First Impression Strategy
Your first day at a new job can feel a lot like a first date.
You spend an hour picking out the perfect outfit, worry that you’ll say the wrong thing, and the whole experience can end with excitement about what comes next or anxiety and confusion. Thankfully, unlike a first date, it almost never ends with bad kissing.
The basics: Put some effort into picking an appropriate outfit and get it ready the night before. Plan your route, and possibly practice your commute. Arrive early, but not crazy-early (20 minutes is fine, an hour might leave you biding your time in the parking lot).
But, of course, there’s more to consider — much more.
What to Bring and Not Bring
- Bring a notebook and a pen. Don’t be afraid to pull it out the moment you get into the office. Write down everything. That goes double if you have a one-on-one with your new manager. Obviously you could enter this information into a tablet or other device, but some people will interpret you breaking eye contact to look at a device as rude (even if you’re not intending to check your text messages, you still see notifications). A simple notebook is a safe bet.
- Bring all necessary documents. The first day at a new job often involves a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy. Go ahead and bring all your documents — driver’s license or passport, Social Security card, and any work authorizations you require. Don’t be a 25-year-old who doesn’t know your SSN!
- Bring cash, so it’s less awkward if you go out to lunch/drinks with new colleagues (tossing in $12 is casual, whereas asking someone to put your share on a credit card is awkward). Also have cash handy in case something weird happens, like an office raffle or charity campaign where everybody’s putting in a couple of bucks.
- Bring ibuprofen, your inhaler, or any kind of medication that could send you running home early. Getting a migraine on your first day is unfortunate, but if it’s a less severe headache or some manageable cramps, you really don’t want to cut out early on your first day.
- If you smoke, bring a nicotine patch. Or an equivalent so you aren’t seen leaving the building while other people are working. Smelling like smoke is also a good way to not make friends with your new officemates. Better yet, quit.
- Don’t bring floppy or delicate purses that can’t sit on the floor. Go for a stiff, structured bag that holds paperwork and that you can just drop anywhere. For instance, if you’ve just walked in the door, you don’t have a desk yet, and you’re asked to come into your boss’s office, you’ll want a bag with a bottom that you can just drop next to your chair and pull that notebook out of.
- Don’t bring lunch. Lunch is one of your major opportunities to get to know new coworkers. But do bring a snack, in case lunch is later than you expect.
Set the Tone With New Coworkers
In some companies, no one is expected to accomplish anything on day one. In others, new employees are expected to jump right in and produce a small win by the end of the day.
Either way, though, people will remember their first impression of you for a long time. It’s your job to meet people, remember them, and set the right dynamic.
- Before your new job, memorize names and faces from a company “about” page, if possible. Don’t let on that you’ve done this — it’ll just seem like you have a great memory when you meet six people at once and remember all their names. (See also: How to Remember Names Without Stupid Mnemonic Devices.)
- Plan a few talking points, much as you would for an interview. How do you want your coworkers to think of you?
Your new coworkers will initiate conversations that are basically polite ways of saying, “So, what are you all about?” You don’t want to take over a conversation by bragging about yourself, but it would be good if Scott-who-sits-next-to-you came away from your chat thinking, “Oh, she’s an InDesign person who’s going to be working on the layout, and we’re both from Massachusetts,” rather than, “We talked about dogs and she mostly nodded.”
If you doubt your ability to be a charming conversationalist, just ask people questions about themselves. Never fails.
- Pay attention to the little things. What is the etiquette for the coffee maker and office fridge? Don’t be afraid to ask, “Is the milk in here for everyone or should I bring my own?” And for God’s sake, replace the toilet paper roll.
- Go to lunch with your coworkers. If someone asks you along, say yes. If no one asks, follow some people into the elevator and say, “Where do people usually get lunch around here?” If you wander into the nearby panini place alone and see some coworkers, remind yourself that it’s no longer junior high and adults almost never reject you when you ask to sit with them. If you do somehow end up eating alone, don’t give up! After your solitary chopped salad, ask some friendly coworkers, “Hey, today I got a salad at Salad Shack — what does everybody else usually do?”
- Same deal with drinks. If invited to go out after work, go. If you don’t drink (or don’t trust yourself to drink with your new boss), the trick is to have a specific nonalcoholic order and order it with confidence. Do not say, “Oh, I don’t know, just a Coke, I guess.” That is a party pooper answer. Say, “Cranberry and seltzer with lime, please,” as though you own this bar and are having an amazing time.
- Try to feel out some things about the office dynamic and the bosses by asking questions. Like, “What was your first day here like?” You might get some useful answers, like “I made the mistake of turning in my report without running it by Donald. I’ll never make that mistake again!” Point noted, sir.
Avoid Gender Traps
- Don’t try to be nice by bringing baked goods or making coffee for people. Feign total ignorance of these things. “Oh, I got Starbucks before I came in,” and “Ha, I’m more of an ordering-sushi kind of person.”
If someone asks you to make coffee and that is super not your job, try, “Oh, does everyone take turns making coffee?” If the answer is no, try “I’m not a big coffee drinker,” or “Actually, I’m not having coffee,” or “I’m going to get a notebook before we head into the meeting.” (See also: How to Effectively Be a Feminist in the Workplace.)
- Don’t fall into a permanent helper role (unless that’s actually your job). If asked to “help” someone, that’s fine on your first day. But clarify whether you’re supposed to be learning a skill you’ll be responsible for, or whether you and the person you’re helping will be teammates on a shared goal.
- Don’t shrink back if someone flirts inappropriately. Some people will take it as an invitation to wear you down over time. One alternative is to respond with aggressive enthusiasm for the job and your field in general. Non-sequiturs are totally acceptable. (Yes, I am excited to be here! I have always wanted to work in educational management, ever since my first exposure to Piaget! How do you stay up-to-date in the field?) Bombard the person with intellectual disquisitions and questions. I like to quote Harvard Business Review articles at people and ask if they’ve read the latest book about architecture, pharmaceutical marketing, whatever your field may be. (See also: How to Set Boundaries at Work.)
If It’s Your First Day as an Intern
An editor friend of mine shared her biggest pet peeve about new interns: They show up on the first day and just … stand there. Staring at an open office full of people. Forever. Until someone comes over and asks them what they’re doing there.
Instead, introduce yourself to someone. Obviously, if there’s a receptionist, start there. Otherwise, how about the first person you see? “Hi, I’m Emma, the new intern. Do you know where I can find [person who hired me]?”
While many intern/entry-level employees think that “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do anything!” is the optimal attitude, this is actually a little annoying. If you need a step-by-step instruction manual for everything, you’re basically useless for an information-economy job.
So how do you make yourself instantly indispensable? Read on.
If It’s Your First Day as an Entry-Level Employee
Keep in mind you’re arriving mid-stream as a million things are already in progress. It’s fine to ask questions, but it would be great if you could also say, “I can figure out how to do that,” or “Let me research the options and get back to you with the top three.” Show initiative in figuring out how to do something and doing it without constant hand-holding.
Get on your manager’s calendar. Pull out that notebook and ask questions like:
- What are the metrics my performance will be judged by?
- What are your expectations for my first week?
- What would you like me to have accomplished in the first three months?
- How often should I check back with you?
- Do you have more of an open-door policy, or should I email you with an agenda to set a check-in?
- Is there anyone else I should speak with today?
If you are given a ton of stuff to read, ask beforehand what to look out for or what’s most important. For instance, “Are there any sections I should especially focus on?”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by things you don’t know, don’t let it all blur into a feeling of confusion and anxiety. Just make a list called, “Things to Find Out.” As in, “What do these abbreviations mean?” and “How often should I report back to my manager?” and “Who do I talk to when my computer doesn’t work?”
If It’s Your First Day as a Mid-Level Employee
At this stage in your career, of course you’ve had other jobs — maybe even for a competitor. But don’t talk excessively about your old company; it’s like talking about your ex on a first date. Be hesitant about offering information about your old company as a way of “helping” your new company — you don’t want to be seen as someone untrustworthy who spills company secrets.
Work to understand the org chart and hierarchy right away, so you can position yourself appropriately (on Peggy Olson’s first day at McCann, she was assumed to be a secretary!). If you’ve won a top job but you’re unusually young, for instance, you’ll want to cordially correct any misperceptions about your role: “Oh, no, I’m not in that department — I’m going to be working with Dan and Pete on the reorganization. It’s nice to meet you!”
If It’s Your First Day as a Manager
So you’re the new boss? No pressure.
If only that were true! In your first days as a manager, it’s crucial to set the tone — and the expectations — with your direct reports. It’s also important to make concrete first moves toward creating the improvements you were hired to make.
While you’re responsible for directing the office dynamic now that you’re in charge, you also don’t want to be seen as the tyrant who changes everything good about the work culture — especially if you’re alienating people for trivial reasons, like banning coffee at meetings or failing to recognize birthdays.
During initial meetings with your new reports, ask questions like, “What have been your favorite things about working here?” or, more directly, “Is there ever a time that the team is used to cutting loose?” You may decide that everyone’s habit of leaving at 4 pm on Friday isn’t worth creating resentment over — let them catch that early train (or happy hour), and spur them on to greatness on Monday.