Three Steps to Prevent the Dreaded ‘First Day Surprise’

Alex Howe

One of my friends recently took a job with “unlimited vacation”—only to learn within months that was code for “take as little vacation as humanly possible.”

We all know or have been a victim of first day (or third month) surprise.

Below are three steps to avoid crushed expectations before you accept a job offer.

1. Understand the employer.

Use kununu to read employer reviews. Note that people are different, so it’s common to have different or even conflicting experiences at the same company. That said, reviews show trends. If many people are saying it, you probably will too.

The most important thing to know is how an employer relates to its workers. Psychologists call these ingrained relationship patterns “attachment styles.” Below are the prominent three and how they manifest at work:

Secure:

When employers are attentive in the right ways, individuals feel comfortable interacting with and mastering their environment. They take risks, and they’re more productive. Not surprisingly, individuals with secure attachments have better work relationships and higher job satisfaction.

kununu reviews to look for:

Workers at secure employers report growth opportunities, training, motivating management and nurturing environments. Review examples include sending employees flowers when they’re in the hospital, sponsoring events for employees to speak their minds, open door policies and a general sentiment that employers are “willing to work with you”. One review gushes, “All the managers here go above and beyond the call of duty … They put you in a place to succeed, a lot of training and room for growth here.”

Ratings to look for:

  • Career Development: High
  • Work-Life Balance: High
  • Job Security: High
  • Inclusive/Diverse: High
  • Company culture: High

Avoidant:

Avoidant office environments can seem appealing because employees have unique independence. These employers come off as “cool moms”. In reality, they lack interest and investment in their employees. At the end of the day, employees feel like their companies don’t appreciate them or care about what and how they’re doing.

Reviews to watch out for:

Employees in avoidant work environments report that managers don’t know their names and/or treat them like numbers. Reviews lament nepotism, “boy’s clubs”, favoritism, lack of communication, inertia, and employee disregard. Avoidant employers tend not to be forthcoming about changes and leave employees out of the loop. One employee noted that her company denied rumors about layoffs; then, “it was a great surprise when my department was closed down and routed to India.”

Ratings to watch out for:

  • Support from Management: Low
  • Teamwork: Low
  • Level of Autonomy: High
  • Communication: Low
  • Work Environment: Low

Anxious/ambivalent:

Anxious/ambivalent employers helicopter your progress, discourage freethinking and believe that “because I said so” is a sufficient explanation. The other half of the time, they can’t understand why you consult them on everything. They want you out of their hair.

Employees in anxious/ambivalent workplaces feel like they never get a straight answer; what’s right one day is wrong the next. Management behavior is erratic and inexplicable.

Reviews to watch out for:

Clues of anxious/ambivalent employers include reports of “love-hate”, “backstabbing”, and poor trust. One employee observed that praise was often offered as “a back-handed compliment.”

Anxious/ambivalent employers are unpredictable. One person reported, “Things just happened on a whim with no prior communication. Don’t be surprised if you walk in and it’s like walking into a completely different branch.” Another warned, “prepare for last minute surprises.”

Ratings to watch out for:

  • Autonomy: Low
  • Anxious/ambivalent workplaces can be hard to spot. Look for a combination of very high and very low ratings for the same company and criteria.

2. Decide what you need.

A secure workplace should be non-negotiable. After that, what you need may differ from what others need. In this step, we replace employer analysis with self-analysis.

Whether you can thrive with an inevitably flawed employer is a matter of values: what do you want out of work?

Instead of asking whether an employer will make you successful, ask what a successful day would look and feel like to them — does this align with what success looks like for yourself? Ask how you might add value in this position or make a difference in the company at large.

Research by psychologist Tim Kasser shows that the pursuit of external values like money, possessions and social status leads to reduced well-being and increased distress. Intrinsic goals, on the other hand, improve both job performance and satisfaction. These motivations include “I want to be very close to people”, “I want to feel like my life has meaning” and “I want to feel like I’m doing something good for the universe.”

Intrinsic goals also tend to be more within our control than extrinsic goals, which increases both their probability of happening and the likelihood that our expectations will be met or exceeded.

Once you know what you need, you can address it head on in your interview and when considering companies to join.

3. Ask the right questions.

The final step should be consulting HR or your potential boss directly. Ask if there are opportunities for mentorship, flexibility, training and autonomy. Add specificity and context where possible. These kinds of relational questions can be asked as early as the first interview, if desired.

Once the job is in the bag and you’re considering accepting an offer, ask questions regarding your intrinsic goals.

Here are a few examples:

  1. Need: A sense of professional altruism
    Ask: “One of my career goals is to feel like I’m doing good not just for my company but also for the world. Does [company] have volunteer, pro-bono or partnership opportunities where I could contribute to a global cause on the job?”
  2. Need: Flexibility and autonomy
    Ask: “For me, my work environment can make or break my productivity. In the past, I’ve thrived in settings where I can make my own hours and work from home if I need to focus on a big project. Could a similar setup work at [company]?”
  3. Need: Work-life balance
    Ask: “I love [job duties], but I also have ongoing personal commitments I want to uphold. I’ve found that maintaining a healthy balance between my personal and professional life makes for a happier, more productive me. Do you get the sense that employees at [company] are able to maintain a life outside of work?”

If it becomes clear that the employer would stunt the pursuit of your intrinsic goals, consider another job.

One of the most frustrating feelings is starting a new job and realizing it’s nothing like what you thought it would be. Fortunately, we can prevent these “first day surprises” by understanding our potential employers, defining our intrinsic goals and asking the right questions. With the right preparation, we can make our expectations a reality.

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Caroline Beaton (@cs_beaton) is kununu’s millennial career expert. She’s an award-winning writer and entrepreneur who helps ambitious millennials change their habits and behaviors to lead more fulfilling lives. Her writing has been has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, Business Insider and many others.