8 Mistakes Everyone Makes At a First Job (and How to Avoid Them)
Enter your first day of work with confidence.
By Sam Zabell
You ran late to a meeting. You forgot to email your boss the notes she asked for. You can’t remember how to turn on your computer, let alone find your desk. The first day (or even year!) at a new job can be intimidating, confusing, and overwhelming—but it can also be exciting and challenging if you’re prepared. Mistakes are often par for the course, but they don’t have to define your entry-level experience.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge that you’re going to make mistakes at your first job no matter what,” says Lindsey Pollak, The Hartford’s millennial workplace expert and author of Getting from College to Career. “Know that it’s not the mistake that you’re judged by, it’s how you react to the mistake and how you fix it.”
We spoke to Pollak and academic expert C.K. Gunsalus, author of The Young Professional’s Survival Guide, about the most common mistakes graduates make at their first jobs, and how they can handle each blunder with poise and professionalism.
1. You Underestimate the Commute
It’s a no brainer that being late is a major mistake—so give yourself a little extra time on your first few days to account for traffic, slow trains, winding hallways, broken elevators, or a lost ID.
“Let’s say that you’re late and you arrive in a fluster,” says Gunsalus. “You’ve shown yourself to be a person who doesn’t think things through, anticipate, and prepare.” Being late doesn’t just mean you lack punctuality, but it can represent a host of unprofessional traits you don’t want to demonstrate on your first day (or any day in the office).
2. You Friend Your Coworkers Right Away
Both Pollak and Gunsalus advise against “coming on too strong.” Translation: Know your boundaries.
“One of the things that’s particularly important is understanding the difference between being ‘friends’ and being ‘friendly,’” says Gunsalus. Go slowly. Drawing distinguished lines between your personal and professional lives is good practice, especially at the beginning of a career. Once you learn the culture, and get to know your coworkers, you can decide which social platforms you want them to see.
3. You Act Like You Know Everything
“The beginning of a job is the time to ask people how things should be done and what expectations are,” says Pollak. “One of my favorite questions to ask to your manager is, ‘What’s the best way to communicate with you?’”
Don’t be embarrassed to ask for directions, instructions, or clarification. “One of the most important things to know how to say is I don’t know,” says Gunsalus. “Asking questions is a marker of somebody who wants to learn.” If you try to fake it, and you end up being wrong, that won’t look good to your new boss.
4. You Skip the Office Tour
“This is the time to introduce yourself and build relationships,” says Pollak. Sitting at your desk with your nose in your screen all day doesn’t allow you to network and meet your colleagues. You’ll miss an opportunity for valuable networking if you don’t take time to meet your new coworkers.
5. You Check Your Phone—Constantly
“It is valuable to understand that millennials in particular have a reputation for being tech-addicted and always behind a screen,” says Pollak. “Be sensitive to the fact that that stereotype exists.” Never bring your phone into a meeting unless you’re expecting an important business call—in that case, let your manager know beforehand that you’re waiting on a call from a client and may have to step out. While personal issues may arise at work, you don’t want to spend the morning Snapchatting your new desk, or texting updates to your friends. Any phone calls should be kept brief, says Pollak.
“One time it’s not a big deal to be texting at your desk; one time it’s not a big deal to be late to a meeting, but if that starts to become a pattern, it defines you as a professional,” says Pollak.
6. You Skim the Benefits Package Fine Print
Selecting a healthcare plan and 401-K contribution can be confusing—but that doesn’t mean you should procrastinate or speed through the process. “It’s so important to take advantage of the employee benefits your company offers,” says Pollak. “Read the fine print, or talk to HR… and make the right choice for you and your family or your situation.” For an additional resource, young professionals can visit TheHartford.com/tomorrow to help them sift through the jargon and paperwork.
7. You Wing a Meeting
“A meeting absolutely starts before you’re ever in the room,” says Pollak. Don’t expect to just sit in the back quietly. Ask your manager beforehand to clarify your role in the meeting—should you take notes? Should you actively participate? Should you observe? Review any materials that will be discussed so you can answer any possible questions that come your way. Never expect to be a passive participant; always assume you will be called upon.
8. You Cover Up a Mistake
“No one expects you to be perfect,” says Gunsalus. “They do expect you to own your mistakes.” There is a slim chance that your boss won’t notice that you’ve messed up, unless you’re able to correct the mistake in record time. Managers will be more impressed if you’re proactive, admit to the mistake, and come armed with a plan.
“One of the really important tenets I always teach is you want to bring your boss solutions, not problems,” says Pollak. Gunsalus suggests an apology that includes four key elements: remorse, responsibility, rehabilitation (explaining what you’ve learned), and recompense (your plan of action). If you can apologize like a professional, move on, and learn from your mistakes, you’ll be known for your solution-driven skills, not your minor mistakes.