12 most timely questions to ask when you have a new job

The first few weeks on the job is your time to learn about your new workplace and co-workers. Make sure you ask these questions.

It used to be you had about 90 days to get up to speed at a new job. No one expected you to do your job competently before then.

Times have changed.

The need to quicken a new employee’s ramp-up time is greater than ever, but rarely will an employee handbook or how-to manual answer the most important questions (if such documents even exist). The nice thing about being new is you can ask all types of questions, and co-workers are generally gracious in responding.

The following 12 questions are only crucial to my ramp-up:

1. Where is the supply cabinet?

And the coffee pot, creamer, copy machine, scanner, bathroom, emergency exit, front-door key and any other obvious (but not always stated) need. Get these out of the way on your first day, and you’ll feel less at sea when inevitable ambiguities arise.

2. What’s your preferred mode of communication?

Some people like email, others prefer the phone and still others want to talk face-to-face. Find out the preferences of as many of your key internal and external contacts as possible. You’ll save yourself a lot of frustration.

3. What are you working on?

This simple question accomplishes three things: You get a feel for the pace and type of work (both for the organization and individuals), you show respect for your colleagues by being interested in their activities, and you can begin to identify potential gaps you can fill (or overlaps you don’t need to take on).

4. Where do people work out, socialize, get coffee, etc.?

A work environment’s social and cultural aspects are as important (if not more) than job descriptions, titles and organizational charts. It’s while breaking bread or a sweat with co-workers that you’ll find out what keeps the machine oiled.

5. Where’s the low-hanging fruit?

There are always pesky little tasks predecessors left behind, or tasks you’re waiting to tackle after your first week. These mini-projects take less than half a day, but once you get up to speed, you’ll never get to them. Instead of seeing them as annoyances, recognize them as the ripe fruit they are. Do them right away, and tell others you completed them. Make yourself indispensable right away.

6. Who decides?

Determine the stakeholders for your projects, the decision-making process for the company and your specific tasks, and who has the final say. These things may change over time, but put your best foot forward, and don’t step on any toes!

7. What’s the organization’s mission?

Sure, you asked this during the interview process and read it on the website, but it’s worth asking again. Figure out how you and your department fit into the big picture. Write your own purpose statement that supports the organization’s mission. Run it by your boss or a respected colleague to see if you’re on track. This will help you navigate and negotiate your priorities with the powers that be.

8. How will we know if we succeed?

This should elicit responses that can point to measurable goals and give meaning to your daily activities.

9. Who is the expert on ____?

Find out who holds institutional knowledge.

10. What’s the backstory?

When you start a new job, many of the established systems, rituals or rules can seem arbitrary and, well, strange. Instead of sounding judgmental by continually asking, “Why do you do that?”, ask for the backstory. This honors the history and teller.

11. How can I help you?

Just because you’re new doesn’t mean you don’t have something to offer. The organization hired you for a reason. Ask people how you can make their lives better. This is the right thing to do, and will make it easier for you to ask them for help later.

12. How can I make a difference?

Ask yourself this question every day. Again, being new doesn’t mean you can’t contribute right away. New employees bring fresh perspectives, which, in a healthy organization, are prized.

The question you must never ask is, “What do you want me to do?” This is handing responsibility for your actions to someone else, which takes the meaning (and therefore the joy) from your work. Even when talking with your boss, ask “What are our priorities?” Get clarification that provides you with a scope of work, but never hand over responsibility for your success.

I’ve asked more than 100 questions since my first day, but most of them were some variation of the 12 above. Are there any questions I missed?

Kelly Belmonte is a poet, blogger and management consultant with expertise in nonprofit organizational development and youth mentoring. Her poetry has been published in Atlas Poetica and Relief Journal, and her two poetry books, “Three Ways of Searching” and “Spare Buttons,” are available through Finishing Line Press. This article is republished with permission, courtesy of 12 Most.


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