The nice thing about a new job is that it probably won’t start sucking immediately. It’ll be easy at first—kind of like the first week of class, where the only thing expected of you is your presence and appropriate clothing (anything beyond pajamas). But unlike the first week of school, your first week here is the most important one of your tenure.
Yes, now that you’re a real grown-up, you’ll be spending more waking hours with your coworkers than the people you actually care about, and your relationships with the fellow drones sitting next to you will directly impact your professional and personal life. So don’t blow off those first impressions. In Michael Watkins’s book The First 90 Days, he says building momentum in the beginning will keep you from fighting a constant uphill battle, which is great for those Rockefeller/Robert California/Jay Z types who are seriously trying to take charge and be a True Leader. But let’s face it—you just need to get by. And, hell, you don’t have time to read a whole book right now anyways. So here’s what to keep in mind.
Ask the necessary questions before you start. When you call to tell the hiring manager you’re accepting the job (because hopefully you took some time to negotiate a better salary), remember to ask when most people arrive and who you should report to. Already past that point? There’s no shame in emailing the day before to check in and ask about the particulars. Otherwise you risk spending your first morning sitting outside of the locked entrance, or rushing in late and having no clue where to go.
Don’t dress to impress. In fact, don’t try to impress at all. “Dress for the job you want,” says your dad/counselor/parole officer. I believed this until I committed to wearing a tie my first week at my first job; on day two, my cubicle neighbor leaned over and said, “We’re taking bets on how long that thing lasts.”
Dress up, yes. Wear clean shirts, and pants without holes, and even a blazer or a cardigan if it seems appropriate. Ties are obviously also still required for many jobs, but when you dress up too much, you risk making yourself and everyone else uncomfortable, or looking like you’re trying too hard. You’re the new guy—you already stand out enough. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to pack a tie in your bag just in case you have a surprise meeting with the CEO.
This also applies to your demeanor. Deflate that chest a little. Be competent, but not overly confident. Acting like you know what’s going on when you clearly do not can make others dislike you. Be enthusiastic, but not too eager. Smart, but not pretentious. A little quirkiness is fine. A friend of mine told me he uses the Rain Man approach: “I want everyone to think I’m unusually smart for this role, but possibly autistic.”
Make the most of your introductions. There is some room for confidence—like when you introduce yourself. No dead-fish handshakes, no name-mumbling. Look your new coworkers directly in the eyes and smile. Be the kind of person you would want to work with. Try your damnedest to remember their name. There’s the old trick—say it twice (“Great to meet you, Donald ... thanks, Donald”)—but that can make you look like a creepster robot and doesn’t work as well when you’re meeting several people in a row. Instead, try the association trick (Donald has duck lips / Donald has hair like Trump). If you do forget someone’s name (you will forget someone’s name), don’t fret too much: “Sorry, remind me of your name—I think I met 87 humans today.”
Don’t come early, stay late, or work too hard. That is, if you’re just putting in extra hours for the sake of putting in extra hours. Ten minutes early is fine. Any more and people might assume you’re being dishonest with your time, and you could be setting up an impossible precedent. The exception is if you’re taking on an ambitious project or using the time to study up on internal documents or technology.
Just be sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew—you’ll probably choke. Others might see a new hire as an opportunity to offload some of their work. It’s okay to say you already have too much on your plate, or tell someone you need to put something on hold if another assignment comes from higher up in the company hierarchy.
Establish your command center. If you have any say about where you can set up your workstation, chose a central location where you won’t miss out on any office gossip or impromptu meetings or outings. Decorate and organize your cubicle or office within the first week—otherwise you probably never will. And remember: a lot of mess makes you look incompetent, but a little mess is conducive to creativity and lets people know you’re not a soulless drone.
Ask dumb questions, but don’t make dumb talk. You have a grace period, so use it. Don’t be afraid to look like an idiot and ask possibly obvious questions, because if you ask those questions in a few weeks, you could look like an incompetent idiot with no foresight or self-assertion. Carry a small notebook around so you’ll remember the answers to these questions.
On the other hand, avoid awkward small talk in the elevator and break room. (“Oh, you know … it’s going”; “Yeah, the weather.”) Prepare some topics of conversation. Office sports league, Game of Thrones, “what exactly do you do here?”—these are safe bets. For other ideas, there’s always internet-stalking.
Study your coworkers and engage with the right ones. Yeah: Before you start, do some research on your coworkers. Just a little. Start with LinkedIn. Did any of them grow up in the same town or go to the same school as you? Then Twitter—do they like the same teams or TV shows? This could also give you an idea of what the office environment is like. Do they follow or tweet other coworkers? Are those tweets professional? Casual? Downright vulgar? At the office, pay attention to how they interact. Who is the Dwight, and who is the Jim? Who organizes social outings? This gives you an idea of how to act when you go to lunch or happy hour.
Whatever you do, don’t bail on lunch and happy hour. These invitations will likely come 10 minutes before they happen. Be ready. Don’t plan anything too pressing right after work the first couple weeks. You’re better off ditching Tinder dates than ditching your coworkers. You’ll likely be spending a lot more time with the latter over the next year.
Don’t trash talk during these social outings. This might seem obvious, but it will be tempting when other coworkers are gripping or dishing on Donald or whoever. Complaining about work is fine, though: No one loves everything about their job. The airing of grievances between coworkers over drinks is a time-honored tradition that goes back to the world’s first professionals (and if the euphemism is to be believed, the early prostitutes probably had a lot to complain about), but it is a privilege you will earn after a few months on the job.
Don’t stress. You will screw up. You’ll probably even embarrass yourself. You’ll probably want to bash your head against your steering wheel as soon as you leave the office on your first day. And while it helps to keep these embarrassments to a minimum, no one will remember your mistakes three months from now. By then, you’ll all be making fun of the new kid.
Jennings Brown has been an editor at Esquire and Popular Mechanics. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Complex, Playboy, The Bourbon Review, and CNN Travel. You can find him on Twitter @tjenningsbrown.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.