What to Do if You've Made a Bad First Impression

What to Do if You've Made a Bad First Impression

By: Taylor Mckinney
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Photo: IT Weapons

It happened. You’ve started a new job and made a critical error in your first week of work. Perhaps you slept in and arrived late, failed to meet a deadline, accidently snubbed a co-worker, or dropped the ball on an important project. You’re now in full-panic mode, as it has been drilled into your psyche, long before you became a co-op student, that first impressions are everything. You only get one crucial window-of-opportunity to make a positive impression on your colleagues and you blew it.

I promise that it’s going to be okay.

We know, that in the professional world, first impressions are given a lot of stock. Seminars are given on how to craft the perfect elevator pitch, networking is akin to art form, and business leaders are noted for the strength and assertiveness of their handshake. Research on the significance and accuracy of first impressions suggests that not only do humans form impressions within a tenth of second, but our initial impressions hold significant weight on our future dealings with one another (Willis & Todorov, 2006).

But you are human. We are all human. Which means there are days, or sometimes even weeks, where we may be off our game. Perhaps due to nerves, stress, fear, or a multitude of other reasons, we all screw up and make critical errors when trying to put our best foot forward. Learning how to recognize, reflect on, and mitigate these mistakes is, in itself, an essential skill, and an important part of growing as a professional.

So here we are. The damage is done and you have to live with the consequences of your action. There are 3.5 more months left in your term and you can’t quit, hide, or give up. Now what?

Reckon with Your Mistake

It’s easy to get caught up in self-doubt and decide that your mistakes are failures of character or ability. There is an inclination when we make, what may seem like a fatal error, to mentally throw-in-the-towel. The damage is done and there’s no coming back from it. However, it is critical to not give up on improving the overall impression you will ultimately make on your colleagues. A self-defeating outlook will ultimately not help you grow or improve. Thus, the first person you need to reckon with, is yourself.  Give yourself a moment to breathe, assess the damage, and be reminded that you, like all people, will make mistakes. Your challenge will be how you choose to recover from it. 

Own It

You will save yourself a lot of heartache by owning up to your mistakes. How you recover from the incident will tell your colleagues as much -- if not more -- about your commitment to your position. If you were late, apologize to your supervisor. If you unintentionally snubbed a co-worker, make a point of saying hello and asking how they are doing the next time you see them. If you screwed up a project or missed a deadline - acknowledge it -  and ask for suggestions on how you can avoid making the same mistake in the future. Ultimately, the people you work with will understand that you are a student and that you are learning. Move forward with humility and a desire to learn and you will endear yourself to your colleagues.

Take Stock

If the importance of making a good first impression is one of life’s most reiterated adages, learning from our mistakes follows close behind. When faced with failure we are presented with a crucial opportunity to reflect, take stock, and identify the thinking or behavior that caused the mistake in the first place. It thus becomes important to not glaze over the incident but rather reflect on its causes. If you missed a deadline, use it as an opportunity to develop better time management skills. If you arrived late to work, now is a good time to create a solid morning routine. If you messed up on a project, this is your chance to assess your skillset and look for ways to improve. Rather than dwell on the mistake, allow it to become a catalyst for developing a quality or skill you may not have known needed your attention.

Correct through Consistency

Perhaps the most effective way to recover from a bad first impression is to correct through consistency. Your colleagues and supervisors are more likely to chalk the initial impression up to a bad day if all of their subsequent experiences with you are positive. This is not meant to put an unattainable amount of pressure on you to be perfect. Mistakes and sometimes even small disasters are inevitable, however, if you make a notable effort to learn and improve you will leave a different kind of impression on your coworker - as the kind of person who has the maturity and self-awareness to learn from failure.

Finally, and perhaps the most important lesson to take-away, is that you will be faced with hundreds of moments like this in your life. Learning how to recover from them is a valuable tool that you will use again and again throughout your career. Use this opportunity to develop your ability to recover, adapt, and move forward with renewed conviction.


Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First Impressions: Making up Your Mind after a 100-Ms Exposure to a Face. Psychological Science, 17 (7), 592-598.

Beyond the Article 

  • You've learned a few tips on how to recover from a bad first impression now pick up a few on how to make a good one. Paulette Johnson, offers her top ten best tricks to make a lasting impression. 
  • Unsure of how to succeed in a new work environment? Sometimes its all about asking the right questions. Nathan Boey, explains how.
  • SFU students, past and present, have shared their advice on how to succeed in the workplace. Find more articles on workplace success, here.
Posted on August 11, 2017