Advice for Employers and Recruiters

5 Rookie Mistakes People Make in Their First Job–and How to Prevent Them

William Frierson AvatarWilliam Frierson
May 21, 2014

Vicky Oliver

Vicky Oliver

A new study found that 2014 college grads face a challenging job market–and may end up having to take a low-quality job to start. (Here’s the link.) But whether or not a starter job ever leads to a dream job, there are some basic, informal rules of behavior that every new employee should try to master, and some mistakes it just makes sense to try and avoid.

Here are some classic rookie mistakes to avoid and the solutions.

Mistake #1: Acting like a “temp” worker.

You have a BA in Marketing and Communications, but the only job you could find was assistant manager in a retail clothing store at the mall. Is this your ideal occupation? Absolutely not, and you let everyone know it: your colleagues, the buyers, maybe you even let it slip to a customer or two. The classic rookie mistake here is acting like you’re too entitled to hold down the actual job you have. If you truly believe you have nothing to learn from this job, then chances are you won’t perform well. This leads to poor referrals down the road. A bad attitude can even cause you to lose the job. Now you also have a black mark on your resume.

The Solution: Instead, invest yourself. Tap into your expertise, and learn about this company’s marketing and advertising. During the downtime, ask about floor design, customer satisfaction metrics, or employee retention. Show your supervisor that you’re interested in the business, and see if there are any additional tasks you can undertake. You may not love your job, but you can work to make it more engaging and challenging for you.

Mistake #2: Forgetting your etiquette.

The workplace isn’t an extension of your social network. A job, even if it’s fun or casual, is still a place where unspoken norms of behavior and decorum exist. Following these norms can boost your career trajectory; ignoring them probably won’t help your chances of advancing.

The Solution: Be extremely polite; use words, such as “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Excuse me.” Don’t interrupt others, and try to listen more than you talk. Keep your voice low and your mobile device on vibrate. Try to be more team-oriented and less competitive, offering to assist your coworkers, for example. Observe workplace rules of dress, too. Don’t try to reinvent the dress code.

Mistake #3: Ignoring the people part of the job.

You were hired for your computer skills, not your people skills, right? So you go to work each day and do what’s asked of you in the best, most efficient manner possible. That’s fine, but it won’t make you stand out. To do that, you need to ingratiate yourself with the other people who work there. Do you know the names of the senior people in the firm? Are you on a first-name basis with those who work under them? Can you cite the names and the jobs of all the people working on your floor?

The Solution: Find out who runs each department, and learn the names and titles of everyone at the workplace. As a new employee, this will save you potential embarrassment when discussing work-related issues with both your higher-ups and colleagues. Learn who the “go-to” person is on each team. (Often this has little to do with his or her title.) Once you figure out who’s who in your office, do your due diligence on the client side as well. This will make you a more effective and efficient employee.

Mistake #4: Being too passive and mousy.

You’re in the real world now and, frankly, it feels intimidating. Everyone seems to know more than you do. The things you learned in college don’t apply to any of the tasks your manager expects you to perform. So you suffer in silence. You feel shy. You don’t speak up in meetings. And you try to figure things out on your own, lest others realize how uptight you feel.

The Solution: The good news is, you are not alone. Almost everyone at your company felt like you did when they first started. No one expects you to know everything on day one, or even during your first year. In fact, your boss and coworkers are anticipating that you will ask questions. Doing so shows that you are curious and want to learn. There’s no shame in saying, “I need a little help with this task. Would you mind explaining this concept a bit more?” Just don’t ask to be trained during high-stress peak periods. Try to wait until the crisis has passed.

Mistake #5: Trying too hard to be liked.

At school, you were known as the funniest guy in the room–famous for your pranks, jokes, and general good cheer. So during the first month of your job, you make it a point to go out to the local pub with everyone in your department at least once. You bring boxes of donuts in every Friday. You make irreverent jokes to get people to not be so serious.

The Solution: It’s great to be popular, but it’s just as important to be respected at the office. Especially at a new job, oversocializing and too much people pleasing at the expense of delivering good strong performance results can really backfire. You don’t know enough about office politics–who’s shaping the culture, which people gossip, who has the most informal power and influence, and who might feel envious or competitive with you. It’s better to pay your dues and work really hard at the beginning. That way, you’ll be respected for your work product, and no one can take that away from you.

For more career-boosting tips, visit and

By Vicky Oliver

Vicky Oliver ( is a Manhattan-based job interview consultant, and the bestselling author of five career development books, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions, Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots, and 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions. She’s been featured and interviewed widely in the business media, including Fox News, Wall Street Journal, US News and World Report, Forbes, Fortune, CareerBuilder, and many others. Learn more career and workplace tips at

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