Starting a first job after college is a challenge. Just when you want to make a great impression, you encounter situations you've never dealt with before. If you know somebody who just graduated or is about to graduate, some guidance may be helpful. As a new employee, they must learn to focus on company objectives, not just their personal needs, and accept that they'll be working with different personality types with different agendas. They may be surprised to learn that they'll be evaluated partly on how they act, not just on what they think.
For Debby, learning to be assertive enough to speak in meetings was a major hurdle in her first job. Should she comment just because everyone else did, or wait until she had something important to say?
David had a hard time giving instructions to people his parents' ages or older, while Steve struggled to deal with unfriendly co-workers.
Tracy didn't like having to take directions from others, then being held accountable for results. In college, others weren't affected if she didn't complete her assignments.
In hindsight, this panel of "experts" - each with at least a year of experience - say new employees should: Realize they have a lot to learn and not be afraid to ask questions. Listen and observe to gain a sense of an employer's business and personal culture. Learn to budget their time. Understand that mistakes are customary learning experiences.
They offer the following advice to first-time employees, which you may want to pass along:
1. Learn to set goals.
You manager will likely outline what you should be accomplishing, but set your own goals as well for what you want to learn in your first job. Spend a month working before setting for yourself six-month and one-year goals.
At the beginning of each week, make a to-do list of projects and timetables so that you stay focused on what needs to be done. Always carry a note pad with you to keep track of new ideas, names and thoughts during the day.
Know what you want your supervisor to say about you after three months and ask for an informal progress review then to see if your performance is on track.
2. Put in long days.
During your first months on the job, demonstrate your seriousness and commitment by putting in extra time at work daily. Exert maximum effort during the first 60 days so you'll know what you're capable of and have time to compensate for initial judgement errors.
3. Learn proper meeting behavior.
Many new employees are eager to speak during meetings, but are humiliated when their comments are ignored or rejected. This makes it harder for them to speak the next time.
To make a positive impression, refrain from offering opinions on unfamiliar subjects. Instead, make factual comments concerning research results, logistics or benefits of a product or service. For example, if your company is evaluating an ad, state whether the campaign supports research results or addresses a target audience, not on the design.
4. Dress appropriately.
It's usually better to be overdressed, so wear a suit until you know if casual dress is permitted. On so-called "casual days," wear neat, sporty clothes, not jeans.
5. Limit personal phone calls.
Don't make personal calls for the first two months, and be selective after that. Tell family members and friends not to call you at work until you know what's acceptable. Many companies monitor incoming 800 and 888 number calls and outgoing calls on personal extensions.
6. Learn how things get done.
To learn how work really gets accomplished, make friends with receptionists and secretaries. Not only is it the right thing to do, but they know where everything is and how things are done, and can help smooth your transition. Remember them on holidays and special occasions and you'll reap big dividends.
If you still don't know how to do something, ask co-workers for advice. If they don't know the answers, talk with your supervisor. Schedule a mutually convenient time to visit him or her daily, rather than dropping in whenever issues arise, and you'll gain extra points for consideration and planning.
7. Know how to handle work overloads.
If you're overwhelmed, take a five-minute break to step back, breathe deeply and gain perspective. Decide if you can finish a project by working longer hours or if you need help. Meeting deadlines is the objective, not doing everything yourself, so ask for assistance when you need it.
8. Form effective relationships at work.
You may not like all your co-workers, but you must learn to work with them. Realize that any unfriendliness you encounter probably isn't personal. For instance, some people will forget you're new and expect you to know certain things. Others think giving newcomers a hard time is a rite of passage. Still others have personal problems that have nothing to do with you.
Your only concern is learning to work with these people. Be friendly to everyone, and don't make personal judgements initially. Praise others when they do a good job or help, since compliments are always appreciated.
9. Accept that you won't like every task.
You almost certainly will be asked to handle assignments you don't enjoy. Don't despair. Focus on what you like, and give yourself at least six months on the job before making decisions about whether to leave.
10. Accept responsibility for mistakes.
If you make mistakes – and you will – focus on what you did wrong, not on being bad or incompetent. This way, criticism will seem less personal, allowing you to correct problems.
11. Reduce stress by balancing your life.
With constant deadlines and new responsibilities, you'll feel plenty of stress. When you're overly pressured, take a brief time out to re-orient yourself. Gain perspective by reviewing the problem and possible solutions. Many errors stem from trying to do too much, too fast, with too little information.
Keep stress low by maintaining a balance between work, play and family. If you fall into an all-work-and-no-play syndrome, you'll burn out. Regular exercise, a sensible diet and plenty of sleep will help you stay mentally and physically fit.
Starting a new job is exciting. You'll meet new people and face new challenges that will force you to grow. Having a game plan for your transition will help you keep the job you worked so hard to land.
David Gordon, President of Gordon Communications, a marketing and outplacement consulting firm in Highland Park, Illinois.