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Dreading Job One, Day One

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

“I lined up a great job as a corporate trainee towards the end of my last year at Uni. Since then, I’ve had a blast travelling and making the most of this last long holiday. But D Day is approaching: my first day on the job! I’m unsure about how to act, what to wear, everything. I don’t really know anyone who works for a corporate like this who can help me out. Do you have advice for surviving the first month without continually stuffing up?”

Actually, you’re off to a great start – you know enough to know what you don’t know and you’re trying to fix it. I had far less self awareness in my first job and therefore spent a lot of time with my left foot firmly jammed in my mouth.

Key Points for the First Month

Dress with care

This is important but tricky! Appropriate corporate wear varies wildly. What’s accepted in an ad agency might be career suicide at a merchant bank. Think back: were you interviewed by any women? If so what were they wearing? A good guide may be thinking back to what the women you saw presenting in the various employment presentations at university were wearing.

My advice would be to go conservative for the first week. If you must buy something, go for basic items like a dark skirt, a dark pair of trousers and a couple of basic tailored shirts. I’d delay spending a lot of money on buying a suit until you get a better sense of what the womenswear norms are. Particularly, keep your eyes peeled for what more senior women are wearing, and be ready to do some swift shopping.

Oh – and you might want to ask on Thursday what dress code is on Friday. That way you won’t look like The Square in your suit when/if everyone else turns up in smart casual. But still play it safe with a conservative choice the first week!

Contribute effectively

After three years at Cambridge it was second nature to me to argue against orthodoxy and to debate for the sake of debating. There was time for it at University and my supervisors expected it. So what did I do in my first job when a manager asked me what I’d recommend? I’d argue the case one way, the other way, backwards and forwards. The notion that he wanted to reach the best answer as efficiently as possible never entered my head. Eventually, my boss, fed up with the grumbles his new direct report was causing, introduced me to the idea of conciseness and the judicious use of debate.

Don’t rush to offer advice

It can really put people off if you start a new job and in the first month start telling them how things could be done better. You might think that you’re demonstrating passion and commitment to your co-workers but it can be seen as an attack on how they’ve managed thing so far. By all means give your thoughts if you’re asked but, as per above, I suggest you make your answer short and snappy!

So wait a while. Earn some ‘credit’ points. And eventually, make one or two small suggestions.

Take the pulse

This next bit is obvious but just in case the excitement of the new job overcomes your innate common sense…keep your eyes open for signs of “how we do things round here.” What’s the norm for items displayed on desks and pinboards? What time do most people of your level and above come in and leave? What kind of language do they use – do you hear lots of jargon, much swearing, any jokes? Watch, listen, respond. Week One is a time to learn about your new environment, not kick against its boundaries.


It’s OK to ask questions, in fact, it will make you look alert and interested. However, DO remember to listen to the answer! Even more in the early days, try to listen twice as much as you speak. Also, you should always be prepared to provide an answer to your own questions in case your boss/colleague’s response is, ‘well, what do you think?’ You’ll do well to try to figure out what your boss and colleagues are trying to achieve at work, and how you can best help.

Allies on all fronts

Of course, you’ll be polite to everyone. But remember to be especially polite and friendly to the receptionists, assistants and secretaries. One horror day in the future, you’ll forget your passport, leave your computer in a taxi and need a report couriering out by 5pm. These support staff, not the managers and bosses, are the ones who’ll save your bacon and if they like you they’ll try twice as hard.

Hey, buddy

You might have had one or two weeks’ initial training with other new hires. Often the focus of those events is on content and specific skills rather than culture. That leaves you still needing some more direct guidance at the coalface.

One of the most valuable early information sources on the job will be your office mate or your buddy, if your company has someone a little more experienced lined up to chat to you as you start work proper. I was Galia’s first office mate. I can still remember her fixing me with a gimlet stare and saying, “So! Tell me what I need to know to avoid doing the wrong thing round here.” (She was switched on to the possibility of corporate icebergs even then.)

It goes without saying that smart newbies remember to say thank you for the advice they’re given.

Beyond the First Month

A few other thoughts to send you on your way:

Not every task or project will seem like fun

Listen to your more experienced colleagues. If they say your current assignment is a drag, then relax. However, if the next two or three go on feeling the same way, you might have made a career or company mistake.

Not every co-worker will be your new best pal

If you like and respect half your colleagues you’ll be doing extremely well.

Keep checking up on what is expected of you

What do you need to do to reach your goals? Your boss should have discussed these with you. Ask your boss if you can have brief but regular catch up sessions and use these to update your boss on your work and to check that your work matches his or her expectations. No-one likes surprises, remember.

Listen more, talk less

After the promptings of business school or Uni to speak up, you may think you have to be heard on every topic at every meeting. The more effective newcomers listen and wait to be sure that what they are adding to the airwaves is really a new perspective. It helps to stick to facts rather than interpretations or feelings.

Good luck!

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