Top execs give new hires less than 3 months to prove their value. Here's how to make a good first impression and get up to speed quickly–even if you feel like you're faking it 'til you make it.
No one should show up for their first day at a new job without some tips in hand. And yet, that’s exactly what I did for my first job out of college. I’d moved 2,000 miles to a city where I knew no one, and I felt disoriented as I stepped into the office. Not wanting to seem naive, I hadn’t asked many questions. I showed up unprepared—clueless about dress code or even when I could take my lunch break.
To be clear, a company’s HR department should have a solid onboarding process in place, and managers should put energy into making new hires feel welcome. But what if your company doesn’t yet have an HR department? Or what if your manager is less than forthcoming?
Even if you do start on the wrong foot (it happens!), if you continually challenge that initial experience in multiple different settings, your colleagues may eventually change their mind about you.
You need to ensure your own first-week success. I spoke with HR professionals, career coaches, and executives to get their best tips for new hires who want to start on the right foot, and this is what they said.
Why is your first week on the job crucial for long-term success?
First impressions only happen once, and they can last a lifetime. No pressure, right? But just how important are first impressions to the long-term success of your career? Let’s see what the research suggests about your initial period on a new job.
- The majority of executives give new hires less than three months to prove themselves. A 2016 Robert Half study found that 63% of CFOs allow a new employee less than three months to show their value—and 9% give them less than a month.
- Ninety-one percent of employees consider quitting a job within the first month. That's just one of the findings from a 2018 Robert Half study of 9,000 job seekers in 11 countries. Poor management, inconsistency between how a job was advertised and how it plays out in real life, failure to fit in with corporate culture, and a poor onboarding experience were all reasons that might send a new hire packing. How you start a job has a huge impact on how things go long-term.
- Science suggests that first impressions are annoyingly persistent. According to a 2010 University of Western Ontario study, even if you later present yourself in ways that challenge a person’s first impression of you, their initial judgment tends to linger—especially within the same context in which they first met you.
“Imagine you have a new colleague at work and your impression of that person is not very favorable," says the study’s lead author, Bertram Gawronski. "A few weeks later, you meet your colleague at a party and you realize he is actually a very nice guy. Although you know your first impression was wrong, your gut response to your new colleague will be influenced by your new experience only in contexts that are similar to the party. However, your first impression will still dominate in all other contexts."
63% of CFOs allow a new employee less than three months to show their value—and 9% give them less than a month.
The good news? Even if you do start on the wrong foot (it happens!), if you continually challenge that initial experience in multiple different settings, your colleagues may eventually change their mind about you.
1. One week before you start: Do your research
Before your first day, experts recommend you research the company. Check out social media posts to get a feel for the office culture and appropriate attire.
“If the hiring manager didn’t provide you with a first-day checklist, reach out a few days prior and ask if there’s anything they’d like you to bring or prepare,” suggests Jon Hill, chairman and CEO of recruiting firm The Energists. “Get a copy of the employee handbook before your first day so you can review it and know what questions you have in advance.”
Depending on your role, it may also help to
- Research your company’s competitors.
- Test out the software you’ll be using on the job.
- Look up your colleagues’ LinkedIn profiles.
2. One week before you start: Test run everything
If you’ll be working on-site, test your commute. If you’ll be working from home, test your internet connection, computer, software, and other equipment you’ll need for the job. Know that everything works smoothly to help you relax for the big day.
“Demonstrating a desire to be proactive and prepared will make a great impression and show your employer that you want to have the best start possible and be effective from day one.”
- Christa Juenger, VP of Strategy and Coaching Services, Intoo USA
3. Three days ahead: Make contact with your manager
Your manager chose you, and they want you to succeed. Before day one, send them an email or a Slack message to check in.
“Ask about how people in the office generally dress for work (even when working from home!), whether there is anything specific that would be helpful to know on your first day, if you’ll need to bring or prepare anything special with you that day, and what might be expected of you in your first week,” recommends Christa Juenger, VP of Strategy and Coaching Services at Intoo USA. “Demonstrating a desire to be proactive and prepared will make a great impression and show your employer that you want to have the best start possible and be effective from day one.”
4. The day before you start: Confirm your schedule
Don’t assume you know what time to show up or when your lunch break is. Even if it’s in the job description, there might be important details missing. That's what happened to Jack Zmudzinski, a Senior Associate at software development company Future Processing.
“I once started a job and turned up for the first day at 9 a.m. as per the job description. When I arrived, the whole team was already there finishing up with chatting over breakfast,” recalls Zmudzinski. “Nobody had thought to tell me that this was the routine, and I ended up feeling awkward.”
To avoid a mishap like this, ask about schedules and routines ahead of time. What time will you be expected to arrive? What time does everyone usually leave? When is your lunch break and for how long?
5. On your first day: Introduce yourself to the team—virtually or in person
Your arrival on-site (or online) should never be a surprise to the rest of the company. HR or your boss will usually introduce you to the team before you start. But if they don’t, take the initiative to do so yourself. Ask your boss if you can send an email or a Slack message to let your team know who you are and what you do.
6. On your first day: Arrive early
To show up late at work, especially during your first week, is never a good signal. Plan your commute to account for traffic jams, getting lost, and parking. Zoë Morris, president of Frank Recruitment Group, recommends getting to your job 30 to 40 minutes earlier than you normally would.
“If there are delays getting there, then it should still leave you more than enough of a buffer to arrive on time without feeling panicked,” she explains. “And if there are no disasters, then it gives you a chance to go and grab a coffee and relax for half an hour before getting to work. It’s a win-win situation and puts you in the best possible position to avoid being late on your first day.”
What if your company doesn’t yet have an HR department? Or what if your manager is less than forthcoming? You need to ensure your own first-week success.
7. In your first week: Find a buddy
Some workplaces pair every new hire with an onboarding buddy or mentor. If you aren’t so lucky, find one yourself. Your LinkedIn research will come in handy to help you identify potential work friends and their interests to help you start a conversation.
Worried about lunch alone? Don’t wait for an invite. Be the person who invites someone to lunch. “You don’t have to gregariously go over to everyone’s desk, hug, and shake their hand on the first day, but don’t be a snob either,” says Paul French, managing director of Intrinsic Executive Search.” It helps to be friendly to your coworkers from day one.
French recommends introducing yourself to your teammates and offering to treat them to lunch.
“Show that you are happy to be part of the team and that you are looking forward to building a great working relationship with everyone.”
If you’re on a remote team, schedule virtual coffee chats with your new teammates to have one-on-one time with each person. This will go a long way toward building rapport.
8. In your first week: Meet with your manager one-on-one
Microsoft analyzed the early behaviors of about 3,000 new hires. It found that when new employees met with their manager one-on-one during their first week, they benefited in three ways:
- They had a larger internal network, which boosted feelings of belonging and increased their chances of staying longer.
- They had better meetings.
- They spent more time collaborating with their team than those who failed to have the one-on-one.
Make time to check in with your manager during your first week. It can pay dividends in the long run.
9. Every day: Don’t be afraid to ask questions
When you’re a new hire, you want to appear capable and confident to prove your value. But don’t be afraid to ask questions—especially if you’re remote.
“One thing people misunderstand about remote-first impressions is confusing asking questions to clarify tasks with pestering or being in the way,” says Tony Giacobbe, HR leader at Amica Senior Lifestyles. “It is incredibly rare for a manager to get annoyed if an employee clarifies a task to perform it better.”
Giacobbe suggests pinging your manager on Slack and being specific and unobtrusive about your request. Something as simple as, “Can you spare two minutes to hop on a call about XYZ?” is fine.
And if you’re trying to strike up a conversation to get to know your coworkers, asking lots of questions is favorable. According to research from Harvard University, asking follow-up questions makes people like you more. A follow-up question is one in which you touch on a topic that your conversation partner already mentioned, typically immediately preceding your question. A follow-up question might go something like this:
The worst type of question you can ask? A full switch. This is when you completely change the topic. An example of a full switch would be:
In the Harvard study, full-switch questions were rated by coders as being the least responsive. They change topics and signal to your partner that you weren’t listening.
10. Every day: Practice extra self-care
“You will most likely have the first-week jitters and some level of stress regardless of how much experience you have,” says career coach Lesli Smith. “Always go back to the basics of self-care when you’re stressed, such as sleep, hydration, and nutrition.”
Beyond that, Smith recommends anything that can help calm you, including meditation, journaling, breathing exercises, physical exercise, or simply making a list of things you’re grateful for.
Parting words: Relax, they already like you
To feel nervous before your start date is completely normal. Just remember that if the company didn’t wholeheartedly believe you were the right person, they wouldn’t have chosen you. Armed with these tips, you can prove that their decision was correct.
If you’re still losing sleep over your first week at work, take solace in this piece of advice from Kuldeep Andhare, a Manager and Solution Architect who frequently hires for his software consulting firm: “Always remember they hired you because they liked you,” he says. “It was not just your talent and experience that they liked, but it was something more than that.”
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