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The Next (Real) World: Part Two

How to help students survive their first job.
University Business, Aug 2006

Note from Howard and Matthew Greene: Another academic year has come to an end. Many seniors have commenced from the secure and known world of their college communities and have entered into the new realities of a workplace that is dramatically different from the lifestyle and behavior to which they have been accustomed. These young people would be well served if they were armed with a primer on the fundamentals of attitude and behavior necessary to succeed. Both undergraduates and graduates seem ill equipped in many regards to navigate the essentials that can spell success or failure in the competitive and unforgiving business environment.

We invited Dede Bartlett, who is eminently qualified from her own experiences in the corporate world, to share her recommendations with institutional leaders. Her advice can be disseminated to students through the campus organizations we noted in our previous column on this subject ["The Next (Real) World," April 2006].

Some of our best and brightest graduates are floundering in their first jobs after college-and as college administrators you need to rethink how to prepare your students for life after the academy.

College seniors are well prepared intellectually, but they are failing in subtle-yet critical-areas of
communication and interpersonal behavior.

In the past few years, employers in a wide variety of industries point out, while college seniors are well prepared intellectually, they are failing in subtle-but critical-areas of communication and interpersonal behavior because they don't understand the unwritten rules of the workplace.

They lack these skills because college career offices have not focused on them and employers don't have time to teach them. The result is that some of our best and brightest students are fired after six months on the job. That can lead to devastating consequences.

So what do new grads need to know to survive their first job? They need to understand that the no-nonsense, hard-charging, team-playing workplace is very different than the supportive, informal community they have known in college. Gen Y'ers have been described, perhaps unjustly, as having a brash attitude, wearing flip-flops to the office, listening to iPods at their desk, and yet wanting to make an important impact on their first day on the job.

To survive their first job and succeed in the second, they need to learn the following ABCs of corporate behavior-and college administrators need to be part of their learning process.

1. Punctuality and "face time": According to Woody Allen, "Eight percent of life is about showing up." He could have added that you can never be too early for a meeting, but being late counts against you! Knowing when to arrive for work, when to leave, and how much time to take for lunch may sound basic, but a lot of recent grads get tripped up by not understanding the "face-time rules" that are unique to each organization.

2. E-mail etiquette: Poor e-mail skills are one of the major complaints employers have about recent college hires. Write all e-mail messages in a professional manner. Don't write anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the local newspaper. Personal e-mail should be handled at home. Minimize net surfing. And remember, there really is no such thing as "Delete."

3. Telephone etiquette: Keep personal conversations to a minimum. Tell your friends you have very little time at work to talk.

4. Clothing: Inappropriate clothing is a major complaint with employers across the country. Start out conservative. Watch how your colleagues dress. For women this means no low necklines, halter tops, bare midriffs, or tight pants. For men, if it's a casual workplace, make sure your clothes are clean, neat, and not raggedy. No flip-flops.

1. Be a team player. Companies prize teamwork and team players. You don't have to like everyone you work with, but you do have to get along with them. This goes for informal off-site company outings, too.

2. Be enthusiastic and congenial. Employers want congenial employees with a can-do attitude. If you have a temper, leave it at home.

3. Accept responsibility. Everybody screws up at some time. When you make a mistake, admit it. Don't pass the blame on to others.

4. Volunteer. An important part of learning any new job is volunteering for assignments. Once you feel comfortable doing the assigned tasks, volunteer for special projects. You will learn, and if you succeed, you will be noticed and hopefully rewarded.

5. Trust no one for several months. You can't be sure who your friends are, and others can't be sure of you. Be friendly, but watch what you say and do. Don't assume the workplace is warm and fuzzy and that people your age will be friends. Keep your personal life private. Be prudent about what you share.

6. Don't gossip. Refrain from being part of the gossip chain-whether it's verbal or via e-mail. It's a matter of trust. You don't know who you can trust. Err on the side of caution.

7. Don't be afraid to say you don't know. Be honest. Tell them when you don't know or when you don't understand. No one expects you to know much in your first job!

1. Listen and look. Analyze the culture in which you are working. Keep your eyes open and your opinions to yourself. Doing the job is not the hard part; fitting in is. More people are forced to leave companies because they won't or can't adapt to their organization's culture.

2. Make your boss look good. This is Job No. 1. The good boss will reward you. The mediocre or bad boss will take advantage of you. However, you will learn from all of them and be a better boss when your time comes. And never go around your boss. Communicate directly with him or her.

3. Find a mentor. Choose someone whom the organization respects and ask him or her to be your mentor. Most people are flattered when a junior person asks for advice. This person can teach you the ropes and help you understand the culture.

4. Realize that getting fired, downsized, or outsourced is not the worst thing. As Steve Jobs said at Stanford's commencement last year, "Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life."

Unpleasant change is part of corporate life. Globalization ensures that almost everyone will be fired, downsized, merged, or outsourced at some point in their careers. How you respond is critical. This can unleash your creative powers and motivate you to do what you should be doing.

To begin, keep your r?sum? up-to-date with all the latest projects you have worked on. Create a work product folder and keep it at home. With each new project you complete, keep a copy in your personal folder. If you are forced to leave the company the same day, you will not have the time to go through files to find this material.

5. Don't lose your reputation. The scandals at Enron, WorldCom, and others have shown that rarely can dishonored executives reclaim sullied reputations. The bottom line is that honesty really does pay.

Think your graduates will learn the unwritten rules of the workplace on the job the way previous generations did? Believing that is misunderstanding today's fast-paced corporate environment.

Everything that can be outsourced in companies-from payroll to security to medical care-has been. There are typically no in-house training departments, and few human resources people can counsel new hires in learning these subtleties. Summer internships can help students prepare for life outside the academy, but they are more like a honeymoon than a real marriage.

A better answer would be to have executives speak to college juniors and seniors about the reality of life in the corporate world and describe the unwritten rules that can and do spell the difference between success and failure.

Dede Bartlett lectures on career and work/family issues to college students around the country. Drawn from her experiences as a senior officer with two Fortune 25 companies, a trustee, and visiting fellow of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and a mother of two recent college graduates, Bartlett helps audiences navigate the complexities of life after college.

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