How to Adapt to a New Workplace

Learning about the company and its key figures before your first day can help you make a good first impression.

In a time of layoffs and high unemployment, adapting to a new job is more important than ever. A study by the training company Leadership IQ of 20,000 newly hired employees found that 46 percent of them had hit the rocks within 18 months, facing either termination, disciplinary action or a negative performance review [source: Leadership IQ].

Why do so many new hires fail? One reason is that many of them aren't given a clear job definition from the start [source: Fisher]. You should begin by finding out exactly what your duties will be in the new role. It's best to get a written description, but remember that jobs change and that, in today's job climate, employees often are expected to be flexible and ready to take on new duties.


To help yourself adapt, begin by learning as much as you can about the company for which you're going to be working. Who are the top executives, and how do the various departments and sectors work together? What's the company's history? Who are its main competitors? What trends are affecting the industry?

Once on the job, the Leadership IQ survey found, it was not a lack of competence but difficulty in accepting and implementing feedback that proved the most common downfall of new employees. "The best way to show deference to a group is to listen," says psychologist Albert J. Bernstein in his book "Am I the Only Sane One Working Here?" Your coworkers "want you to show them that you value the experience and knowledge of the group," Bernstein says. Feedback is so important that if you aren't getting it, you should request it. Ask your boss: How am I doing? How could I be performing my job better? Some of what you hear might not be pleasant, so you should be able to take criticism in stride.

In addition to knowing your company, learning what's expected of you and being ready to accept feedback, here are some additional tips to help you adapt to your new job:

  • Don't talk about how you did things at your old job. It's a big temptation, but a serious mistake.
  • Don't bluff. If you don't know how to do something, ask.
  • Acknowledge your mistakes. You're bound to make some; don't try to cover up.
  • Ask questions, take notes. Most people don't mind explaining things to you, but they'll lose patience if you ask the same questions over and over.
  • In office jobs, don't dress too casually. One common suggestion is to dress for the job you want to have, not the one you already have.
  • Keep your boss informed. No surprises or embarrassments.
  • Study the employee handbook. Pay close attention at orientation and training sessions.

Every workplace has its own pace. Read on for advice about adjusting to the rhythms of a new job.


Adapting to the Pace of a New Workplace

If this is your first "real" job after college, you should be aware of the differences between work and school. In college, you pretty much set your own pace. Your day is less structured, and you have more control over your time. Not so at work. In most cases, your hours will be set, and your job duties will determine your pace. Don't expect as many breaks. In school, you worked mostly on your own. On the job, you need to make sure your efforts are in synch with the organization. You've been used to getting specific assignments from professors, but at work your duties might not be so well-defined. You'll have to show more initiative.

As soon as you start work, observe the daily pace of the workplace. In some companies, employees are hard at it first thing and stop work on time. In other workplaces, the day starts slowly, but most people stay past quitting time. As a new employee, it's a good idea to arrive at work early and leave when most of your colleagues do. Be punctual for meetings and appointments, even if others aren't. Find out whether you will routinely be expected to work overtime.


Many aspects of a company's culture contribute to the rhythm of work. For example, how do employees usually communicate? Is everything face-to-face, or are e-mails or instant messaging the main method? How often do meetings take place, and how long do they last? Do workers take regular lunch breaks or grab a bite at their desks? Are there busy times of the day or year? Are projects completed in a frenzy of last-minute work?

You should be observing and adapting to all these factors. Don't try to change the culture. Maybe you would prefer to work at a steady pace, but if there are rush periods, you'll have to step up the pace. Don't assume the rhythm of your new workplace will be like your previous job.

Most jobs are affected by technology these days. On the next page, you'll read about how to handle the technology in a new workplace.


Adapting to Technology in a New Workplace

Workplace technology spans the spectrum of media, but let's start out with computers. Find out in advance if your new company mainly uses PCs or Macs, and if you're not familiar with the operating system, try to get some training before your first day. Even if you're not completely up to speed, you'll at least know the basics.

The same goes for common software programs. In almost any business, you'll need to know Microsoft Word, Excel, Power Point and Outlook. In some cases, you may be using more specialized programs like Adobe Photoshop or QuickBooks. You don't necessarily have to be an expert in all of these programs, but you should know enough to begin learning them quickly if they're important for your job.


If you use a computer regularly on the new job, keep in mind that it's the company's, not yours. Don't use it for personal business. At some places, it may be fine to use a spare minute to browse the Internet, but many companies keep Internet logs and can identify irrelevant use of company computers. You shouldn't be sending or receiving personal e-mails, and don't check your Facebook page or other personal pages. Never gamble, shop or visit pornographic sites -- those are infractions that could get you fired. The same goes for using an iPod, smart phone or other gadgets -- don't use them for personal business at work.

On the flip side, find out before you start whether the company uses social media sites for business purposes. Web sites like LinkedIn and Facebook might be important ways to maintain contacts with colleagues or customers. A survey by the Center for Marketing Research showed that, at the nation's 500 fastest-growing private companies, the use of social networking jumped from 20 percent to 44 percent between 2007 and 2008 [source: Barnes et al]. So make sure you know how to maneuver these social media sites just in case.

When it comes to e-mail, take a businesslike approach by using these tips.

  • Don't overuse it. It's often more effective to deal with colleagues face-to-face, especially when you're starting out.
  • Don't assume any message will remain private.
  • Be especially careful when you click "Reply to all." You may be sending copies of the e-mail unnecessarily or sending inappropriate information to the wrong party.
  • Use grammatical English, not the slang that might be OK for texting.
  • Spell-check every message.
  • Keep it short.
  • Never include discriminatory or prejudiced statements.
  • Remember that every e-mail is a permanent document.

When you show up at a new workplace, you're joining a team. Read on to learn about how to get along with your new coworkers.


Understanding Team Dynamics in the Workplace

Getting to know your colleagues and their work styles can make meetings go more smoothly.
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

"The biggest challenge to a new employee in any company is to understand the various dynamics of how people work together," say Milo and Thuy Sindell in their book "Sink or Swim" [source: Sindell]. To start, try learning your colleagues' names and a few facts about them. What are their duties at work, their main interests, their family situation? If you didn't catch the person's name at first, ask again. Take notes.

Greet the people you work with warmly and sincerely when you see them. When you can, join them for lunch or a cup of coffee. Participate in group activities like ball games, an after-work drink or company parties. If you drink, limit yourself on such occasions to one or two drinks; you want to be sociable, not sloshed. Also, don't always talk shop away from the office; it's a time to form personal bonds.


Even if you're not part of a formal team, your attitude should project a team spirit. Use the term "we" rather than "I." Understand the goals that you and your colleagues are working toward. Volunteer for assignments, particularly the jobs no one wants. This will show that you're willing to pay your dues as the new person on the team. And don't complain, even if your colleagues engage in gripe sessions. Stay positive, and try to talk about solutions instead of problems. Praise the efforts of others frequently, and share credit for accomplishments, even if you've played a major role. It also helps to do favors for colleagues, like helping them out on a rush job. Don't hesitate to ask them to do you favors occasionally or to seek their advice.

While you're in the process of being accepted at a new workplace, it's important to avoid creating conflict with your coworkers. You'll need to understand office politics, but try to avoid participating. For example, don't immediately ally yourself with a particular clique. There are a few specific things you should definitely not do when you're new on the job in order to avoid conflict:

  • Avoid discussing controversial topics like religion, or politics.
  • Don't pass on gossip. Listen politely, but keep quiet about it.
  • Never discuss your or another's salary
  • Don't criticize your boss or the company even if others do.

One final way to fit into a workplace team is to show your appreciation. Thank everyone who helps you, and make it a habit to treat people with respect. Just as you'll want to get to know important people in the organization, it also helps to make friends in lower-level positions. Mailroom workers, maintenance people and receptionists can often be quite helpful during your period of adjustment. Make sure they know you are grateful.

Your human resources manager can be an excellent source of advice during your early days on the job. On the next page, you'll learn the key questions you should be asking as you assume your duties.


Questions for Your HR Manager

Your HR manager may be able to give you an idea of what to expect with your new colleagues.

The first thing you'll want to do when starting your new job is to learn the company's policies. Do they offer a flexible time schedule? How do they view working at home? What is the policy about personal days off? How should you handle travel and other expenses? Don't assume the policies will be the same as those at your previous job.

In addition to getting a clear, formal job description, you should tap your human resources manager to learn as much as you can about your duties. What is expected of you? What should your objectives be on the job? What does success look like for this job?


The HR manager can be helpful in clarifying the lines of authority in the company. He or she will let you know the person you should report to. But you'll also want to know whether it's acceptable to go outside regular channels to get things done. How much authority do you have to tap the resources of other departments? How often should you report to your boss? What are your supervisor's main objectives? What is his or her scope of authority?

You should also find out who will evaluate your performance. How often are reviews conducted? What are the criteria by which you'll be judged? Who looks at the reviews, and how will they affect your advancement in the company? Is there any way to appeal a negative evaluation?

The HR manager can tell you who to turn to for help when you have a problem. What if difficulties arise with your boss? With coworkers? The manager might also be able to suggest people in the company who can serve as mentors. Identifying and connecting with an experienced executive outside your immediate chain of command who can give advice and guidance is especially valuable when you're starting out.

Finally, ask the HR manger: Where should I be headed? It's never too early to look at where your career path might take you. What jobs might open up for you? What's the likely timing of raises and promotions? What skills do you need to develop in order to advance?

Starting a new job can be an exciting and challenging experience. Read on for more information about the best ways to adapt in your new workplace.


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More Great Links

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