We want to differentiate ourselves from other companies that basically do as noted, walk you around, do some handshakes, with the last stop a pool into which you get kicked.

By G
February 16, 2012 at 1:33 am

More than once in my career when I showed up for my first day at a new job my boss and immediate coworkers seemed rather surprised to see me that day and had to scrounge around to find a desk for me. On one of those jobs they had begged me to start earlier rather than give two weeks notice to my old job so I thought they were in a hurry for me to get started. And they turned out to be pretty good jobs after all, just with a weird start.

By marybeth
February 16, 2012 at 6:56 pm

@Steve Amoia: will check the book out. Sounds like it will be interesting reading, and anything that gives me insight into how companies/agencies/employers operate and think is always helpful as it gives me the tools to strategize and find ways around the bumps instead of falling into the potholes.

@Don: you’re right–you want to check in, to be visible, but not to come across as needy and incapable. Loved your story re the boss who went on periodic benders! At least all you had to do was know the code “He’s sick” in order for you to hide. It could have been worse–he could have been the kind of boss who, when “sick”, went around the office/building looking for victims. Hiding in your cube wouldn’t have been enough–you’d need to dig a foxhole, don the body armor and the camoflage, then hide…and hope he wouldn’t see you. Oy.

@Jane: The basic concepts Bolles set out in his book haven’t changed. 1995…human beings were probably putting names on slips of paper, then mixing them up in a hat. But at least they handled the resumes and maybe, just maybe, read them. Maybe I’m being too generous. Today, a computer does the selecting–no human eyes ever see resumes and no human brains ever consider them. No wonder there’s problems. But they’re easily solved–have human beings actually read the applications that come in. Ban keywords. Turn over the job to the hiring manager and maybe get him a temp or commandeer someone in the dept. getting the new employee (and who know something about the job and what they’re looking for in a candidate) to help. Limit HR to payroll and benefits.

The more technology takes over this process, the more frustrated job seekers (and employers) are. Employers have to be willing to stop the insanity, otherwise there will be a whole cottage industry devoted to helping people get around the electronic application process and HR.

Thanks again Nick. And I don’t think anyone’s having a bad day. We’re all just more than a little cynical, having been burned (or scorched, depending upon your experiences) by the process.

By Nick Corcodilos
February 17, 2012 at 11:36 am

@G: Long ago, when I showed up for my new job at sales director level – the company relocated me! – no one at the facility knew why I was there. There was no office, no desk, no phone. So I moved into the conference room and took it over – for a month. My new boss wasn’t interested – he was at the corporate office. So I went to the guy in charge of facilities, who was a senior VP. He smiled at me and said, “When your production reaches $X, I’ll install an office for you. Ha ha.” 30 days later, he had to install a new office for me. We became pretty good buddies.

By Dave
February 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm

@ marybeth,

That’s why I advocate using temp workers to sort through all the applicants. Can’t be any worse than the current system. Why pay someone a percentage of a decent salary when you can pay someone $10/hr.

(Yeah I know this is an over simplification)

By Nick Corcodilos
February 17, 2012 at 12:26 pm

@Dave: Isn’t using temp workers to sort through job applicants kinda like hiring someone to review girls who walk by so they can advise you which one to talk to about a date?

Sorry for the crude analogy, but I think it’s apt. How does a $10/hr temp know who you’re looking for, or how to judge talent? It’s the epitome of what’s wrong with hiring. Then managers complain there’s a talent shortage.

The solution to having too many (mostly wrong) applicants to review is to stop making cattle calls.

Unless of course you’re being sarcastic.

By Dave
February 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm

@Nick –

Was being a bit sarcastic ;-) (Should have prefaced that).

My poorly illustrated point was that if you’re going to hire a $100,000 employee and pay a “recruiter” $25,000 fee, and said “recruiter” is going to just do a simple keyword search or post something on Monster (and sort through all the resumes), there are cheaper ways of doing it.

Sorry for the confusion ;-)

By Nick Corcodilos
February 17, 2012 at 2:26 pm

@Dave: Oh, Man am I relieved. I felt like I unloaded on you… but I’ve read your posts before and this sounded a bit out of character. I agree with your calculations. It’s why people need to check a headhunter’s bona fides. They can send your resume blindly and get a hit now and then — for a big fee. For doing nothing more than a lame $10 clerk sorting resumes…

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