By Dino Londis
The first week of the new job brings to you new people, new processes and new politics. You feel isolated, maybe vulnerable. As you try to get your footing, it's only natural to look around for friends. But be careful who befriends you. If you're going to lunch or getting coffee with the department fool, you may be lumped into a category that'll be hard to shake. People judge, and although you've made a good first impression with management you'll need to do the same with your colleagues.
While researching for an article about first impressions in the workplace, I came upon the usual clichÃ©s. The most repeated one: "You never have a second chance to make a first impression." Its rationale goes something like this: It takes anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds for someone to form an opinion of you. In that time, they examine how you dress, act, your choice of words, your accent.
Well, all that's only true when you're meeting someone you've never seen before. Like, say, at a job interview. But once you're hired, you'll go anywhere from days to weeks before formally meeting everyone, and all the while they're forming their opinions about you. So their first impressions aren't formed in 30 seconds, but over a much broader period that ends only after the formal introduction.
Even after that, they're still evaluating you. Management, too. Remember this is your probationary period, whether it's called that or not.
"When I started that new job, I think I was naive and desperate for acceptance so I welcomed any friendly overtures from anyone," reflects Becky, who was starting a at a midtown New York law firm's help desk. "Then a few weeks down the road I found out the friendly welcoming committee were kind of the social outcasts and losers, preying on people in that state of newbie desperation. Eventually, I found different, better matched friends. I realized with embarrassment that everyone else saw what was happening, and that I kind of looked like the desperate fool that I was."
Becky had no history with her co-workers, but likewise didn't know the firm's history or politics, or where the minefields lay. Knowing this and knowing how to spot the "social outcasts and losers" are two different things. So here's my rule of thumb (you may have a different barometer): In those first few weeks, winners talk tech and losers talk personal.
The personal talk ranges anywhere from home life to stinging company gossip. I find people talk personal because they don't have tech skills and therefore aren't well respected within the department. Of course, the technically proficient may get personal as well, but there's a difference between telling you about a great restaurant and someone describing how they were stricken in the rest room because they ate in the cafeteria.
The one person I've always found safe to immediately befriend is the receptionist on my floor. By their very position, they're the people people, and their kind word about you travels well. I've gotten some great clues by speaking with her (for me, it's always been a her) and saying kind things about specific people and listening to how she responds. I've received excellent, immediate insight into the company.
Not all of us can read people well. We're techies after all, but we get ahead in this business by managing people almost better than we manage machines. A new job is a new start with new people. If you don't have skills to get a quick bead on a person, keep a healthy distance from everyone until you can put pieces of the puzzle together while doing your job. Making the wrong friends isn't career ending, but at some point you'll need to push your agenda or be picked for a project and you won't want the stigma of association with a person you hardly knew.
Dino Londis is an applications management engineer in New York.