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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

5 Mistakes Not to Make at Your First Job

Even if you graduated with honors and were a superstar during your summer internship, starting your first job can bring on a whole new set of challenges. You have a big learning curve ahead of you, you need to feel your way around the office culture, and you want to impress a group of people with whom who you’ll probably be working for a very long time.

So, how do you get off on the right foot? You’ve probably already heard some common advice about dressing appropriately, being on time, and investing in a retirement plan. However, when I talked to some of my fellow seasoned managers, they also brought up some less-obvious advice, based on mistakes they often see new professionals making. So before you suit up on that first day, read on for some important advice on what not to do.

Mistake #1: Getting Involved in Office Politics

When you’re new to an office, it can be easy to trust your co-workers when they start complaining, talking about others, or throwing out office conspiracy theories about what upper management is plotting next. They know the ropes, so they must be right—right?

Not exactly. Some of these veterans may have grown a cynical streak over the years, so it’s better to keep an open mind about your new co-workers and company than to be swayed by others’ opinions and experiences. Plus, gossiping by the water cooler when you should be working will hardly make a good impression on your boss. When the office politicking or complaining starts, it’s okay to smile, nod—and not get involved.

Mistake #2: Trying to be a Maverick on the First Day

Are you excited to dive in and make a difference as soon as possible? Hold on just a sec. The truth is, you’ll impress your supervisor more by learning the ins and outs of your job duties and department first. No one ever appreciates the overeager new employee who thinks she can solve all the department’s problems before even really understanding how things work.

Once you’ve got a good grasp on your job, feel free to ask for some of the more exciting opportunities you see or make suggestions for process improvements. You’ll have plenty of time to start making more meaningful contributions—just make sure that you’re doing a stellar job at your job, first.


Mistake #3: Not Asking for Help

No one will expect you to know everything. In fact, if you’re unclear on something, your co-workers probably prefer that you ask questions now instead of guessing and making a mistake you’ll have to fix later. It’s perfectly okay to admit when you need help or clarification, and there are plenty of people around you who were once in your shoes and would be happy to share their expertise. So ask them!

Also don’t be afraid to reach out to a variety of people besides your boss—you might find a great mentor or friend in the process.

Mistake #4: Not Communicating Enough

After you’ve learned the ropes a bit and are off and running, remember that you still need to keep your boss actively in the loop about what you’re working on and the progress you’re making. Get an idea of how often your boss likes to be updated, both in general and when you’re working on a particular project. Does she want to debrief at weekly meetings, or would she prefer periodic emails detailing the latest updates?

In addition to these regular updates, be sure to communicate anything important that comes up—including the bad news. The last thing you want is for your boss to be in a meeting and hear about something for the first time, leaving her unprepared. As my own boss likes to say, “I don’t like surprises.”

Mistake #5: Not Appreciating the Opportunity

Chances are, your first professional job is not going to be exactly what you had in mind. My first job in export customer service was certainly far from glamorous: I had to deal with irate customers, perform routine data entry, deliver bad news, and learn about papermaking (yawn!).

But you know what? It was a good opportunity. After all, customer relationship skills are always highly desirable, and learning the paper business showed I could pick up new things quickly. In addition, I learned how the corporate world worked, and I gained some valuable contacts and mentors.

Even if your first job isn’t necessarily your dream job, don’t dismiss it as a waste of time. Think instead about the new experiences you’re gaining—running meetings, putting together presentations, dealing with clients, or even just spending time at a company that will look great on your resume. Even a small change in perspective make “paying your dues” at a so-so job seem much more worthwhile.

Photo of woman at work courtesy of Shutterstock.