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Workplace Culture Shock: Adjusting to a New Company Culture

I started a new job on January 4th. I had been at my previous job for over twelve years. I was deeply entrenched in the company culture. I knew how things worked. I knew how to dress, how to behave and how to interact with coworkers and supervisors. I knew who made the rules and how to get things done. I realized the day I showed up to interview for this job, that I had a whole new world to learn.

I heard recently that over 40% of new hires don’t make it past the first year and the reason for many was because they couldn’t fit in with the new company culture.

There may be times in your career where the only way of making more money is to change jobs. There are other situations where you’re going to have to find a new job. If you want to make it past the first year, you are going to want to integrate into the company or organizational culture.

Every workplace has its own organization culture. Most of this is unspoken although a lot can be learned from an employee manual if there is one.

Here is some advice on adjusting to a new company culture. Please feel free to add your own in the comments. I could use all the advice I can get!

Reserve judgement

When everything is different it’s easy to jump to conclusions about why things are done. Even if you are hired on as a new manager for a dysfunctional organization, don’t make changes in the first few weeks. Watch and observe how things are done. Take notes. Keep track. Figure out who has the power. Begin to understand the unspoken rules. Give it some time to understand the reasons behind the behaviour and you’ll be much more successful at understanding the root causes of any disfunction. It doesn’t mean you can’t change things later. You can. You just have to be careful about making change before you really understand the whole situation.

When in Rome

The day I showed up for my interview I was ridiculously overdressed. Everyone was wearing jeans. In my mind I was thinking, “Is it casual Tuesday or does everyone dress this way?” It turns out it’s a very casual workplace. It’s a good thing I didn’t go out and buy myself a fresh new business wardrobe. I would have had no place to wear it.

Was I surprised to learn that everyone eats lunch at their desk? Yes, I was. Did I keep quiet about it and eat lunch at my desk? Yes, I did.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

I hate looking incompetent. I was at my last job for long enough that I knew what I was doing and I did it well. In a new role, there is so much I have to learn. It’s ok to ask questions. You’re new. You’re not suppose to know how things work. Take your time in those first few weeks. Observe as much as you can and don’t be afraid to ask about anything you don’t understand. Yes, it’s humbling to admit you don’t know but it’s better than taking a guess at something or pretending to know more than you do.

Be prepared to make mistakes

Part of learning a new culture means making lots of mistakes. It’s more important to handle your mistakes well than to try to avoid them altogether. Mistakes are inevitable. They are also embarrassing. Day two of my new job I arrived at a scheduled meeting. I could tell something was wrong and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then one of the employees kindly explained that I was suppose to run the meeting. Oops. Next Tuesday I’ll be more prepared. It may have been tempting to get defensive and say, “Nobody told me!” Instead I laughed at my mistake and said, “Well, next time I’ll come more prepared!”

Beginning a new job can be exhausting. We live so much of our life on autopilot. When everything is new, autopilot is turned off. We’re meeting new people, remembering new names, learning new rules and new job skills. Even if you did the exact same thing at your last job, they’ll want it done differently at this one. You can still be professional while making mistakes in those first few weeks. Just remember to keep your sense of humour and learn from every mistake you make.

What is your advice for learning a new company culture?

Kathryn has been a staff writer for MDJ since January 2009. During the day she works in an office. In her off hours, she volunteers as a financial coach helping ordinary Canadians with the basics of money management. Kathryn, along with her husband and two children live in Ontario.







22 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. 1. Ramona

    I enjoy switching jobs every few years – that way I’m never in a rut. The first few months of anything new enables you to see ways that things will work better – you’re not ingrained into the current system. However, as you suggest, don’t be too quick to make changes – you will be viewed suspiciously and it will be much harder to fit it. I tend to make lists of things that I introduce around the first month mark.

    Having been in this “new” position many times gives me a bit of a comfort zone – just because everyone else is doing something, doesn’t mean I will. I’m not about to eat at my desk! I’d rather shake it up and eat in the lunchroom. Maybe I’ll start a new trend!

    And yes a new job is super tiring. Hang in there Kathryn & don’t fear messing up the status quo – it may be very well why you were hired!

  2. Great article! I remember also having the same dilemma when I quit my job and moved on to another company about 3 years ago.

    The first year was more of an adjustment than anything else. What continues to amaze me is how things always look “greener” from the other side. I was always comparing how my “previous” job to the new one. It felt like my “previous” job was so much better, more organized, and people were more friendly, more accomodating and easy to deal with, etc.

    But after the first year, I started to admire my new job and warmed up with everyone on the job. I understood the simplicity of the “disorganized” processes. People are suddenly becoming easier to deal with both because I now understand where they are coming from and vice-versa.

    Good luck to your new job! More power!

  3. 3. Ben

    Good article. And after a while, start to gradually find ways to get some people away from eating at their desks! That’s no way to spend lunch.

  4. 4. Kathryn

    On the lunch note .. I’m starting to see that when people work through their lunches (eating lunch at their desk) they have the freedom to leave earlier. At least I understand why now.

  5. Congrats on the new job.

    I’ve been at my job longer than you were at your old job so I don’t have any advice for you. :)

  6. 6. Alexandra

    I ignored it the first time, but the second I cringed and decided to correct you since it obviously wasn’t just a typo, and you are an aspiring writer so maybe you’ll appreciate it ;-).

    “You’re not suppose to know how things work.”
    “Then one of the employees kindly explained that I was suppose to run the meeting.”

    Actually, you’re not supposed to know how things work, and you were supposed to run the meeting. Suppose is in the present tense. Supposed is the past tense.

    Anyway, back to the topic at hand, office culture is so critical, and your advice is great. I would add that once you seem to be getting along with everyone, you no longer have to do exactly what everyone else does. In my office, most people eat in the cafeteria downstairs. I am an introvert, and prefer to eat alone, either at my desk, or offsite to get a break from it all. No one seems to mind, especially since I am very friendly during the day – but I feel that lunch time is mine to do as I please.

    Another interesting thing I noticed is that when I have changed jobs (only three times in the last ten years) I get sick often for the first few months at the new office. I don’t know if it is stress related, or I am getting exposed to new germs, but you may want to prepare yourself for it, and wash your hands a lot!

  7. 7. nobleea

    One of the benefits of going through a co-op program in university was doing the new job thing several times (usually 3), which gives a good sampling of the wide variety of work environments out there.

  8. I especially agree with not being afraid to ask questions. I like to ask as many questions as possible when I am new. People realize you are learning the ropes in a new organization. If you don’t know the answer a year later…that’s when people may judge you as being “out to lunch.” Even then, it’s better to ask and get the job done right than it is to guess and turn in substandard work.

  9. 9. Roger

    One of the primary things I watch myself for… and caution others to watch themselves for… is making comparative comments to others regarding processes / policies at the previous workplace. While the introduction of best practices and new ideas is desireable – save it until you’ve been there a little while, made an effort to understand their systems and have gained acceptance / proven yourself. Avoid the possibility of the “if it was so good there… why ever did he / she leave there and inflict themselves on us” reactions.

  10. 10. Werner

    Great Article.

    As a consultant/contractor, I run into a very similar situation – every time I start a new project with a client (every year, or so).

    It’s different in the sense, that as a contractor – I sometimes feel like we’re viewed differently then someone who was hired on, as a permanent full-time employee. That being said, many of your comments and observations are still applicable – and I can relate with each one.

    I’m a pretty laid back type of person, confident in what I bring to the table – but I find that it’s important to sit back, and observe the current culture. I like to observe the people that I will likely be working with closely and how they interact with their fellow employees. It gives me a better idea of how to approach them, when needed. At the end of the day – I’m the “new kid on the block”, and I feel like I need to earn their “trust” (i.e. in my capabilities). It’s served me well.

    I’m also the type of person, who doesn’t (or tries not) take things personally – I look at each critique from their perspective, and take away the “good” comments. I don’t pretend to know everything, so I look at each new project as an opportunity to learn and grow both personally and professionally.

    Good Luck!!

  11. 11. Tracey

    Hi Katherine, I’m a big fan of your writing, so thanks for continuing.

    Regarding changing workplace cultures, I think there are two main schools of thought: be who you are and let people adjust, or see what the atmosphere is like before making your opinions known. And I also think that there are some jobs where it is not possible to observe and learn for a few months before jumping in, i.e., managerial positions. Me, I’m an observer and I like to try to swim with the tide. You’re not going to like everyone – that’s a given – but hopefully you’ll be able to avoid becoming someone’s favourite whipping child/ subject of gossip.

    May I offer that, in my opinion, people change with the culture. I’ve changed from a blue-collar, boisterous, jeans-wearing, late-night-into-early-morning culture to practically the opposite: downtown, well-dressed, softly spoken and discreet. If we as workers are indeed going to change careers throughout our working lives, then I believe that we need to adopt new habits along with the skillsets. I’m not saying lose your personality and become a faceless part of the herd, but I do believe that dealing with a business culture (i.e., people at work) means that some personal flexibility is required.

    For your own situation, I would ask: is there a company function or charity that key people or most people support, i.e., breast cancer run, golf tournament, jazz music? One of the ways a new person can really feel that they are a part of “the team” is participating in an event that is not, strictly speaking, work.

    So those are my thoughts. Keep up the great work!

  12. 12. Krysty

    I would also add that you bring something special to the table – a fresh set of eyes and ears. After you have established yourself a little bit and, as you said (and I really liked), reserved judgment, don’t be afraid to challenge the norm. Ask not just how things are done here, but why. This can be one of the greatest things you can bring to your new company in the first few months.

  13. 13. Kathryn

    Alexandra: Opps. I’ve clearly used up too many brain cells in my first week at a new job.

    Great observations about people changing with a culture and the culture changing with new people. I don’t plan on always going with the flow. I agree that we need to show our personality and be the change we want to see. It’s easier in a small or new company than it is in a large one.

    Interesting about the ‘things look greener’ on the other side comment. One of the points I almost wrote was “Don’t compare”. It’s easy to see the dysfunction either in the new company or in the old one when faced with a new situation. I’ve had the opposite experience from “Rich Money Habits”. I’m suddenly seeing very clearly how much greener the grass is where I’ve landed! It’s a nice place to be.

  14. 14. Melanie Samson

    Don’t sweat the “suppose”. Print writers have editors. It’s common to see mistakes in blogs and I read enough of them now that I disregard them.

    As for the article, I wholeheartedly agree with the first point. It can really kill the morale when a new leader comes in and changes everything without knowing how things work or even consulting the people who’ve been there longer. (I don’t mean that they shouldn’t change anything, but they should at least do their homework first, which is observing and talking to people).

  15. It’s not just adjusting to company culture – it’s just dealing with people – that’s the hard part wouldn’t you say?

  16. 16. Carter

    highly recommend reading ‘the first 90 days’ by Michael Watkins. you can read a preview on google books: http://books.google.ca/books?q=first+90+days

  17. 17. Pharmguy

    How timely is this post. I started a new job 5 months ago in a field I’ve worked in for 20 years. I was let go given the reason that I wasn’t a good fit. WTF?? I went through 4 interviews!
    When I arrived, I observed the work ethic and tried to blend in, in hopes that I could eventually add value to the team without pushing my weight around. I knew my ideas were different from the status quo and in retrospect, I think they fell on deaf ears or worse, heard by the wrong people who were felt threatened by them. The termination came as a shock to me and although it’s disappointing, I really hope my ex company will adopt some of the ideas I brought forward.
    What you say is true. There is a transition period; however, the take home message should be: always question the interviewers in full. Don’t take their “sales pitch” to seriously. Most of the time it is changes after you are hired.

  18. 18. Kathryn

    Pharmguy: I’m a strong believer in employers communicating with the new employee throughout the probationary period. This should not have happened to you. Being let go during a probationary period should never be a surprise. It was their responsibility to meet with you regularly, giving you regular feedback about what needed to change in order to stay. It’s not right. I hope you were able to find work again quickly and find a job at a more reasonable company.

  19. 19. cannon_fodder

    Like Ramona, I, too, often switched jobs every few years because I wanted to stretch myself. Once I became too comfortable in a job, I knew it was time to go.

    The transitions weren’t always easy, but given time, every move was the right move. It also had the secondary (or maybe it was primary) benefit of greatly increasing my salary beyond what I would have received by staying put.

    One thing I did pick up quickly is that every time I joined a new company, I volunteered to be part of “the social committee”. It was a great way to establish relationships and see people beyond the 9-5 work environment. It showed to them that you were not just another body – you were willing to give back and make the workplace better.

    Often, the first few weeks are a bit tedious as you learn all of the new things – whether it is the phone system, the products, the processes, etc. Thus, being part of the social committee gave me something that was a break from the routine.

    My current employer has had the pleasure (at least I hope so!) of having me as an employee for 10 years. This is much longer than I’ve ever been at one employee. But, that is because 3 years ago I was offered a position significantly different from my old role. In essence, it was very similar to leaving the company as I now report to our US organization and my scope has expanded from Canada to the globe.

    I know what it is like when a new person comes in and questions the methods in which we do things. It is natural to get our backs up when this ‘interloper’ comes into our environment and makes hasty conclusions. Of course, that was probably all of us when we first started!

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve mellowed more and learned to accept the differences a lot quicker than I used to.

    Great advice Kathryn… I hope it helps someone out there.

  20. 20. used tires

    My biggest advice is to control your emotions, don’t let your emotions get the best of you in any situation. Our emotions can hurt us big time and can cloud our judgment, I’ve learned this threw out my life.

    Till then,

    Jean

  21. 21. NewAdventure

    Great article. I too started a new job on 1/4/10. I made the move from a small private company that was a circus side show to a school district. BIG change! at my old job things got done by slamming doors and cursing someone out. Now, there are 20 meetings to make a simple decision. It will no doubt take me a few months to settle in. Everyone has been nice, but long gone are the days of dirty joke-telling around the cubicles and sending/receiving masses of ridiclous forward emails! But, at the end of the day I’ll trade all that in a second for paid healthcare, holidays off and a pension!

  22. 22. Future Money-Bags

    I have not really changed jobs before, but I am starting a 2nd job now.
    I have seen many people hired where I work though, and seeing how they do not know how to properly adapt. I try to help as many as I can, but only if they are willing to try.
    If people are not willing to try and be part of the team, I will not put tonnes of extra effort into trying to make them do that!
    I have seen many new managers of sorts, fail at their new position. Resulting in everyone hating them and them.. losing the job.

    -On an unrelated note-
    I am curious. Many of the bloggers on MDJ seem to work 9-5 jobs. Maybe This is a bias assumption as I am new and do not know anyone. But is it possible the majority of people that are a regular part of this Blog, are 9-5ers? And they are the higher percentile of people that try to always improve their habits.

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