The entry-level guide to office etiquette
In a world of unpaid internships and distracted managers, how's a young professional to learn? Five essential insights to surviving as you start out.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- A few years before I began writing "The Gig," when I was starting out as one of the starry-eyed Gen Y staffers I now write about (and still am), I walked to the office printer barefoot. Granted, it was in an office where wearing short sleeves constituted a statement. (Not Fortune, you gossips.) And to my credit, I'd taken my shoes off under my desk and simply forgotten to put them back on. But the veritable uproar this etiquette infraction caused -- we actually had a meeting about it, if I recall -- taught me an invaluable lesson: Nothing ruins your workplace rep like a breach of office etiquette.
To anyone who's been in the professional world for a while, that won't be news. But for twentysomethings these days, it can be a revelation, especially because we often commit egregious violations without even knowing it.
It's been said that when it comes to basics like common sense, follow through, and work ethic, we Yers are a little lacking, and it doesn't take much looking to find Xers or Boomers with complaints about their Gen Y colleagues.
Having managed a few younger Yers myself -- and having observed a great many more -- I'm afraid I can see the naysayers' point. But where they might argue that we Yers are just inherently lazy, loutish, or less than bright, I think we're very often just woefully inexperienced.
That may sound silly in today's world of generally growing up too fast, but think about it: So much of the learning that happens at the start of a career -- from figuring out workplace mores and standards to establishing strong professional relationships -- isn't possible in the current corporate climate of skeleton staffs, "permalance" posts, and minimal management.
So for those of us who don't have a steady job or interested supervisor at the moment, here are a few tips for navigating entry-level office life. They may not address every problem, but they should give you a framework for thinking about the issues that can arise. Of course, if there are any specific dilemmas you'd like to discuss, I'd love to hear about them in the comments.
And while some of you may wonder if Walter Matthau subbed in for me to write this column (due to the grumpy-old-man-ness), I promise these are lovingly gathered from those of us who've had to "learn the hard way."
1. Consider your surroundings. Just the way a pro-team full of all-stars won't necessarily win more than one that's been assembled with actual teamwork in mind, everyone in your office needs to work well together.
As much as you have to demonstrate your abilities and tenacity, you also have to -- in one way or another -- fit in to the established ecosystem. Otherwise, you're going to be frustrated, and your colleagues will be, too.
That doesn't mean, though, that you just go along to get along. Or even that you can't express yourself. You just need to pay attention. A simple example: Most of you (I hope) wouldn't wear shorts to your office job because you know that'd be frowned upon, but sometimes it can be just as disconcerting to your coworkers if you're rocking a three-piece suit.
You may think you're dressing for the job you want, but if even the CEO is wearing a polo and khakis, they're going to be wondering what exactly that gig is. This is just the sort of misstep that, while it won't ruin your career, will make you seem and feel like an outsider, making it that much harder for you to connect with your colleagues and, potentially, advance at your organization.
2. Think tact. In the delicate dance that is office politics, a little choreography goes a long way. So even if you're certain that you're the awesomest person in your office, acting like you know it all the time could slightly diminish how awesome people think you actually are.
Consider this story I heard recently: A senior staffer reviewing an intern's project this summer sent him questions and corrections, only to find -- when the revision came across his desk -- that the intern had ignored them all. When he took the time to personally go over them with the intern, he was told -- by the undergraduate -- that his suggestions were "dumb." Even if that were true, I think we can all agree, this was hardly the best tack.
So consider a subtler approach when it comes to sending memos, speaking up in meetings, and pitching projects. Watch what your most effective colleagues do, and follow their lead. And distinguish yourself, first and foremost, by doing stellar work.
3. Get managed. Everyone needs a few advocates in the office. But corporate culture can be incredibly closed, especially when you're the new kid, and it can be particularly difficult to get a manager's attention in today's tough times. As a friend in a steady media job told me not long ago, "I can't think of one time I've been 'managed' this whole year."
Avoid that fate by focusing some energy on cultivating relationships with experienced staffers whose work you admire, or who naturally click with you. Take an interest in what they're doing, rather than always or only plying them with your problems, and catch up regularly and in-person.
And most important, share with them what's going well and what you might like to do next, so that they can both bring the benefit of their experience, and put in a good word for you at the conversations that count (which, of course, often happen above our paygrade).
4. Aim for friendly, not familiar. Steeped as we are in our Facebooking, Gchatting, and tweeting ways, we Yers don't always have the best sense of communication boundaries. But just because we have an excuse doesn't make it acceptable for us to send, say, e-mails that are all but unintelligible to most of normal society.
You know the sort I mean: Not only are they rife with abbreviations and typos, they often don't even contain a salutation, let alone a signature. And let's just say logic is not a priority. It may sound like I'm quibbling, but trust me, messages like this come across as just plain disrespectful -- as though the person you're writing to isn't even worth the trouble of forming a complete sentence. This may be fine on Facebook, or with your friends, but it just won't cut it at work -- at least not if you want to succeed.
It does, however, offer a guideline for all your work relationships -- even if you are Facebook friends with your colleagues, don't interact with them the way you would with one of your actual friends on Facebook. Treat them, instead, like you would a cool aunt or uncle: Be nice, don't overshare, and use punctuation.
5. Listen. Seriously. If there's one Gen Y trait that irks people the most, at least based on the venting I've had to endure on our collective behalf, it's that we just don't listen. We are so used to being great at everything, that even when we're getting a critique, we're bent on explaining why what we did was right or best -- finishing our bosses' sentences for them, or formulating our responses while they're still asking their questions. And often the only reason we even find ourselves in these situations at all is because we didn't really listen to their instructions in the first place.
So let your boss do the talking sometimes, look her in the eye so she knows you're hearing her, and maybe -- and I know I'm going out on a limb here -- take some notes. Whatever happens from there, whether you have questions or decide to do things a little differently, it won't be because you were clueless.
Listening, after all, is the very first step in learning. And just as important, it's how others know that we want to learn from them. A good listener isn't just a good employee, he's a good human being, and a good leader.
So for your own sake, every once in a while, just be quiet.