First Job: Starting Out on the Right Foot

You’ve heard the importance of first impressions, but if you think performance drives those impressions, you have it backwards. From day one, colleagues begin forming opinions that drive their perceptions of your performance.

What people think about you is as important as the truth. At the end of the day, you must deliver results to be successful. However, it takes time to show results, and some colleagues may never directly see your work. Meanwhile, everyone can either observe your behavior or hear about it. Early slip-ups can cause you lasting problems. Earn a good reputation and word will spread through your organization and your industry. Opportunities will open up for you, even with people who only know of you via hearsay.

Poor culture fits are toxic to an organization, so your colleagues will watch closely to make sure you aren’t one. Most people will go out of their way to help you learn the ropes. Every firm has a few people who are quick to judge plus a couple of busybodies eager to magnify gossip. You can’t control what they say, but you can control what you do.

Practicing good “impression management” means being your own public relations officer. Don’t assume your manager or colleagues will give you image advice. You must police yourself.

Practice these tips to make a strong early impression.

1) Be visible. When you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind. When people can’t find you they may assume you aren’t working. Learn the hours most people keep, then arrive a bit earlier and stay a bit later… and let them see you do it. Smile and say hello to people in the morning. Greet the receptionist, who sees all and never forgets.

Interact with your colleagues. Learn their names. When they speak, listen. This demonstrates humility and helps you learn about your organization.

Beware the mixed blessing of flex hours. You may do your best work at midnight, but your colleagues won’t see it. If you work remotely, be hyper-responsive to compensate for your invisibility. Don’t tell coworkers you are working from home to avoid interruption; it implies you find them bothersome. Checking email on your phone while watching TV is not working. Accomplish actual work and send it to people so they know you did it.

If you know you’ll be out of the office and unavailable, block the dates on your shared calendar immediately. Set out-of-office messages on your email and voicemail. Verbally remind your manager and anyone who may need you. If you need to call in sick, do so as early as possible so your manager doesn’t assume you are hungover and/or overslept.

2) Be professional. While building your reputation, err toward professionalism even if your colleagues behave informally. As the new person you must expect higher scrutiny. Dress above average for your office. Use professional rhetoric. When in doubt, ask your colleagues or manager about proper tone for the given audience.

Practice good desk etiquette. In some offices using headphones makes you seem unapproachable, so watch and see what others do before using yours. Do not give your coworkers any excuse to think you aren’t working. Turn off IM and email alerts when others could be watching because you never know what will pop up. If you post on Facebook or Twitter all day, your colleagues will notice. If you owe anything to anyone, they will wonder why your job didn’t come first. Be above reproach.

3) Over-communicate with your manager. Your manager trumps all. It is nearly impossible to be fired if your manager fights to keep you. It is nearly impossible to survive if your manager loses faith in you.

You want your manager to sleep better at night knowing you have your work under control. Remember, her job depends in part on yours too. If the CEO asks your manager how your project is going and she doesn’t know, you have embarrassed her. Worse, she may throw you under the bus. Give unsolicited updates. If you’re worried about bothering your manager, ask how she prefers communication (e.g. weekly meetings, email updates) and batch your questions to minimize interruption.

If you struggle with a task, ask your manager for help. If you’re constantly working unnaturally long hours, ask for help. Her job is to allocate resources to ensure success. That includes giving you the tools to succeed and keeping you from burning out. If she doesn’t know you have a problem, she can’t help.

To learn more about building a professional reputation, stay tuned for my next post.

Chad Wilcox is Chief Operating Officer with the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. This is the first of a five part series.

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