Monday, April 20, 2009

Secrets Revealed: What They're Really Looking at When You're a New Employee

It's your first day at a new job. Everything seems to be going well, but then... (ominous music) ...then you eat a doughnut at your desk.

You can feel the change in the atmosphere. People try to hide their shocked expressions, but you see them anyway. A few pitying looks are cast into your cubicle, even a few smirks. Suddenly, your Dunkin' Donuts chocolate cake doughnut tastes like sawdust in your mouth. Crumbs drift down the front of your shirt, and the chocolate you were about to lick from your fingers is now hastily wiped on a napkin.

You don't know exactly what has happened, but you know without a doubt that your "new kid" jitters have just been ratcheted up to a level you haven't felt since you performed "Thriller" for your school's talent show.

Welcome to the pitfalls of being the new kid on the block. Because while the human resources department may have provided you with two days worth of training and given you an employee handbook as thick as the Trenton phone book, you've just screwed up in a way you never imagined: You ate at your desk.

How were you supposed to know? you wonder. No one told you that it's not OK to indulge in a harmless doughnut when you hit that mid-morning slump! But now that it has happened, people just look at your differently. You begin to wonder if you've damaged your professional reputation before you've even learned how to use the phone system.

Recently I interviewed several employers who told me that it's often the little things -- like eating at your desk when everyone always eats in the break room -- that can trip up a new worker. By not being observant of the culture in a company, new employees can find they have a more difficult time of not only meshing right away with a new team, but of impressing a boss.

"It's the little things that often put a stink on you for the rest of your career," says Maureen Crawford Hentz, manager of talent acquisition, development and compliance for Sylvania in Danvers, Mass. "Then you have to work twice as hard to erase them."

If you're taking on a new position, here are some things to consider in your first days on the job:

* Learning appropriate ways to communicate. Can you question a boss in a meeting? Is it OK to Twitter at work? Should e-mails be formal? Is it OK to address everyone by their first name, or does it depend on their title? "Spend time walking around and watching what people do. Do they talk casually with one another, or do they use formal e-mail?" Hentz says. "These are the things people don't tell you, but you need to figure out on your own."

* Not watching the clock. Don't be late and don't rush out the door as soon as the clock says it's time. You want to make it appear to others that you're happy to be there.

* Maintaining a professional workspace. "There is a difference between the workplace and the front of your refrigerator," says Bob Horst,head of recruitment and professional development for Nelson Levine deLuca and Horst LLC. "I like to see a tasteful family photo because my family is important to me. But I don't want to see a whole bunch of your child's artwork all over the place. It is a workplace."

* Keeping socialization under control. "It's important to fit in, but your main focus should be learning your job," says Linda Matzigkeit, senior vice president of human resources for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

* Listen and learn."No one wants to hear the new guy endlessly spouting advise and wisdom on his first day. And I don't want to hear about how you used to do things at your last employer," Horst says.

* Understanding the difference between policy and reality. "Yes, lunch is 12-1 (p.m.), but do people really go? Is it acceptable to eat at your desk?" Hentz asks.

Hentz says that while it can be tough knowing what to do and what not to do, new workers can always go to human resources to get the inside skinny on the new workplace.

"Sometimes there are no hard and fast rules," Hentz says. "You just have to understand what's happening and then make your choices."

What are some other good guidelines for new workers?

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

An Emergency Checklist for When a New Boss Shows Up

It can take months or even years to establish a good relationship with a boss. There are bumps along the way, but in the end, you feel confident that your boss values your hard work and believes your contribution to the company is important.

Of course, that gives you some measure of confidence. After all, if your boss believes you to be valuable you might might be able to hang onto your job during these tough times. At the very least, you feel your relationship is good enough that you will be treated fairly if there are cutbacks.

Then one day you come into work and your boss isn't there. The news is soon delivered: Your boss has been laid off.

Oh, S**t! you think. Now what?

First, don't panic. There is a way to still protect yourself in this uncertain job market, but it means you're going to have to act fast to set up a relationship with the new boss that at least positions you not to be the most vulnerable to any "restructuring" or "downsizing" -- or whatever they want to call being kicked to the curb.

I understand you will be in shock, so I'm going to give you an emergency checklist you should follow in the event you get a new boss:

1. Do your homework. Go online and read a LinkedIn profile and search out industry news on the new boss. Make phone calls to contacts who know her well -- don't bother with those who haven't worked directly for her or with her. You want to know specifics about her management style reputation as a boss. Try to get an idea of her pet peeves and her personality so that you can understand how to get off on the right foot immediately. Ask: "What is she like to work for?"

2. Scout the team. Sometimes bosses like to work with the same people. When they move, they may take certain team members with them. By looking at her work history, can you see a pattern where the same people follow her? Will any of those team members be able to possibly replace you? Making a good impression on her "favored few" will be important.

3. Be ready to race. In this economy, no boss has months or even weeks to get a feel for a new team. She is going to be making decisions quickly about who stays and who goes, so it's critical that you be ready to hit the ground running. If you've done your homework, you already know her likes and dislikes. When you have your initial meeting with her, you should be able to formulate your answers into something that makes her comfortable with you -- a key if you're going to make it on her team.

4. It's a job interview, stupid. Don't feel like doing a background check on the new boss is somehow underhanded. She will have plenty of material at her disposal regarding your work performance, and may even have Googled you. This means that she knows exactly what mistakes you have made, what are your weak points and what you've done to help the bottom line. Be prepared with answers -- just like you would in a job interview -- about what you've learned from your mistakes, how your skills are exactly what the company needs and the specifics of how your efforts have made a positive impact.

5. Offer to help. Bosses these days are under enormous pressure to produce results, and also are anxious about making sure they have top performers on their team. Still, if they're new, they're going to have a learning curve. Jump in and offer to help by acquainting her with other department's key players, office political structures and other potential land mines. A new boss always appreciates a worker who is willing to share knowledge and help her get off to a good start.

What are some other ways to put yourself in a good position with a new boss?

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