Monday, April 20, 2009

Secrets Revealed: What They're Really Looking at When You're a New Employee

It's your first day at a new job. Everything seems to be going well, but then... (ominous music) ...then you eat a doughnut at your desk.

You can feel the change in the atmosphere. People try to hide their shocked expressions, but you see them anyway. A few pitying looks are cast into your cubicle, even a few smirks. Suddenly, your Dunkin' Donuts chocolate cake doughnut tastes like sawdust in your mouth. Crumbs drift down the front of your shirt, and the chocolate you were about to lick from your fingers is now hastily wiped on a napkin.

You don't know exactly what has happened, but you know without a doubt that your "new kid" jitters have just been ratcheted up to a level you haven't felt since you performed "Thriller" for your school's talent show.

Welcome to the pitfalls of being the new kid on the block. Because while the human resources department may have provided you with two days worth of training and given you an employee handbook as thick as the Trenton phone book, you've just screwed up in a way you never imagined: You ate at your desk.

How were you supposed to know? you wonder. No one told you that it's not OK to indulge in a harmless doughnut when you hit that mid-morning slump! But now that it has happened, people just look at your differently. You begin to wonder if you've damaged your professional reputation before you've even learned how to use the phone system.

Recently I interviewed several employers who told me that it's often the little things -- like eating at your desk when everyone always eats in the break room -- that can trip up a new worker. By not being observant of the culture in a company, new employees can find they have a more difficult time of not only meshing right away with a new team, but of impressing a boss.

"It's the little things that often put a stink on you for the rest of your career," says Maureen Crawford Hentz, manager of talent acquisition, development and compliance for Sylvania in Danvers, Mass. "Then you have to work twice as hard to erase them."

If you're taking on a new position, here are some things to consider in your first days on the job:

* Learning appropriate ways to communicate. Can you question a boss in a meeting? Is it OK to Twitter at work? Should e-mails be formal? Is it OK to address everyone by their first name, or does it depend on their title? "Spend time walking around and watching what people do. Do they talk casually with one another, or do they use formal e-mail?" Hentz says. "These are the things people don't tell you, but you need to figure out on your own."

* Not watching the clock. Don't be late and don't rush out the door as soon as the clock says it's time. You want to make it appear to others that you're happy to be there.

* Maintaining a professional workspace. "There is a difference between the workplace and the front of your refrigerator," says Bob Horst,head of recruitment and professional development for Nelson Levine deLuca and Horst LLC. "I like to see a tasteful family photo because my family is important to me. But I don't want to see a whole bunch of your child's artwork all over the place. It is a workplace."

* Keeping socialization under control. "It's important to fit in, but your main focus should be learning your job," says Linda Matzigkeit, senior vice president of human resources for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

* Listen and learn."No one wants to hear the new guy endlessly spouting advise and wisdom on his first day. And I don't want to hear about how you used to do things at your last employer," Horst says.

* Understanding the difference between policy and reality. "Yes, lunch is 12-1 (p.m.), but do people really go? Is it acceptable to eat at your desk?" Hentz asks.

Hentz says that while it can be tough knowing what to do and what not to do, new workers can always go to human resources to get the inside skinny on the new workplace.

"Sometimes there are no hard and fast rules," Hentz says. "You just have to understand what's happening and then make your choices."

What are some other good guidelines for new workers?


Shawn said...

I like to find someone in a similar position or a level above and then use them to pace myself. I'm taking a bit of a risk by going business casual when everyone else is sporting the suit and tie.

Anita said...

Great advice. From what my sources say, it really pays to be observant and to walk around a lot so that you can see how people look, interact, have meetings, etc., on a day-to-day basis.

Dan Erwin said...

On a new job, as you say, you really need to be a "good noticer."

Anita said...

Always amazes me that people think once they get the job, their "homework" regarding company culture, major players, etc. is over. In reality, it's just beginning!