Starting a new job is almost always awkward. You’ll probably make a few mistakes as you learn the ropes. Some of your new co-workers might be hard to read. You won’t know the office jargon, or how to do basic tasks like reserving the conference room. And chances are, you’ll have a lot of downtime while you’re getting set up… and no idea what to do with it.
But you’re not totally helpless: According to writer and podcaster Alison Green, author of Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, there are things you can do to ensure your first few weeks go relatively smoothly. I spoke to Green for advice about what you should — and shouldn’t — do during your first few weeks on a job.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Medium: So to start, what are some common pitfalls of starting a new job? Some things workers might not be prepared for when they sign on?
Alison Green: One weird one is getting involved in workplace politics and drama that isn’t yours. Someone will corner you and tell you an issue they’re having with their co-worker, and if you say sympathetic things, even like, “Oh, that’s bad,” suddenly you’re being perceived as taking a certain stance. And you really shouldn’t be taking any stance your first few weeks on a job. You don’t have enough context. Maybe this is a person who is known for stirring up trouble in the office and their judgment is really bad. So it’s good to stay as neutral as possible those first few weeks.
That happened to me at a job once! My very first day, one of my colleagues complained about something in the office, and I felt cornered and I didn’t know what to say.
Yeah, and it’s hard because here’s someone being friendly to you, and you want to start forming friendly relationships. So it’s very easy to get sucked in.
Any other things to watch out for?
One really basic one is not taking notes, thinking that you’ll be able to retain everything. You’re going to get a huge amount of information during your first few weeks at a new job. I think people, even when they do take notes, only retain a half to a third of what they’re told. You want to up your chances of remembering things.
You want to demonstrate that you’re making every effort to retain things.
Also, it’s kind of alarming as a manager to be training someone and see them not taking notes. You want to demonstrate that you’re conscientious and that you’re making every effort to retain things.
At my first job I took notes just because I felt self-conscious about not doing it. Not because I didn’t want my manager to think I wasn’t paying attention.
Exactly! You don’t want it to get to that point.
One other mistake I see people make is minimizing the challenges of a new job. You come in and you think, “I’ve got this.” Your team is telling you about obstacles and challenges and things that are difficult, and you come across as, “Oh, I’m sure we can solve that” because you want to seem good at your job. Confidence is good, but you don’t want to act like you’re sure that you’re able to overcome any and all obstacles. If you do that, by implication, you’re sort of insulting your new team, who presumably has been struggling with these things.
Another concern I think people have is, if you don’t get enough training on your first few days or weeks on the job, what’s the proper way to go about asking your boss for more help?
Some people are just really bad at training people and will need you to say, “Hey, here’s the thing I need a crash course in.” Don’t be shy about saying what you need. It’s not going to make it look like you can’t do the job. People are going to expect you to need help. It’s not a sign of weakness.
But I would say to give it a few days. Don’t freak out if you’re on day three and you haven’t had enough training at that point, because sometimes it can take a while. But if you’re at a week or two in, and you’re feeling very unprepared and you’re being asked to take on work you don’t know how to do, go to your management and say: “Hey, can we please schedule an hour to sit down and go over questions that I have?”
Another thing that a lot of people have experienced is when you’re thrust into a new job and your manager is busy, so you have some downtime where you don’t really have much to do. What are some things new employees can do if they’re in that awkward in-between stage?
You will have some downtime at most jobs in the beginning, so don’t freak out about that. You’ll probably have some written material that no one ever reads. Be the person who reads it.
And ask to meet with people. Don’t just do this to randomly have conversations, because that’s not respectful of people’s time. But if there are people you’re going to be working closely with, you can ask for meetings with them. Just get to know them and find out how their role intersects with yours and what they think would be helpful for you to know. Start making a list of questions you want to get answered at some point.
And then there’s the opposite problem, when that awkward stage has passed and now you have a ton of work do and you’re feeling overwhelmed. You might think, “I’m the new employee, I don’t want to make it seem like I can’t keep up with everyone else.” How do you approach your boss about that?
I would frame it as a question of priorities. It’s okay to say, “I’m still in that period where I have a learning curve, so things are taking me a little longer now than they will down the road. But I want to talk to you about how to prioritize so that I can make sure I’m not letting anything slip.”
Different managers have different ways of communicating with their employees. What are some ways you can interpret your boss’s communication style?
Two big things. First, don’t take anything personally in your first few weeks. It’s really easy, if you get a bunch of abrupt emails, to be like, “Maybe it’s about me.” It’s probably not. Especially that early on, when you haven’t done anything to offend anyone, it’s probably just their style.
Don’t take anything personally in your first few weeks.
And really soak up the cues you’re getting about your boss’s communication style, but also about the office culture in general. In a lot of ways, offices are like their own little country, and your boss is the ruler. They have their own norms and ways of operating, and it can feel foreign in the beginning. So really focus from the get-go on observing everything: how your boss writes an email, whether people use Slack for everything or drop by in person, whether every meeting starts exactly on time. All of those are little cues about culture, and if you don’t pay attention to them, it’s very easy to end up feeling uncomfortable.
You can also just ask directly. I think everyone should do this in their first week on the job. At some point, sit down with your boss and say, “How do you like to communicate? Do you want to have meetings? Do you want me to just send requests in emails or does that annoy you? Do you want me to save them all up and send them once a week?” Just get it all out in the open.
In my first job, I was so afraid to ask questions. One of my co-workers said, “You might look dumb asking a question, but you look even dumber when you don’t know what you’re doing because you failed to ask.”
It’s totally true, it’s so much better to ask. People say there are no dumb questions — I don’t know if that’s true. But it’s still not the end of the world if you ask a dumb question. People understand that you’re new and you’re flooded with information and it can be overwhelming. It’s so much better to ask than to guess and get it wrong.
What if you start a job with the expectation that a raise is coming soon? Some people accept lower job offers because their employer might have told them something like, “This job starts at $20 an hour, but we’re hoping to increase that to $25 in a couple of months.” At what point is it okay to bring that up and ask for more money?
It depends on what was agreed to as part of the hiring process. If it was sort of vague, like “Oh, down the road we’re hoping we can change it to this,” that’s not the most solid promise to rely on. In general, when there haven’t been specific promises made with a timeline, you generally want to wait a year before you ask for raise. But if there has been something more solid — you’ll get a raise within three months, or “Once you’re working on Y type of client, then we can do a higher rate” — it’s fine to bring it up once that thing has happened.
Sometimes people take a job and the offer is something like, “We’re going to start you at X dollars an hour and our hope is that after four months, we can raise you to Y,” but they don’t get anything in writing. And then when they bring it up, their manager is like, what are you talking about? It’s like that conversation never happened. That’s not always a jerk move — maybe the manager forgot that they said it in such a definite way, or there’s a new manager that didn’t know about it. So, if the raise is something you’re counting on and you would be upset if it didn’t happen, you should get it in writing. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s binding, but it does mean that if there is a miscommunication or if your manager does leave, that there’s something to refer back to.
I imagine that would be an awkward thing to ask. How would you go about that diplomatically?
I think the way to do it is to say, “I just want to summarize what I think we’ve agreed on to make sure we’re both on the same page.” And then write out the job title, salary, start date, and a note: “We’re hoping that after six months of good performance the salary will change.“
So you’re framing it as summarizing that you’re getting the job right, as opposed to this adversarial request to put it in writing. And the interesting thing is, if they come back and say they don’t really want to commit to that in writing, now you have more information. You know this is not as solid an agreement as you thought it was. And that doesn’t mean you won’t take the job anyway, but it means you’ll have the right expectation.
What about new co-workers — how can you start off on the right foot?
I think just be warm and friendly. Don’t pry too much. Some people really don’t like talking about their personal lives at work, so you want to watch and take some cues about that.
Ask about what they do, how long they’ve been at the company, what they did before that. Even if you’re not someone who’s super social, even if you’re the person who is never going to go to the office happy hours, during your first couple of weeks say yes to every invitation, if you can. That’s how you start forming relationships with your co-workers and getting to know people.
I think it’s overwhelming to think you have to be this super social worker now, but if you know it’s just for the first two weeks, you can do that.
Yes. It’s much more doable.
So finally, how can you tell if you’re doing a good job in your first few weeks? How do you know if you’re making a good impression?
You should totally ask. Not your colleagues — that could be weird. But you should definitely check in with your boss after the first month. Just sit down and say, “I want to talk about how things are going. Anything that you want me to focus on, or anything that you want me to do differently? I’d love to get a better sense of how things are going overall.”
Really, your manager should initiate that conversation, but not every manager will. And that’s a really good way to get feedback. You’re probably going to hear that everything is going great. But if it’s not, then that’s a safe way to draw it out of your manager.
Anything you want to add?
I think the thing about paying attention to office culture is really important. Just pay attention and observe how people do things there. Every office has a bunch of unwritten rules about how they do things there. Sometimes they’re almost unconscious. Like, if you sat someone down and asked them about the culture, there would be things they wouldn’t even think to name, but that are very much woven into how that office operates. All those little details are worth paying attention to.
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