Working life

Building work-life balance into your career

New job survival guide

By Anne Levy-Ward,

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Whether it’s the first day of your first job after university or you’re switching employers after years in the workforce, starting a new job can be tough.

New job survival guide.You don’t know your new boss, you’re not familiar with the organizational chart or the corporate lingo, and you may not even know where the washroom is. You’ve gone from knowing who’s who and what’s what in your previous job or school, to feeling like a stranger in a strange land. And you’re anxious to make a good first impression — if you could figure out whom you most need to impress.

If you’re just starting your career, entrepreneurial consultant Evan Carmichael recommends you concentrate on building your skills. “Get as involved as you can in as many projects as possible,” he says. “Go beyond the scope of what you were hired to do. Most employees are time-clock punchers; an easy way to stand out is to always go above and beyond.”

More questions equal fewer mistakes

Robert Bacchus agrees. The 22-year-old from Mississauga, Ont. is currently an intern with an Internet marketing firm. “Always try to get new tasks to do throughout the day, as this will show that you can take on multiple tasks at one time,” he says. “And ask lots of questions. The more questions you ask, the fewer mistakes you’ll make, and the less time you’ll have to spend fixing them. It also shows that you’re interested in the job.”

As a newcomer to the working world, Bacchus doesn’t have much experience to draw on when it comes to corporate culture, so he’s had to be very careful. “Try to dress and act very conservatively the first week or two, until you get a feel for how everyone acts and how things are done,” he advises.

Years of working experience don’t necessarily make it easy to start a new job, though. In fact, in some ways it can be more difficult.

Transportation insurance underwriter Philip Ward recently changed jobs after more than 26 years with one Toronto employer. “The hardest part of the first few days was not knowing where things were or how to get even simple tasks done,” he says. “The best tools to have are an office floor plan with names and phone numbers so you can remember who sits where, and a phone directory for the entire company. I’m using these to establish who does what and who might have the information I need.”

The importance of a 90-day plan

Liz Leake, a Mississauga, Ont. communications professional, has worked in the not-for-profit sector for many years. She joined a new organization recently, and sings the praises of preparing in advance.

“In my most recent job transition, I came prepared with a 90-day plan,” she says. “It was divided into three categories (people, administration and projects) and included things such as reviewing key documents, meeting with my team and other colleagues, and analyzing existing activities.

“At the beginning of a new job, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of new information coming at you as well as urgent requests. A 90-day plan helps you keep your eye on the things that will contribute to your ultimate success in your role, such as forging key relationships and getting a handle on organizational culture.”

Tips for your first day (and week and month) on the job:

  1. Don’t stress about what you don’t know. If someone asks you about something you’re really not familiar with, rather than hesitate or try to fake it, say smoothly, “Well, I think [insert your manager’s name] would be better able to speak to that.” That will: (a) make your manager look smart; and (b) demonstrate your good judgment.
  2. Bring in just one or two small personal items (a coffee mug, a family photo) to make your office or cubicle feel a little more like home without totally redecorating it.
  3. Take notes constantly. Flag anything you don’t know (names, acronyms, products, etc.) and look it up.
  4. Sign up for new-employee orientation sessions. You’ll probably learn a lot about the organization and you’ll meet other new employees you might cross paths with in the future.
  5. Don’t delay in signing up for employee benefits such as your company health insurance and pension plan. You’ll want to start the clock on any waiting periods as soon as possible.

Above all, remember that you’re new to the task. Recognize that you’re on a learning curve, and that it will take some time to become fully proficient. Be patient with yourself, listen and learn, and you’ll find you’ve settled in almost before you know it.

More on changing jobs:

Working well More bright ideas for managing your career and making the most of your benefits.

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