Mistakes to Avoid at First Job
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38 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid at Your First 'Real' Job

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Mistakes to Avoid at First Job
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Career Missteps to Sidestep

No matter how many years of schooling you have, there will always be aspects of your first job no education can prepare you for. The transition from school to professional life will always take some adapting, but young jobseekers can help ensure their career success by watching out for these common mistakes and misconceptions in figuring out a new workplace, based on feedback from education and HR professionals.

Related: 15 Mistakes to Avoid When Working Remotely

Being Late
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Being Late

Punctuality at a new job should be a given, but being late still trips up many new hires who underestimate the commute or don't appreciate that their time is now being paid for. Manage it wisely to make a good impression, beginning with being on time. "Always be at work on time and get to meetings and appointments early," advises Timothy G. Wiedman, a retired associate professor of human resources and former operations manager for two Fortune-ranked companies.

Related: Can Employment Agencies Actually Help New Grads Land a Job?

Missing Deadlines
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Missing Deadlines

"Procrastination ruins careers!" Wiedman says. "Always start assignments ASAP so that the unexpected will not trip you up." Don't count on any of the leniency or overnighters you might have enjoyed at school. To understand the importance of turning in work on time, remember that most workplaces are team environments, where colleagues and superiors alike depend on each other executing their duties as agreed.

Watching the Clock
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Watching the Clock

Human resources and business adviser Melveen Stevenson weighs in warning not to focus too much on each day's start and end times as a salaried employee, which could demonstrate a lack of passion and discipline for your work. "Do not talk about eight hours or the concept of working 'overtime,'" Stevenson says. "No one likes a 'clock-watcher,' and you can put out that vibe if you frequently bring up hours."

Related: 45 Job Search Tips From Experts

Not Reading Organizational Cues
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Not Reading Organizational Cues

In the first few weeks at a new job, it's crucial to observe how the nuances of how the company operates, or you may get tripped up by neglecting the work norms others take for granted. Steve Browne, HR professional and author of "HR on Purpose," calls these the challenges of "assumed culture."

"Most new hires are so eager to do well and rush to excel that they don't fully pay attention to their surroundings," Browne says. "Assumed culture is made up of norms that folks who have been working at the organization 'know' but don't communicate to new hires. Some things as simple as when to go to lunch, what are start times and end times for the day, and who do I talk to and who should I avoid."

Not Knowing the Job's Weekend Requirements
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Not Knowing the Job's Weekend Requirements

In an increasingly connected world, more and more companies expect their employees to respond to emails and handle new developments even on weekends, and new workers should have a grasp of these after-hours expectations to avoid conflict with their leisure time. Caleb Chen, a remote-working advocate and founder of TheVanlifeCoach.com, encourages prospective employees to screen for weekend requirements when job-hunting, "because nothing sucks more than leaving on a trip on Friday and coming back Monday morning to your work desk and opening your email for the first time just to discover that you've been fired."

Related: 10 Problems with Your Work-Life Balance and How to Solve Them

Unprofessional Social Media Presence
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Unprofessional Social Media Presence

Leilani Brown, a Senior Vice President at K12 Inc. and author of professional advice book "From Campus to Cubicle," says that one of the most common first job mistakes for today's graduates is failing to clean up their social media accounts of potentially offensive or unprofessional posts and photos. And make no mistake — employers will check. "I talk to graduates about it under the framework of managing your personal brand," Brown explains. "I ask them to start thinking about how they'd like to be known, and then to think carefully about whether the way you show up online represents that."

Related: 26 Ways Social Media Can Land or Lose You a Job

Having a Bad Attitude
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Having a Bad Attitude

This maxim applies as well in the workplace as it does in elementary school for a simple reason — people prefer to do business with people they like. If you treat others with disrespect and/or demonstrate a lack of interest in your work, superiors and coworkers will take note and withhold potential opportunities accordingly. "There's a place for kindness and decency," says Brown. "You want people to recall you positively 20 years from now, and 20 years from now is going to come much more quickly than you think."

Not Being Intentional About the Jobs You Accept
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Not Being Intentional About the Jobs You Accept

Because company culture is so important, Browne also advises against young jobseekers accepting a position without first "interviewing the company." "They're often so eager, or desperate, that they go through the interview dance with HR and hiring managers that they don't take time to be intentional and reflect," he says. "Jobseekers who don't step back and consider all facets of a company will land roughly every time."

Resume strategist and founder of Thrive! Resumes, Joni Holderman relates one case wherein a CPA in her early 40s felt trapped and kept getting promoted for 20 years within her first job, despite hating accounting. "It's totally okay to take the first 'real' job you're offered, just to pay your bills and student loans," Holderman advises. "But if it's not a career path that appeals to you, continue to seek a better job while you're working!"

Not Doing Your 'Homework' Before Starting
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Not Doing Your 'Homework' Before Starting

Once you've settled on the job that's right for you (at least for now), you should always prepare for your first day by researching and scouring the company's website for info on its history, culture, clients, competitors, and executive members. According to Kent Lewis, the founder and president of integrated marketing firm Anvil Media, new employees should "be able to identify key executives, owners and managers by face, to avoid awkward moments in the break room or elevator."

Having Unrealistic Expectations
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Having Unrealistic Expectations

Everyone wants to land their dream-job right out of the gate, but it rarely works out that way, and recent graduates who understand this will have an easier time rolling with the punches at a new workplace. "Often, new workers seem to be shocked when things are less perfect than they thought they would be," says Ben Taylor, a career expert and founder of freelancing advice portal HomeWorkingClub.com. "In reality there are few workplaces free of occasional personality clashes, procedures that don't appeal to everyone, and essential jobs that are repetitive and mundane. The danger is that people think they've chosen the wrong job, instead of realising that all jobs have less desirable elements."

Expecting Recognition Right Away
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Expecting Recognition Right Away

In the same vein, eager new hires shouldn't set their expectations too high for receiving raises, promotions, or other forms of recognition in exchange for their efforts. You're usually entitled to some form of advancement, but professional careers last decades. A solid promotion is usually something you spend years demonstrating your worthiness for, not something to be schemed for in a matter of months.

Steve Pritchard, HR consultant for the U.K. road-marking company Anglo Liners, says that "Thinking about career progression is obviously important, but requires much more careful consideration from newer employees, who need to prove they can do what is expected within their role (and more), instead of focusing on rewards that will simply benefit them."

Making Assumptions Rather Than Asking Questions
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Making Assumptions Rather Than Asking Questions

Don't let the impulse to act like you know what you're doing at a new job stop you from asking questions. You want to understand the expectations and context of your new position sooner rather than later, and asking questions demonstrates your engagement with the work. "New hires are expected to ask a lot of questions," Wiedman says. "But a question that should have been asked — and wasn't — may have catastrophic consequences that will not soon be forgotten."

Understand Your Duties
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Understand Your Duties

Part and parcel with asking questions is knowing exactly what your job entails on a daily basis. Establishing this with your manager early on will give you a better idea of how to spend your time so you can avoid wasting theirs, at least until you're ready to volunteer for more. According to Ryan Glick, co-founder and co-owner of the IT services company Pixelayn Innovations — the recipe for success in a new job can be as simple as asking, "What does success in this position look like?"

Not Learning the Business
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Not Learning the Business

In addition to asking questions about your role, new hires can demonstrate their engagement and improve performance by making efforts to understand their company and industry as a whole, as well as their place within it. The best time to take this initiative is earlier rather than later. Matt Dunn, the hiring manager for the U.K.-based spa and wellness travel agency Healing Holidays, contends that "The more staff talk about their concerns, the better it is for morale and their personal development within the company, right from the start."

Taking Grunt Work for Granted
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Taking Grunt Work for Granted

"It's important to remember to avoid taking your responsibilities for granted during your first position," advises Ciara Van De Velde, client engagement manager for Employment BOOST, a professional outplacement and resume writing service. "Always look at the bigger picture of how your responsibilities contribute to the overall success of the organization." This can not only give you a better appreciation for how to conduct even the most mundane assignments, but also allow you a greater sense of purpose in the new position.

Not Taking Initiative
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Not Taking Initiative

Just as you don't want to overwork yourself, new employees should also avoid getting too complacent with their daily routines, says Van De Velde. "When you find that your daily tasks are beginning to feel repetitive, ask for additional responsibilities to further develop your skills and abilities," she suggests. "Always look into specific ways you can streamline existing processes or improve efficiency.

Not Participating
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Not Participating

Don't think you need to completely sit out your first meeting, but also don't come on so strong that you take away from others' "air-time," advises Wiedman. Asking questions and making suggestions during group discussions gives you a chance to learn and make impressions while once again demonstrating engagement to your managers.

Being Too Competitive
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Being Too Competitive

You should be more humble than usual when learning the ropes at a new job. However, Chris Chancey, founder of the staffing agency Amplio Recruiting, relates how many first-time employees apply the cutthroat approach of some academic settings to try and outperform their colleagues. "A little healthy competition is acceptable, but in those early days, it is best to keep a low profile, understand the workplace, and learn more about the culture," says Chancey. "You risk being alienated by co-workers when you come off as being overly competitive."

Trying to Prove Yourself
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Trying to Prove Yourself

Even if you're not trying to one-up coworkers, trying to prove your worth in a new position can lead you to focus too much on performing at the expense of learning, says Babson Graduate School dean Keith Rollag. "You may also feel pressure to work through lunch and break times to demonstrate you're a committed worker, losing critical opportunities to build relationships with others."

Not Asking For or Being Too Sensitive to Feedback
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Not Asking For or Being Too Sensitive to Feedback

Employees should always keep the lines of communication open with their coworkers and superiors, especially when it comes to asking for input about their work. Because few employees are perfect right out the gate, this usually entails growing a thick enough skin to accept and act on criticism without taking it personally. "Develop the muscle around receiving that feedback early," advises Leilani Brown. "It doesn't always feel good, but it might be working for your good."

Dressing Too Casual
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Dressing Too Casual

Every workplace has a dress code, even if it's unspoken. Before you've gotten a better handle on this and other company expectations, don't make the mistake of showing up in jeans and a tee where you should have slacks and a tie, something your new colleagues and employers could see as presumptuous and unprofessional. "When in doubt, it is usually safer to overdress," says Wiedman.

Trying Too Hard to Impress
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Trying Too Hard to Impress

Many first-time employees are understandably eager to make a good impression and do everything they can to climb the career ladder. However, being too impatient, transparent, or inauthentic in your efforts to impress can turn off managers and colleagues alike, not to mention leading to burnout and setting expectations you can't keep up. "There's so much time being a peacock in order to get noticed," relates Browne. "It's not necessary. If it is, they should change roles or companies, because that's the sign of a toxic culture."

Not Being Yourself
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Not Being Yourself

Many employees might see a first job or new company as an opportunity to reinvent themselves as more assertive. But performing in a way that feels unnatural is hard to sustain, and sooner or later your manager and coworkers will notice that something's up. It's possible to impress and reinvent yourself, according to Jason Lavis, marketing director of Natural Resource Professionals, but pretending to be someone you aren't "is not the way to go about it," he says. "The same results can be achieved authentically with real personal change. Work harder, live cleaner, and exercise more. Be the person that you're tempted to pretend to be."

Pushing Yourself and Your Ideas Too Hard
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Pushing Yourself and Your Ideas Too Hard

Similarly, don't expect your new colleagues and managers to jump at and employ all your suggestions and new ideas right off the bat. Codrin Arsene, a University of Chicago grad and CEO at Healthcare Weekly and Digital Authority Partners, recalls being taught as a student that what mattered most was making the most compelling argument for your ideas, a strategy of persistence that only irritated coworkers at his first job. "In real life, you have to deal with politics, different priorities, inertia and fear of change," Arsene says. "It was about learning when to shut up, take small wins, and learning soft skills."

Not Communicating with the Boss
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Not Communicating with the Boss

Communicating effectively with your boss doesn't mean giving them constant updates and running everything by them. Rather, it depends on the specific boss and their expectations of your position, and establishing some degree of transparency without occupying too much of their time is the best way to assess. "The best thing to do is ask for expectations from your boss," Browne says. "These aren't 'goals.' These are more behavioral and give each party the framework of how to communicate, interact, and work with each other."

Getting Too Personal with Coworkers
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Getting Too Personal with Coworkers

You want to be friendly and establish good relationships at work, but you'll also need to have a healthy sense of boundaries around the people whose perceptions of you can determine your professional success. Being candid about sex or drug and alcohol use are two of the most obvious pitfalls to avoid. Carlota Zimmerman, personalized career strategist and founder of CarlotaWorldwide.com, shares her general principles for work socializing: "You want people in the office to think of you as competent, professional, organized, straight forward, etc., so, keep in mind: 'What happens after hours, stays after hours.' Presume that everything you tell your work bestie will be conveyed to your boss, and the next time someone asks, 'Hey, how was your weekend?' have the gravitas to smile and say, 'Ah, you know, no biggie.'"

Not Building Relationships
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Not Building Relationships

The boss isn't the only person you'll want to treat with respect and learn from in the workplace. According to Brown, relationship building is a universal skill that will gain you workplace connections that could yield new professional opportunities even decades down the line. Don't try and force yourself on everyone just for the sake of networking; usually it's enough to forge just a few friendships with coworkers whom you can depend on and use as references later down the line.

Gossiping
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Gossiping

Every office has its share of politics to navigate, but getting involved in the workplace rumor mill can become a slippery slope. "If you avoid gossip, and you are known to avoid it, you will rarely have to defend who said what," says Brown. "If you engage in it, you might find that the same people who bring you gossip about others are sharing gossip about you to others."

Being Unprofessional in Work Chat Groups
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Being Unprofessional in Work Chat Groups

Modern workplaces increasingly employ online messaging functions like Slack to help coworkers stay connected and ask questions while on the clock, but be mindful to treat these forums like another part of the professional workplace, not a personal chat room. Matthew Ross, the co-owner and COO of the mattress-review website My Slumber Yard, says that he's witnessed several new hires using informal lingo like "dude," "literally," and even profanity that cast them in an unprofessional light for observant employers. "I want to see who keeps conversations professional and who treats them like a gossip session," Ross says. "It's honestly a big factor when I'm trying to decide between two different people for a promotion."

Sloppy Written Communication
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Sloppy Written Communication

Spelling and grammar mistakes — or even emojis — in work emails or memos can also get new employees dinged for unprofessionalism. As an employee, you want to demonstrate the standards you hold yourself to, so even minor errors in interoffice communiques can reflect poorly on your competence. "Take the extra moment to check your spelling, grammar and punctuation," says Jacqueline Berman, principal of finance and administration at talent acquisition firm Winter Wyman. "Write complete sentences and be sure your email is clear, concise, informative and helpful."

Relying Too Much on Text and Email
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Relying Too Much on Text and Email

There's no shortage of ways to communicate in the modern workplace, so new hires should again take cues from colleagues and managers on the best way to reach out for different purposes. According to Christopher K. Lee, career consultant and founder of PurposeRedeemed, many recent graduates too often avoid speaking on the phone in favor of using emails and text messages. "While these certainly have their uses, they also have their limitations, such as lacking tone. Moreover, you can often accomplish tasks more quickly over the phone than through emails and asynchronous modes of communication."

Abusing Company Time
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Abusing Company Time

It seems obvious that you shouldn't steal from the company employing you, but many new employees effectively do just that by stepping out early or otherwise wasting the time they're being paid to work. The working world demands a degree of personal and time management most college course schedules simply don't, says Leilani Brown. "Companies are looking for you to be productive, and the abuse of time is something you want to pay attention to," she explains.

Tending to Personal Matters
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Tending to Personal Matters

Texting, watching YouTube videos, online shopping, checking personal email, and making personal calls are some of the most common wastes of company time that employees should steer clear of at all costs. Compartmentalizing between work and home is a valuable skill that will help you focus on work and avoid angering superiors. "Everyone has to conduct personal business at work on occasion," Berman says, "but overdoing these non-work activities will take your burgeoning reputation in the wrong direction."

Not Having an Emergency Fund
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Not Saving for Retirement

As a new employee with minimal personal finance know-how, it's all too easy to neglect your company's retirement account or other savings opportunities but taking advantage now can reap huge benefits down the line. "By contributing to your company sponsored 401(k) now, it will save you a lot of money in the future," says Brian Meiggs, founder of the financial advice site My Millennial Guide. "Due to the power of compounding, the longer you give your money to grow, the more you will have in 30 years ... Ensure that you don't lose out on matching contributions, which is essentially a risk-free return on your money."

Not Signing Up for Benefits in Time
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Not Signing Up for Benefits in Time

Even if it seems overwhelming, it's wisest not to wait on researching and enrolling in your new company's savings and benefits programs, as the sign-up window often only lasts the first 30 days after hiring, according to Laura Handrick, career and workplace analyst and writer for FitSmallBusiness.com. She says, "Once that window closes, they can't sign up for benefits until the following year's open enrollment period — unless they have a qualifying event, such as turning 26 and no longer able to be on their parent's health insurance plan."

Overspending Your Salary
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Overspending Your Salary

Meiggs also cautions new employees against getting so excited about their new income that they start blowing it on things they don't need. "Although this may seem like an obvious step, it is one thing that many people struggle with following through and most avoid," he elaborates. "Creating the financial habit of planning your spending and sticking to your budget will allow you to save more money. You can make a good salary and still end up in debt or with little to show for it."

Not Observing Carefully
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Not Observing Carefully

"Developing listening skills is also very important," notes Brown, "and listening can only occur when you're not speaking, but really paying attention to what's happening around you." To this end, new employees should write down as much relevant info about the position as possible, as well as prepare for meetings by researching the topic at hand and noting any perspectives you have to contribute. Taking a passive role in the company is a sure way to get yourself overlooked.

Not Owning Your Mistakes
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Not Owning Your Mistakes

No matter how much you prepare and how hard you work, you will make mistakes at a new job, and the worst thing you can do in response is to try and cover them up and avoid responsibility. "If you let mistakes go, they will only grow and cause more pain than is necessary," says James Westhoff, director of career services at Husson University's Center for Student Success. "No one's expecting you to be perfect," adds Brown. "You're going to make mistakes, but it's how you react to the mistakes. Stumble, get back up, and continue to be enthusiastic."