10 Ways to Make a Terrible First Impression

“If people are failing, they look inept. If people are succeeding, they look strong and good and competent. That’s the ‘halo effect.’ Your first impression of a thing sets up your subsequent beliefs. If the company looks inept to you, you may assume everything else they do is inept.” ~ Daniel Kahneman

Your first day in a new job can be a bit overwhelming. Daunting even. Especially if it’s a job you really want, and have worked hard to achieve.

Daniel Kahneman First Impression

Some of that anxiety is justified!

Here are ten ways you can really ruin the moment by creating a terrible first impression (and how to recover if it happens anyway).

Arrive late…

You’ve been working up to this day for a couple of weeks, arranging the details, playing out how it’s going to go in your head – especially if it’s a management role and you will have staff reporting to you. You’ve agreed a start time with your boss…

… and your train is late. Or your bus doesn’t arrive. Or you couldn’t find a car park. Or you slept in. Or you just plain forgot.

First Impression William Shakespeare

It almost doesn’t matter what the reason was – your new employer assumes that this is a sign of worse to come, because surely this was a day when you pulled out all the stops to be on time, right?

This is a no brainer – be ON TIME. In fact, be a little bit early.

It should be noted though that if you are late in spite of your best planning efforts, and it affects your colleagues as well, you can talk briefly about what happened and then make up for it by leaving slightly later that day, and/or arriving earlier the next day…

Once you have established trust, your manager will expect you to manage your own time, and there’ll be a degree to which, provided you deliver the results expected of you, watching the clock shouldn’t be a factor, but until then… keep it punctual.

Dress inappropriately…

Now rest assured, I know that you don’t need a patronising gender-based description of what constitutes inappropriate clothing for women – this is a blog for busting down those stereotypes.

No, I’m talking here about not accurately judging the levels or formality or informality in the organisation. Showing up wearing jeans and a dress shirt when everyone else is wearing a suit and tie… wearing a tailored suit and heels when everyone else is wearing summer frocks or shorts and sandals.

Getting the dress-code wrong is a sure way to draw attention to yourself on your first day.

Generally, though, this faux pas is only a deal breaker if it’s combined with one or more of the others on this list! Dress codes generally have a degree of latitude – but if in doubt, lean towards more formal for your first impression, not less.

Fail to respond to cultural cues…

Workplaces can be an unusual mix of national cultural norms and organisational cultural norms: the way we do things around here.

On your first day, you need to be on the lookout for these cues, and engage with them in small ways. In New Zealand, some workplaces (unfortunately not all) use Māori greetings – if you hear this, and you’re not sure about it – ask how you can learn them.

First Impression

Some workplaces have particular approaches to manage open-plan office etiquette, some workplaces have a tradition of having a cup of coffee and morning tea together… When you spot these things, engage with them. They can help your colleagues feel like you belong more quickly.

Talk too much…

Remember you’re new here. You should be in learning mode… and learning and talking don’t generally go well together.

Respond to questions, obviously, and engage in conversation, but nobody wants to hear the new guy talking all day… it will make them worry about how much disruption you’ll create tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that.

Instead, focus on active listening. Once people get to know you, your hilarious anecdotes about a competitor will be much more welcome.

Forget people’s names…

I get it, believe me. You’re going to meet dozens of people on your first day, and you won’t remember all of them. But you need to make the effort to remember some of them. Especially your boss, and immediate team members, your direct reports – and for bonus points, the administrator, intern or other relatively junior staff you’ll be working with.

People in leadership roles often fall into the trap of focusing too much on ‘status’ as defining who’s important… but those well-versed in office politics will tell you that those in high-status roles tend to become disconnected from what’s really going on…

If you know you’re bad at remembering names try these two tips:

  • Repeat the person’s name at least twice when you meet them – even make clear that you are doing it because you want to remember their name and you know you’re going to meet lots of people today…
  • Take a pen and paper and write them down as you go. This will feel a little weird at first, but just tell them what you’re doing – make the people you are meeting feel important by letting them know how much you want to remember their name and where you can find them when you need their expert counsel.

If you’re really lucky, you’ll find yourself in a workplace with names on desks and an annotated floor plan to help you find your way around but you shouldn’t count on this!

Sound like a know-it-all…

Of course you’re brilliant – that’s why you got the job. But today is not the day to prove it to everybody. Generally, somebody who does this is trying to compensate for imposter syndrome, but please believe me when I say there’s no need.

First Impression

Your new colleagues expect you to be learning today, not teaching. Ask questions, restate things to show you’re taking it in… but don’t worry about showing what you already know.

And closely related to this, don’t…

Propose changes…

You don’t know enough yet to know what needs to change.

Even if your new boss told you that your mandate is to lead a significant change, you’ll undermine its impact if your team thinks you’ve made up your mind before you even arrive.

More importantly, they won’t trust your decisions around that change if it isn’t based on a deeper understanding of their work, their current frustrations with that work, and some knowledge of their aspirations and talents.

Keep your powder dry. You don’t want their first impression to be that you jump to conclusions.

Talk about yourself too much…

You know the saying about too much of a good thing?

Let’s assume for a minute that you are amazingly interesting and everyone wants to hear all about you, it probably falls into the category of ‘save it until they’ve gotten to know you a bit better’.

Show you are interested in others. Ask questions about their work. Listen carefully and seek understanding.

I know that you’re probably talking too much because you’re nervous, but your new colleagues might not realise this, and it could take you a while to recover from this unhelpful first impression.

Complain about your last job…

Sure, you left the last place because it was no longer a good fit for you, but if you spend all day talking about your last job you could inadvertently create the perception that you have unfinished (negative) business.

First Impression

And worse – people could assume that you are the problem, not your previous employer!

So lay off giving your last boss a hard-time. Nobody likes to work with someone who complains all the time.

Take a long lunch/leave too early…

I’m the first to point out that your first day in a new job can be exhausting, trying to manage the first impression you are creating, trying to take it all in, trying to remember everybody’s name, trying to remember where the bathrooms are…

Chances are by mid-afternoon you’ll be ready to go home and take a nap.

Resist the urge. You only have one chance to create a first impression – don’t let it be that you lack stamina, or worse – you’re a slacker that needs to be supervised carefully.

Even when your boss says: “hey, you should head off now, it’s your first day!” don’t leap up and run out the door. Say there’s a couple more things you want to get done, but you appreciate the offer, and might head off a little bit earlier than usual…

Hopefully this gives you lots of scope to nail that first impression, and start as you mean to go on. Remember this is your personal brand at stake – so make it count.

What other things have you seen go wrong with the first day in a new job?


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