This article is adapted from Workplace Letter, produced by Nishi Sunder. It aired on Business Matters and World Business Report from the BBC World Service. Adapted for BBC Capital by Angela Henshall.
If you’ve spent much time working with recent graduates – people who have just finished university without much work experience – you’ve probably witnessed your share of odd office behaviour.
For instance, the new grad who shows up dressed for a night of clubbing, or the entry level worker who doesn’t realise the CEO in a Fortune 500 company doesn’t want his opinion about their new brand strategy, or the new grad who takes all her calls on speakerphone without noticing the colleagues glaring in her direction.
We’ve all heard the stereotypes about entry-level workers who think they should get a corner office or have their own assistant right off the bat – but in my experience, those are outliers.
Of course, we’ve all been there at the start of our own careers … because we don’t do a very good job of teaching students and recent graduates how to navigate office life. We teach them other things – how to write a research paper or analyse a poem or conduct a lab experiment – but we don’t have many formalised mechanisms for teaching the sort of skills that will have a huge impact on how to succeed in your first few years of work: skills most of us think of as just how to be in an office.
Instead, we just throw young people in and expect them to figure it out … which of course leads to plenty of professional faux pas along the way, some of them only mildly embarrassing but some quite embarrassing indeed.
We’ve all heard the stereotypes about entry-level workers who think they should get a corner office or have their own assistant right off the bat – but in my experience, those are outliers. What’s much more common are young workers who haven’t fully processed that they’re adults now and don’t need to ask for permission to go to lunch, or to leave a meeting to use the bathroom, or who feel awkward calling their older colleagues by their first names, or are afraid of asking questions because they think they’re already supposed to have all the answers.
That’s not to say, though, that there are never young workers who dramatically misunderstand their standing in their office.
They were shocked when the company decided to end their internships early rather than keep debating what they could wear to work.
A letter to my website went viral a couple of years ago when an intern wrote in to say that he and several other interns had been fired after writing a petition demanding that their company relax its dress code. Apparently, they had pushed the dress code issue several times before and had been told it wasn’t changing, and then spent work time putting together a petition to push the issue further. They were shocked when the company decided to end their internships early rather than keep debating what they could wear to work.
But for the most part, new grads mean well, are conscious of being new, and simply need someone to explain workplace norms to them.
And it’s strange that we don’t do this in any organised way! Why don’t we do a better job of teaching university students and recent graduates about how to navigate office life?
At the university level, part of it no doubt is explained by the fact that the people who could do the teaching – professors – work in academia, not industry, and don’t have much, if any, recent first-hand experience in traditional offices. But why then aren’t employers making a concerted effort to help graduates who are new to the workforce understand and acclimate to its ways?
Why, when we have new employee orientations that sometimes last days and cover things like attendance policies in dreary detail, do employers not tackle the things that will most determine whether these new workers struggle or thrive?
I’d like to see employers do more formal training in how an office works. How about - here’s what’s expected of you at meetings, here’s what you can look to your manager to do for you, here are the kinds of input we do and don’t want from people in your role, here’s how to decide if a complaint is worth escalating, here’s the amount of socialising that’s okay, and here’s how to peacefully co-exist in a shared space with your colleagues without inciting violence. Employees and employers alike would benefit.
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