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New graduates have plenty to learn about work etiquette

May 04, 2008|Kathy M. Kristof | Times Staff Writer

Are you a new graduate about to get your first job? Shanti Atkins would like a few words with you.

An attorney who works with companies that want to avoid employment gaffes that can lead to lawsuits, Atkins has seen too many young workers sabotage their careers by confusing what's cool in school with what's OK in the office.

"There are profound differences between acceptable work behavior and acceptable school behavior," said Atkins, 33. "You rated your professors 'hot or not' -- but you better not do that with your boss."

In another era, most young people had odd jobs in high school and in college, while today they focus so completely on schoolwork and extracurricular activities that they graduate with resumes loaded with academic accomplishments but bereft of job experience.

"The concept of being green when coming to the workplace is nothing new," Atkins said. "But with this generation, it's even more acute."

What's a neophyte to do -- and not do?

Do: Learn more about the company

To make a good impression during a job interview, prepare by looking at the company's annual report as well as analysts' reports, which summarize issues affecting both the company and the industry, suggested Caroline Nahas, managing director of Korn/Ferry International, an executive recruiting firm based in Los Angeles. Use your social contacts to find out about the company's culture and needs. Then ask yourself how your personality and skills could fit into this organization. What would you bring to the table?

Don't: Dominate or exaggerate

Yes, you now know lots about the company. But dumping that knowledge on an interviewer isn't going to get you a good grade, Nahas said. There will be plenty of opportunity for you to talk, but make sure you listen first. Realize that you didn't do the research to be tested, but to be prepared.

And don't -- ever -- pad your resume, Nahas warned. Most employers check references thoroughly, and will fire you, or rescind an offer, if they find out you've been dishonest.

Do: Be prompt and professional

If you were ever late to class, the worst thing that might have happened was having to talk a friend into letting you review his notes. If you're consistently late to work, you're likely to lose your job, Atkins said.

Show up on time or early; work a full day. Be honest and professional. Deliver what you promise. If you mess up, apologize. Don't make excuses.

In a scandal-ridden world, Atkins said, people of integrity are particularly valuable and valued. Added Nahas: "Employers are looking for the four E's: energy, enthusiasm, engagement and excellence."

Realize that you're not the boss, said John Challenger, chief executive of the Chicago employment firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Many young workers with impressive resumes think they can change policies and procedures from the moment they walk in the door. That's often long before they know enough to make valuable suggestions. Join the team, listen, learn -- and then, when you understand how the company works, you can make suggestions about how to do things more efficiently.

Don't: Go overboard on "Casual Friday"

It's not a day to wear your lowest-cut top or jeans, nor the "distressed" look that would fly at a bar but not in a boardroom. Even if the hottest fashion is to show your underwear, don't, Atkins advises.

The big difference between college and work is that most people in school are roughly the same age. That's likely to make them tolerant of profane sayings on your T-shirt.

But workplaces mix people of all ages. Many older workers are offended by attire that shows too much skin or too little judgment. And before you dismiss that horrified colleague as a relic, realize that he or she may be your boss. Or your boss' boss.

"Err on the side of being conservative," Atkins said. "Your underwear is entirely your business. Keep it that way."

Do: Be professional -- on and off the job

Everyone knows they've got to maintain a certain level of decorum from 9 to 5, but they should know to use discretion when meeting friends after work, too, Atkins said. All too often they don't.

The most common problems occur when workers decide to drink together, either after work or at company parties or conferences, she said. If someone gets drunk and dances on the table, they're likely to be the talk of the office, which can hurt their reputation. If they get drunk and have an affair with the office manager or a client, the repercussions could be considerably worse.

Then, too, even if you like your boss, he or she shouldn't be your confidant, Challenger said. You shouldn't tell your boss things that you wouldn't say in an interview, he said.

Maybe even less, Atkins said. She recalled an interview with a young man trying to impress her. He confided that he and his friends always got drunk on Thursday nights, but they're so hard-working that they "come in and code" the next day anyway, he boasted.

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