Wading into the Workplace: tips for a successful first job
August 8, 2016
As throngs of recent university and college grads begin to wade into the mysterious waters of today’s job market and countless high school students search for summer jobs, I wanted to share some tips to help you succeed in the workplace.
Working as a CO-OP program coordinator for one of the largest universities in Ontario over the past two and a half years, I have facilitated close to 500 mid-term evaluations between employers and our students during their work-terms.
These students are enrolled in a variety of academic programs (eg. engineering, business and the humanities), and are working in a variety of sectors (eg. start-ups, non-profit, government, corporate). The CO-OP office uses these discussions as opportunities for managers to communicate the strengths and weaknesses of each student, and to encourage open conversation to help the student in their professional development.
Having experienced such a large sample size, I have been able to witness firsthand the importance of the often cited “soft” or non-cognitive skills for recent graduates entering the labour market. The degree to which the demand for these skills is similar across all industries and work environments is remarkable, even for a believer in the importance of transferable skills like myself.
Here are some must-dos to help you progress from good to great - or even exceptional - employee status, regardless of the length of your stay.
GOOD (i.e You’re likely to keep your job – at least in the short-run)
Early is on time: If your boss “suggests” that you start work at 9:00 am, don’t roll in at 9:05 am, whip up a latte in the kitchen and make the office rounds until 9:45 am. Be at your workstation for 8:45 am and take a mid-morning break to spread your smiling face around the office and grab a caffeinated beverage. You can set your own schedule when you start your own company. For now, be on time.
Act like a professional: Dress appropriately, address colleagues and management with respect, use email AS EMAIL (not as an extension of your smartphone) and be mindful of who you share your “late-night” stories with. Should be no-brainers, right? Unfortunately, in today’s culture of flat organizations and open-door policies, some basic workplace behaviours tend to slip down the slope from professional to personal. Don’t get me wrong – I am a big proponent of the more collaborative and less hierarchical management style, and I’m the last person who will tell you to be someone you’re not. But if you’re someone who doesn’t like to iron shirts, buy wrinkle-free shirts. If you’re someone who likes to have a few drinks on the weekend, keep it to the weekend.
Meet deadlines: It is rarely the case that managers of new staff or students will impose unrealistic deadlines. Completing work ahead of deadlines shows work ethic and initiative to take on more. However, it is never a good idea to sacrifice quality for time. Quality first. Figure out how you can be most productive and use that strategy to achieve efficiency.
Learn HOW to ask questions: I would be surprised if even one of the 500 evaluations I conducted didn’t involve a discussion around asking questions. Does the student ask them, are they socially aware enough to identify good times to ask, do the questions indicate a deeper interest in the work… or are they basic procedural questions? These are the themes that come up consistently. The good news is that employers CLEARLY understand and support the fact that their new employees will not have all the answers. The catch is that the nature of the questions you ask and the manner in which you ask them speaks volumes about your interest, understanding and potential for success in that line of work. Bottom line: don’t be afraid to ask but don’t knock on your manager’s door every five minutes either.
GREAT (i.e You can count on a solid reference for your next job)
Learn balance in problem-solving: Managers LOVE when junior staff understand the balance between asking questions too quickly and spending an entire day trying to solve a problem that could have been answered in one question to a senior colleague. Unfortunately, there is no universal magic formula that determines this balance. It requires the more nuanced social competencies that employers so often speak of (i.e he/she “just gets it”). Best practice probably looks something like this: 1 – try to figure it out yourself; 2 – Google it; 3 – ask a slightly more senior staff member that works near you; 4 – go to your manager.
Take initiative: This is (hopefully) not the first time you are reading or hearing this advice. Ask for more work when you complete a task – don’t sit back and wait for the next thing that comes across your desk. Taking initiative will ALWAYS be a crucial characteristic if you want to make an impression in the workplace. It demonstrates interest, work ethic and a desire to help move the organization forward.
Review your work… and then review it again: Before submitting any work – from an email to a re-organized filing cabinet to a briefing note – review your work AT LEAST twice. In today’s world of fast-paced, multi-modal communication, it is easy to misspell, misuse and misdirect information. We all do it from time to time. This is an area for development for almost every student I meet with. Those who submit quality assignments the first time around make a significant positive impression.
Be positive: It may or may not be surprising to learn that one of the biggest selling points for employers that hire students is the energy, enthusiasm and fresh perspective young people inject into the workplace. Make the most of your youthful energy. Avoid negative language, gossip and drama. Positivity is contagious, and people will remember you for the way you make them feel.
EXCEPTIONAL (i.e They will do whatever is within their power to secure you as a full-time employee)
Be like George - Curious: Intellectual curiosity is without a doubt the characteristic that has been highlighted most often by managers that rate their students as exceptional. Intellectual curiosity means digging deeper and seeking to understand the “big picture.” It means not being satisfied with understanding WHAT to do, but constantly seeking to understand WHY you are doing it. It means striving to comprehend the larger strategy or logic behind the work that the organization does or the problem you are trying to solve. This exploratory style is a key indicator of potential for career advancement in most fields (if not all).
Provide possible solutions to problems you uncover: Average employees notify their manager of the challenges they encounter in their work. Exceptional employees offer possible solution(s) to these challenges. This means thinking through the problem and being proactive in analyzing potential remedies. Potential solutions can be creative, but should be rational and communicated in a way that asks a question, rather than claims superiority of thought (i.e “Do you think it would be feasible to try X” or “Given Y, have you ever thought of Z?”).
Ask for and integrate feedback: The more successful co-op students I work with crave constructive feedback. During our meetings, they often tend to be disappointed if their manager does not identify areas for improvement. They recognize that personal and professional growth is a life-long process, and they continually find ways to implement feedback in order to improve their work.
Work passionately: There are very few things in this world that are more inspiring than passion. When passion is shared between two people it creates an emotional bond that facilitates trust and communication. Demonstrating a genuine interest in your work and the mission of the organization will help you create connections with other staff. As a number of social scientists have shown in recent years, human decision making is driven in large part by our emotions. Therefore, fostering positive bonds between yourself and other staff members should serve you well when the time comes to re-new a contract or hire a full-time staff.
Follow these tips and you are sure to make a positive impact in your workplace, whether you are working as a camp counsellor or an accountant. Just remember – while this may not be your dream job, you can use this job to start building towards your dreams.