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Communications of the ACM

ACM Careers

Six Lessons for the New Employee

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First impressions count, and anyone starting a new job in a new company will feel the stakes of those first impressions acutely. Newbies cannot rely on competence alone to establish themselves — how a worker manages job entry and relationships is paramount. And there are a lot of newbies out there; the pool of workers making career shifts is larger than ever, and workers in the U.S. stay with a single employer for just over four years.

The biggest challenge for career switchers is how they handle new interpersonal relationships at work, according to Professor Joseph Harder, who's been teaching the course "Establishing Yourself at Work" since 2008. After all, most professions require some degree of teamwork, and the success of organizations is determined in part by how well people gel. Harder has some words of wisdom for those in new roles.

Balance and Boundaries

When starting a new gig, a worker wants to prove he or she can perform, going above and beyond the scope of their role. Showing initiative and energy is important, but Harder warns that a new employee should not step on people's toes. Workplaces have pre-established roles, and overstepping the mark could backfire. So a newcomer should make sure the scope of the job is crystal clear, Harder says, and spend time interacting with new colleagues to establish their responsibilities and the boundaries.

Reframe the Conflict

Conflict is inevitable. In their quest for success, professionals are often more competitive than collaborative, but organizational performance demands the reverse. When dealing with difficult co-workers, Harder advises to focus on interests rather than positions — for example, stress what needs to be achieved rather than on what you refuse to do. Reframing a conflict as joint problem-solving, rather than an antagonistic situation, leads to more integrated solutions.

Manage Up

Harder also stresses the need to consciously work with the boss to perform well, drawing on insight from "Managing Your Boss," a classic Harvard Business Review article by John Gabarro and John Kotter. Upon entry to a new company, employees should make an effort to understand the boss' communication preferences — both frequency and mode. You need to evidence how you are contributing and making progress, but in a way (and as often) as your supervisor prefers. 

Of course, jobs are a two-way street. Companies place much emphasis on cultural fit these days, so it's important to work out whether a new role or organization is suitable. The best way to do this, Harder says, is to converse with and analyze people in positions you aspire to. Are they leading lives you want to lead? If not, there's no harm in moving on to find a better fit.

Prepare to Network

A new job or company offers the potential to expand an invaluable network. But many people find networking cringe-worthy, so Harder sets out simple strategies for effective networking. For instance, approach larger groups to avoid the risk of disturbing a private conversation. Understanding cultural norms is also important — in China, custom dictates that a worker greet the oldest people first. And Harder recommends being prepared to kick things off with an elevator pitch, or a short summary of your calling in life.

Above all, it's important to develop skills and habits of self-reflection. Research shows that people who write down their goals are far more effective at achieving them than those who merely ponder them, for example. Amid busy schedules, it can be difficult to find the time for this. Harder recommends blocking out an hour in the calendar on a Friday, time for uninterrupted reflection and goal-setting. Or, for more sporadic thinkers, 10 minutes a day may be more effective, he says.

Learning from such strategies is key to hitting the ground running in a new job or company and learning skills that will better prepare someone to become successful not just in the next job, but throughout your career.


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