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Fighting the Ghosts of Beloved Employees Past

Jada A. Graves

Being the newest kid to frequent the water cooler can be awkward. It can take months to build rapport with new co-workers and clients, master operating company software and maneuver through office politics.

It can be a particularly trying time if you discover the position you're filling was vacated recently by a professional paragon, someone whom everyone - from your new boss, to your cubicle neighbor, to the building janitor - dearly misses and talks of incessantly. While you're busy brainstorming how to show your potential and plotting the way things possibly could be, your officemates are missing their former comrade and struggling to let go of the way things were. "The loss of a job can have a psychological effect, but the same thing can be said for the loss of a colleague," says Hallie Crawford, a certified career coach and the founder of the coaching firm Create Your Career Path. "It can be especially painful for some because you don't always keep in touch with colleagues who have moved on."

What should a new employee do to rise out of a predecessor's shadow?

[See: 25 Careers Mistakes to Banish for 2013.]

Do Your Research

Before you start on the first day, accept the job offer or even go to the interview, you should have researched target companies and done a little digging into their corporate cultures. That will complement the information you learn during an interview, where it's customary to ask pointed questions about how the job has been done in the past by previous employees. If you've done proper reconnaissance before, during and after a job interview, then ideally you wouldn't be blindsided by your new boss's rose-colored memories of a former colleague.

"There are two types of questions you can ask about the former employee during your interview. One is what are they like, and the other is why is the position currently open," says Andrea Kay, a career consultant, syndicated columnist and author of "This is How to Get Your Next Job: An Inside Look at What Employers Really Want." "Then you really want to listen well to what they tell you." Kay adds. If the interviewer speaks well of the former employee's performance, Kay suggests assessing your ability to meet those high expectations and exceed them.

"See it from the perspective of 'what can I learn from this experience?'" Crawford adds. "There may be a chance for you to extend [the previous employee's] good ideas and avoid making the same mistakes he previously made."

If you feel particularly bold, ask the interviewer if you can speak with your prospective co-workers or whether it would be possible to contact the person who formerly held the position you're applying to enter. The interviewer may say no, but you're unlikely to hurt your job chances just because you asked.

[Read: 9 Steps to Acing the First 90 Days on the Job.]

New Employees ...

Knowing the employment history of your position and having insight on corporate culture won't necessarily prevent you from feeling uncomfortable when hearing praise for your predecessor. But once you're on the job you have to learn to field such comments compassionately. "It's really important to go into a new position understanding that people don't like change, and you represent change," Kay says. "Be patient and understanding of their mindset."

And speaking of changes, try to be conservative about making initial big operational shifts that could rub long-standing employees the wrong way. "Don't go storming into a new workplace with all your new ideas and complete disregard for the way things have been done," Kay adds. "Approach things delicately and slowly. Ask a lot of questions. Learn how your colleagues, subordinates and bosses do things. Get in early and stay late to see how things truly function. And when you do make the first changes, do them gradually. Within three to six months you'll be acclimated, and then you can make any necessary dramatic changes."

Keeping communication open will help you feel less like you're being asked to maintain the status quo of a previous worker, and more like you're a proactive participant. "Most people tend to start a new job and think, 'I just gotta figure out how to do it by paying attention.' But why not ask?" Kay suggests. "Speak with your boss about their expectations. Ask them how they prefer to communicate. And tell them how you work best."

[Read: Managing Mashup: How to Be a Boss to Different Types of Workers]

Existing Employees ...

Incumbent employees must also be tolerant - and flexible - to the differences between past and future workers. "It's kind of like dating," Crawford explains. "You have to realize that this new person could have a completely different skill set and personality type. There's a dance that you do when you're getting used to somebody, and you can't assume off the bat that it's going to fit right."

Crawford also advises showing some sensitivity to the apprehension the office newbie must feel and using a little tact. "Speak mindfully of your former colleague. You want to be careful to not make comparisons because that's a little ridiculous and like playground antics," she says. "If you're going to talk about that former worker's qualities, try to do so by also referencing the qualities of the current employee."

Missing a former colleague can be particularly palpable if the co-worker who moved on played an integral role in how you do your job - for example, if the departed colleague was your boss. Adjusting to a new manager can be rocky, but it's still important to be objective. "You have to be really fair, and judge [a new boss] from the perspective of whether they're a good manager," Kay says. "You can't impose personal agendas and prejudices that you might carry from the previous boss and previous relationship."

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