Earning Good Grades At Your First Job

by | March 31, 2009

John Reezer, a recent accounting graduate from the University of Iowa,worked as a junior accountant with a large Des Moines firm for six monthsbefore receiving his first evaluation.

"Like many of us right out of school, I thought I was hot stuff andbelieved everyone else would think so, too," he says. "I was shocked tolearn that almost everything I did was below the firm's expectations."

Reezer's performance review showed that his work was inaccurate andsometimes late. He didn't follow directions well and couldn't be trusted todo anything more difficult than elementary audits.

Reezer came close to losing his job because he hadn't taken the time tofind out what the company expected. "I learned real fast that, unlike testsyou can fake your way through in college, performance evaluations are forreal," he says. "If you fail, you can be out on the seat of yourpants."

Fortunately, Reezer listened to his supervisors and made the changesnecessary to keep his job. But, he cautions, the learning curve for newemployees is steep. To succeed, you must adjust to it quickly andunderstand what's required of you. Otherwise, you may start your careerwith a failure that can make it hard to find another position. "Performanceevaluations are what keep you in or out of your job," he adds. "Take themvery seriously."

I'm Being Graded?

Just because you aren't in school doesn't mean you won't be gradedanymore. A performance evaluation is a written report of your jobperformance completed by your supervisor, often with input from co-workers.It's typically filled out after the first six months to a year of youremployment, and every 12 months thereafter.

This evaluation rates you on the quality of your work. It generallyincludes a pre-determined set of performance expectations--such as "meets"or "exceeds"--on which you'll be judged in various areas. These mightinclude your ability to relate to co-workers, accept criticism and followdirections.

The evaluation indicates how well you take on responsibility and whetheryou complete assignments on deadline. It notes your attendance record, anyviolation of company policies and your level of initiative and companyloyalty. In many ways, a job evaluation is a predictor of future success,since it determines whether you have the skills to handle complexassignments.

The Judging

Performing well and receiving a good review hinges on preparation. Startby reading your job description and determining what's expected of you. Askyour supervisor and co-workers for frequent feedback, and use theircomments to improve any questionable areas. Next, become familiar with theform used for evaluations. Fill it out and grade yourself periodically.Reality-check your perceptions by asking colleagues to grade yourperformance as well.

Don't overlook the company's personnel policies. Read them over beforestarting your job and don't break any rules, including those about beingabsent without a proper reason, tardiness, the dress code, ethicsviolations, deadlines, alcohol or drug use on the job and other companypolicies.

Don't expect extra concessions because you're young and new to the workforce. "Companies expect new workers to work very hard for theorganization," says Dr. Steven Petty, executive director of NorthwestHospitals, a consortium of private hospitals based in Idaho Falls, Idaho.In the current business environment, where profit margins and productivityare key, you won't stay employed if you aren't immediately productive. "Inour company, a bad performance evaluation means you've lost your job," hesays.

Making the Grade

Many recent graduates do poorly at first because they don't understandworkplace expectations, says Dr. James Bush, a Los Angeles job-placementspecialist.

Even if you've had part-time or summer jobs, they probably didn't seemthat "real" and, thus, didn't teach you how competitive and disciplinedtoday's workplace is.

So what can you do to ensure great evaluations in your first job?

Feedback from friends and colleagues a year or two out of school canhelp you uncover what it takes to do well and behave properly, says Dr.Bush.

"When starting a new job, don't come off like gangbusters," he advises."Nobody likes a whiz kid even if you're top-notch."

Most companies want employees who work well with others without beingopenly combative or aggressive, he adds, so "be respectful of others andtreat your supervisor with deference."

Also know your stuff. Fill in knowledge gaps by doing additionalresearch or attending workshops. Unlike at college, no one will sympathizewith your lack of knowledge. You must be prepared or correct anydeficiencies before they show up in your work.

Don't burn the candle at both ends. Succeeding at work requires having adisciplined life. You can't play during the week without it affecting yourperformance.

Don't Make Enemies

Some new hires argue that performance evaluations are personal, and tellmore about whether co-workers and bosses like them than about theirperformance.

They're partly right.

"The way people feel about you and the quality of your work are reallyconnected," says Linda Spano, a 25-year-old industrial design graduate fromthe University

of Minnesota. In her first job as a production foreman for aninstant-potato manufacturing company, Spano says she was rude toproduction-line workers, which earned her a reputation as a "brat."

"They didn't like my condescending management style," she says. "Theemployees complained about everything I did. My first evaluation was sobad, I was politely asked to leave."

What would she do differently? "I'd certainly recognize the humanfactor," says Spano. "A good evaluation depends on the relationships youhave with your supervisor and co-workers, and both of them affect thequality of your work." After searching nearly a year to find a new job, shewon't make the same mistake again. "I pay a lot of attention to the peopleat my new job," she says.

Can You Rebound?

Don't assume you've burned all your bridges after a negative evaluation.If you keep your job, this is your chance to improve and show yoursupervisor you have the right skills.

"Most new workers are miffed by poor evaluations. They usually do evenworse work to get back at me," says David Naiditch, manager of Dave'sTransportation, a Boston busing system for the disabled. "It's a realmistake since they almost always get fired."

Since companies don't relish the expense and effort involved in findingand training a replacement, you may be able to buy time to improve.

Start by being respectful, not argumentative or defensive during thereview, says Naiditch. Find out what traits need changing and let youremployer know that by giving you another chance, the company will get aharder-working, more dedicated employee. Ask for and politely receivefeedback from co-workers, including criticisms. And don't think that assoon as you start doing better, you can let up. "Your performance has to begood all the time," Naiditch says.

To ensure good evaluations, be prepared, know what's expected of you,and show consideration and respect to co-workers. Securing excellentreviews will boost your career, since they'll show you have the qualitiesneeded to take on more responsibility.

Filed Under: Job Search


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