Your First Day on the Job

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The Savvy Student's Guide to College Education—Chapter Twelve

The Big Picture

New employees are often eager to begin the work they've been hired to do, only to discover that their first day on the job is filled with paperwork and training exercises that seem to have little relation to their “real” work. While these activities may seem minor, the attitude the new employee shows in completing this work—and, more important, the warmth they extend to the colleagues the new employee meets while completing these introductory tasks—send important messages to the colleagues they'll be working with for a long time, as well as to the boss who saw such promise in the new employee's resume and interview.

Other simple steps in the first day (and days) on the job can help the employee convey a positive attitude toward work, and put them in a position where they can contribute the most to the company's future, while advancing their personal and professional goals at the same time. Some of these steps may seem minor, but when added together, they make up a large part of the work ethic and vision that can make all the difference in making sure the employee enjoys a fulfilling career, no matter where they may be working.

The information you give a company on your resume, and the way you present yourself in your interview, gives the company that hired you an impression of the kind of person you are, the skills and attitudes you'll bring to your work, and the qualities you'll show when working with others to help the company meet their goals.

This is why it's so important in these first few steps to follow the well-known advice, Be Yourself. The person you show the company in the interview is the person they'll need you to be every day you're on the job, and that's even more true in your first day on the job, when you'll begin to build the relationships with your co-workers and demonstrate the attitude towards your work that will let the company decide if they've made the right decision in hiring you. Since the newness of the job might make it more challenging to be yourself, let's talk about what you might expect on the first day, and how you can prepare to respond to it.

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Many “First” Days

A college graduate was very excited to accept his first real job after college. In talking with his family and friends, it was clear he was looking forward to applying the strong research and analysis skills he had learned in college, so he could help the company produce better products that would improve the quality of living for many people. It was easy to tell from the sound of his voice that he couldn't wait to get started.

Based on what he had told his parents, they were surprised when they called him at the end of his first day on the job to discover he hadn't done any research that day—in fact, he hadn't even set foot in the building where he was supposed to work. He has spent all of the first day on the job in a meeting room at the company's headquarters, completing forms related to direct deposit of his paycheck, enrollment into the company's healthcare program, and certification to engage in research on the company's behalf. His parents were more surprised to discover this paperwork was going to take an additional two days to finish.

Two days later, their expectations were shattered once again when their son explained that, while he did actually report to the building where he would work, he spent the better part of that day passing safety checks, taking exams to measure his knowledge of certain research procedures, and having the picture taken for his ID badge. In fact, two full weeks of this training went by before their son was allowed to begin to conduct the research he had been hired to do.

The big day finally came, and his parents called their son one more time, asking him how his first real day of work went. “Fine” he said, “they gave me a tour of the lab where I was going to be working. That took all morning, and then they had a party at lunch to welcome all the new employees, and let us go home early!”

This college graduate's story may be different from those of others, but it's fair to say that everything he experienced is part of the beginning of a new experience for every person holding a new job. From filling out forms to taking tests to getting to know your fellow workers, it's easy to get the feeling that there is actually more than just one first day on the job, since the first few days (or weeks) can involve activities that aren't part of business as usual in that position.

At the same time, it is important to remember that there is one constant in the first few days of a job that lead to the first day on the job that feels typical—and that's the new employee. Just as your resume and interview gave the company a certain perspective on who you are and what you'll bring to the company, so will the way you fill out the forms, watch the required safety films, and get to know those you'll be working with.

The key to implementing the following tips for the first day on the job is to understand that there are likely to be many first days on the job, each one leading to the normal day of business you're looking forward to, each one an opportunity to build strong relationships with colleagues and to show commitment to the goals of the company.

Arrive early, and plan to stay late

There isn't a boss anywhere that isn't impressed by the commitment an employee shows to their work, and in almost every case, a big way to measure that commitment is to measure the amount of time the employee is devoting to their work. This isn't to say that you have to do more work for free; it does mean it's important to show an interest in coming well-prepared to your work, and ready to bring it to a thoughtful conclusion—and it's hard to show that if you're running in just in time to beat the morning bell, or if you're the first person out the door at quitting time.

It's wise to schedule your arrival time the same as you did for your interview for the job; come in about ten minutes before starting time. This gives you time to negotiate a weird traffic flow, get into a more detailed discussion with the co-worker you always say hello to, or take a peek at the emails waiting for you, so you can organize the day ahead. Yes, you could do all of this on company time, and no, it's unlikely your boss would ever say anything. But you didn't get hired because the boss saw the same thing in you she saw in everyone else; you got hired because you showed something extra. Now is the time to keep showing that something extra, since it will likely lead to positive reviews, greater job security, and the attention of your supervisors, when it's time to promote some people up to the next level.

The same is true with quitting time. Your contract may specify the number of hours you work each day, or the time when you stop working, but there are many businesses that just have culture where everyone stays for another 30 minutes. You may not want to do that, but you're not going to be in a position to make a good decision about whether to do it or not if you're not around to know it happens. The best way to do that is to build in some extra time in your first few days, up to two weeks. Once you get a sense of the ebb and flow of the end of the day, you'll be in a position to make an informed decision. If everyone goes home at the end of your contractual time every day for two weeks, you know you're in good shape joining them in doing the same thing.

Bring a lunch

Despite everyone's best efforts, most companies just don't mention lunch hour or lunch options to new employees, and there's nothing more crucial to getting along in a company climate than understanding its eating patterns. By bringing a lunch that contains non-perishable items (an apple, fresh vegetables, crackers, a small can of self-opening tuna fish), you'll be prepared to join others if your new workplace eats in, and doesn't have easy access to a refrigerator or microwave. If it turns out they have both, you can modify your lunch menu from there; if the culture is such that they eat out frequently, you can easily store your lunch in a brief case, join your new colleagues for lunch, and have a lunch at hand for day two.

It's also important to keep an eye on the time you take for lunch, and for any scheduled breaks you might have coming. While some companies have strict rules about when these occur, and how long they last, they occur at other companies on a more informal basis, or when there's a natural break in the work. You want to make sure your breaks aren't interfering with the productivity of other employees. Pay close attention to the break culture at work; it's a key piece of supporting your colleagues.

Use people's names

It won't be unusual to meet a lot of people in your first few days on the job who you won't see on a frequent basis, if ever again. The person in human resources who administers the required TB test may not be someone you see every day, but if they're the person who makes sure your payroll deductions for insurance and retirement are accurate, you'll want to make sure you're on good terms with her.

There's an old, faithful approach to using people's names effectively—repeat them the moment you learn them. If the TB tester says “Hi, I'm Darlene from HR”, you immediately respond with “Hi, Darlene.” There are some people who will discretely write down the names of every person they meet in their first few days on the job, as well as that person's title. If you are one of those people, do it; knowing people's names is a huge key to success in the workplace.

Be attentive during training

There are all kinds of training films that are shown to new employees on everything from job safety to emergency procedures to harassment avoidance. Despite everyone's best efforts, many of these films can be overly long and pretty uninteresting, since, in many cases, the behaviors they want you to learn, or avoid, are followed by using common sense.

If you get in the middle of a training film and think, “OK, I get it,” watch out. Most training films conclude with some kind of test you have to take at the end, and while each one usually allows you to miss a question or two, you're really calling attention to yourself in a bad way if you fail a training film—plus, you'll have to watch it again if you do. In addition, many new employees who see these films as a waste of time are prone to nod off in the middle of the training film—and if the lights come back on in the room at the wrong time, or if you're a born snorer, that won't end up well for you.

It's best to make sure you're alert during these films, no matter how mundane. The best way for most people to do this is to take notes on the film as you're watching it, by writing down what's said word for word. You most likely won't need these notes for the test, but the fast pace of the dialogue will offer a mental challenge for you if you're trying to write down every word, and that will keep you focused on the film. If you know you can achieve the same goal by doodling, proceed with caution; people who don't know you can interpret doodling as an expression of boredom, and you don't want to start a new job with a reputation as a know-it-all.

Do your homework on your benefits

The number of companies offering benefits is dwindling, so if you're fortunate enough to work for one that offers them, you're going to want to make every effort to take full advantage of each one. The challenge in doing this comes up when the way your new company gives to explaining these benefits consists of just enough time to hand out the brochures describing them, or presentations from representatives from competing benefit providers, each explaining why you should sign up with them.

Since most new employees have 30 or 60 days to enroll for all of their benefits, make the most of this time by doing two things. First, get all of the brochures available, take them home, put them all in one place, and set aside time to read them over the weekend. Do what you can to compare and contrast each plan, and use the Web resources of each provider. If you have a friend or relative who either is a financial planner or uses one, see if you can have 30 minutes of the planner's time to get their insights on the plusses and minuses of each. Towards the end of the enrollment period, it's likely you will have made a friend or two at work who seems pretty level-headed. Ask them what decisions they've made with their benefits and why; sometimes, their hindsight is your best guiding light.

The second thing you want to do is make sure you sign up for them before the enrollment period expires. Some new employees decide to create a budget for their first year, and simply put what they would have invested in retirement into a savings account, thinking they'll see how the first year goes of living on this salary, intending to deposit the savings into the retirement account when enrollment time comes around the following year. While that sounds like a good idea, that means the employee is living without any employer match the retirement program offers—plus, to be honest, it's very likely this employee will never sign up for the retirement plan if they don't do so right away.

Keep your employment summary at hand

There's a good chance human resources will provide you with some kind of employment summary on your first day, or within your first couple of days. This summary is different than a contract, and the contents varies from company to company, but it typically includes a statement of the value of the salary and benefits you're receiving from the company, as well as an indication of the annual cost of any deductions that will be made from your paycheck for the benefits you've signed up for.

If you're fortunate enough to work for a company that offers this summary, take it home and put it in a safe place. You'll want to compare the deductions on the summary to those on your paycheck; this may require dividing the amounts on the summary by the number of paychecks you'll get in a year, but it's worth doing the math. If the amount being taken out of your paycheck differs from the amount the summary says should be taken out, call human resources right away. If they aren't taking enough out, they'll want that money in one lump sum further down the road, often when you least expect it; if they're taking out too much, you'll want that money back right away. It's a good idea to keep an eye on every pay stub you receive, but that's really the case with the first three or four.

Be warm, welcoming, and a little wary of those who welcome you

You're going to go out of your way to meet lots of people on your first days of work, and there will be a number of people who will be welcoming you as well. Of these people who reach out to you, some will do so as part of their job, and others will do so because you'll be working directly with them on a regular basis. There will also be others from other departments who welcome you, and they won't be working with you all that often— but they will be very glad to meet you, and welcome you to the company.

While a good many of these thoughtful people are simply being nice, there's a good possibility you may need to keep your eye out for one or two of these “welcomers from nowhere”. Despite a company's best intentions, there can always be an employee or two who feels unappreciated in their work or not in agreement with the goals and direction of the company. Rather than discuss these issues with their bosses or find somewhere else to work, these individuals can resort to gossip circles that go beyond the usual casual conversation of the workplace, creating a tone that goes against the best interest of the company and most of its employees. Too often, these employees are looking to widen their circle of influence, and they see new employees as their best possible recruits.

It isn't always easy to tell everyone's intentions the first day you meet them—not everyone is as obvious with their intentions as Draco Malfoy. On the other hand, keeping everyone at an arm's length is no way to start a new job, and no way to live. Be gracious in extending yourself to everyone you meet, but be sure to keep an eye out for the tone of the workplace, and who is contributing to which side of that tone.

Engage in the Five Questions Assessment

Whether you spend your first day filling out forms, watching training videos, or doing the work you were hired to do and love, it's important to take some time on the ride home and ask yourself these five important questions:

It's too easy for young employees to think their work isn't contributing to the progress of the company, or helping them reach their personal goals. This is especially true if part of a new job involves supporting the work of someone else as an assistant, an essential role that can sometimes include making coffee, screening phone calls, running personal errands, or doing the work your boss doesn't want to do that you aren't that crazy about, either.

The best way to avoid feeling burned out or in a rut is to keep the big picture in mind. That's why it's so important to use the Five Question Assessment the first day of work, and every day after that. Keeping the big picture in mind keeps the small things in perspective, gives you the chance to evaluate the progress you're making in both your personal and professional life, and gives you a foundation to build on in either supporting your workplace as much as you can, or making plans to pursue a new path somewhere else. Either way, the exercise helps keep your outlook fresh and your contributions strong.

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More Resources

8 Tips for Rocking Your First Day at a New Job

What to Do Your First Day of Work

First Days on the Job

15 Things You Should Not do on Your First Day at a New Job

4 Ways to Make Friends at Your New Office

Questions You Should Ask Your HR Manager for the First Day of Work

How to Get Ready for Your First Day in a New Job

Evaluating Your Own Performance

14 Things You Should Do at the End of Every Work Day

Avoid these pitfalls when you join a new job!

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