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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

3 Awkward Situations You'll Face at a New Job (and How to Deal)

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Starting a new job is an exciting adventure. But it’s also riddled with landmines of potential awkwardness—think getting lost on the way to the copier or mistaking your new colleague for the mail guy. The gaffes and blunders may be inevitable, but they can still catch you off guard if you’re not prepared.

The best teacher is experience, and luckily for you, I’ve had my share of cringe-worthy new job encounters over the years. Here are few of my favorites and how I recovered with my dignity—and my job—intact after each horrific incident.

1. The CEO I Didn’t Know

It was literally my first day on the job, and one of my colleagues was walking me around the office to introduce me to everyone. Our office wasn’t particularly large, but after working in a 10-person shop for the past several years, having more than 60 people in the office was overwhelming.

I’d already forgotten everyone’s names (and almost my own), so when a well-dressed man strutted through the reception area, it didn’t even occur to me who he might be. Attempting to be polite, I smiled broadly, and introduced myself.

He brightly replied that he already knew who I was. Shocked, I smiled and asked, “and you are?” The entire room erupted in laughter. He was, of course, our CEO. Someone I’d spoken to on the phone a mere two days earlier.

Although my legs told me to run away as fast as I could, I took a breath, stood tall, and tried to gracefully “apologize” for my blunder.

I laughed at myself lightheartedly and told him I wasn’t sure I remembered my own name after meeting everyone and that I hoped he’d forgive my temporary memory loss. Everyone laughed again, but this time it was with me, not at me.

If this situation makes you wince, you can save yourself the agony by reviewing your new company’s top brass the night before you start. Take a quick refresher of the company website, and try to put names to faces.

And if you draw a blank—or the CEO looks nothing like his picture—stay calm, and smile. Just let yourself laugh it off and mention you’ve met so many great people that day, it’s hard to keep track of everyone. Then never, ever forget his or her name again.

2. Cliques and Clashes

The last time you worried about cliques was probably in high school. As it turns out, new jobs can feel a bit like high school at first, and the clique factor can cause some major anxiety, not to mention make for some super awkward situations.

But unlike high school, chances are your colleagues are a lot less catty. You’ll just have to get to know them—all of them. That’s what I discovered after starting a new job several years ago. I naturally gravitated toward one group of people who shared similar interests and just became “good morning” friendly with everyone else.

What I didn’t realize was that, by not putting myself out there with all the other groups, I was essentially acting like my old high school self by excluding people I didn’t immediately click with. And unfortunately, it made for a rocky start.

It took me about six months to make up for that shaky start, but after that, I’d not only become a trusted colleague to nearly everyone on my team, I got to know everyone a lot better, which made our daily workplace culture a lot more enjoyable.

The best way to handle this situation is to just avoid it altogether. When you start a new job, it’s your chance to start fresh with everyone there. Some people will be easy to win over, and others may take more time.

Don’t align yourself too closely to any one group, but rather make alliances with everyone. Grab coffee with one clique on Monday and another on Friday. Talk to everyone equally, and you’ll find the cliques become a lot less pronounced—at least for you.

3. Facilities Face-Offs

I don’t know what it is about kitchens and bathrooms in a new place, but they almost always give me a tinge of anxiety. There always seems to be a “right” place to keep your lunch, or a stall no one ever uses because the door unexpectedly pops open when someone else uses the paper towel dispenser.

The last time I started a job, there was in fact a bathroom door that was a bit wonky, and I had the unfortunate experience of having the door burst open, unexpectedly, several times until an understanding soul pointed out the quirks of our bathroom doors.

While there isn’t really much you can do to avoid these things, you can drive your new colleagues crazy with your perpetual non-compliance. That means paying attention to everything for the first few weeks. If someone makes a snarky comment when you’re microwaving your fish in the communal microwave, it’s probably a good idea to nix that habit.

And if there are things that annoy you, chances are they probably annoy everyone else, too. That slamming bathroom door? Try your best not to let it slam when you’re around. It’ll take some time, but your colleagues will pick up on your courteous observation and will likely give you a bit of a break if you miss a few things.

Yes, these situations are all potentially awkward, but there are a few things you can do to ease the sting and make it through your 90-day probationary period without causing too much of a scene.