People First HR Services

First jobs provide lasting career lessons

Colleen Coates

It’s been said that your first job is a lot like your first love. Not only does it usually occur at a point in life when we are young, idealistic and still unaffected by cynicism, time magically smoothes over any rough, unpleasant edges so that we fondly remember only the good things about it.

Even if that first job was as menial, repetitive or altogether unpleasant as possible, there actually were plenty of things worth the misty, water-coloured memory space. Whether our bright-eyed selves realized it or not, that first foray into the working world was a valuable learning experience that laid the foundation for future career success. In fact, many of the lessons you learned back then are still subconsciously applied to the position you hold today.

Among the takeaways you can thank your first job for teaching you:

Your boss is not your parent. Let’s face it, the stuff you once pulled at home you could never get away with at work. The boss likely won’t excuse your quirks (like that adorable habit of sleeping in), be charmed by your cheeky remarks, nor applaud every tiny achievement. Welcome to a brand new authority, the kind that does not love you unconditionally.

Make work friends with people you’d want to be friends with outside of work. Having a circle of people you can have fun with and depend on makes work so much more enjoyable. It’s also nice to know that someone has your back or will lend a hand when you need one.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. No matter how much you think you know, starting a new job is a humbling experience because in reality, you don’t know everything (and in some cases, anything). Put effort into learning on the job and soaking up knowledge by asking questions or for help when it’s needed. No one can fault you for wanting to get it right.

A genuine smile and good manners go a long way. Being polite at work goes beyond the “mind your manners” reminders of childhood. This is where we learn to respect and extend courtesy to others, regardless of job title or rank. Smiling, having a good attitude and being approachable all help to build relationships and make for a friendlier work environment.

Setting priorities helps get things done. Staying organized is not an option when things can quickly pile up. It can make all of the difference between completing assigned tasks neatly, properly and on time, or doing them sloppily, incorrectly and late. This includes learning to manage the expectations of your boss and your colleagues.

The customer really is always right (even when they’re not). Most first jobs put you on the front line, which means dealing with customers in person or on the phone. This is why the primary business lessons learned are focused on the customer: 1) they always come first; 2) in a fight with a customer, you will always lose; and 3) while a customer’s business is considered to be irreplaceable, a know-it-all employee is not.

The harder you work, the greater the reward. No doubt about it, money is a powerful motivator. It doesn’t take long to realize that the harder you work and the more you contribute to making the workplace a better one, the more good things that will come your way. That’s a lesson that sticks with you always.

When in doubt, do the right thing. The values and ethics that are instilled in you before you start working, such as integrity, are often put to the test on the job. This goes hand in hand with treating others not only as you would want to be treated, but as they want to be treated; that honesty is the best policy; and do what you said you will do.

There is always room for improvement. Employees who refuse to settle for mediocre are the ones who often go on to do great things. By listening, learning and constantly looking for opportunities to grow, they climb up the ladder to success. This is a life lesson in self-empowerment: your job fulfillment and your future as an employee is well within your control.

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai


Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at




Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 H2