What to do when you're new on the job

May 25, 2011: 1:57 PM ET

Whether you're a recent college grad or an industry vet, acclimating to new work surroundings is no easy feat. Here are a few survival tips.

By Stephenie Overman, contributor

FORTUNE -- It's never easy being the new guy. Whether you're heading into your first job out of school or your 15th, the first days at a new gig are rarely easy ones. New coworkers, a new office, and a brand new work culture all lend to the feeling that you are a stranger in an even stranger land. What's the best way to cope?

TD Bank employees

New on the job.

"Go to the cafeteria, the break room and ask people to tell you stories," says Todd Hudson, founder of Maverick Institute, Portland Ore., which published the handbook, "My Personal Onboarding Plan: The New Hire's Guide to On-the-Job Success."

From what these seasoned employees tell you, you'll learn who the key players are at your new office and "about extraordinary efforts, about creativity, about people protecting their customers. Your new coworkers' tales will tell you how you should act in those situations. If you hear all negative stories, it tells you one thing. If you hear positive things, that tells you something else," Hudson says.

People love to tell these stories, he adds. "They will tell you what made the biggest impression on them, what got their juices going."

When you start a new job, you'll probably have some type of formal orientation program, also known as onboarding. It may be nothing more than a quick introduction to policies and benefits, but some companies make an effort to offer you a taste of what kind of environment to expect.

TD Bank (TD) enrolls new employees in a program called TD University, complete with stage performances, feather boas and confetti.

The program "gets people excited with masks and noise makers but it also teaches them something" about their new work environment, says Ted Nouryan, senior vice president of organization development and chief learning officer for the bank.

Nouryan, who took part in the orientation in October, had been in the hospitality, manufacturing and high tech industries before joining TD Bank, which has headquarters Cherry Hill, N.J., and Portland, Maine.

TD University "introduced us not only to what we do, but why we do it, what the expectations are for employees." In TD's case, those expectations largely revolve around delivering customer service with a positive attitude.

I Love Rewards Inc., a Toronto-based software company, encourages a virtual visit to the cafeteria or break room even before new employees start work. "We give you a person you can email," says CEO Razor Suleman. "We bring you to an event or two."

During orientation, each newbie is assigned a buddy -- someone who has joined the company within the past year -- to share lunch, answer questions and make introductions.

Jason Salluce, business development manager, had been through several orientation programs at other companies before he joined I Love Rewards about seven months ago.

In those earlier cases, "I signed on and they gave me a binder with 400 pages," Salluce said. "It didn't come to life the way it does with this total immersion. Everyone is so passionate. It got me emotionally involved" in the company.

The "university" experience in Toronto was especially valuable, Salluce says, because he is one of the first employees at the company's newly opened Boston office.

"I received exposure to every group within the company. I learned about how relationships work. When I'm working with clients, speaking to them about rewards and recognition, I need to be able to pick up the phone and reach [the right] people. I need to know who to call," he says, and the orientation "was really great from that perspective."

If you've never been through a good orientation experience, "you may not know what you're missing," Salluce says. "If I were to go somewhere else, I would have to go out of my way to make connections. This really accelerated my knowledge. Instead of taking a couple of months [to acclimate] it took me a week."

When you need to orient yourself

It's not uncommon to arrive at a new job only to find there's not so much as a desk or a phone ready for you.

If your new job doesn't start with even the basics of an orientation program, "be prepared to onboard yourself. Make a plan," says Todd Hudson. Show initiative and "put your best foot forward."

Suleman recommends starting your own orientation before you even start the job, by contacting the person who hired you.

"Email them a week before you start. Say, 'I am so excited to come to work. I was wondering what the first week is going to be like. Is there anything I can do to prepare?' You will trigger a response."

You probably explored the company's website when you were searching for a job. If no one steps in to show you the ropes in the first hours or even days in your new position, use the website to collect information.Hudsonrecommends checking out the FAQs, the organization chart and other basics.

"Take responsibility. Make lists of information you need. Talk to people. Start to build your network," Hudson says.

If the company doesn't provide you with a buddy, find one, perhaps the person who referred you for the job. Take the person to lunch and ask about his or her first day with the company.

And don't be afraid to advertise to your coworkers that you're new on the job, he adds. Hudson recommends putting that information in the signature line of your email, along with your job title and where you're located.  "Encourage people to contact you and help."

It's odd that people are reluctant to broadcast "I'm the new guy," he says. "Today, when somebody joins an organization people say 'thank goodness they finally hired somebody.'"

"People will start replying, saying here's some background on this project, some information you probably didn't get. They'll cut you some slack when they see that you're new and you're open to being helped."

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