Five rookie career mistakes and how to avoid them

Your first job is an easy place to make mistakes. Avoiding these five mistakes will help you start out right!

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Boston University Center for Career Development offers resume and cover letter review sessions for students on February 4, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.

A college grad — let’s call him Paul — was eager to make a great impression in his first job. But when he inevitably made his first mistake, he couldn’t take the letdown in stride and it cost him his job.

During the interview process, Paul had been well-spoken and had seemed motivated to start his career in sales, says Cheri Spets Farmer, a longtime manager and current digital and sales training consultant. One day something didn’t go as expected and Paul took it hard. The next day he didn’t come to work and he didn’t call. Farmer reached out to Paul, who explained how crushed he was in a singular line — “I just had to stay home and soak in the jets.”

Your first job isn’t likely to be smooth sailing, especially right away. You’re bound to make missteps and slip-ups while you get your bearings. But the one thing you definitely don’t want to do is be seen as a “Paul.”

“The fact that he would even say that spoke more than just the words themselves. It said that he really didn’t have a feel for what his role was,” Farmer says. “I think he just didn’t understand how important he was or that the other team members were relying on him.”

Paul is an extreme example of how not to act when you make an error. Farmer says Paul’s most avoidable mistake was that he dealt inappropriately with rejection. In your first job, here are five common rookie mistakes and how to avoid them.

Mistake No. 1: Being too shy to speak up because you’re ‘the new guy’

Just because you’re new doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion. That lesson was learned the hard way by Tara Clapper, technical editor at SEMrush and senior editor at The Geek Initiative. Clapper says at her first job as a sales rep at a self-publishing company, she was afraid to speak up because it was an entry-level position.

“Later in life I’ve learned that no matter what your position is, in most companies if you speak up that’s how you become a leader, get ahead and get promoted,” Clapper says. “I was holding myself back.”

Speaking up doesn’t mean talking just to hear your own voice. It’s about making your questions and ideas known to co-workers and managers. Any time you can add real value to a conversation, you’re showcasing who you are in the workplace.

Mistake No. 2: Forgetting names (and missing out on new connections)

If you’re the type who goes to a party, meets someone and then five seconds later can’t remember his or her name, you have a big task ahead of you in the workplace.

“The biggest challenge is not so much that they’ve forgotten the name, but when they find themselves avoiding situations because they’ve forgotten a person’s name,” says Keith Rollag, associate professor and chair of the management division at Babson College as well as author of “What to Do When You’re New: How to Be Confident, Comfortable, and Successful in New Situations.” “It can limit your ability to create effective relationships in the workplace.”

Some simple tricks for remembering names include:

  • Pay close attention when you’re introduced to someone.
  • Meet and repeat his or her name when you’re introduced.
  • Write the name down as soon as possible.
  • Make name associations or connections.
  • Follow up an introduction with a professional social media request to increase name repetition.

Mistake No. 3: Misunderstanding business goals and how you contribute to them

Many young hires don’t know what their managers are looking for or aren’t aware of their environment, says Bram Daly, client services manager for talent acquisition company Alexander Mann Solutions.

“A lot of times, new employees are in essence focused on themselves and the experience they’re having. They do not really understand that they’re part of a bigger organization and they’re not aligning with their boss’s priorities,” Daly says.

You’re not going to have your finger on the pulse of the company all at once, but you can get on the right track early through observation. Daly suggests taking the first few weeks to determine the answers to these questions:

  • What is my job for?
  • What do my superiors want to see from me?
  • What are my goals?
  • What does success look like?

Listening and being able to answer these questions can help you understand the part you  play within the scope of the entire company.

Mistake No. 4: Acting too young and giving off the wrong impression

The last thing you want to do when you’re young in the workplace is to betray your age. It has more to do with your conduct than how old you actually are, experts say. Here are a few immature moves you want to refrain from making at work:

Being overeager. You might want to stand out from the crowd, but being too eager for work is the easiest way to spark animosity in co-workers. You have to walk the line between working hard and trying too hard, says Jason Carney, senior professional in human resources at professional employer organization WorkSmart Systems Inc. in Indianapolis. Starting a new job, Carney adds, is “the perfect opportunity to blend in, learn how to work with different generations and understand how people view you.”

Getting distracted. It’s tempting to check your phone or even stream a TV show when you’re between tasks or finished with an assignment. But when you’re early in your career it’s especially important to show you’re a hard worker.

“If you’re seen on Facebook or Twitter or on your phone all the time it’s a big problem,” says Jacqueline Berman, a senior account manager at recruitment firm WinterWyman in Boston. “You’re not being paid to have fun; you’re being paid to work. People don’t realize how big of a deal it is.”

Sending emails with errors. If your grammar is less than stellar or your writing is too informal in emails, you may not be taken seriously at work. “Every move you make in an office reflects on you,” Berman says. “If you don’t have proper punctuation if you’re addressing someone professionally, it makes you look too casual.”

Posting inappropriately on social media. You don’t want your social media posts to become the topic of the day at the watercooler, especially among your more seasoned colleagues, Berman says.

“When you’re young and you haven’t proved yourself yet, but your public profile has a picture of you smoking a joint, it doesn’t look good,” she says. “You need to maintain your professionalism inside and outside of the office.”

Mistake No. 5: Disregarding the office food chain

Everyone you work with is accountable to somebody else. So when you’re doing work that you don’t enjoy, don’t understand or think is just plain stupid, remember this:

“The manager isn’t trying to hogtie you with busy work. It’s usually been asked of them up the line,” Farmer says. “Even someone who owns the company reports to somebody.”

In your first job, you have the choice to let work crush your spirit or provide reassurance that this is what paying your dues is all about. Farmer says, “If you can’t understand why something is happening or why you’re being asked to do something, even if you don’t like it, you can still have peace with it.”

Anna Helhoski is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website.

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