Tara Goodfellow shudders when she remembers how she acted at her first job out of college. She once chased a 50-year-old colleague up the stairs to get to their boss first to explain her side of a story. She impulsively quit her job over the phone.
Now 38 and a career coach in Charlotte, N.C., here's what she wishes her 21-year-old self had known: "How to manage my expectations, learn about office politics and realize that perhaps I didn't know it all at 21."
Nowadays, many companies operate with fewer employees and tighter budgets than ever before, so there's not as much willingness — or time — to let novices come up to speed gradually. Rapid technological changes mean that some employees are much more computer-savvy but also that ideas of etiquette — what's the problem with engaging in a conversation and rapidly texting at the same time? — may differ widely.
One of the big problems for new employees is that they don't know what they don't know, especially when it comes to soft skills — like working with people and being self-motivated — as opposed to hard skills, like knowing how to code.
Experts believe newbies need to think in even more basic terms, such as old-fashioned manners, grooming and communication.
Garry Polmateer, 35, a co-founder of a company that designs custom applications, said that in his first job, he wished he had understood the importance of dressing professionally, or at least ironing out the wrinkles.
"I used to wear cargo pants and rumpled golf shirts," he said. "Sure, I was a broke, postcollege student and thought spending money on clothes was ridiculous, but looking back, buying nice clothes is an investment to help get you ahead in the workplace." Vicky Oliver, a job interview consultant and author of numerous career development books, agreed that dress codes are ''a sign of respect for the place. If you're violating them, you're saying, 'I don't respect the culture.' "
One of the most common mistakes workers make at their first job, Oliver said, is to appear entitled, especially if they think they're overqualified.
Say you end up as an assistant manager at a shoe store in the mall — not the career you planned for when you graduated with a bachelor's in marketing. Nonetheless, "learn about this company's marketing and advertising. During the downtime, ask about floor design, customer satisfaction metrics or employee retention. Show your supervisor that you're interested in the business," Oliver suggested.
Timothy R. Yee graduated with honors from the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley and landed a prestigious job at a major bank's management training program in Hong Kong. "Someone told me to spend six months getting the lay of the land," he said. "I didn't. The way they were doing work was obviously wrong, and I was going to tell them."
A year later, he was back home. Without a job.