When I started my last job, I thought everyone worked super hard because no one said anything to one another. Everyone was really nice and seemed like they were good friends, but no one really sat around chatting. People typed away at their desks all day, without saying a word. And I thought, “OK, this is a really serious group. That’s just the way it is around here.” But then my colleague Nicki popped up on the internal instant messaging service: “Hey, how’s your first week going?” I replied saying it was nice but a bit quiet, to which she replied, “Yeah, everyone chats online instead of in person – a company oddity!”
And as the weeks went on, I realised there were lots of company oddities to learn. We had weekly check-ins with our managers, for which we were meant to save up all our queries so we could chat about it then. But I walked into my first check-in with no queries, having assumed that, if I’d had a problem, I should have asked for help straightaway instead of waiting for a check-in meeting. I didn’t get in trouble, but I was embarrassed that I hadn’t cottoned on. I also spent my first few months wondering if any woman in the office ever had a period, because there were no sanitary products in the toilets, and no one ever carried a bag in with them. I’ve since discovered people went for the “tampon-up-the-sleeve” technique, but that’s because I asked directly.
And it sounds ridiculous to even worry about that stuff, but “the way we do things around here” is the main thing that makes me nervous starting a new job. I don’t panic about the job itself, or the company, or whether or not people will like me; I stress about the unwritten rulebook. Is this the kind of place you make your own tea or do you offer to do a round? What does everyone wear? Is there somewhere to sit at lunchtime or will I be eating sandwiches at my desk? It sounds silly to worry about tea and lunch, but those little things really make a difference to your work life – and no one teaches you what those things are.
You get told how to do your actual job. You get introduced to your colleagues and what their various roles are within the team. But no one sits you down and says, “So here’s how we do things around here.” Because it’s not something you notice when it’s part of your culture. You’re used to the fact that you can work from home without clearing it with the boss first, or that no one ever gets to a meeting on time – why would you think to explain that to a new starter?
But this week I started a new job, and had the best first day ever. Why? Because my first day just so happened to fall on a staff retreat where the topic of discussion was culture. Everyone talked about the way things were, the way things were perceived to be, and the way they’d like things to be in the future. I had a full briefing of the way things were done around here, and so went into the office the next day knowing all the little rules that, ordinarily, I would have panicked about.
I’m aware that this was fortunate timing, but I wonder if I can learn from it when new people show up in my life in the future. Perhaps we could all be a bit more intentional when we welcome new people into our culture. I’m not saying we should indoctrinate them into our way of doing things, but just give them the lay of the land so they feel comfortable and included. Whether it’s a new person starting in your office, a newcomer to your church or small group or even the new partner of someone in your family who’s coming to meet you all for the first time, perhaps we need to think about the things they’ll be worried about, and let them in on the secrets of how it all works.
If your small group meets at a certain time, but you know everyone will always be 10 minutes late, let the new people know so they don’t accidentally show up early. If your family is one that’s big on banter and taking the mick out of each other, tell your cousin’s new girlfriend that being polite is not the best way to make an impact. In your workplace, give new starters the skinny on what happens at Christmas, or the Office Bakeoff Sweepstake. Ask yourself: What can you do to make that person feel at ease? What are the quirks of your culture that you can let that new person in on? It doesn’t mean they have to fit in with you to be accepted, or “the way we do things around here” is set in stone, but being new to a group is hard enough without having to stress over who makes the tea.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti