Starting a New Job: 3 Rules to Live By

By Janey Osterlind on 19 November 2010 (Updated 11 November 2011) 7 comments
Photo: Ed Yourdon

Being the new guy at work is like moving to a new school. You’re hesitant and unsure of how things work, but you know you want everyone to like you. I distinctly remember starting my first real, salaried job just 24 short months ago: My boss handed me the Loan Review “Manual” that contained all the minutiae of how to correctly do my job. I was to read it for the first two full days. I remember desperately trying to stay awake amidst the sea of words and phrases — most of which I didn’t even understand yet — and nearly having a caffeine-induced heart attack from too much coffee and Diet Dr. Pepper. After all, this was mind-numbingly boring, but I couldn’t possibly fall asleep my first few days on the job! (See also: Must-Have Qualities to Ensure Long-Term Job Security)

What led me to think about my first days at work recently was the hiring of a new employee in our department. Aside from not falling asleep on the job, our department is fairly flexible. That being said, there are a few rules that he (and every new employee) should be aware of when starting a new job:

Know that you’re probably going to hate your first day on the job. Or week. Or month.

Sure, you might love the company, the people, and even the thought of working there, but you’re probably going to dislike learning the basics of a new job. The reason is simple: People generally don’t like change. It is uncomfortable to not be in-the-know about what to do, when to do it, who to tell, and all of those basics. My department often gets a laugh when we tell the story of a new girl who obtained a job through her family’s connections to the family that owns our company. Three days later, our president called to congratulate her and to wish her well on the job, but she wasn’t there. She had disappeared after only her first day. I mean, how do you even know whether you like or dislike a job after one day? Silly girl.

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Ask questions in a friendly way.

All workplaces have a host of unspoken rules and procedures that they might forget to tell you. In our department, for example, we forgot to tell New Guy that our work retreat was casual dress. Luckily, he asked, or it would have been an uncomfortable two days for him. By simply asking, you’ll also learn a wealth of things that your co-workers and boss simply forgot to tell you or assumed you already knew. After all, remember what happens when you assume… (Don’t laugh. You know it’s true.) And think about it: Your boss and co-workers have been doing their jobs for a long time, and certain things are second nature to them, so they don’t even think to tell you. This also leads me into my next point...

Don’t assume your new organization is skilled at training new employees.

When you’re a small organization (like my department), there may be no formal training regimen to indoctrinate you. Perhaps there should be, but in some cases you’re expected to figure things out on your own. Like point #2 says, ask an insane amount of questions (in a non-obnoxious way, please). Also write down what you do know (I made a cheat sheet of all the silly acronyms we use in my first days on the job so I wouldn’t have to keep asking) and update that list as you learn more. That way, you’ll be able to refer back to it when you inevitably forget, and you’ll be able to pull it out at an opportune moment (like when a new employee is hired) and shine like a star because you’ll be the first to be so well-organized.

So that’s the long and short of it: New jobs are more work in the beginning. Just know the basics on how to get up-to-speed quickly, and you’ll be loving it in no time. Oh, and you won’t be stuck wearing suits to the company retreat while everyone else is in jeans.

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Guest

I am curious what techniques you find helpful in asking questions in a non-annoying/obnoxious way?

Janey Osterlind's picture

Good question! After all, if you come off as obnoxious, people are less willing to help, making it even more difficult to learn the ins and outs of your new job. I found it was helpful to start a discussion when my boss wasn't distracted by other things, and then to ask follow-on questions based on his answers. Then when we were done with our discussion, I had the answers to questions I hadn't even thought of yet! When I came across a problem that involved that topic (which I inevitably did), I usually didn't need to ask twice. I also found it really helpful to write down everything possible, so I could refer back to my "cheat sheet" later. Lastly, if you're in a meeting, I wouldn't suggest asking a question as the boss is trying to wrap up. Instead, I would wait until after other attendees have left and ask privately, or wait until another opportune time. Hope that helps!

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lorie may

The first day of any job to me makes me very sick to the stomach, but I have always found that asking questions helps alot.

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dorothy southers

I was nervous my first day but I was so happy to be working with infants and meeting their parents and getting to know my new coworkers!

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KayJay

Thank you! Your first point made me breathe a sigh of relief. Even after many years in the workplace, I had forgotten that. I recently started a new job and although I love the organization, I was feeling stressed and grumpy a lot of the time. I realized that after years of being the subject matter expert in an area, it's hard to go back to square one and learn systems and "customs" of a new work place. Your article reminded me that this happens to everyone. Take a deep breath, soldier on and it will get better. Soon you will be the old-timer schooling the new kid on how things are done.

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christine

First days on the job are always akward. Just relax and get to konow the people and the job and everyting else will fall into place. I find asking questions is very helpful. It is also very important not to appear frustrted, even if you feel that way.

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Erica

Taking on the role of a student at your new job is a great way to become familiar with the company and your new coworkers. The most valuable employees are people who are eager to learn something new. Always ask questions, listen carefully, take notes and work as efficiently as possible. Remember to be courteous and respectful of other work space and duties.