Nov. 13, 2008 -- When Barack Obama starts his new job as president of the United States on Jan. 20, he'll have an army of advisers helping him decide what to do, say and think. Not so for the average Joe starting a new position -- plumber or otherwise.
When it comes to proving an employer made the right decision by hiring us, we have to fend for ourselves.
Despite the economic freefall and record-setting layoffs, some companies are still trolling for employees. Monster.com has 302 upcoming job fairs scheduled in 77 U.S. cities. The job-search engine LinkUp, which mines the jobs pages of more than 10,000 company Web sites for fresh listings, had more than a million openings in its database last month. And, in spite of the recent decline in financial sector job listings, the niche site Jobs4Point0.com, which features original listings purchased by companies seeking workers older than 40, has seen a 10 percent increase in listings in the past year.
Most important, people are still getting hired. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 4.3 million U.S. workers were hired in September, including part-timers, temps, contract workers and seasonal workers. Yes, job growth is down in most business sectors. But 4.3 million hires is still 4.3 million hires.
While you might be gainfully employed or pounding the pavement for a new position now, eventually you will find yourself at your own inauguration day for a full-time, part-time, temporary, seasonal or consulting job. If it has been a few years (or decades) since you started a new position, it's natural to feel anxious and unsure about the best way to conduct yourself in your new environs: Should you speak up in meetings? Mention that the custom database the department uses crashes every five minutes? Let on that you have no idea what the acronym everyone's been using for the past 45 minutes means?
When starting a new gig, you want to strike the right balance between team player and self-sufficient superhero. So let's talk about what you should do to ensure you hit the ground running and make the best possible first impression (just like that guy in the White House).
Your first order of business is to sniff out the corporate culture and interpersonal dynamics.
"Study how people present themselves, how they work together and how they interact with executives, managers and clients," said Alexandra Levit, who has written about job hunting and hiring practices in four books, including "How'd You Score That Gig? A Guide to the Coolest Jobs (and How to Get Them)."
In other words, it's important to detect early on who the decision makers, rock stars, workhorses and whiners are. But don't stop there. Observe the organization's attitudes toward work-life balance, too.
"Watch how employees conduct non-company business during the workday so that you can get a sense of how personal breaks, e-mail, and phone calls will be tolerated," Levit said.
Likewise, don't wait to be spoon-fed basic company information. Dig it up yourself.
"Read everything on every bulletin board you can find," said Paul Gruenther, a corporate expat and real estate agent in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., who has been in the employment trenches 30 years. "Write down everyone's name and look them up in the online directory. Ask for organization charts."
Meet the Locals
Rather than wait for co-workers and managers to introduce themselves to you, schedule a quick 15 or 20 minute meeting with them as soon as possible to learn more about their role and how you can best work together. That's what Darin Velin did when he started his position as a communications specialist on a 15-person team at a software company in Redmond, Wash., two months ago.
"I really felt like part of the team after doing this because I had a personal connection with everyone and had some idea of working relationships once my work tasks started rolling in," Velin said.
While it likely won't require any prescheduled meetings, be sure to introduce yourself to tech support, security guards, receptionists and administrative assistants, too. You may need to call these folks when you're in a jam; better to get to know them ahead of time. Besides, receptionists and assistants can be a goldmine of insider information.
Don't Be So Quick to Befriend
Unless you're already perusing the online job listings for greener pastures, eat lunch with your coworkers at least twice a week. Cafeterias are the breeding ground of many an inside tip. (If no one invites you to lunch, toss out a "Mind if I join you?")
This, of course, isn't a license to cultivate one BFF you spend all your break time with, at least not until you have the lay of the political land.
"Because you're unfamiliar with people's allegiances, you need to avoid aligning yourself with a single colleague or group of colleagues," Levit advised. "In your first month, you should aim to know a little about a lot of people rather than the other way around."
Or, as Renate Raymond, deputy director of a museum in Bellevue, Wash., put it:
"Beware of the 'helpful' co-worker or employee that wants to give you the real scoop right away. They are trouble ... and are usually the office gossip or someone who wanted your job."
Be Resourceful, but Don't Be a Know-It-All
Your boss is not your babysitter. Never ask for help without first trying to solve the problem or answer the question yourself. The Internet is a beautiful thing; use it. Ditto for your corporate network.
"Collect questions before approaching a colleague," said Donnie Cameron, a senior programmer analyst in New Orleans who works remotely for a database clearinghouse for the book publishing industry. "Resist the temptation to interrupt a colleague with a single question."
Keep in mind that products and procedures at your new organization may be different than what you're used to. Some may be outmoded, cumbersome and quite frankly stink. Don't whine about this. Whiners are the first to get the axe during layoffs. Same goes for know-it-alls who always have a better way of doing things, especially during their first few weeks on the job.
Sure, your last employer may have had a better software system. But your current employer may not be able to afford one. Or your boss may already be in the process of trying to secure budget for an upgrade. Or he or she may be the one who designed said clunky software in the first place. Be careful not to put your foot in your mouth.
Remember: Enthusiasm and Manners
Even if you're in a stopgap job you only took because your unemployment ran out, a cheerful "Good morning!" and chewing with your mouth closed goes a long way. You may not be working in the Oval Office, but charming co-workers and customers from day one is still important.
With any luck, you just might keep the position for eight years.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.