How To Make Up For A Bad First Impression At Work

Maybe you just began a summer internship or finished the first week at your new job—wherever you may be, we can all agree that a bad first impression is cringe-worthy. When it happens, you know it. The awkwardness is literally palpable. But don’t let an off-color joke, an uncomfortable interaction or botched assignment mess up a career opportunity for you.

You’ve already got the job, which means your boss or hiring manager initially liked something about you. But the very important impressions you’ll make during your first few days of work can set the tone for all of your work relationships. You don’t want to be held back from work advancement because of one small mistake, so do what you can now to correct that awkward interaction.

What counts as a bad first impression?

The first thing you should do is determine if your impression needs to be fixed. There’s a huge difference between apologizing because you lost your temper and apologizing for being a little too awkward in conversation.

Here are some valid things you should try to recover from:

  • Making a hurtful or ignorant comment (even if it was unintentionally)
  • Messing up on a task you were given
  • Missing a deadline or appointment
  • Making a mistake that affects others (boss, co-worker, client)
  • Being late during your first few weeks
  • Stepping on someone else’s job
  • Losing your temper

But don’t be too worried about:

  • Being too formal
  • Acting nervous
  • Awkward conversation
  • Lightly debating or disagreeing on a work decision
  • Asking for help
  • A personal emergency coming up
  • Being a human (getting sick, needing to take a reasonable break)

If you have made a mistake that needs fixing, the following three steps will help you tackle the problem.​​

1. Apologize immediately, but don’t over-apologize

When you first meet someone, you form an opinion in a matter of seconds. Impressions stick with a person fast, so the sooner you act the better.

Don’t be afraid to initiate some real talk, and fess up that you know how weird you came off and want to re-establish yourself. Your boss or co-worker will appreciate your transparency. Apologizing doesn’t have to be embarrassing. Recognizing a problem openly shows that you value the preservation of your relationship.

Lindsey Allen, a senior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, shares the time she got real with her supervisor about her bad first impression. “I messed up an assignment I got literally on the first day of my internship, and I could tell that she was disappointed in me,” she says. “I didn’t want her to always think of me of the girl who failed on the first day, so I scheduled a meeting with her to talk about it. Basically I admitted that I was so excited to work there that on my first day I was nervous, freaking out and just emotionally not prepared for the assignment. She was really understanding about it and I think it helped our relationship that I was apologetic.”

While admitting your mistake or word-fumble is a smart idea, apologizing too much is uncomfortable and can even be more awkward than your initial first bad impression. Your boss or co-worker shouldn’t have to feel like they need to constantly reassure you that everything is okay, so own up to the situation without overdoing it.

Kat Boogaard, a work relationships and career writer, has a starting tip for how to re-establish yourself with someone at work. “Try saying, ‘I think we got off on the wrong foot,’ or ‘I think I gave you the wrong impression of myself, can I take you to coffee and we can talk more?’” she says.

Related: How to Discuss Job Expectations with Your Boss

2. Reinvent yourself

Some days your vibe with people is just going to be off, and bad first impressions can happen. However, a key strategy in your recovery is to move on. Don’t dwell on what happened longer than you have to, and start the next work day fresh as your wonderful self again. A strong work ethic and consistent personality will replace the bad first impression you made over time.

“Be persistent and consistent,” Boogaard emphasizes. “It can be a lengthy process to change the way people perceive you, but when it comes to your career progression it’s a must. Reinventing yourself to your co-workers and striving everyday to show your best self can only help you. There’s no room for slacking, even in college, when you’re trying to reach your job goals.”

Make sure your boss or co-worker knows he or she got the wrong idea about you, and that contrary to what he or she may think, you’re the Beyonce of the office. Be the first person to speak in a meeting, jump on assignments, ask questions and work as hard as you can.

Related: How to Deal with Criticism at Work

3. Make a personal connection

A surefire way to erase the negative impression of yourself in someone’s mind is to make them get to know you. Fight your instinct to shy away from someone after a bad interaction, and try getting closer to them instead.

“A smart tactic is to ask that person advice,” Boogaard recommends. “Asking for advice is flattering, and also sets up a relationship between you where you can come back to that topic and continue your conversation. For example something I’ve tried with one of my previous employers is asking them for freelancing advice. Then that employer associated me as an engaging person who could talk about freelancing with them and seemed eager to learn, instead of that overly-shy girl on the first day of work.”  

Go on a lunch date with your co-worker, make an effort to get to know him or her on breaks and don’t be shy about your wonderful personality. If they like you as a person and friend, it will be hard for them to have a bad impression of you as a co-worker. There’s nothing a good conversation over coffee can’t fix!

Collegiette, a bad interaction is not the end of the world, and it happens to all of us. By making these three moves you’ll recover in no time. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

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