how new grads can impress at work

With spring graduations several months behind us, many new grads (well, the lucky ones, at least) are settling into new jobs and learning to navigate office life … and finding it more challenging than they expected.

Here are eight tips for impressing when you’re new on the job:

1. First and foremost, have your act together. Stay on top of things, be responsive, don’t let things fall through the cracks, and do what you say you’re going to do. It sounds simple, but paying attention to the basics is the foundation of making a good impression. If you don’t do this, nothing else will matter.

2. Pay attention to how things work around you. Even if your own job is relatively limited, take the opportunity to absorb more information about your field and the business world in general. If you pay attention to things even if they don’t directly involve you—such as meetings that might otherwise be boring—you’ll increase your knowledge and, eventually, your value.

3. Get really clear on your priorities. Know what you’d need to accomplish to have a successful week, month, or year, and put your biggest focus on those items. Don’t fall into the trap of getting sidetracked by less important items because they’re easy or fun. This can be the difference between achieving a lot, or having a track record that’s merely mediocre.

4. Pay attention to mistakes—yours and other people’s. Mistakes can be huge learning opportunities. Don’t just correct them and move on; instead, if you figure out where they came from and how they could be avoided, you’ll equip yourself to do better work in the future.

5. Pay attention to what kinds of questions your boss asks. By watching for patterns in what your manager asks or seems worried about, you can often draw larger messages about the sorts of things that she’ll care about in the future. And if you learn to anticipate those things in advance and address them before she has to ask, your value as an employee will go way up.

6. Ask for feedback. Proactively seek out feedback from your manager about where you’re doing well and what you could do better. And while it might sting at times, remember to value the critical feedback the most, because that’s what will help you improve.

7. Pay attention to the people you respect and try to figure out why you respect them. Is it their expertise, their diplomacy, their ability to deliver difficult news? Watch how they do it, so that you can do it too. And when you don’t respect someone, try to figure out why that is as well. Doing this will teach you a ton about how you want to operate in the workplace yourself.

8. Find a mentor in your office. This doesn’t have to be a formal relationship with an official “mentor” label; it can simply be a more experienced co-worker who you click with naturally. Regularly talking with someone more experienced can give you a broader perspective on office life, help you navigate tricky situations, and succeed faster.

{ 22 comments… read them below }

  1. lucy

    Great article. I graduated in May and was lucky enough to have a job offer the day after I walked the stage. I’ve been here about 3 months and I feel like I’m comfortable in the enviornment and with the job I’m doing, but I recognize that I always can continue growing (I just turned 21 last month… I do NOT know everything and I don’t want to pretend like I do).

    I actually had my 3 month review with my manager yesterday and she had nothing… nothing… in the feedback that I need to work on. I didn’t feel like she was holding back, but there has to be something that maybe she hasn’t noticed? I don’t want to pull something out of her or ask her to nitpick, but I really was hoping there would be some sort of growth objectives to come out of it.

    Should I keep asking if there’s anything I need to improve on or just keep going on with what I’m doing and see what happens at the next review?

    1. Malissa

      At three months nothing is good news. The only thing that can really happen in three months is noticing if you are really bad. Look for company or industry training to attend. Get better at your job, notice areas where you can improve. If nothing else write procedure on your job to make sure you understand everything.

    2. fposte

      I agree with Jamie that some people just aren’t good at or comfortable with that kind of feedback. In addition to the suggestions she’s made (and Alison’s suggestions about paying attention to what your boss asks and extrapolating from there) you might in future try asking her as a development question: “I’d love to have an area to focus on growing in. Is there one that you think I should prioritize?” That foregrounds it as you developing your career rather than you being bad at something, and it gives her the chance to tell you about things you might want to learn, not just things you might want to improve at.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yes, this is great. Your boss might not be giving you things to work on because she thinks in terms of “praise” and “criticism” and doesn’t have any real criticism. But there’s a third category of feedback, which is “developmental” — stuff you’re not doing wrong but which you could do better. Tell her explicitly that you’d love her guidance on things you can grow in.

  2. Tax Nerd

    I would add a bit about technology, and learning to not have some pieces of it every minute of every day. I know that business writers love to tout “Millenials are tech savvy and into social media”. If you’re not in a high tech of creative field, this could be a problem while you’re proving yourself.

    Your supervisor should NOT have to wait for you to take your headphones out when they come over to your desk. Pay attention to whether people above you use them. Just because the other interns/new hires use them does not mean your boss isn’t about to write a policy forbidding them.

    You do not need your cell phone every minute of every day. It doesn’t have to go to the bathroom with you (and for Pete’s sake, you will be judged if you use it while on the toilet). If your boss calls you into a one-on-one meeting in their office, you probably don’t need to bring your cell phone with you unless your spouse is 9-months pregnant.

    Watch your web usage. You don’t need Facebook up at all times, and you shouldn’t use your company’s network to stream music. A bunch of people doing this is what makes the internet crawl at times.

    1. Really?

      I’d go even further:

      – Unless the office is a ‘music on & headphones in’ office music shouldn’t be part of your workspace and system. In our office it would be a huge disruption mostly due to having to work that bit harder to get each others attention. (However in my husbands it is the general MO but it is a different environment where staff interaction is very planned and mostly people work alone.)

      – Your employer shouldn’t even be aware your phone is on. Unless you need it during the working day for a matter of urgency that day (builder, plumber etc) or need to be in constant contact (spouse/family member ill etc) you should consider it being on silent and out of your mind until breaks/lunch/finish time.

      -Non-work web use should be official breaks / lunch/ non-workday time only. If you need to check something for a quick non-work current-topic conversation Google-type confirmation then its probably ok but anything more than that should be considered carefully.

      Once you have an idea of the office manner and feeling for these things you can amend those rules a little but to start building a good working ethos for yourself you initially need to be strict about it.

    2. Karthik

      Re: supervisors coming to your desk — one thing that I’ve found works for me is a small mirror that attaches to your monitor. It’s in your field of view, and you can see people approaching from behind. It allows you to swivel your chair to face them as they’re still walking, instead of having them dance around while you try to move your chair about.

  3. Jamie

    Unfortunately a lot of managers are uncomfortable with any feedback which falls into the improvement category so unless you’re setting the wastebaskets on fire or one more mistake away from being escorted off the premises by security they don’t say a word.

    I’m not advocating that – just pointing out that some people are nervous giving feedback. Maybe they are just lousy managers who don’t care, maybe they’ve had one too many employees who heard “you suck and nothing you have ever done in your whole life has been remotely right” when they tried to point out ways they could go from good to great.

    I think it’s great that you want this feedback – most people don’t (in my experience). If your manager won’t hand you opportunities for improvement you can still figure it out. Pay close attention to what really matters to her – and excel at that. When she gives you feedback of any kind, accept it professionally and not emotionally. If you don’t gush over effusive praise she may learn to trust that you won’t fall to pieces over some constructive criticism.

    1. Annona Miss

      What Jamie said.

      I tried to give my underling constructive feedback, and it backfired. I didn’t even frame it as “You’ve been doing this wrong”, but “Now that you’ll be supervising people for the first time, I want you to pay attention to and develop your soft skills.” She went and (literally) cried to my boss that I was impossible to please. Because he can’t deal with crying, I’m under orders to be super gentle with her. Only she really needs to work on being a little nicer to coworkers AND she’s figured out that she can go over my head to appeal anything I say. Grr.

  4. some1

    The mistakes that I have seen co-workers in their early 20’s make (& I am sure I did something similar back in the day!)

    – Just because you are on a personal call or on a call on your break doesn’t mean you won’t be judged professionally for what someone can overhear. No, your 30-yr-old co-workers aren’t impressed that you’re “so hungOVER” on a Tuesday morning, and they aren’t jealous of your young & carefree life. They just think you’re unprofessional and clueless.

    – We are all on our best behavior in front of our boss, but that goes for any supervisor or manager in the organization as well. Some organizations are just like high school, where any teacher can get you “in trouble”, or you might have that teacher next semester. I worked somewhere that had a mgr that I never cared for became my boss when they re-structured.

    – At work happy hours, parties, etc, *especially* if alcohol is involved, do NOT treat it just like any event with friends. Assume any secrets or juicy gossip you share in an effort to bond with your co-workers will get out & come back to bite you.

    1. Rookie

      I agree! Also, be careful in trying to blend in with other young coworkers. Just because they seem friendly it doesn’t mean they won’t go out spilling the beans later on.

  5. Danni

    Alison, I really like the advice in your article. However some of the comments here drive me nuts. Sorry, but “recent grads” are NOT solely responsible for stupid work habits (bringing your phone to a meeting) or having inappropriate conversations about being hungover.

    I’m just finishing up my MA this year but I have been working in my field already for the past 2, so I am kind of a ‘grad’ but not really. It just drives me crazy that people think that 20-somethings have no idea how to act, but that people who have been at an organization longer automatically are respectful and have common sense.

    I know I’m taking it a bit personally, but don’t judge 20 somethings just because of their age/rank. I have had PLENTY of inappropriate things said to me by my bosses or managers while at work parties, have had plenty of incompetent coworkers in their 30s/40s, etc.

    I find that the younger people I work with are way more motivated, polite and generally ‘with it’ than the older employees. Most people my age have been well aware that the job market is not great, and have been encouraged to volunteer and take on many jobs or (unpaid or paid) internships throughout college, so they/we are generally familiar with the work environment and how to get ahead by being respectful and professional.

    I think the issue is just…some people lack common sense!

    1. Jamie

      “It just drives me crazy that people think that 20-somethings have no idea how to act, but that people who have been at an organization longer automatically are respectful and have common sense.”

      I don’t think anyone who has been in the work force longer than 5 minutes believes seniority = respect or common sense.

      I have a different take on the comments than you did. I saw it as people trying to offer guidance on how to become the co-worker with respect and common sense, and how to avoid becoming the office pariah which some never out grow. And offering this advice to people just entering the work force is more helpful than trying to offer the same advice to people who have been asshats in office after office for the last 20 years.

      Trust me, the 60 year old guy who throws his phone across the room and screams at someone in meeting isn’t going to change. The 22 year old who is just wearing headphones where maybe she shouldn’t just might.

      And you’re right – even though I am several hundred years old myself I work with people in their 20s who are exceptional – for me if the effort and competence is there age isn’t even a factor.

      Except for the one woman who said she couldn’t name all the Bradys because she was too young. They’ve been in reruns for almost 40 years…youth is no excuse for not knowing this kind of critical information.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        This is how I took it too. People are more likely to make some of these mistakes when they’re new to the workforce, but that doesn’t mean that others don’t make them too … but people new to the workforce are often more interested in learning about appropriate behavior than people who have been demonstrating for 20 years that they don’t really care.

    2. some1

      If you were talking about my comment, I am sorry if I offended you but all the examples I listed were from former co-workers who were all 24 or younger, and I attributed these mistakes to youth & inexperience. (As I do to a lot of mistakes I made at my first job out of college).

      Trust me, as Jamie said below me, I could post dozens of stories of inappropriate work behavior or mistakes made by co-workers over 30, 40, and 50, but that’s not what the topic was about.

    3. Mike C.

      I can appreciate Danni’s thoughts here. I appreciate folks who are just giving advice – these are the sorts of things that have helped to get me where I am today. No wo/man is an island after all.

      Yet at the same time, I can’t help but bristle when I read the same thing over and over in the business media community. “Oh those dang kids on their phones!” “Oh, there they are, looking at Facebook!” “When I was that age I never would have done X, but I guess I was raised differently”. Different contexts, different people, different intentions sure, but the same comments.

      I get that this site in particular is different and the community here at large is saner and more supportive than most. And I get that those who are posting advice here in this and other threads are posting with the good intention of making sure others don’t repeat the mistakes they have seen or made themselves.

      But man am I tired of hearing about “kids” and “technology”.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I hate most articles on generational differences, and how Gen Y will change the workplace, and how to manage millennials (as if they’re some foreign creature), and all of that. It really irks me, and sometimes I suspect that people just write that stuff because they know it sells.

        But I do think that in general there are often different norms when it comes to how people use technology. Not across the board, but in general. My mother, an otherwise intelligent woman, needs to take the free class at the Mac store to figure out how to use iPhoto, whereas I just figure it out. On the other hand, my 12-year-old niece intuitively understood every detail of how to play Guitar Hero in five minutes, whereas it took me two days. I think those are pretty typical of our respective age groups. I text and use Facebook; my mom leaves lengthy voicemails and then wonders why I don’t listen to the whole message. My niece uses voicemail only for prank calls. Okay, these examples suck so I’ll stop.

        Where I think people often go wrong, though, is when they apply a “I was never so rude/thoughtless/whatever at that age” to whatever difference they’re observing.

        Because I sure was. And I remember quite a few of my peers being that way as well. It’s really just inexperience, whenever it’s happening. It’s rare specific to a particular generation, just a particular time of life.

        1. Liz T

          This is also relevant to communication. I’m 30 and tutor high school students. My fellow students are mostly in their 20s. What shocked me was that our kids almost never respond to emails, and when I follow up, they hadn’t even checked their email. These are kids with phones out all the time…and I realized they’re so technologically advanced, their POST email. Email’s too slow for them, because they text and Skype and all that. I could’ve said, “My students are rude, lazy, jerks!” but in fact they just have different base settings.

          This is a very specific example, and I’m not saying they’re going to join the work force in five years not knowing how to use email. My point is that technology does affect how we communicate, so it’s worth thinking about.

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