Ten Dos and Don’ts for Your First Ten Days of Work
By Julie Todaro
While most of us think that “once we have the job we are home free,” many organizations have probationary periods (first three months, first six months, etc.), and during this time performance, behavior and productivity are scrutinized with some eye to retention or termination.
Some managers will tell you that they know in the first ten days to two weeks whether or not they have made a hiring mistake. And if the higher level managers cannot supervise you personally, they might instruct middle managers to observe you and to report back to higher management. Critical or even just “strongly recommended” dos and don’ts should be taken seriously. Consider the following guidelines as you prepare for your first weeks of work:
- Seek out/complete orientation materials and instructions. Take the initiative in learning what you need to/are expected to know. Most organizations do not have a perfect structure in place for orientation and training materials. One would think that on the first day of work, the employer would provide extensive, carefully organized training. But often the breadth, depth and currency of orientation and training materials is underwhelming. If you feel you haven’t received sufficient training, take careful notes, ask for instructions (print or online) and seek names of individuals who are considered—by the organization—the most knowledgeable in the areas you are trying to learn. Ask for recommended tutorials; if none are available and/or recommended, identify tutorials and self-directed learning opportunities such as general professional literature, continuing education, and outside experts as well as “how to” literature outside the profession.
Seek out, study and compare the documents that will govern your work life including your job description; the institution’s evaluation forms; organizational or departmental goals; outcomes expected; individual goals and objectives; general reporting documents including most recent annual reports; tenure statements; examples from other employees (if possible) and any applicable standards. Take notes on documents/content issues. Note questions you need answered. Gather your list of questions needing answers, but complete as much orientation and training material as possible before you ask questions. Because you are new, your employer will expect you to have questions. However, you will be able to ask the most intelligent questions after you have read and studied any preliminary materials.
Be friendly without immediately aligning yourself with any one employee or employee group. While we would like to believe that we measure everyone by their own individual failures or successes, performance and behaviors, an employer may judge a new employee by the company he or she keeps. Be courteous, respectful of others, responsive and friendly, but avoid forming fast alliances and friendships. Avoid stereotyping and incorrect assumptions; wait to enter into a work group/social network until you have a feel for which group is the best fit.
- Seek out organizational systems in place to benchmark/adopt and/or adapt including use of shared technology, ergonomic and/or environment issues, recordkeeping, file organization and subject headings. Identify standards, guidelines or requirements in the workplace. Much “common knowledge” is known to all but new employees! “Common knowledge” may include recommended ways to organize personal files; appropriate subject headings and/or language for electronic communication; perimeters for adjusting hardware, software and furniture at public service desks during work shifts; and searching, retrieving and returning content from common actual or digital business/workplace files.
- Seek feedback on preliminary activities to indicate flexibility; a willingness to learn and—if needed – improve quickly; and to indicate an ability to accept and act on criticism. Request—if they aren’t identified already—systematic, appropriate feedback opportunities during initial training. Use these opportunities to seek answers to questions and determine if any questions or comments about work are forthcoming. Encourage both supportive and critical analysis of initial performance and push for specifics in terms of specificity and timelines for what should be continued, what should cease and where new training is needed.
- Establish a timeline with metrics for learning your position/job responsibilities. Gear this to the organization’s evaluation timeline and any timeline that might apply to new employees. While some managers have clear-cut timelines for a new (or retrained) employee or an employee in a new job, many don’t provide such specifics. Gather organizational timelines and a list of goals, and draft a timeline and a set of questions for your supervisor. If managers don’t organize with great specificity, employees are well within their rights to ask for guidance in the following areas:
- In the absence of specificity can we divide “to do items” into 1) what comes due soon and 2) what comes due later?
- What timelines are managers under? What timelines are imposed by the organization?
- Are past year calendars available for employee review?
- Can managers take job descriptions or expectations and establish times? Besides “soon” and “later,” can “first week,” ‘first month” and “within probation period” be assigned?
- Focus on identifying critical organizational behaviors, like a manager’s communication styles and patterns, and avenues for expressing opinions and asking questions. When interviewing for positions, plan to ask questions of the interview group/team and—if possible—others in the organization who might be encountered at social events or on tours. Amidst the questions on – for example – job responsibilities and benefits, interviewees should ask about how people within the organization “do business.” This could include:
- How managers manage
- How managers lead
- How employees communicate amongst themselves, workgroups, teams, etc.
- How employees communicate upward
- How managers communicate to employees
- Observe and adopt “expectations for adult behavior.” An environment’s acceptable social behavior includes management expectations and organizational culture as well as other aspects of employee interactions: common courtesies, greetings, and basic social interactions. Keep a low profile until you identify those standard behaviors necessary to fit into the organization’s structure and network of interactions.
- If dress codes are not available in preliminary orientation and/or training materials, observe clothing styles and request clarification if you have questions before you choose your style and comfort level including for (including but not limited to) clothing, hair and perfumes. Observe the dress of fellow employees and adjust your wardrobe to the office culture. But until you master the subtleties of the dress code, dress conservatively and err on the side of formality.
- Identify and record changes needed for later discussion. It is realistic to assume that given expertise and experience, new employees or employees new to jobs will observe behaviors, procedures, policies, etc. that need to be changed. Unless an employee has been specifically brought in and given identified changes and timelines, employees should NOT make major changes in the first days of work. In fact, many recommend that nothing major should change in the first three to six months of work.
All too often employees are blindsided because they have a job description and responsibilities but are then told they are not doing well—well into their first job “year”—because they didn’t have times and/or schedules for learning and/or completion of job duties.
Answers to these questions provide a guide for how to communicate within organizations, both upwards and within specific groups. This direction is critical for learning to report, share, query, and request information and answers. Even employees who are not new but are retooling, retraining and moving to new positions need to identify job specific communication they need for transitioning to new responsibilities.
In addition to these dos, consider the following don’ts:
- Exhibit broad emotions.
- Be the first to speak out on every topic/situation encountered.
- Start every sentence (or even one sentence) by using past references such as “Back at (insert name of last library or job) we didn’t do it this way…” or “In library school they told us to….”
- Work on “your own” time clock and exhibit excessive lateness, take too long a lunch, leave early, etc.
- Decorate/personalize your work area excessively.
- Broadcast your personal issues or your “what I did last night” information.
- Discuss the more personal aspects of your ‘vita.’ hobbies, likes and dislikes, etc.
- Speak in absolutes including statements like “I would NEVER do that.”
- Combine work/personal activities including having excessive visitors at work and personal issues during work time
- Attempt significant changes.
This final basic advice structured in a “top ten” list focuses on identifying behaviors that—if exhibited early in a situation—may stereotype you incorrectly in your new job. Many of you are probably saying “I’ll just be myself.” “It doesn’t work to pretend to be someone I’m not.” “Why should I have to pretend?” But the recommendations are NOT for new hires to be someone else or be someone they are not; instead the recommendations are to “be Switzerland!” That is, be neutral in your behaviors and activities until you identify your best “fit.” The reality is that:
- Different environments often affect people differently, so if you behaved in one way in one setting, a different set of environmental factors may mean that you actually behave differently. One example might be how you might work in a shared work space versus how you might work in your own office.
- Different management often dictates different behaviors in staff. Perhaps your first manager micromanaged and you reacted by working on projects in chunks of time, stopping frequently to get the feedback you knew was going to be given. But your second manager encourages you to be self-directed. You would then change your style to complete larger sections of work—if not the entire project—before seeking preliminary approval.
- Different organizational structures affect how you might work. One organization requires teamwork for all projects, while the next job/structure only occasionally uses teams. Some organizations have rigid hierarchies, while others are more flexible and—for example—you might be expected to be a team member for one project and a team leader for another.
- Different co-workers bring out different elements in individuals. You may find that for no apparent reason you don’t like someone in the organization and/or find you are treated as if you are not well liked in the organization. While workers have to find ways to work together, they shouldn’t have to correct likes and/or dislikes as long as these opinions do not hinder work productivity.
The first ten days are critical, but special attention to those first days will reap great rewards!
Julie Beth Todaro, dean of Library Services of the Austin Community College in Austin, Texas, has more that 25 years of experience in library and information environments, including twelve years as an academic library manager and eight years as a public library manager and an all level, lifetime certificate in school librarianship. She has presented more that 150 workshops on organizational development, staff development and other management issues, including the LAMA 1997 Institute of the Year, “Staffing Issues of the Year 2000: Managing and Working in the Libraries of Tomorrow” and the regional institute “Integrating Learning with Work: Designing the 21st Century Learning Library.” She holds a master’s degree in library science from the University of Texas at Austin and a doctorate in library service from Columbia University in New York City.
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