ask the readers: what cultural things do you need to know in a white collar environment?

I’m throwing this one out to readers to answer. A reader asks:

Thank you for writing this amazing blog. Its a great resource for learning all the things that are and aren’t acceptable at work that I don’t think I could have learned anywhere else. Thank you especially for the post about how having or not having professional parents influences your own career. It was interesting to see all the different backgrounds people come from and how it still influences them.

So my question is, commenters on that post mentioned that there are “common sense” things that people who grew up in professional households know and things that people who didn’t make do at work that could make them appear “rough around the edges.” Would it be possible to give specific examples of these things?

For instance, Tax Nerd wrote that people who are from blue collar backgrounds often feel they have to work 8 hours at a salaried job even when it’s not busy because they’re more used to having their time managed, and that’s something I definitely do. In my mind, I know that that it’s the amount of work I accomplish and meeting deadlines that’s important and that working 15 minutes less once in a while when it’s not busy is okay, but it still makes feel very uncomfortable. So, would it be possible to talk about what other things are not acceptable at a blue collar job, but would be okay at a white collar job?

Readers, what thoughts do you have?

{ 351 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    Great question!

    One thing I see a lot of (and that I did myself my first year or so out of school), and this is not necessarily a blue-collar vs white-collar thing, is young workers who assume their job is a 9-5 job when it isn’t. If your job doesn’t have stated hours and you’re salaried rather than hourly, pay attention to when your peers come in and leave the office. Don’t just waltz out at 5 PM because you think you’ve done enough for the day. It may be worthwhile to check in with your boss each day before you leave to make sure there’s nothing s/he needs you to take care of before you go. It may turn out that it’s perfectly okay to leave at 5 every day, but if your office is more of a “stay until the day’s work is done, whenever that is” kind of place, it will absolutely be noticed if you routinely check out before everyone else does.

    1. moss*

      Conversely, if you are the type of person for whom regular hours are important, make that a priority, and stand up for yourself against those who see only virtue in working 50+ hour weeks.

      I’m possibly not as “successful” as those who are at work all the time, but I’m happy and feel balanced. I work at work, leave it behind at the end of the day, and come back into work feeling refreshed and recharged.

      1. Heather*

        I agree with this completely.

        I’m willing to work very hard, for example, staying late on important projects, helping people out, putting in extra time here and there. I also manage my time well, and I’m productive and focused – I don’t phone it in for 8 hours and then go home. I work best with bosses who understand the value of quality work done vs. time spent in the office. Fortunately, my boss is one of them. She has said she wants us rested and recharged. She knows frazzled, tired people are not going to do great work

        But, most of the time, I’m very protective of my personal time and keep a clear boundary between work and personal life. I’m not willing to work long hours as a matter of routine, sacrificing everything else. It’s important to have a job you enjoy, are good at and believe in, but it’s also important to enjoy your life, too.

        The people who spend all their time in the office and never say no to things are the people who always look and act the most miserable. I also doubt their work is of the same quality as it would be if they gave themselves a break once in a while!

    2. Anonymous*

      In re: “Staying until the work is done”…. this often is not legal because most recent grads are in non-exempt roles, so they should never be expected to work over 40 hours a week, or “stay until the work is done,” unless they are being paid Overtime. So, they actually should have some sort of structure to the hours that they work to ensure they are not working in excess of 40 hrs a week.

      So really, my advice is that just because you are being paid X amount a year (salary) it doesn’t mean you are not entitled to overtime…. which is a REALLY common misconception, because in reality, the majority of roles in the workplace are non-exempt, thus OT eligible.

      1. Z*

        How do you reconcile that with the fact that so many employers treat everyone as exempt? Would you really tell someone new to the workforce, and maybe first in their family to hold a professional job, to make a stink about being treated as exempt when they should be non-exempt when such behavior is extremely common and it will probably poison their advancement? I’m not defending the employers who do this but it is so common and the possible ramifications of being the one person who protests so serious that I am not sure it’s good advice, especially for someone who wants to put in the hours and climb the ladder like so many do.

        1. fposte*

          Being aware of the possibility doesn’t mean you have to file with the DOL, though.

          In general, I would broaden the advice to “Remember employers don’t always know what they’re doing.”

        2. Anonymous*

          I think it is invaluable to know this, because most young people are under the assumption that salaried is the equivalent of exempt, when you can easily be salaried and be non-exempt… so if your employer is constantly insisting you pull 50 hour work weeks, it IS worth bringing up that it isn’t legal. And no, just because your EXEMPT manager stays til 7 every night doesn’t mean you should or should be required to. He is being paid a hefty salary that compensates him for staying late… if you’re making 35k, no, you’re not being paid enough to live in the office. That is the way the DOL sees it too!

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            That is indeed the way the DOL sees it too, but I think Z’s point is an important one — this practice is so common that if you choose to be the rare person who won’t go along with it, it will very likely have implications for your career. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but it’s not as clear-cut as “this is the law so speak up if it’s not being followed.” You need to calculate whether you want the BS and potential career hindrance that is likely to come with it. (And frankly, I’d argue that the non-exempt rules are outdated and from a era that doesn’t reflect modern workplaces, for whatever that’s worth.)

            1. ooloncoluphid*

              There are far too many modern workplaces stuck in the old mode of thinking though. Exempt employees are seen as an all-you-can-eat buffet in some places.

              I think unless a company is truly results oriented and allows its employees to work whatever hours they need to do the job, it’s better for the employees if that company has to pay for what time it uses.

              1. KellyK*

                ” Exempt employees are seen as an all-you-can-eat buffet in some places.”

                Haha, I love that analogy. And I agree with you.

    3. AP*

      Yes! And to a similar effect, checking your email on weekends and being willing to help out with a quick emergency call or Internet session when you’re not explicitly “on the clock.” if course you don’t want your boss to take advantage of you and call every 15 minutes on your day off, but if something big happens and you’re completely off the grid with no warning, or you want time-and-a-half for the 20 minutes it takes you to answer an email or fix the website, people are going to look at you strangely.

      That said there are a few awesome companies out there who operate on a “we cease to exist on Friday at 6 pm” schedule and that’s great, but if that’s not your company, you should expect that there’s a small amount of carryover in your iff hours and that’s just normal.

    4. Jenny*

      This. But also depending on the industry you’re in, hours can fluctuate dramatically throughout the year. Keeping an eye on your peers is your best bet.

      In my case, for instance, from November-May I work 8:00-5:00 (and sometimes much later), skipping lunch, and taking phone calls and checking email once I’m home because we have huge projects during those months that require that kind of commitment. Then during the summer, when we’re in our planning phase, I can leave early on Fridays or take long lunches or whatever. My co-workers and supervisors know the hours and sacrifices my team makes for half the year, so we get a little bit of leeway for the other half.

      1. Anonymous*

        Except it isn’t legal to work 60 hours a week one week and make up for it the next week by working less hours, unless you are an exempt employee. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but just because your peers do it doesn’t make it legal.

        1. Anonymous*

          I also see young people upset when they are hired as “full-time hourly” and not “salaried”…. like I had to explain to my husband, this is actually better because they are classifying you properly and thus will pay you properly!!!!!

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but just because your peers do it doesn’t make it legal.”

          But it might be something someone is perfectly happy to do anyway, because they’d rather have the career success/advancement that comes with it, because they like their work, because they like flexibility, or any number of other reasons.

          1. ooloncoluphid*

            Couldn’t that sort of thing lead to legal troubles for the employer down the road? The company I work for expressly forbids working off the clock for non-exempt salary people.

            1. Natalie*

              Yes, it could potentially cause problems for the employer. Employees can’t waive non-exempt status.

              1. KellyK*

                Yeah. It’s worth being aware of the legalities even if you’re totally willing to work off the clock, particularly because you can be the one to get in trouble for it.

    5. Vicki*

      > if your office is more of a “stay until the day’s work is done, whenever that is” kind of place,

      But be careful. In many programmer/developer environments, the work is _never_ “done. Many of your co-workers will come in at 10 and leave sometime between 7pm and midnight. You may love working 12 hour days. But it can also cause severe stress.

  2. Jamie*

    The three things that immediately spring to mind are:

    1. When great work is rewarded. I grew up thinking great was work rewarded eventually. With promotions, bonuses, a steeper career trajectory, etc. Some of the people I know who we’re promoted from blue collar positions to mangement had a tough transition to not seeing the reward for the extra effort n their next check in the way of OT.

    2. This will sound bad, so I want a disclaimer upfront that I am not painting all blue collared people with this brush, but I’ve seen it happen so often I think it’s worth mentioning. The importance of being well spoken tends to be enforced in the children of professional homes, so it’s ingrained by adulthood. Our grammar was policed as kids, and I’d have been in as much trouble for dropping an ‘ain’t’ into a conversation (unless it was for effect) than I would have for dropping the F word in front of Gramma. As far back as I remember I got hammered with “people judge you by how you speak.”. “when you don’t speak properly you don’t just embaras yourself, but your family because they will think that’s the way you were raised.”. Etc.

    And again – lot of blue collar people have lovely grammar and diction, some far better than mine, however I work in manufacturing and I’ve seen people who were very good at the technical part of their jobs, and very good managing on the floor, struggle when they got opportunities for management as opposed to supervision because writing a clear and correct email was an issue. Using not just ain’t, but ‘them’ instead of ‘these’ and ‘brung’ rather than ‘brought’ …examples of the kind of thing that makes you cringe a little bit if they will be communicating with customers.

    3. Comfort level with executives. I’m not impressed just by the virtue of someone holding a high position. My dad did and he was just as human as everyone else. I’ve done okay in the advancement department and I’m a big dork who collects Kitty and puts on sock puppet shows for my cats. I see it though, where some people would sooner cut off their head than make small talk with the CEO, much less approach about a work issue. Because they seem to see them as some unapproachable figures. Getting over this and having confidence whether speaking to the CFO or a coworker is a very big deal.

    1. K*

      I notice your last one a lot, and it’s actually something I think gives a huge edge not just to people from white collar families but even more of an edge to people from extremely affluent, extremely successful white collar families. In law school, for instance, I and a lot of my classmates had a really hard time approaching professors – especially the rock star professors – with anything. But I noticed that it was the students whose parents were CEOs or the like who were taught that it was perfectly okay to go into office hours to chat, even if you didn’t have a brilliant substantive question to ask about the material. And that definitely paid off for them down the line.

      1. Shoshie*

        This is one reason why I appreciated going to a small college. I got used to calling professors by their first names and chatting with them, and it’s become really helpful as I’ve gotten older (my parents were white collar but not execs or anything fancy).

      2. Kelly O*

        That was definitely a turning point for me – realizing the CEO put on his pants one leg at a time, and was not someone to fear or idolize.

        My first job out of college, I worked in the same building with all the Big Bank Executives and would occasionally be in the elevator with the CEO or Chairman, and I would stand there, staring at my shoes, praying I did not have to speak or that maybe I just faded into the woodwork.

        Now, I realize it’s possible to make small talk without looking like a fool, and I don’t dread elevator rides up, even though it’s a much smaller company and a much shorter elevator ride, most of the time. I still take a moment to make sure I’m prepared, but it’s not the heart-stopping thing it used to be.

        1. Dan*

          In a prior lifetime, I used to service private jets for a living. #1 lesson I learned? Rich people’s poop stinks as bad as mine.

      3. Chinook*

        And don’t forget the correlating fact that, just because you report directly to a “bigwig” doesn’t mean you are “too important” to interact with the “little people.” Someone else’s title doesn’t rub off on you just because you work with them. They earned the the respect and the responsibility, not you. An assistant is an assistant, regardless of who you are assisting.

        My current boss, a company president, made a point of mentioning that he noticed me getting along with a couple of departments that his previous assistant didn’t. I just smiled and nodded because I knew previous assistant was a bit of a snob and never made the connection between treating accounting as if they had to jump at her command and her invoices taking forever to be processed.

        1. Anonymous*

          When you report directly to a bigwig you do have more pull than someone with an identical pay and position that reports to a lower manager. People know turning you down is almost like saying no directly to your boss. However, I would suggest using this power very cautiously. For example, if you put in a request to IT, there’s no reason you can’t wait in the queue like everyone else. It actually earns you more respect to not play that card or even say “it’s not an emergency” when you submit the ticket. And the link between you and your boss flows both ways. You can also make her look bad by constantly flexing your muscles to get stuff done faster. She’s going to be embarrassed when word eventually gets back to her and that won’t be good for you.

        2. Anonna Miss*

          “Someone else’s title doesn’t rub off on you just because you work with them. They earned the the respect and the responsibility, not you. An assistant is an assistant, regardless of who you are assisting.” THIS.

          I once knew a woman who when asked socially what she did for a living, would answer “I’m the executive assistant to Big Wig, CEO of BigCompany.” I knew her boss’s name months before I knew her daughter’s name, or that she even had a daughter. (She dated a friend.) It just seemed like a bizarre grab for reflected glory. I could maybe understand it at work, if it really is an IT emergency or something, but it seemed weird in social situations.

    2. Elizabeth*

      Agreed on your #3.

      A prior CEO here had the hardest time getting people to sit down & eat lunch with him. He routinely ended up eating with one of my immediate coworkers & me, because we treated him like a regular person and asked about his family. She had been married to a military officer for 15 years, so she wasn’t put off by someone with rank, while I grew up in a family where my parents’ closest friends were doctors, lawyers, judges & school superintendents, so I never had the “they’re above me” mentality to overcome.

      This really served me well in college. I was a freshman or sophomore working as an aide to the student body president, and he needed someone to go with him to a fundraising dinner to schmooze potential donors. I was cute, non-threatening, looked good in school colors (and owned an appropriate dress in those colors), and I could and still can talk about anything. So, I got to go to a lot of those dinners and meet people. One of them was later elected governor of the state and then appointed to a Cabinet position.

    3. Jenny*

      Ditto to #3. I worked as an assistant to an attorney in my first job. Her clients were lobbyists (the good kind!), and likewise were usually also attorneys. In emails I would refer to them as “Mr. X or Ms. Y”. One day, prior to my first big phone conference, my attorney pulled me aside and told me to call our clients by their first names. She told me we’re all equals, but that if I wanted them to see me as such, I needed to treat them as such. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

    4. BW*

      I’ve actually gotten trouble for #3, not in any serious way, but this is good information which clarifies some why people are me are mostly totally uncomfortable with people holding some high position and have either criticized me or looked at me sideways for not being more nervous and exceedingly deferential or something…I dunnowhat. I grew up in a white collar family with some wealthy background but in a mostly not white-collar or maybe first generation white-collar area. I have never felt uncomfortable around execs or professors. I don’t feel inferior and I don’t act inferior around them. I don’t understand why people are so quiet and reluctant to interact with these people. These are people you *want* to interact with. Not only are they human and personable, but they usually have great brains to pick and are good people to network with. I thought this was something *wrong* with me. Thank you for explaining that!

    5. Laura L*

      Number 2 is really important. The way kids from middle- to upper-class white collar families learn to speak and write is the way that’s generally accepted in white-collar circles.

      Sometimes (but not always) kids from blue-collar backgrounds learn speaking styles that are not appropriate in white-collar workplaces and need to learn to switch style depending on their environment. This is called code switching. There’s nothing wrong with how you speak at home, but it’s probably not going to be acceptable in a white-collar environment.

      It’s also going to affect how people from white-collar backgrounds judge you in the workplace. It’s not fair, but it’s how the world works-the people with money and power in a society decide what styles of speech are acceptable and not (and the acceptable styles are always the way they speak).

      Fun anecdote: I went to grad school in a rust belt city and had an on-campus internship. When a lot of the factories closed and blue collar jobs went south in the ’70s, people started applying to the university. A manager there told me she couldn’t hire them because of how they spoke. Which again, isn’t fair, but it’s common and it’s good to be aware of that.

      1. Nichole*

        Agreed. Code switching is critical, and if you’re working with the public, it’s even more important. I was raised to use proper grammar at all times, and I’ve had this problem in reverse-I’ve almost exclusively worked in positions where it is important that I be relatable, and I learned around jr high/high school that it is not relatable to have perfect grammar and an everyday vocabulary of $5 words. Now that I work at a community college, it’s a very delicate balance between speaking in a way that represents the college well and sets a good example while still making students feel comfortable, student who are often first generation college students or have been working in blue collar jobs for 30 years, or both. I also do a fair amount of community schmoozing. If I didn’t have code switching skills, doing what I do well would be really, really hard, and I may not have even gotten the job in the first place.

        I would love to spend all day speaking in the “language of academia,” but part of being a professional is social consciousness, so I’ve gotten ok with bringing it down a notch. My students feel uncomfortable if I talk like a professor, and my colleagues won’t trust me if I talk like a mechanic. I think that’s harder to learn as an adult than as a child, and in many blue collar families that I’ve seen, the idea that people should take you as you are and people who behave differently in different contexts are “fake” is really common. It makes it harder for those children to grow up to be adults who are aware of social cues and are comfortable adjusting their behavior and speech patterns accordingly.

        1. Jamie*

          I will read up on code-switching as soon as I have a chance tonight – but isn’t there an added problem to having the issue in reverse to not sound patronizing?

          I don’t go around speaking like the Queen of England or anything, but I learned early in my career that if I used a less than common word in emails to certain recipients they would gloss over it and not look it up…so in the interest of clarity I would edit my vocabulary. I have never been able to shake the feeling that this is incredibly patronizing.

          Not my intent – I’m just trying to get things done – but the assumption that you have to ratchet it down because people won’t look up an unfamiliar word is insulting to me. I would die if someone felt they had to speak more basically just so I could understand…I like when people use a word that’s unfamiliar to me. I look it up and then beat a dead horse using it as much as I can until I incorporate it. When I was little I called it “collecting words” and I still do that.

          To be clear, I’m not speaking people who speak English as a second language – some people with whom I interact their English is quite basic so I tailor my communications to them with that in mind. I’m talking about people for whom English is their first language.

          1. Michael Barnes*

            For those interested in the study of language in the work place including code switching, I would recommend reading William Labov’s work, “The Social Stratification of (r) in New York City Department Stores”, in it he discusses how socio-economic status, age and occupation influence the way individuals communicate in the work place.

            Additionally, Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin wrote a piece, “Language Acquisition and Socialization: Three Developmental Stories and Their Implications”. While this one deals more with how background affects learning process and educational outcomes, it is easy to connect to how we each perform in the work place as well.

            Linguistic Anthropology can be both interesting and applied to everyday life!

          2. Laura L*

            Well, it’s not just about vocabulary words. It’s about a whole way of talking and what phrases, idioms, contractions and other types of informal speech are used and how they’re used.

            Although I do think it’s different when the person in the privileged position changes their speaking patterns to match the person in the less privileged than when it’s the other way around. I’m not sure it’s patronizing… I just know it’s sometimes not accepted. I’ve been criticized for that before. And I don’t try to do it, I just tend to pick up other people’s speech habits when I’m around them a lot.

          3. AgilePhalanges*

            I totally know what you mean. In a prior life, I had to use third-grade vocabulary* due to the people I was working with, and it’s so refreshing to be able to use a college-sophomore vocabulary now. Still nothing super-fancy, but every once in a while, a nice three-syllable word will pop into my head, and my first instinct will be to find an “easier” way to say it, then I realize that, hey, this audience will actually be cool with that word.

            *Literally, I wrote something to someone and used a couple of three-syllable words, they didn’t understand it, and I re-worded it, sticking to only one- or two-syllable words, and they managed to grasp it the second time.

    6. Anonymous*

      Another potential issue similar to #2 is dress. Many blue collar people don’t have an issue with dressing up a little but some have a hard time grasping the definition of business casual. I’ve seen plenty of jeans, white socks with dress pants and Spiderman ties from people who got promoted and never had to dress up before. My recommendation is to mimick your coworkers or get your wife, sister, etc to shop with you. Buying the entire outfit the mannequin is wearing works for some guys with no sense of fashion. While it can have a very loose definition, if in doubt it’s always safer to stay towards the “business” side of business causal.

    7. Cindy*

      I recommend reading Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau. It’s very a readable and fascinating look at how families from different class backgrounds raise their children and prepare them for dealing with institutions like school, work, and even talking to doctors. The researchers embedded with the families and spend hours and hours observing and interviewing.

      One of the big takeaways is that middle- and upper class kids are raised to feel entitled to advocate for themselves with adults, for everything from a later bedtime to an extension on a homework assignment. Working class kids (in this study anyway) were raised to follow instructions without backtalk and to be deferential to authority figures.

      That’s only one of her conclusions, there are so many more observations that really changed the way I thought of my own middle-class upbringing and of the working-class kids I work with. I imagine it would be helpful in the other direction too–to explain why “white-collar” people act the way they do and what the underlying values and assumptions are.

  3. Sasha*

    This is a great question, I’m excited about the responses we will get! I’d like to see the converse sometime, Alison!

  4. BCW*

    I think a big one is what is and isn’t appropriate workplace conversation in a place of business. Now in fairness even this is fluid from place to place. But its always better to stay on the safe side. In high school and college jobs, many times its like you can talk about whatever you did that weekend on Mondays because many times you can assume you are among similar people. For example, my college jobs big conversations were tailgating (drinking) for the football game and what bar you went to that night, and if you hooked up. In a white collar type job, that isn’t stuff you want to discuss openly. Now thats not to say that discussing those things with your work friends at breaks is necessarily bad, but its not something you discuss in the middle of your cubicles.

    1. Anne*


      I’d also say… it’s a bit more important to be upbeat and talk mostly about the positive things that are happening in your life. When I was working minimum wage jobs, I often heard about how my co-worker’s son kept hitting her up for money, how frustrated someone was with their relationship…

      Now that I’m in an office, I never hear that stuff unless it’s in the context of someone explaining why they need to take a leave of absence.

    2. Victoria HR*

      Also, while it’s perfectly acceptable to, like, say “like” all the time in conversations with your friends, or use “u” and “r” in texts with said friends, it’s not ok to talk/write like that in a professional environment. It’s so bizarre how many times I’ve had to counsel an employee on that.

      1. Rana*

        It is surprisingly hard to strip “like” and “you know” from your speech if you grew up saying those things. It’s not just that you’re in the habit of saying them; it’s that you don’t even hear them when they come out of your mouth, so it’s very difficult to “catch” yourself in the act and correct yourself.

        1. VintageLydia*

          So true. When I write, I never use that phrasing. But when I talk and I’m not paying attention, “like”, “you know”, and whatever else just slips out constantly. It’s like “um.” They’re filler words/phrases that you have to really work hard at eliminating.

  5. moss*

    I come from a 100% white collar background of genteel poverty (most of my family are teachers). Here’s what I feel like you should know:

    1. Be familiar with food and willing to try new things. Often you will be taken out to a restaurant by your manager over the course of a year. Don’t be a depressingly picky eater, and know how to behave. This is probably the number one way you will be evaluated socially (as in, beyond whether you can do the work you have.)

    2. Assume that you can do the work you are doing and that you are entitled to receive the necessary tools and information to do your job. By that I mean, be productive. If you can’t be productive, figure out why and how to become productive. If you need training, get it. If you need documents from someone, get them. If you have to call in reinforcements to help dismantle a roadblock, do it. Your company doesn’t care if you’re nice and they don’t feel sorry for you. They want you to get work done and done well.

    3. Don’t be afraid. If you are afraid, you’re in the wrong place.

    I might have more but this is what I can think of off the top of my head.

    1. Anne*

      I vehemently disagree with #3. Being afraid is natural. I think a lot of people are terrified when they take a new job with a lot of responsibility and they’re dealing with impostor syndrome.

      The important thing is not to *appear* afraid. Fake it til you make it.

      1. LJL*

        Amen, Anne. If I’m never afraid, I’m never trying new things or growing. Fear and trepidation are necessary, but never ever show it.

      2. moss*

        Wow! I’m sorry for you, then! I think it’s normal to have some time to adjust to a new job, but ABSOLUTELY you should not spend your career in a state of fear. You should not be afraid to talk to senior management as people, you should not be afraid to try things, you should not be so afraid of losing your territory that you defend it in weird ways.

        1. LJL*

          Ah, I should have clarified. Occasional fear when trying something new is justified; I think it’s a part of learning. I do NOT recommend spending a career in a constant state of fear. I’ve nervous (fearful at times) when starting a new job, starting a new class, or trying a new task. It gets the adrenaline flowing and can lead to pushing harder, which leads to professional growth.

          Perhaps nervous was a better word for this?

          1. Anne*

            Yes, this. When big things happen in any aspect of your life, it’s natural to be a bit afraid or nervous. If big things never happen in your career, that’s a problem! So I would never, ever tell someone that they should never be feeling fear.

            If it’s constant, yes, that’s a problem. If you’re taking on a huge new role and you don’t have any trepidation or nervousness at all, I think that is also a problem.

      1. Chinook*

        Ditto on #2. If the company chose to hire you, then that means they believe that you can do the job, even if you are personally not that sure. And if you can fake the confidence, it eventually becomes real.

    2. Anonymous*

      I totally disagree with number 3. If you’re afraid, then you’re probably outside your comfort zone. This is fine, and this is good. If you never take a step outside your comfort zone, you’ll never grow. Sometimes you have to be afraid and uncomfortable to grow and learn.

    3. AgilePhalanges*

      Agree with #1. If you order your meal without any vegetables or anything “slimy,” then proceed to literally shovel it in with a grip on the cutlery a two-year-old would use, it won’t impress the higher-ups. Yes, I know someone who eats this way.

      1. KellyK*

        I kind of have mixed feelings about #1. I’m in total agreement with all the parts of it that boil down to “develop good table manners.” Referring to menu options as “slimy” or “gross” is never appropriate (whether it’s at a restaurant or a potluck or someone’s house), nor is shoveling food into your mouth with a death grip on your fork. Avoiding messy foods when you’re eating with people you’d like to impress is also a good idea.

        Being picky is sort of a different animal. I think it *can* be a blue-collar thing, but it isn’t necessarily. Blue-collar folks, in general, are less likely to have tried “exotic” foods—curry or sushi or things like that, so are more likely to be picky about those particular things. But pickyness can just as easily be a personal quirk as a cultural difference. Some people are more sensitive to certain textures or flavors than others. And, for that matter, navigating food limitations that are health-related can look a lot like pickiness.

        I honestly wouldn’t say “don’t be picky” as much as “don’t make your food preferences other people’s problem.” That means no complaining about the options available or calling anything gross or weird, or making a big deal out of not eating a certain thing. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to eat sushi if the idea of raw fish squicks you out.

        Which isn’t to say that people might not judge you for having certain preferences, but as long as you’re polite about those preferences and avoid making a big deal out of them, they shouldn’t be a problem. And if you’re a picky eater, you can’t necessarily make yourself an adventurous eater just because you think it’d be a good thing. Some preferences are pretty firmly hardwired.

        1. AgilePhalanges*

          I’m a vegetarian, so some people probably think of me as picky, but to me there’s a difference between (1) being willing to eat most anything that doesn’t have meat (or mushrooms or bell peppers) in it, and reading the menu to find that item yourself as much as possible, and (2) ordering a burger without any veggies or mayonnaise or mustard, just ketchup, and then complaining when it comes with coleslaw in addition to the fries you wanted. The former might not even be noticed (if you truly just peruse the menu yourself), or someone might realize you’re vegetarian if you ask if it’s made with chicken broth or something. The latter, to me, says you have a very immature palate, as it’s something a five-year-old would order. That particular meal is finger food, but yes, the same person I’m referencing also uses cutlery like a two-year-old. There’s nothing WRONG with it (if you don’t actually describe the food as gross), but it probably WILL give off a certain impression.

          1. KellyK*

            I agree with you that making a special order and then complaining that it came with coleslaw is going to draw attention and make you look immature, unsophisticated, and high maintenance.

            I just don’t think “don’t be picky” is useful advice any more than “quit being a vegetarian” is useful advice. “If you’re pickier than the people around you, here are some things you can do to avoid calling attention to it or appearing rude,” seems more helpful.

            Admittedly, I’m biased in that I think people need to mind their own freaking business about what other people are eating unless the other person is actually doing something rude.

            1. AgilePhalanges*

              Point taken. I should have said something more like “If you have certain food preferences, READ the menu, find the most succinct way to get your preferences across to the server, then deal politely with anything that arrives on your plate that you didn’t want (set it aside quietly if you can, or make a request of the server politely, if necessary).”

              I also had an ex who probably had fewer food items he was picky about than me (since I exlude an entire food group from my diet), but he was WAY more noticeable about it. “Oh, I don’t like X. Do you have a dog I can give it to? I always make this dish without Y, since I hate it. Huh, this tastes funny. Oh, I see…it has Z in it.” Seriously, eat it or don’t, but SHUT UP about it.

  6. Scott Woode*

    1) It’s not personal; it’s business. It’s a good mantra to remember when you feel yourself getting defensive in response to feedback or constructive criticism. What they are saying isn’t a personal attack on you, it’s them telling you how they like to do business and how they like to see their employees act.
    2) Be flexible. If someone throws a curve ball at you, you do your best to accommodate them as much as you can without impinging on your own work and productivity. This can be as small as bumping a meeting to a later or earlier time or as large as putting in some OT on the weekend to help finish a major project.
    3) Don’t B****. It’s not a good idea to complain about any aspect of work while you’re at work. Complain to your mom, to your friends, to your fish, but do so when you are out of the office. The walls have ears in an office environment and you never know who might hear what.

    I grew up in a blue collar house with one very professional and one less than professional parent. Those lessons above took me a couple years to learn (and the hard way, to boot) but now that I have them, it’s made working in an office so much easier.

    1. Victoria HR*

      #3 – Indeed. At my last job, I supervised reps in a call center. You wouldn’t believe the stupid crap that they complained about. I originally recommended one of my employees for promotion, but then during the waiting period for the position to be approved, which admittedly took a couple of months, she started complaining about the dumbest stuff. And she took it upon herself to complain about dumb stuff on behalf of her coworkers also, who hadn’t complained and weren’t planning to. She thought of herself as the group mom or something. I wound up yanking my recommendation because she was just that unprofessional.

      Not to say that complaining when it’s a legit issue isn’t ok, but the squeaky wheel doesn’t always get the grease.

      1. Lily*

        Someone I wanted to promote did something similar – and she didn’t get the job either. How common is this?

  7. Julie*

    Another thing to remember is that your job description may be much more fluid in white-collar work than in blue-collar work. You may be handed work that falls outside the specifics set by your contract or title and still be expected to do it. If you’re told that from now on, yes, it *is* your responsibility to maintain the website / prepare the FedEx forms / coordinate the marketing presentations… then that’s now your job. You *may* be able to negotiate for higher pay or a different job title, but usually you won’t, and that’s just understood as part of doing business.

    (i.e. Cries of “that’s not my job” won’t generally work very well in a white-collar environment, though we’ve obviously seen people write in to AAM and try anyway. *grin*)

  8. Eric*

    I rarely hear the blue- vs white-collar in the workplace. This seems to be lingo of the past. I think focusing on exempt vs non-exempt is a far more effective comparison.

    1. Julie*

      I’m not sure I hear the precise terms used, but there’s definitely a distinction between more physical/manual jobs and more office-based/computer-based jobs.

      Also, as a Canadian, it’s always interesting to me to hear “exempt vs. non-exempt” because we don’t really have an equivalent to that here. We have salaried vs. hourly, and I know that some people’s contracts are such that they are not paid overtime, but I don’t know that we have an institutionalized system for it the way you guys have in the States. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what y’all are talking about when you use those terms. (“Y’all”: not a Canadian term either. *grin*)

      1. Laura L*

        I second Julie. Lots of white-collar jobs, especially the lower-level jobs, are exempt. I have a white-collar job (work in an office, college degree is required (I think), and my master’s gave me a leg up in the hiring process), but I am exempt.

        But I’m still sitting in front a computer all day and not doing very much physical work.

      2. De Minimis*

        There’s not really a better term to use than blue collar/white collar. What I guess we are really talking about are jobs with a set amount of task/expectation vs. jobs with a “fluid” set of expectations. Jobs with a lot of structure *tend* to be blue collar jobs, although there are also office jobs where you have a limited set of tasks and requirements as far as time, and blue collar jobs where a person has to wear a variety of hats.

        Some use corporate/professional vs. non-corporate/non-professional, but I’m not sure if that would be correct either.

      3. Chinook*

        I currently do a white collar job (EA to the President) in a blue collar industry (warehousing is their main moneymaker but they have all sorts of things on the go) and that really is the best short hand to describe it. You can tell the difference in the managers and above who worked their way up from the warehouse floor and those who came in as professionals (i.e. accountants) in how they interact with each other and even how they dress (our Christmas party was a hoot and clothing ran the gammut from jeans and nice shirt to cocktail dresses and saris). I have quickly learned to respect the cultural differences and expectations between jobs where you shower before you go to work and the ones where you have to shower when you get home.

      4. Anonymous*

        Exempt means you are exempt from the law that requires overtime to be paid for hours worked in excess of 40 each week. Non-exempt means you do get OT pay.

    2. Anne*

      It’s not an effective comparison for myself and other readers in the UK… please don’t make this yet another site which assumes everyone who’s interested in it is in the USA, it gets very frustrating. :)

      1. Peaches*

        Anne, I lived in the UK for two years, I was born in the USA and I’ve currently lived in Canada for over 3 years. ‘ve also lived in Germany and Guernsey. The terminology may be different, as well as some of the legal-speak, but the broader concepts are still true. I promise. Think working class v. middle class.

        Please don’t be one of those Brits who gets mad because Americans use terms and analogies that make sense to them, on a website that is run by an American, and then call Americans short-sighted and culturally unaware.

        1. Anne*

          Heh. Actually, I’m a New Yorker. I’ve just been living in Scotland since I started college (so for the whole time I’ve had any real dealing with terms like these).

          That aside, I didn’t call Americans short-sighted or culturally unaware, and I wasn’t getting mad. I was just pointing out that legal terms which are specific to one country aren’t necessarily the best replacement for terms which some may think are out of date, but which are at least more widely applicable.

          Yes, the working class vs. middle class concept is there in the UK (and most other countries), and the only difference is in the terminology used… but it’s the terminology used which was being discussed. :)

    3. AP*

      People rarely talk about blue- and white-collar in the workplace anymore, but it’s still very much a touching point for older generations, especially if your parents had those types of jobs, which is our jumping off point here…

      1. Kristen*

        Yes, but how can you possibly think this divide still does not exist? Do you not see construction workers where you live? Mail carriers? Janitors? Handymen? Plumbers? Mechanics? Farmers? Factory workers? I could go on, but there is a huge culture divide between these types of jobs and white collar office jobs. And blue-collar jobs exist everywhere–not just in the rust belt.

        1. Liz T*

          I think AP meant that younger generations dont’t use those TERMS, not that the divide no longer exists.

    4. Ronny*

      I’d be curious to hear your background? My parents were blue-collar, and the idea of exempt vs. non-exempt didn’t come up for me until I got my first office job.

    5. Rana*

      I don’t know… If you’re talking about the culture of the workplace, I think that the older terms are more useful. I’ve worked in a variety of employment situations – temp worker, administrative assistant, part-time instructor, writing instructor, college professor – each with it’s own pay structure and time expectations, but they all shared a similar set of expectations about how you interact with your fellow employees, what you wear, what you talk about, etc.

  9. erin*

    Child of blue-collar rooted white-collar people (poor ministers) here.

    I think the most important thing to get a handle on in an office job is the importance of emotional control. I went through a large part of my twenties not really understanding this, and was in a work environment with other people who also didn’t have much emotional control, so no one really called me out on it. Stuff like openly discussing anger and frustration with coworkers. Badmouthing people (even when others would go along with it.) As folks have noted here many times, business is business, and you can empathize with the emotions that people bring to the table, but you can’t let them prevent you from contributing in a good way.

    And then I ended up at another job, where I had a boss who did me the favor of pointing out what was going on and how it was hurting my work performance (the first time I got feedback about it was my annual performance review, but I digress.) I went out afterwards and bought a copy of “The No Asshole Rule”, which in many ways is about getting a handle on your own emotions and not reacting to others, and it really changed my perspective and made my work experience together. A few months later, I ended up moving to another employer, am now in my fifth year here and doing really well. Amazing what becoming an adult can do for you :-)

    1. Ivy*

      Yes, I think this is the root that causes a lot of other issues, such as dealing with criticism (Scott Wood mentioned above) and dealing with conflict (I mentioned below).

      1. Anonymous*

        Oh yes oh yes oh yes. As someone who was just yelled at, in my office, with my co-workers, for a stupid mistake I made that they took personally and were with their rights to be upset about, I strongly echo the keeping your emotions under check advice. I struggle with this personally, but I can’t tell you how valuable two pieces of advice were for me: 1) the DRAFT email box. Write that nasty email, and don’t send it! Let it sit for a day or even 45 minutes. You will never regret that decision. 2) Taking a ten minute walk to get a cup of coffee you don’t want, or the furthest rest room in the building. Get up and get away, breathe and clear your head. Once you let your emotions cool down you will be much more effective in dealing with the issue at hand. Also if you give yourself time you may learn more information about the situation and realize it’s not something to be angry about.

        1. Julie*

          re: The draft email box

          As a general rule, I’ve gotten into the habit of filling the “to:” field on any email last. That way I can’t accidentally send an email before I’ve finished writing it, adding the attachment, etc.

          1. Karen*

            YES. Key. Leave that off until the last minute. I have sent many half-written emails to learn this lesson.

            1. Anonymous*

              Or better yet, write the nasty email in a Word doc and let that sit on your computer. I’m paranoid about draft emails accidentally going out (it has happened to me) so if I don’t want someone seeing something, I will not put it in an email.

          2. K*

            This is especially important for new lawyers because the shortcut in Microsoft Word for the “section” symbol (that is used in statute citations) is the same as the shortcut in Microsoft Outlook for “send e-mail.” It’s a nightmare.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Can you change the shortcut? Not sure about PCs, but on Macs you can change a lot of the pre-programmed shortcuts to something else (or create your own).

              1. K*

                Yeah, I suspect there’s a way to do that which I should get around to one of these days! (The bright side is that e-mails where you’re likely to be typing a section symbol are not the e-mails where you’re likely to have written something offensive that really, really shouldn’t be sent, so it’s more embarrassing than it is devastating.)

        2. Pam*

          My coworker shared that when she gets upset, she will open a Word document and vent inside it. She saves it to her desktop, takes a few hours or a day, and goes back to read it again. She said she usually discovers that what upset her is really stupid, and she deletes the document. I thought this was a fantastic idea because there’s no risk of accidentally sending an angry email.

          1. N.*

            Beware and be VERY careful when writing a vent letter on the company computers or network. NEVER EVER assume that what you put in the trash will stay there. Before even two weeks had passed at my last position, a man was fired for receiving and passing on inappropriate joke emails to and from his company account. Everybody in the company who was named as a recipient (even if they had deleted the email upon receipt) had their company system accounts secretly monitored in the months prior to “Donald’s” departure (which came swiftly and without warning to anyone outside the know) and EVERY file they’d deleted in the previous 6 months was resurrected and scoured. Every single document draft was checked and the account holder’s internet logs investigated. We were all reminded that anything entered into the company computers was sole property of said company to do with as they saw fit, including your draft of “why I hate this job,” that was meant for no one’s eyes but your own.

            Lesson: be familiar with your company’s policies and remember there are NO secrets in the office, so keep it at home. My dad was high paid blue collar and he taught me to keep myself to myself in those situations, and I sometimes find myself quietly counseling others about not trusting “The “Man” when they think the company did something unfair to them, like “spy”. Admittedly, it is subversive (and probably wrong), but I felt compelled to remind people that while the company strives to be a not-unpleasant-place to work, the company is not your home, and it is not your friend. Its job is to do what is in its best interest, which usually means (but not always), keeping its workers happy; so yeah it is always “just business.”

            Perhaps I too, am being unfair when suggesting that sometimes products of the white collar homes are at a disadvantage for the reasons others mentioned above, while the BC types may sometimes show too much deference, I occassionally see too much familiarity on the the part of the WCs, because they saw their parents navigate with ease in a different time and place and cannot imagine it will be any different for them. The so – called clueless BC family kids may excercise too much caution because it is new territory.
            Obviously too much of either one is a detriment.

            Kinda sucked, but whenever I had to vent I had to hide in my car to do it; the parking lot, oddly enough, was the only place that didn’t have apparent cameras.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            Meant to add, I not only did this but did it on a flash drive I carried with me, so it would not even be on my work computer. I have a whole collection of “This place sucks” notes LOL. Really helped me get my shiz together because writing it down kept me from saying it.

            1. N.*

              I wish! Not sure if the computers logged auxillary device contents, but the use of flash drives was generally discouraged: they tended to disappear whilst containing sensitive information so most bosses prohibited them, including mine since they were not “essential”. Would have been nice though…

  10. JLL*

    Do way more listening than talking- and I say this as a professional person of color- be mindful of politics.

    1. Tiffany In Houston*

      Another person of color here:

      If you have not worked in a very diverse workplace before please do not assume that the person of color in your group or department is the ambassador for that particular race or ethnicity. Asking me “why do all black people do X, Y or Z is a surefire way to get on my not so favorite people list”.

      Do not ask people of color can you touch their hair. We are not pets.

      Do not make rude comments because people of color/ethnicities eat different types of food for lunch than you are used to. (I had a Indian co-worker who started eating in his car because he got so harrassed about his lunches.)

      And for people of color, do not lump all non-POC into the same pile. We are all human beings. Do not let one bad experience color your judgment of a whole group of people.

      1. Stephanie*

        This. The hair thing. It is not ok to touch my ‘fro because it “looks cool.”

        That being said, POC also shouldn’t snap and go on a rant, either. It’s just alienating and awkward for everyone.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          It is also not okay to touch the hair of a red-headed person, or call him a ginger. My kids put up with this regularly.

          (Really, it’s not okay to touch anyone’s hair.)

                1. KellyK*


                  Yeah, I think if you want to comment on appearance, positive, non-sexual comments about clothing or hairstyle are fine.

                  I also always want to be told if someone likes my shoes. Or my skirt, or my new hair color. (Which I know seems in direct opposition to what AnotherAllison said, but I think dyed hair color is less personal than natural hair color.)

                2. Jamie*

                  When I used to change my hair color I always wanted people to pretend it grew out of my head that way.

                  I’ve been needing a change lately but I won’t because I hate all the comments about it when people do that.

        2. jmkenrick*

          The hair thing baffles me. I can sort of get being curious about the texture of someone else’s hair. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how anyone would actually act on their curiosity.

          But apparently it’s a really common phenomenon.

      2. AdAgencyChick*

        People seriously do this?

        (Oh, I believe you, I’m just flabbergasted that anyone is that unprofessional.)

        1. Mints*

          I’m white-passing, but for a long time had really long hair (waist/hip length) that I usually wore in a braid for school and people would literally pet it. Saying “your hair is so long” is not an acceptable reason to touch me.
          Yeah. It totally happens

      3. BCW*

        Another person of color here. Regarding the food thing. I will say its a tough thing to deal with. I mean I’ve been in plenty of offices where there were unofficial rules on types of thing to not eat because it smelled up the office. Fish was one of those things. So while I get the sentiment, some things typically just have odors that can be offensive to others. So there is a delicate balance between respecting others for their differences and that person respecting the rest of the office.

      4. Tiff*

        Another Tiff here, also POC. Yes, co-sign, +10000….please for the love of all things good and holy keep your fingers out of my afro. And refrain from responding to my “Good morning, Karen.” with “Wassup GIRLFRIEND!” and attempt to give me some limp-wristed fistbump. I promise you that I will laugh at you, and on a more serious note that type of social tone-deafness won’t get you far in a diverse area like DC.

        1. JLL*

          This. Right. Here.

          You might think it’s funny to call me “girlfriend,” but secretly, yes- I am rolling my eyes and judging you like those kids when Mitt Romney said “who let the dogs out? who? who?”

          And please reconsider the Afro wig for Halloween. My hair is not a joke I pull out of my ass to amuse you, and saying “Now I have hair just like YOU!!” or “What if i wore this to work everyday?” with a big ol laugh, because of course, it’s LUDICROUS to think anybody would want their hair in an Afro, is a quick way to not get anything but a blank stare from me.

          cc: people who think its funny to compare their tans to my actual skin when they come back from vacation- “I’m almost as dark as you!”

          Ha. Ha.

        2. Tierra*

          I think racial discussions should be left out of the workplace period. Not only does that include well-meaning white folks who want to establish a bond with us, but also other people of color who admonish us for “talking white” in the workplace.

      5. Anonymous*


        Um… I’m still standing right here. Yeah, I look like a white girl, but I’m actually biracial. And even if I were a white girl, why did you assume I shared your ignorant, bigoted views? Way to make it awkward and I will report you and forever dislike you.

        /secret POC rant over

        1. moss*

          as a white person, this also infuriates me. Don’t expect me to share your ignorant outdated worldview, people!

          1. Liz in a Library*

            I worked a job with my grandmother once many years ago (not a family business, long story). She’d do this all the time! Weirdly, she wouldn’t say racist things in her personal life, so it was a very strange thing to see happen at work of all places.

            I’m strongly in favor of speaking up in those situations. Just say, “Hey, that’s not cool/appropriate/OK.” It was an awkward convo, but I think it made a difference. I’ve had to do this at several places I’ve worked…

            1. moss*

              I have spoken up… I can’t think of any recent examples because my current workplace doesn’t have a lot of open bigots so I haven’t heard as much infuriating stuff.

              1. Liz in a Library*

                I didn’t mean that directed to you or anyone in particular. Wanted to make sure that was clear. :)

        2. danr*

          I”ll add that you should avoid nasty remarks about religions, since you don’t know if a person of that religion will hear it. It’s amazing what you hear when you don’t fit the stereotype.

          1. Katie*

            Yup. One of my coworkers was Mormon, but a lot of folks didn’t know. It was pretty astounding the things people would say. He just let it roll off his back, but it must have been really alienating.

      6. Ivy*

        I play with my friends’ “fros” all the time (they play with my hair too so I think its a friend perk ;), but that’s in a personal setting… can’t imagine doing it to someone at work. At the same time though, I think it comes from a place of ignorance. Maybe if I wasn’t friends with people from a variety of ethnicity, I too would be walking around messing with your fro and telling you to hollah at a sistah ;P

      7. EM*

        Also, if you are white, and some of the people in charge of your department happen to be black, don’t complain about “reverse racism”. I’m white, and I can’t tell you how many times the white people in a former workplace would complain to be about some imagined “unfairness”. I just gave them a blank stare. It was really weird.

      8. Victoria HR*

        “Do not ask people of color can you touch their hair. We are not pets.”


        I can’t even comprehend why someone would ever think that that was ok.

      9. Erika*

        “Do not ask people of color can you touch their hair. We are not pets.”

        Oh wow, do people actually do this? I mean, really? This just boggles me.

        1. Stephanie*

          YES. In particular, I have a lot of foreign coworkers. With some of them, I think I am the first black person they’ve met. I guess they ask out of a genuine sense of curiosity, but it’s hard to not go off on a rant at that request. Of course, I’ve also heard this from non-foreign coworkers as well…

      10. AgilePhalanges*

        Um, WOW. Somehow I doubt that’s a white-collar/blue-collar thing, but just some REALLY uneducated impolite people who would do those things you mention. Though I might be guilty of making frequent comments on someone’s lunch if we ever have someone of Thai or Indian descent work here–I LOVE the cuisines of those cultures, and they always smell SO delicious! I’d try to refrain myself, though. The other things you mention are just so ridiculous I can’t believe people would EVER do them, let alone in a professional setting.

    2. Lily*

      I don’t want to discuss your stereotypes of people like me. I used to think education would solve the problem, but I’ve had too many highly educated people do this to me, so it may not be a blue collar / white collar issue, either.

  11. Ivy*

    Dealing with conflict. I think this is a BIG one. There is a subtle but real intricacy in dealing with conflict with your coworkers (as I’m sure many of us have seen at AAM). Even if it’s something as small as asking your coworker to stop singing loudly, you have to be concerned about how you say it, what you say, how she interprets it, etc. What I find is that blue-collar people tend to be more… forceful in their conflict resolution. You can’t really tell a coworker he’s being a jackass, even if it’s true. Even if you don’t say the word “jackass”, the messaging and tone you use, can make it sound that way. Doing this can alienate you and make people uncomfortable. People won’t want to work with you, which means less opportunity for you.

    1. Lily*

      YES! Is it possible that the higher the rank, the less forceful the manner? I have never had a manager or a peer yell at me, but I have had subordinates yell at me. For a while, I was frustrated that I couldn’t make myself yell back, but I finally figured out that it’s better to respond mildly (bite instead of barking).

  12. AnotherAlison*

    1. Just because you can wear jeans doesn’t mean you should. I don’t think it was as much a blue-collar upbringing as life-after-college-in-the-grungy-90s, but my mindset was to wear the minimum to meet the dress code. Dress better than you are required to, and follow the people above you, not the people below you.

    2. Career progression is not linear or automatic. In a blue-collar career, seniority is one of the most important factors in advancement. The tricky thing about white collar jobs is that it seems that way at first, too. You and your peers might all be level 1, level 2, etc. at the same time, but in what seems like the blink of an eye at mid-career, someone is a VP, someone else is a technical expert, someone hasn’t moved up at all, and you are wondering what each of these people did differently to work into these different roles. Who you know & work with becomes important. Try to get on the “A” teams, even though with a blue-collar background, it is sometimes easier to identify with employees who always seem to struggle and not get ahead. As Jamie said above, don’t be afraid of high-level executives. As a new grad or young employee, it’s not necessarily appropriate to go introduce yourself to the CEO but you should keep yourself in front of leaders a few levels above you.

    3. Say yes to the right opportunities. Find out what is important to your manager & above and work on those projects. This is just my personal opinion, but things like organizing the department holiday party or charity event are probably not worth the extra time committment, unless it’s very clear that this is a pet project for your manager.

    4. Make time to learn and educate yourself off the job. You can’t always learn new skills and knowledge needed to advance to the next level while on the job. To move ahead of where you are and your peers, you have to do extra. It’s easy to do now with so much material on the internet, you don’t need formal college classes to get educated. Pick some learning goals and do it.

    1. kristinyc*

      YES on #1! My office doesn’t have a dress code at all. But there isn’t one person wearing slobby cargo pants with a graphic tee. Yes, we were jeans – but they’re dark, skinny jeans with heels or boots.

      I wear dresses/skirts almost every day, even though I don’t have to wear “business” attire. In my office, wearing a suit would look really out of place. It’s about finding the right balance of looking casual yet professional.

      Oh, and also (and this is more to recent grads than white/blue collar): Ladies, if you have to wear a suit, you really don’t have to wear a collared button up shirt with it. When I was in college, I thought that was the only option, so I bought a ton of them when I started working. You know all those cute sleeveless shirts you see at Express and Limited? They’re for wearing under suits. MUCH more feminine and fun!

          1. jmkenrick*

            I didn’t notice either, but now I’m picturing a bunch of walking, talking jeans editing their TPS Reports.

      1. books*

        I detest the collared button down.
        My husband, because he is a man, occasionally interviews women and complains when they did not wear one under a suit.
        We’ve talked that one in circles, and it’s a men vs women thing.

          1. Stephanie*

            As someone who’s bustier, I can’t pull off most button-ups and usually just wear a shell or blouse under suits. Is the button-up preference a common thing, or just a quirk of your husband’s?

            1. Victoria Nonprofit*

              I’d say it’s a quirk. I’ve never heard or come across this before. But then, I’m a busty woman, so I obviously don’t have the perspective of a judgmental man.

              … also, I’m dying with laughter over “My husband, because he’s a man, occasionally interviews women…” hee hee! :)

            2. Anon*

              I’m pretty busty as well, but I love button downs! I usually correct it with a safety pin worn underneath the offending zone.

              1. books*

                I think it’s what he thinks is professional attire – I guess, I meant because he’s a man to imply also that because he is stuck wearing a collared shirt under his suit jacket, he transfers that to what women must wear also. I think I look terrible in collared shirts, no amount of tailoring could possibly fix the fact that: there is a collar sticking up around my neck. So I don’t wear them. Ever.

      2. AnotherAlison*

        I dislike button downs because they get bunchy (& what’s with not having buttons all the way up?), but I also hate sleeveless shirts. If I’m hot, I don’t want to take off my jacket & show my pits. I also don’t want to get deodorant or worse on my jacket & have to dry clean it every time, so I default to the button down.

        Waiting for someone to make a shirt stylish like the sleeveless shirts, only with short sleeves. They used to make these. : (

        1. Jenny*

          Target has started making some. Not great quality, obviously, as they’re basically cotton, but the prints are so busy, I don’t think you can tell just by looking.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          Most of the short sleeves now are cap sleeves, which nobody looks good in. I want REAL short sleeves, and shirts that aren’t cut to the navel! I can’t wear those in the office!

          1. ChristineH*

            *raises hand* Another person here who dislikes cap sleeves!!!

            Stupid question (not very well-versed in clothing…), but when people say “blouse”, I think of the button down shirts. Can a blouse be without buttons?

            1. the gold digger*

              What is it with designers that they won’t put sleeves on their clothes? Do they not know any women in the real world? Yes, that sleeveless dress is adorable. Now show me something I can wear to work.

            2. Sasha*

              I think it can, yes. To me a “blouse” is a woman’s shirt that is made with materials other than knit, and because of this, they tend to have a “blousy” affect when worn.

            3. Rana*

              My own mental picture of “blouse” has always been “dressy women’s shirt without buttons, usually in something like silk,” so I’d say yes. :)

            4. Jamie*

              I thought it had to have buttons to be a blouse, also.

              If it can be a blouse without buttons, you and I both learned something today, Christine. :)

      3. Pam*

        Button-ups for ladies are also a difficult fit for many of us. Our sizes don’t have a different torso and arm-length size, so I have absolutely zero button-up shirts that fit my long arms and broad shoulders correctly. I feel like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk when I try them on. So I wear those cute sleeveless shirts you’re suggesting. ;)

        1. KayDay*

          I feel like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk when I try them on. So I wear those cute sleeveless shirts you’re suggesting. ;)

          ha! I have the same problem. And after seeing myself, I start to feel all hulk-smash too!

        2. Malissa*

          I have yet to find a button down shirt that will accommodate anything bigger than a B cup with out turning into a freaking tent that’s hard to tuck in on the bottom.

        3. AnotherAlison*

          You guys should know that we curveless women have a hard time with sleeveless shirts, so the problems are on both sides of the fence. The bottom of the arm hole usually hits mid-bra band for me so I have to wear a cami under or expose everything if wearing a sleevelss top. (Petite shirts are too short for me. I am in between.)

          1. Rana*

            I hear you. Not only do I not like having my armpits bare in a jacket, but most shells have that terrible droopy gap thing going on. I have better luck with some of the dressier shirts from places like J.Crew, but it’s always a bit of a gamble.

          2. Aimee*

            Ah, I have the worst of both. I’m too busty for button up shirts, but too short-torsoed for sleeveless. So I can either have a gap in the front, or arm holes that show my bra. I own a lot of tanks/camis to wear under sleeveless shirts. (Petite sleeveless shirts generally are too narrow across, so the armhole might not hang down too far, but it pulls so you can see the sides of my bra cups).

            My office is pretty casual, so jeans and a nice knit shirt are appropriate here, thankfully. Trying to find dressier shirts that fit well (and are within my budget) is really difficult.

          1. Tiff*

            LOL, I need someone to really come out with a line for working women. Where the shirts are all tunic-length, there is no such thing as a low rise pant, and lycra is used to keep things shapely but not tight.

            1. AnotherAlison*

              Casual Corner used to be that place. Low priced, tasteful, probably a little “older” style than I was at the time (in my twenties) but you didn’t have to worry about something from there being too low-cut, etc. Too bad they went under.

              1. Malissa*

                I loved that place! Everything somehow managed to actually fit. I’m finding luck at Macy’s, but the prices are not budget friendly.

                1. Anonna Miss*

                  I miss Casual Corner so much! It was where I did most of my shopping for work clothes when I was new in the workforce. It was so easy to get affordable pants and tops that were business-appropriate rather than hoochie mama. I think I had a every color of certain style of pants of theirs and a dozen twinsets, which was my work uniform for years.

                  Occasionally NY& Company will have something appropriate for work, but just as often they seem to think everyone works at Cosmopolitan magazine or something.

            2. Nicole*

              I bought my favorite work buttondown from NY&Co and I’ve worn it for years. Not too deep in front, buttons stay closed, side rouching and a fitted, slim cut. Unfortunately, they changed the design after that season and the buttondowns never fit the same since. In general I can find something there that fits and is work appropriate. Just be aware, whatever size you think you are, you’re 2 sizes smaller in NY&Co measurements. That drives me crazy.

          2. ChristineH*

            I have the opposite problem. I’m petite at the shoulders and sleeves tend to be long on me. However, I’ve gotten a bit….umm…bulkier in a few spots in the last 10 or so years, so I cannot for the life of me find very much that doesn’t make me look like a sausage.

          3. Kelly L.*

            And if you are fat, like me, everyone assumes your neck is twice the size of a thin person’s neck and you need a whole other shirt underneath if you don’t want to show your bra. Rawr!

          4. AgilePhalanges*

            Oh, man. I’m 5’11”-ish. When I was younger I was skinny (like REALLY skinny for a while there), and had the same problem. Anything long enough would be huge. Now I’m definitely NOT skinny, and it seems I have the opposite problem–tops that can fit over my bust barely hang LOWER than my bust. Ugh. I loved that long tunics were in for about a minute there, and LOVE capris in the summer, because I can buy a size that fits my waist and not worry if it hits my calf instead of just above the ankle like it’s “supposed to.” But in winter, I’m stuck with buying either tall OR plus pants (most makers don’t make sizes that are both), and can’t buy shirts in winter at all, because they won’t be long enough in the torso, and will look 3/4 sleeve on me to boot. I’m just glad that the store Long Elegant Legs carries most of their clothes in a size that will fit me, though they are more expensive than I like to pay, so I save those for splurges, and make do with what I can find locally most of the time.

      4. Anon*

        YES! I think “Friday jeans day” is one of the biggest traps I’ve seen, across several places I’ve worked. You need to wear jeans that fit nicely and are in good condition, with nice shoes, and a work-appropriate top. If your office is business casual the rest of the week, think of it as though Friday you are swapping ONLY the slacks for jeans, and the rest of the outfit should remain the same.

        1. Anon*

          Part of the problem for me was not yet having the resources to build a quality office wardrobe. I had some, due to various internship and networking functions I was required to attend, as well as a good black suit for interviews, but I only had jeans and T-shirts from my college days as my primary wardrobe, which my current office at least allows for Fridays. I did manage to buy a pair of darker jeans and some cheap heels, which I started pairing with a solid colored long sleeved top (the only one in my wardrobe). Thankfully, for Christmas and Chanukah (some of my extended family is Jewish), my family has taken some pity on me and given me the resources to shop for a business wardrobe. I generally support what you’re saying but sometimes, even sales or clearance items are out of the realm of us making our way in the world and it takes time to build a good wardrobe.

          I think the converse of that should be to get a clothing retail job in college, just to build said wardrobe ;-))

          1. Stephanie*

            Find Goodwill or consignment stores in a nicer of part of town. You can find some good pieces at decent prices! Be prepared to dig. Also, scarves, jewelry, etc. can really stretch a few pieces and make it seem like you have a more expansive wardrobe.

              1. Amanda*

                Thirding that. My boyfriend was job-searching too (looks like’s he’s found something, at least for the interim!) and he was stubbornly digging his heels about getting interview-appropriate clothes due to the price. So I dragged him to Goodwill and we were able to find an incredibly nice, new-looking interview outfit for less than 8 dollars. And I’m currently wearing awesome dark skinny jeans that I got there for about 6 dollars.

          2. moss*

            agree with Stephanie. Also look for outlet stores (i have a talbot’s outlet in town that pretty much supplies the entirety of my wardrobe). It’s better to get a small amount of nice stuff than a bunch of cheap stuff. No shiny polyester!

          3. Malissa*

            If you have a Dillard’s near to you, get friendly with the sales staff. About twice a year the mark stuff down drastically. If you are on their special call list you can get a whole new work wardrobe for under $200. I’m talking slacks, shirts, skirts, suit dresses and even hosiery.

        2. Anonymous*

          Jeans Fridays. Uhg. I HATE JEANS FRIDAYS. It seems like every week there’s a new rule because people have no common sense, which leads to casual wear being perma-banned.
          “I didn’t KNOW we COULDN’T wear frayed jeans.. There’s no hole, technically AND the dress code says NO HOLES!”

          1. AnotherAlison*

            Similarly, I wouldn’t say no to a return to business dress if it meant I’d never have to see someone stretching the definition of business casual to wear spandex-leggings-as-pants or pink-jeans-as-slacks. (These might be okay some places, but not here.) You might be cute in your leggings, but your boss shouldn’t have to worry about whether you’re wearing something nice enough to get pulled into a client meeting on short notice.

            1. Aimee*

              The departments in my company that still had a stricter dress code after the rest of us moved to “use your own judgement and wear whatever you want” had the worst offenders when it came to wearing things inappropriate for the office. I often wanted to tell people, “Yes, technically those black pants and shirt might be within dress code, but you look like you are heading to the club, not to work!”

      5. Jenny*

        Dress for the position you WANT, not for the position you have.

        I’ve started doing this in my office recently, and there has been a noticeable shift in interactions with my superiors. They treat me more like a peer now (ex. Instead of giving me direction on project, we have sit down meetings to discuss options, and my opinions are given weight!).

        1. KayDay*

          But don’t take that advice too literally. If no one else in the office wears a suit, don’t wear one! It makes you look out of touch if you are dressed to differently than everyone else.

          1. Jenny*

            Yes, definitely. You don’t want to be a fish out of water. But dressing more like your boss than your peers would be alright. In my case, most of my office wears cargos (shorts or pants) and t-shirts (we have a warehouse/front office set up). I used to dress similarly, but when I started vying for a promotion, I switched to dark wash appropriate cut jeans, dresses, blouses, and nicer shoes.

            1. Jenny*

              Also, I work with mostly men (30 of them). Out of the 4 (yes 4!) other women I work, 3 of them usually wear jeans and a t-shirt as well. Our HR manager wears business casual. When I stepped up my wardrobe, I didn’t feel super out of place. It’s only a notch or two up unless we have folks from corporate coming in. So yes, again, with most of the advice in this post, take note from other people in your office, from peers to managers.

        2. AdAgencyChick*

          Conversely — sometimes middle management dresses better than upper management! I have found this to be true at a few ad agencies I’ve worked at — I guess by the time you’re running your own agency you feel like you’ve earned the right to stroll into the office wearing a Rolling Stones “Lips” T-shirt and ripped jeans. (Not hyperbole.) Yet, a few levels down from that person, the jeans are dark wash, no rips, and worn with a button-down shirt (men) or sweater (women).

          Observe, observe, observe, and err on the side of caution. It’s much better for your manager to tell you, “Hey, it’s OK to wear jeans here” than for him/her to tell you, “You know, you really shouldn’t be wearing that T-shirt here.”

          Besides, if you routinely dress slightly better than the office norm, it helps when you’re interviewing for your next job. I can almost always tell when someone in my field is interviewing, because unless the client is visiting, it’s the only time I’ll see a guy wearing neatly pressed khakis or corduroys instead of jeans, or a woman wearing a tailored dress to work. But if you dress like that all the time, people just assume you’re well-dressed!

          1. AdAgencyChick*

            (But to KayDay’s point — dress similarly to others, or a notch better, but not WILDLY better. I would think it was very strange to see someone at my office in a suit every day!)

        3. Jubilance*

          Also you have to dress for your job duties. In my previous role, I was working in a laboratory. Sure I could dress like my boss, but she didn’t work in the lab anymore & thus didn’t have to worry about ruining her nice clothes with chemicals or the safety issues around wearing a dress/skirt.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            Yes. I had an office job but I had to ship samples that were often dirty and covered with sawdust. ALL my clothes were washable. I really don’t usually get paid enough to buy / maintain nice dry-clean-only clothing anyway.

            1. Jamie*

              I don’t wear jeans anymore (no one said anything to me, but someone else was reprimanded for wearing them and so I stopped too in a show of solidarity.)

              Anyway, without fail the day I’m wearing something dry clean only I will have to crawl under someone’s filthy desk to troubleshoot a “network” issue (it’s called CTFC before you call me, thank you!). I can go months and be a grown up behind my own desk, but wear my favorite silk cream colored pants and I’m crawling around on the floor like I’m trying to tunnel out. Same with shoes – the one day I wear heels will be the day I have to run up and downstairs 100x.

              Stupid murphy’s law.

              1. Elizabeth*

                Anyway, without fail the day I’m wearing something dry clean only I will have to crawl under someone’s filthy desk to troubleshoot a “network” issue

                White short skirt. Power outage. A dozen computers whose power supplies fried.

                I went almost 2 years after that before I wore a skirt again.

          2. ExceptionToTheRule*

            Amen. I spend a fair amount of time crawling around on the floor or doing other bits of manual labor in a very cold studio. It’s nice, clean jeans & temperature appropriate tops on most days.

    2. Anonymous*

      Re #1 – I think dressing nicer helps some people feel more confident as a professional, as well as affecting how people treat you. I’m very much a jeans/tshirt gal, and my office is pretty casual (university), so jeans/tshirt is acceptable for many people. But I recently started wearing nicer clothes and I feel like people are taking me more seriously. Especially important for me because I look very young and am often mistaken for a college student. It also just makes me feel better about myself, like “I’m a real professional now!” instead of feeling the creep of the imposter syndrome.

      1. Meg*

        I’m a front-end web developer for a federal agency and our department’s dress code has been called “summer camp casual.” As I am one of two people in my department that does what I do specifically, my style is… unique. I wear bright colored skinny jeans with either skate sneakers, flats (in the summer), or knee-high combat boots. My shirts vary from graphic tees to band tees to hoodies and track jackets.

        Other times, I wear nice jeans with nice boots and a sweater. Or a cotton dress with waistbelt and leggings and boots.

        In my department though, there’s isn’t really much room for “advancement.” Though we work on a team, we have individual tasks that vary. I may get trained in another area (programming language) or have different tasks, but I won’t be managing someone unless I become THE project manager, which I don’t want (nor will it be opening any time soon.. and he wears sandals with socks and jeans). I’m a unique presence in my department with my piercings and tattoos and dress style and now a different color hair than I started here with, but that’s NOT THE NORM.

        Sure, I may look different from my peers, but it doesn’t make people think I’m incompetent. The fact of the matter is if you need help or need something fixed that falls in my responsibility, I’m the only one that’s going to do it, and I’m the only one to ask.

          1. EM*

            People aren’t saying “never wear jeans if you are allowed to”. People are saying, “be aware of the message your clothing sends”. So if you want to get ahead, it’s best not to wear schlumpy jeans with holes in them, even if it’s *technically* allowed in your office.

            I’m in a scientific/technical field, and most people in my office do at least some field work. I do have items to wear a business casual wardrobe, but I choose not to, because I’ve had to go out into the field unexpectedly more than once. I’m aware that I don’t look like the power players at my company who wear custom-made dress shirts and slacks. I am also aware that I am not terribly interested in being high-powered because I have a small child and I don’t want to work 60 hour weeks. If I wanted that, I’d step up my wardrobe.

            1. Sasha*

              Precisely. I work at a university and people frequently mistake me for a student. I have found that dressing nicely, even though our office is really casual and lots of people wear tshirt/jeans, goes a long way towards people treating me like a professional. Not just because they see professional clothing, but because I feel more confident about myself, and that I won’t be mistaken as the student worker.

    3. Bryan*

      I have to say, #1 really depends on the atmosphere where you work. While yes, sloppy pants and t-shirts are unappreciated, jeans and a decent polo have always worked really well for me. Combined with dressing up for important meetings of course. Then again, I’m in manufacturing engineering, which is in that nice in-between land where you have to interface with the blue collar workers just as much as the management types. I’ve actually noticed that the blue collar workers look down on people in my position who dress up because they automatically think they are snooty and the management types look down on the people who dress up because they think they aren’t willing to go down to the shop on a moments notice to help resolve some issue. Seeing as that is the biggest part of the job, it means most people at the company percieve you as being too snooty to do your job.

      Hence the jeans and polo, casual enough to go help out when needed, but respectable enough that you don’t stand out in the office. I do notice a trend though that most (but not all) people tend to swap the jeans for khakis once they become supervisory (never before though), then eventually switch to dress pants/shirt if they have any aspirations to become upper management.

  13. TracyDee*

    When I was in high school and college, I worked “blue collar” type jobs such as grocery clerk, waitress and fast food worker. One thing they all had in common is that, if someone finished all of his work he was expected to ask for something else to do or to find another task.

    In my (I guess it’s white collar) job as a medical records coder, if there are no more charts in my queue I am not expected to relieve the receptionist, set auditing appointments or clean the bathroom. There are people whose jobs it is to do those things.

    I hope that makes sense; I’m not sure I wrote that out too well!

    1. Julie*

      I’m not so certain this is true. I’ve certainly worked white-collar jobs where I was expected to ask for more work if I finished what I was doing. It might not be so obvious as “clean the bathroom,” but it might have been finding documents for someone else’s presentation, scouring our website for errors that could be corrected, or otherwise just helping out with the work that needed to be done. (Obviously, as witnessed by the fact that I’m typing this from work at 10:00 a.m., I am currently in a much more flexible job. And much happier.)

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        Completely agree. I often err on the side of under-assigning projects to new workers because they’re just getting their feet wet. If they finish up quickly, I want to know about it so that I can give them more challenging work to do. And, when it comes to performance review time, if I have one young worker who’s asking for more projects and one who isn’t, guess who I’m going to want to be more generous with for raises and promotions?

        1. TracyDee*

          AAC and Julie, I thought about this more after I signed off and realize that what I wrote isn’t 100% right. Thinking about blue collar jobs, for instance, I guess if someone is a member of a labor union, their contract could conceivably forbid them from, dismantling the widget board after they’re done welding the flibbergagets. And your examples of white collar employees being given different tasks when they’ve finished their work do make sense.

          Maybe it’s a certain kind of white collar job I’m thinking of? One where the worker has a very narrow scope of expertise? Like a nurse does nurse-y things and a lawyer does lawyer-y things and a pharmacist does druggy things? I am not expressing myself well today!

          I should just keep my mouth shut and be grateful that I’m not expected to take on duties additional to my job!

          1. doreen*

            TracyDee, what you’re thinking of are certain types of jobs that don’t fit neatly into either blue- or white-collar. They’re not really blue collar, because they don’t involve physical labor or getting dirty but they aren’t really white collar in the sense of being professional jobs and the working conditions ( particularly regarding attendance) tend to closer to blue collar.
            As a professional, I’ve been given additional tasks and asked to help out coworkers plenty- but it has always been tasks that are related to my actual job and the coworkers I’ve been asked to assist are those who have the same title as I do. In retail, fast food and some office jobs, you may be assigned work that has nothing to do with the rest of your assignment – a cashier may end up stocking shelves or cleaning the restroom when there is no line . My mother worked as a bookkeeper and often filled in when the receptionist was out- but you can bet that the accountant didn’t. In some of these jobs, it wouldn’t even make sense to say a task is not part of your job because you might be working in the stockroom on Monday ,as a cashier on Tuesday and in the fitting room Wednesday.

          2. Anonymous*

            I see what you’re getting at. Yeah, in my office I’m the only person who does what I do, and if I have a lull in my work I am not expected to go help someone in a totally different position sort the mail or something like that. I should be looking for more of MY work, but it’s ok for me to genuinely not have any for a moment and take a break to do whatever.

            And that kind of thing was not ever ok in any of the other jobs I’ve ever had (manual labor, for example) where any time you’re not working is Not OK, and you’re expected to busy yourself 100% of the time no matter what with absolutely anything you can find. No lulls, no breaks between tasks, etc. It’s like someone mentioned above about your time being harshly managed.

            1. FreeThinkerTX*

              The last company I worked at was a property restoration company. Our techs were on-call 24/7, but also expected to be at work 8:30-5:00, M-F. If there weren’t any jobs to work on (no one’s water heater had exploded, or a kitchen hadn’t gone up in flames), then the techs – who were paid hourly – were expected to stay busy, somehow. The owners of the company made the guys mow their lawns, wash their cars, move heavy furniture in their homes… whatever it took to make sure they “earned” their guaranteed 40 hours of pay. The morale of those guys was horrible, to say the least.

              Geez, if your business model is to guarantee a certain minimum amount of pay (but the IRS says they have to be non-exempt, and so they actually need to “clock in” those hours) then why not let them play WoW while killing time at the shop? The equipment and vans can only be so clean and so organized; and if the jobs aren’t coming in [which was my job, in Sales, to make sure they were coming in], then why invent busy-work for the techs? I felt so sorry for them.

  14. books*

    This could be considered even an age thing, but don’t take your cell phone into meetings and play with it. Turn your ringer OFF. Don’t text back & forth with someone all day. Checking your texts, tweets, personal emails every so often *as long as it doesn’t interfere with work* is fine, having your phone glued to your hand is not.

    Listen to how other people around you answer their phones and mimic that. Is it, “Hello, this is books at company” or “Hi personcalling” or “This is books”?

    Keep email language professional – do not use text speak, abbreviations, etc in your emails. If you’re emailing with someone you’ve never met who has an important role at an organization outside of yours (and you are entry levelish employee) use Mr/Ms – in your first email to them to be deferential.

    As others said, pay attention to when people come in & leave, what they do for lunch breaks. Check in with your boss on when it’s ok to leave 15 minutes early and when it’s not. Some places are get your work done places others are keep strict office hours to accommodate our clients places.

    Actually, all of this could really apply to any new worker not just someone from a blue collar background.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      “Keep email language professional – do not use text speak, abbreviations”

      I agree with not using text speak – CUL8R : ) and such – but we keep it very brief on internal emails. The EVP above me sends questions in the title line & that is the whole email. Nothing irritates him more than getting a 5 paragraph email, so you have to learn to boil it down to the bare minimum. It’s important to adjust your communication style to fit your manager’s preferences.

      1. Janet*

        I know this isn’t text speak but once a VP sent me an e-mail with the title F/U

        I stared at it forever trying to figure out why she was saying “F*ck you” to me and when I told my cubicle neighbor “I think the VP told me to F*ck off” she said “No! It means follow-up – I got one a few weeks ago and thought the same thing”

        So yeah, abbreviations can be dangerous.

          1. Jamie*

            I use this all the time and NEVER saw the other meaning – that is unfortunate.

            My favorite that works on two levels – FTFY. I don’t use it anymore at work though, since people now know it works on two levels. Stupid internet making all my secrets googleable.

    2. Anonymous*

      While I agree with some of what you said some of it is cultural, and generational and it will change. Your first paragraph will be entirely irrelevant at many companies. Change happens and watching your business culture is far more important than arbitrary rules. If everyone at the meeting is doing that because you are a part of a marketing team and it is your job to keep on top of tweets you might not fit in if you aren’t keeping your phone glued to your hand.

      I will say that I cannot imagine sending an email to someone I don’t know starting with Mr/Ms and not getting admonished or better yet called out in a meeting or conference for clearly not knowing how to interact (this happened). And I work with an aging population of people who love their paper.

      1. LaurenL*

        I 100% agree that Mr/Ms is outdated and that it will make you appear immature and incorrectly in awe of/intimitated by your peers and superiors. The businessplace (and I can only speak for the US) operates on a first name basis.

        1. fposte*

          It actually still has a role in our office–academia often likes informality to be granted, not assumed. So the first email is formal, but then when you sign it with just your first name you’re authorizing first-naming in response.

          1. books*

            “If you’re emailing with someone you’ve never met who has an important role at an organization outside of yours”

            Don’t do this in your own office, unless that’s the culture (ie academia see fposte), however, if someone asks you to email the CEO of another company, don’t go in swinging with “Hi Bob!”

          2. the gold digger*

            I work with international customers, so I always start with Mr/Ms/Dr/whatever and stick with it until informality is granted. (I like that phrase!)

            I use the same philosophy with the parents of my friends: I start with Mr/Mrs and only use first name if invited.

            1. Julie*

              I come across this relatively frequently, as my job requires me to be in contact with medical doctors. As a very, very rough generalization of Quebec culture, I’ve found that most English-speaking doctors are fine with me using their first name after one or two exchanges, but that most French-speaking doctors prefer to use “Dr. So-and-So.”

            2. AgilePhalanges*

              I occasionally work with international contacts, but unfortunately, they’re from Asia (but from various countries, and there are expats from other areas among them as well), so I have no idea when seeing their name in their e-mail signature which is their given name and which is their family name, or what gender they are. Of course, I also don’t know if it’s customary in their culture to address someone by an honorific plus family name, or just use their given name, or stick with a title. It seems wrong to write a greeting with their full name as written in their e-mail signature (I wouldn’t say “Hi, John Smith”), so I end up doing something like “Good Morning” (if I know it’s their night time and they’ll read it in the morning, which is usually the case) or just “Greetings.” Maybe we should all start including our preferred method of address in our e-mail signatures (Jane Doe, Lead Chocolate Teapot Maker, please call me Jane), and do our best to spread the custom internationally. :-)

          3. Sasha*

            Yep, I’m in academia as well and will sometimes look up an instructor before emailing him/her, to see if they are a doctor or not. Sometimes even signing with the first name is not an invitation to address them informally, just depends on who you are talking to.

        2. saf*

          That varies within the US based on geography and culture.

          In DC, I will not default to first names. This is especially important in the black community. I will ALWAYS wait to to be told, “Oh, call me firstname.”

          Conversely, I have had to get used to being called Miss Firstname. Even when I tell people that just Firstname is fine, they cannot bring themselves to call me that.

      2. BCW*

        100% true. Plenty of people in meetings I’m in have their phones out. You have sales people whose emails come to their phones, and if they get a big deal, they want to be on top of it right away. Its very much a generational thing that I think is going out the window.

    3. Jubilance*

      Great point! In my first “real” job I would sit in a meeting & play with my phone, not realizing that by doing that, I was signalling to the team that I was disinterested & bored. Once someone pointed it out to me, I stopped.

      1. the gold digger*

        I used to write letters to my grandmothers. I was very disinterested and bored because the meetings were stupid and unproductive, but nobody could tell I was doing something non-work related.

        Then I tried knitting when I was a Peace Corps volunteer and had to sit through 8-hour sessions without an agenda. I was told that my knitting was “distracting” – by a woman who had a three-months-old baby attached to her naked bosom.

    4. Anonymous*

      What’s funny is that the young people I know don’t do any of these things. It’s all the people my parent’s age who will leave their loud ringers on, answer while talking to you, check email during a meeting, using silly abbreviations in emails, etc.

  15. Sasha*

    Several people have commented about workplace conversations, that in blue collar jobs it’s okay to be more open with your speech, less guarded, more emotional. Why is that? Why is the distinction there? Obviously it will be different from job to job, and someone pointed out that at some white collar jobs, people are very open with their speech, but I’m curious as to why it keeps coming up as a marker of blue collar jobs.

    1. Pam*

      That’s a good question, because being aware of your emotions and how you speak to people is a good idea no matter the setting. But I suppose the effects are far greater in a “white collar” environment. You can be pegged as difficult or not a team player, which might haunt you when applying for other jobs or management-type positions.

      I would imagine in lots of “blue collar” professions, just being able to do the job matters more than how you conduct yourself with others, so it’s not as much of a factor in the hiring decision.

      1. Anonymous*

        Person who was just yelled at here again. Because if you raise your voice or use sharp words in a professional office environment with people who are not used to dealing with conflict this way, you’ll be penalized. Just as you need to be sensitive to not offend others with racial/sexual/ageist/religious comments and jokes, you need to be sensitive to how others deal with conflict. In an office setting, it can be determined that acting that way creates a hostile office environment for others, and you can be written up and HR may call you on it and give you a warning.

    2. fposte*

      It’s not just a question of openness; it’s that the accepted middle-class discourse favors nuance and complexity and draws on a larger vocabulary. So what looks like more openness on one side is to the other the equivalent of bashing a hole in the wall with a hammer instead of carefully drilling a hole and inserting an anchor.

      This is a big thing in early childhood learning–the rate of vocabulary acquisition has strong ties to income and education.

      1. fposte*

        Just in case anybody’s interested in the details, if you scroll down to the chart for the Hart and Risley study on the page below, you can see a great, accessible chart detailing the average difference in vocabulary numbers and kinds. (The higher the economics, the greater the vocabulary and the more speech events that were to affirm rather than to prohibit a child’s activities.)

        1. Pam*

          That’s intriguing. I’d be interested to see more recent studies, given that information is now so readily available with increasing internet access.

          1. Natalie*

            Increasing access to the internet is still largely a middle class phenomenon. Where access has been increasing among the poor, it will probably take another generation before that access affects child-rearing habits.

    3. Jamie*

      It seems to me that it’s more common from people who define themselves as blue collar to have what can be called the Sue Hawk attitude.

      For non-Survivor fans out there she stated on season one that she was a “redneck” and that corporate bs wasn’t going to work with her – what you see is what you get.

      And I have seen, as someone said upthread, a tendency to look down on social nuances or blending in with the situation as being fake. Where as I just think that if someone wants to talk about lawn care and I’m bored…I can pretend to care about lawn care because it’s a social nicety. And while I don’t change my speech for people, I do filter the profanity, and some would see that as fake as well. I see it as knowing your audience.

      It’s almost a point of pride in refusing to accommodate the social nuances of who they are with – in some people.

      1. Diane*

        I misread “Survivor” as “Serenity” and was very confused, thinking perhaps the Sue Hawk was a Reaver or someone I’d forgotten about.

        And now that I get the point . . . yes, I’ve notice that among those who were raised in or work in a blue-collar background, “I’m just being honest” is a point of pride, and anything that to their ears smacks of being PC (or to my ears sounds gracious, considerate, and not brutally blunt) is not honest and therefore not good. I see it as a problem for those who want to move up in the work world or make a (good) name for themselves in college if they are viewed as insensitive and even mean.

        1. Sasha*

          On the flip side, I also see that attitude of “I’m just being honest” amongst some very upper class people. Like they have attained a status that entitles them to be brutally blunt. It also goes by the name “I’m being true to myself.”

            1. Laura L*

              Agreed. Also, lots of middle class people hate being PC or “fake” and like to “just be honest.”

      2. Kris*

        Thanks for that blast from the past, you made me laugh!

        Sue Hawk, reality TV’s original proud redneck. Richard was a corporate trainer and tried to use his skills to help his team work together better (i.e., survive) and Sue the salt-of-the-earth truck driver shot down all his efforts without a thought.

      3. GeekChic*

        By the same token, I’ve frequently seen “nuance” used as an excuse to talk around problems rather than actually deal with issues. The white collar / middle class notion of “social nuance” or “blending in” often short circuits attempts to confront truly serious issues – particularly if one or more people involved are passive or passive – aggressive.

        I was raised white collar but my grandparents were very blue collar and I’m ex-military. I often agree with my uncle’s statement that “If you want someone to talk an issue to death, get the white collars. If you want something to actually get done, get the blue.”

  16. Pam*

    My family are simple (in a good way) & honest “blue collar” people, so I have struggled to overcome certain “white collar” contrasts.

    1) Office politics. Because I was raised to be humble, it is difficult for me to advocate my own work, but this is often necessary. And because I am naturally honest & trusting, I have difficulty knowing when to be cautious with certain people – people who might borrow ideas, take statements out of context, or the like.

    2) Keep your emotions in check. In my home, I was raised to get angry/sad/whatever, then get over it. So while this is an effective tactic to return-to-the-norm quickly, it is absolutely not effective to become visibly or verbally angry/sad/whatever at work.

    3) You are the boss of your own time and work. This may not always be true with every manager or work environment, but I have learned that most of my managers appreciate when I set my own deadlines for projects, begin certain projects without their direction, and not “ask permission” for time off. I believe AAM has a recent post about the latter.

  17. Jennifer*

    This topic truly resonates with me! It may be difficult for readers to appreciate how this transition in culture can manifest itself unless they have personally navigated it. I struggled with acclimating to an executive environment. My upbringing and the start of my career were that of shift based, blue collar work.

    Early on, I too tended to be overly preoccupied with the perception of having completed a minimum of an 8 hour work day versus allowing my accomplishments and productivity to speak for themselves.

    I spent a great deal of time early on subscribing to the “fake it ’til you make it” mentality in an attempt to avoid drawing attention to how truly out of my realm I felt as I progressed into an executive setting. In all honesty, I still occasionally feel like an impostor.

    The shift in culture further reinforces itself in my inclination to complete tasks on my own that many colleagues deem as “someone else’s job.” I cannot bring myself to ask someone else to complete mundane tasks that I am more than capable of doing myself. (I.E. preparing coffee for a meeting, leaving empty cups and papers on a table and chairs scattered about after one has finished, moving things, cleaning etc.) On one hand, this is not the worst characteristic. That being said, responses to executive personnel regularly completing these tasks range from amusement to disdain by those who clearly do not share this ideology.

  18. Sully*

    Get over the fear of speaking in front of people. White collar work will mean presentations in front of clients on a regular basis, where you’re presenting a deliverable that can mean a significant amount to your career.

    1. Julie*

      I’d adapt this to “can mean presentation” rather than “will mean presentations.” There are plenty of white-collar jobs that don’t require presentation skills at all. (Though I think being comfortable as a speaker is a skill that can only help you, regardless of whether you need it for your job or not.)

      1. Sasha*

        Yes, I never have to do client presentations in my job, but I have run plenty of meetings for coworkers. It’s a good skill to be able to speak comfortably in front of people, but I would still get really nervous if I had to do an actual client presentation, even though I can lead an internal meeting with ease.

  19. Anonymous*

    I think an Us vs Them mindset can cause a lot of issues. This isn’t always true in blue collar homes but it certainly can be and it usually causes issues in a white collar environment. I’ve seen people struggle because they aren’t sure if they are not a part of the “Them” or if they should still fight it. And I’ve seen people get mad at coworkers for “siding with the boss.” It’s just a job that needs to get done. Not a fight.
    Work doesn’t need to be a battle. You can get along with your boss and not all people in authority are jerks. (Not to say that they aren’t there. Some people are jerks. People in authority are people. Therefore some people in authority are jerks.)

  20. Jen*

    A couple things I have learned the… well, not hard… but not easy way either:

    1. Emotions. A bit seconding (thirding, etc.) to everyone who has said you really need to learn how to handle your emotional self. A great resource I’ve found is the book “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman.

    2. Along the same lines, when starting out, I found it really hard to “be myself” and “be professional.” Coming from a blue-collar background, my early white-collar self was very stiff and self-conscious. And I wouldn’t speak up about anything, because I thought somehow being a professional meant being absolutely certain and absolutely correct before speaking, and being universally liked and respected (by virtue of being right?).

    It wasn’t until I worked with a business coach briefly who helped me figure out how to be professional, and a real person, and get over the fact that nobody is ever universally liked, so it’s best to be the best version of myself that I can and be well-liked and respected by *most* rather than *all* people.

    1. Malissa*

      Yes, getting over the notion that people must like you to be successful. Sometimes people aren’t going to like you for things that have nothing to do with you. You have to be able to put that aside and get the work done anyway.

  21. Yup*

    Disagreeing with bosses. Obviously it’s not OK in any work environment to call the boss a dope to his/her face etc. But in my experience: In blue collar type jobs, it seems more top-down authoritarian, where you don’t question what the boss tells you to do. In white collar type jobs, it’s more acceptable (and sometimes even considered a mark of professional acuity) to politely counter a boss’s instructions with alternate ideas or suggestions.

  22. AMW*

    1. Read a major newspaper daily. I am always surprised how often this comes up in some way. Plus it’s a huge help in being conversational with senior management (as suggested above).
    2. Always look professional (clothes ironed, clean-shaven, hair neat).

    1. danr*

      #2… Beards are usually okay these days… as long as they’re neatly trimmed and combed. Find a barber or hair stylist who know how to trim beards and reward him or her well. After all, you are getting two haircuts for the price of one and a half.

      1. Sasha*

        My husband has been growing his beard for quite some time, so it’s usually about 4 inches. One day he decided to trim it all the way back. When his boss saw it, he ordered him to grow it back immediately. :) Just depends on the culture. And yes, it was nicely groomed and he had short hair as well.

        1. AMW*

          Sorry, I should have clarified. I was thinking more along the lines of three days of unshaven scruff that I so often see :)

          1. Sasha*

            Ah yes, I see what you mean. There’s a difference between professional looking facial hair and “I’ve just crawled out of a dumpster after a bender” kind of look.

        2. AMW*

          I should have clarified. I have no issue with beards, I was thinking more along the lines of the three days without shaving whatsoever look :)

          1. KellyK*

            “Computer programmer” may be a white collar job that’s an exception. My husband never gets past the “scruffy” stage into actually having a beard, but no one seems to care.

        3. KayDay*

          I’m quite happy by bf’s employer is cool with his beard–he looks like he’s about 12 without it. ick. (it’s actually a fairly conservative environment, but lots of men there have short, neatly trimmed beards).

  23. Joey*

    1. The higher you go the less excuses matter and the more results matter.
    2. Get comfortable using your judgement. On the same note be accountable when you have to use your judgement
    3. Be proactive. Often blue collar positions have reactive jobs- that is work is often given to you. If you want to be successful in a professional job get comfortable proactively taking care of things before you’re told.
    4. Don’t keep a weekly tally of how many hours you work beyond 40. You’ll get bitter.
    5. Doing more than your written job duties is expected.
    6. Thinking bigger picture will help you make better decisions. You can typically get way with not really caring about corporate goals in an hourly job. They matter much more for professionals.
    7. You’ll be expected to know or learn for yourself lots of things without being specifically told so seek out information you need to do your job well.

    1. De Minimis*

      These are excellent, and are things I wish I had known when making the transition into white collar type work a few years ago. I am in a somewhat unusual situation [although maybe less so these days] where my parents were both white collar professionals, but I found myself working in a blue-collar environment for most of my career until fairly recently. I was in my mid-30s before I really started to work in an office environment with any regularity and it has been a tough transition [my difficulties in adapting to it had a lot to do with a long stretch in unemployment I had after I was let go from my first professional job a few years ago…]

      It may vary with the job, but I think one big thing is that you may have to continue to market yourself, long after you start working. People who are used to a more blue-collar or lower level white collar environment may have a hard time with that concept, I know I tended to think, “They gave me this job, I shouldn’t need to keep trying to sell my abilities/skills to people” but I was wrong.

      This probably applies more to large workplaces where it is possible to be lost in the shuffle of employees, maybe not so much in a smaller office, but it was something that was difficult to me to accept [to the point where I ended up changing my career focus over it.]

      I think another one is that you may not have the option of just staying where you are and working the same routine, comfortable tasks for the rest of your career. Many times there is the expectation that you will take on more and more responsibility as you gain experience.

    2. Natalie*

      #3 – My partner has commented on this a lot. He comes from a pretty traditionally blue collar background (Flint autoworkers) and became a chef for a few years before going back to school, which is a slightly more autonomous job but still quite working class in its attitudes.

      You never really have to prioritize your various jobs and tasks as a shift worker.* You come to work, do whatever your particular line job is for 8 hours, and leave. A chef has to prioritize different tasks within each work day, but literally all the work that is handed to you on Monday has to be completed on Monday. There are never really long-term projects that you need to manage or days or weeks.

      My partner struggled with time management all through college and is definitely still learning it.

      * Everything partner (and by extension, me) learned about factory work is from his parents’ generation. I have no idea what may have changed in modern day factories.

    3. Jamie*

      4. Don’t keep a weekly tally of how many hours you work beyond 40. You’ll get bitter.

      Quoting because it needed to be said again. Seriously, don’t do this.

      When I first went from temp (which was hourly) to salaried I’d calculate what I would have made each week if I got OT. I never discussed this with anyone – I did it “just for fun.” Yeah, the teeth grinding resentment I caused myself was a real hoot.

      Seriously – let it go if you want to get any sleep at all.

      1. Sasha*

        It’s interesting to me so that so many people have said this, yet I work an exempt job where I’m not allowed to go over 40, and my bosses have me keep track of all time I do go over 40. But that’s because they are required to give us that time back as comp time, per company policy.

        But I do understand the larger point. The point is that you shouldn’t obsess about working a strictly 40-hr a week job, and should be flexible about your hours when needed.

      2. Henning Makholm*

        I started keeping a tally of my working hours a few years after jumping from academia to industry, and doing so made for a huge improvement in my happiness.

        Because: Knowing that I’m far ahead of quota means I can leave early whenever I need to, without the feeling like I’m malingering and ought to be at work.

      3. GeekChic*

        I find it quite interesting that so many white collar jobs in the U.S. are evidently exempt. I’m very white collar now and I’m fully eligible for OT so… yeah – very much tracking how much over 35 I work.

        Even when I did work in the U.S. in an exempt job, I tracked my hours because my employer gave me time of in lieu of overtime – even though that wasn’t required. Guess that’s not done much?

        1. Jamie*

          Just speaking for my field – there are places that work out a deal with IT to comp the excessive hours. It’s still typically cheaper than hiring another IT for coverage.

          For me – I get comp time when I am doing upgrades/maintenance which cannot be done with users in the system, so I come in on the weekends – and I’m comped when I work over shutdown as the rest of the company (with the exception of the skeleton crew on my team) have off.

          Those hours I track. Working 45, 50, 60+ Monday – Friday or coming in to work on the weekend because it was a busy week and I am backlogged. That’s for me so I can take some of the pressure off so that’s on me. If I tracked those I’d get very grouchy very fast.

    4. doreen*

      These are almost the complete opposite of the values of my working-class family. They don’t want to have to use much judgement, because then they will be held responsible. Wait to be given work, don’t volunteer. Keep track of every minute you work so they don’t cheat you out of overtime. No need to see the big picture because you’re not making big decisions. If they wanted you to have that information, they should have given it to you- and anyway, why are you learning on your own time? The only thing missing is that changing jobs voluntarily more than maybe once makes you look like you can’t hold a job.

      I’m not sure when or how I learned these things,
      but I’m sure it would have been a lot easier on me mentally if I had grown up with them. Even though I know I don’t live in the same world my parents did, I can’t help but get apprehensive when my husband decides to make a move and look for better job . And although I have a college degree and am now a manager , I work at a government agency and am having a great deal of difficulty in trying to decide whether to seek another promotion as that position “serves at the pleasure” unlike my current position which has civil service protection. Objectively, I know I can do the job well and don’t need to fear losing it, but my upbringing gets in the way.

      1. Joey*

        I say go for it. In a civil service environment people tend to think that a lack of civil device protection means that you can get fired for dumb reasons. While that’s technically true it’s typically highly unlikely. Most government entities have an HR department and a legal team that get involved heavily before anyone (including non civil service) is issued serious discipline. Because govt agencies try to avoid lawsuits at all costs these folks typically take really risk averse positions on everything. So its highly likely that even in a non civil service position you’d have to screw up royally to put your job in jeopardy. The best way to reassure yourself is to look at some of the civil service appeal decisions. If they typically uphold the firings you can feel some comfort in knowing HR, legal and your boss are collectively making the right decisions.

  24. KayDay*

    (This is based off of my experience working various hourly jobs before I graduated from college. All are generalizations, not every office operates this way (see suggestion 1).)

    First – There are a lot more unwritten rules and conventions to follow in a white-collar/office environment. You really have to watch what your successful colleagues are doing. For example, just because your outfit technically follows the dress code (if you have one) doesn’t mean it’s appropriate; and you might not have a dress code at all–but that doesn’t mean you can show up in shorts. Same thing with working times. Just because your official hours are 9-6 doesn’t mean people will always be working those hours. You might be expected to work more, and you might have the flexibility to work less. You probably won’t get in trouble for being 15 minutes late every now and then, but you probably will get a negative review if you are 15 minutes late every day.

    Secondly – (YMMV with this) White-collar/office jobs are far less authoritative. My bosses have also been my colleagues. We are on a first name basis, and I can make (tactful) suggestions about changes. You are expected to do more independently and make your own decisions, even if you aren’t exactly sure. Also, you don’t need ask for permission to do everything (although, when you first start it’s normal to ask first).

    Thirdly – Don’t complain at work, no matter how much what you are working on sucks. Sure, you might be working for the weekend, but don’t tell everyone that. Act like you like what you are doing–even if you are double-checking data entries. In white collar work, there is a greater assumption/attitude that you are doing this job because it’s your choice (even if that’s not the case).

    1. CC*

      #3 is very true.

      It was not uncommon in my old college (read: retail, food) jobs to whine about work and customers in between shifts or during lunch with your co-workers.

      I have never and would never dream of doing it now, no matter how true my complaints are. Whining is never, ever professional. You either suck it up or you deal with it in a tactful way.

  25. nyxalinth*

    One more thing, because it often turns up here:

    You are not the Office Police, so if your co-workers are goofing off/leaving early/doing whatever they shouldn’t or you think they shouldn’t, chances are management already knows and is taking steps behind the scenes or doing nothing at all about it, and either way it’s their choice.

    Having said that, I know it’s frustrating.

    1. ChristineH*

      UGH this was a mindset that I just could not get out of at a previous job. I never really said anything directly to those who I felt were goofing off, but I let it get under my skin.

  26. Adam*

    I’ve applied for three day holiday in place where I work.
    Unfortunately, all the allowance I’ve got left is two days.
    I wanted to get two paid days and one day unpaid holiday.
    My employer said I can have two days of however the third day will be busy,
    and he won’t give it to me. He said I’ve got two options now,
    as I already bought tickets for holiday. First one is to come to work,
    and the second to buy the time off of him. He wants me to pay 70 pounds, don’t know what for.
    Is that actually legal? He said he will dismiss me if I won’t turn in to work..
    Thanks for your help.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      I don’t know about legality since you’re not in the US, but it’s generally really poor form to book a flight before your leave is approved.

  27. Katie the Fed*

    The biggest one I’ve noticed is professional attire. Spend some time and money investing in simple, high-quality pieces that fit well.

    I notice this more among women since we have a lot more variety of choice in our professional attire. There was a woman here who wore a lot of spangly homecoming kinds of dresses with a cardigan over them. The effect was kind of…trashy. I hate to say that but she did not give the image of a professional in this kind of environment.

    Dressy =/= professional. Same with Old Navy tops, poor quality skirts/pants, etc. Focus on quality and decorum – a well-tailored piece made of a fabric will do a lot more for your professional image than a cheap, ill-fitting item.

    This also doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money. Consignment stores, even Good Will have perfectly nice clothes. When I started my professional career I bought a lot of Ann Taylor suits on eBay. Just spend the money and the time to look nice.

    1. nyxalinth*

      It’s a bit tougher for the higher end (size 24+) of plus sizes, but it can still be done. Just takes a bit more time and effort, sometimes more money as well, but there are still very nice things that are work appropriate. The main issue with plus sizes and thrift stored is the larger you are, the harder it gets. Speaking from experience, us plus sized ladies tend to hold on to what we find until it falls apart lol.

      I don’t necessarily think things form Old Navy are trashy-looking. I’ve found very nice things there that were fine for work, maybe because the plus sizes tend to be a bit more conservative.

      Learn to mix and match. It goes a long way.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        When I was a plus size, I found Lands End actually had some decent stuff. But Lands End always looks a tad matronly to me.

        Old Navy stuff isn’t necessarily trashy (that comment about the homecoming dresses) but I wouldn’t wear more than a piece at a time and paired with something nicer. I should note that I also work in a VERY conservative environment.

        But yeah, plus sized shopping for professional clothes is a nightmare. I was a 16–18 for a long time and it was terrible. I don’t understand why there’s not more out there – the demand is clearly there.

        1. Malissa*

          16-18 is what I like to call the in-between land. Clothes are designed for smaller and larger people. What comes in your size doesn’t fit quite right.
          Smaller boutique retailers like Lane Bryant actually have some nice stuff that fits as does Christopher & Banks. But nothing come cheap.

          1. AgilePhalanges*

            Huh. I’m always complaining about Lane Bryant because their stuff DOESN’T fit me. I’m rather busty, and it’s like their designers take size six outfits and just make them wider, without accounting for the SHAPE of a plus-sized woman. Their empire-waist things have the “waist” right across my bust, the tops are usually too short, and their skirts always seem to fit me funny, too. Unfortunately, their “tall” sized pants (which only a few styles even come in) are an inch or two too short for my 36-inch inseam, too. I’ve pretty much written them off for anything except bras and belts.

            1. Stephanie*

              Ugh, agreed. I find their stuff to be pretty boxy and unflattering. Also, I feel that they’re trying so hard to have all their clothes make a “statement” that it’s hard to find something basic.

              For bras in larger sizes, I’m a big fan of Nordstrom. Also, that’s a good investment as well. Quadruple boobs aren’t flattering or professional…

    2. Lulu*

      I’ve found this to be one of the most difficult things about the work world, and one reason I ended up in the industries I have – because everyone wore whatever they wanted. So I wasn’t spending half my paycheck on buying and drycleaning clothes I hated. I’d honestly rather cultivate a more “tailored” look now that I’m older, but being in the Petite size range proportionally (but not reed-thin) it is nearly impossible to find anything that fits properly off the rack, even the higher end stuff that’s already way out of my budget. And forget about finding anything with those proportions in thrift stores, though I’ve certainly tried. I’ve realized that since I’ve never been an Ann Taylor person (nor do I know anyone who is), it’s hard to tell how things are supposed to look, and whether I just think they look weird because I’m not used to them or they really fit poorly. There are a couple of blogs I follow to try to figure things out, but it’s tough to get a bead on these things for some people.

      I think some of this also boils down to “know your office/industry” – I would have stood out like a sore thumb had I worn an Ann Taylor suit or similar in my previous workplace, but I understand it’s the norm in other environments. What passes for work-appropriate at a creative agency in LA might be considered trashy in a finance office in NY.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        yeah, it definitely depends on your industry/environment. I’m in DC, which is a very conservatively dressed city, in the government, which is also conservative (attire-wise, not politically).

        Actually most of the young women I work with shop almost primarily at J. Crew, Ann Taylor, and Banana Republic. It’s not uncommon to have the same items as another woman – my coworker and I have some of the same clothes.

        I like wearing suits though – they make it easy to get dressed. Skirt, top, jacket, accessories, and out the door. So easy.

        1. Lulu*

          These days I actually DO like the idea of wearing suits (if I could find ones that fit properly…), partly for the “easy dressing” factor. Living in Southern California, it’s definitely a lot less prevalent (at least in the areas/industries I frequent) than in the DC area. I’m trying to frequent those types of stores more even for separates, but I think because I’m so used to being a bit more… edgy, it’s just taking a while to not feel I look like I’m working on a Halloween costume concept! Baby steps, I guess.

  28. De Minimis*

    We have a lot of Health Service Commissioned Officers at my agency, so there are quite a few who wear uniforms to work every day. I’m envious, they never have to worry about what to wear to work!

    1. Sasha*

      I’m jealous of that too! My husband wears a uniform, it’s a company polo and jeans, but it’s a uniform. Workplace clothing can be unnecessarily stressful, as we have seen from the comments. Especially if panty hose are involved. :)

  29. LL*

    Lots of great advice already. I’d like to add…

    Fake it until you make it!
    -Act the part. (Includes clothing, speaking, and other cultural cues.)
    -Network professionally.
    -Find mentors and/or role models. (This can help with #1, 2.)
    -Find some white collar hobbies to help with further socialization, networking.

  30. Heather*

    Hmmm a lot of responses tend to be from people who are white-collar observing/supervising blue collar employees. Me, I’m way more interested hearing from people (like me) who grew up in a working class or poor environment and moved up class-wise. I think those of us who moved into a different social and economic class do watch those around us for cues and pick up a lot that way (e.g. have you noticed the brooches on the rich ladies?). Many people transitioning from a long career of blue-collar jobs to management have a different issue since they are still socially working class, so that is always going to be difficult. For me, I was a smart and driven kid who knew from a very early age that I did not want to have the life of menial jobs that my parents had so I put myself in all the smart classes and otherwise strived to be in the same social category as the other smart kids (all middle or upper-middle class). Some things I lucked out in finding out about (private schools will likely give you more money if you are poor than a state school… I got out with much less debt than I would have at a private school than a state school), but looking back, I was seriously lucky as I stumbled through college doing mostly the right things because I wasn’t taught how to do any of it (or simply, even having help applying to college, help with homework growing up, etc.). I think most of the advice I’d have would be to someone much younger, in high school, rather than someone starting out in their first professional job. I think the one thing that I really have noticed is that in a management position where you’re looking for wealthy donors, it really helps to be considered the same class as them. From talking with others who find donors, they really consider their donors their friends and peers. I can’t imagine anyone with serious money and connections being a friend of mine, so I know it’ll be a challenge finding donors in the future. You will definitely succeed more if you surround yourself with more successful people. Thankfully money is not what I worry about when it comes to success, so I am not at all mercenary in that way. While it would be good for my job, that would be a serious sell-out to myself and I am happy with keeping academics, techies, and artists as my friends.

    1. CC*

      I agree, I see a lot of comments from people giving their own perception of blue collar workers. While interesting and possibly useful, I was a bit put off by some of the generalizations.

      I was very driven since an early age and what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from watching. It therefore took me a while to feel comfortable around certain environments, but I also feel that I understand them in a different way from someone who did not have to think about it in great detail. I do think being able to “code-switch” socially can be a great tool and give you an advantage! So it’s not all bad.

      1. Just wondering*

        Is it ever important for someone from an upper-class background to successfully practice code-switching among people from a different social background? Or is that doomed to failure?

        1. Rana*

          As a teacher I found at least low-level code-switching was valuable. Ditto when I was temping; what’s normal among academics can come across as snobby and self-important among clerical staff, for example. But that’s within tiers of white collar work, so I don’t know about how that would work in the specific way you mention.

      2. Kristen*

        I agree. I also think it’s interesting that a lot of people seem to think blue collar = poor, which is not always the case.

        1. Jamie*

          I don’t – not at all. In fact in some areas garbage collectors earn more than accountants. And in manufacturing some blue collar positions can take home more at the end of the week than the managerial positions above them on the org chart – due to OT and high hourly wages for in demand skills.

          For me it’s even more of a personal contrast as my husband is a police officer – his actual real collar is blue. :) And he’s a great guy and there would definitely be the same culture issue if we worked together. Work place conflicts are resolved for him in a far more plain spoken manner (how is that for a diplomatic turn of phrase?) than would ever be acceptable in a corporate environment.

          But then he and his co-workers would back each other up with their very lives every day…and you can’t say that about any office I’ve worked in. The relationships and thus culture are completely different.

    2. Joey*

      Don’t assume everyone posting is from a white collar background unless they specifically say so. You’d be surprised.

    3. Caryn*

      This. I grew up in a blue collar family, on and off welfare. But I was placed in the gifted program early in my educational career. The tendency for gifted programs to advance kids of higher income/more privileged background families is a subject of another discussion, but needless to say I was surrounded earlier on by friends whose parents had gone to college, who had professional occupations.

      Being part of that program meant I read a lot of different sorts of things. In elementary school we learned how to talk about the international news, by watching and reading international sources, and were taken to consulates to interview diplomats from countries in Asia and Africa. I went to the opera, and museums, and tried different foods, and did things the general cohort didn’t do. Meanwhile, at home, we were lucky to be able to afford going to see a movie, never mind a play, and we didn’t get any newspapers delivered.

      I never even considered not going to college, and when I did, it was to a private university with classmates and roommates from backgrounds I couldn’t even process (yay scholarships for poor kids). Sons and daughters of royalty and politicians and multinational CEOs were living next door. College was a real-time social experiment for me in more than the usual ways.

      But at every step it was an opportunity to learn and observe that neither my brother nor my sister had — and the difference in our paths is pretty striking. Neither went to college and one dropped out of high school, and both are pretty blue collar. I’m a senior manager at an organization that sends me all over the world.

      Advice about these things is important on a continuous basis, too. I haven’t been ‘poor’ for a long time now, but some things you learn early ingrain themselves pretty deeply. I still find myself battling some things talked about here, like the idea of saying no, or of not getting tongue-tied or overly deferential to people superior to me, or of speaking my mind when there are ‘experts’ around a table. Or when people are talking about real estate or investing – I get intimidated very quickly. We lived in shabby rentals and for a lot of my childhood my parents were unbanked because of a tax lien so they kept their money undocumented. I have a savings account and a retirement account and that’s scary as it is sometimes. But in my profession these things come up often enough that I wish I could speak about them better.

      1. Heather*

        Caryn, I am so in agreement with all of your last paragraph, although I’m not as far away from my lower income past as you. I’m just starting the ball rolling when it comes to savings and I’m still renting, and will for a long time. I’m trying to educate myself about money and investments, but it’s all so new to me and not all that different from speaking in a foreign language.

  31. Tiff*

    Child of 2 english teachers here. What I’ve noticed:

    Speech: It’s hard to place, but there is a line somewhere. Generally, we don’t have to speak perfect english. A little flavor from your background (accent, colloquialisms, etc) is great and can add to the dimention of conversation. But if people can’t understand you for any reason or you’re asked frequently to repeat yourself, work on it.

    Writing: Learn how to put together some good, fluid sentences. Use spell check, but more importantly make sure you are using the correct terms for what you want to tell people. Balance your writing between shorter sentences and longer sentences. Read it over a few times if you have to, until you get comfortable. It’s worth it. I’ve seen how a person’s writing skill (or lack of skill) can ruin their chances at advancement. You can have all the technical skill in the world, but if you don’t have the writing skills necessary to do reports and necessary administrative tasks (like a performance eval for a subordinate) they will not promote you.

  32. Tami*

    Working at a staffing agency, I tend to see people from various backgrounds. There is a wonderful book out there that everyone should read, regardless of background. It is called “A Framework for Understanding Poverty.” While it was written for the education environment, it really is applicable to any environment. It discusses the hidden rules of class, and how difficult it is to operate within another class or move between classes without help because we were often not taught the “hidden rules.” For example, most office environments are governed by the rules of the middle class. If you were raised in generational poverty or even wealth, it may be difficult to adapt. It is too much to explain here, but well worth the read. It helps me every day in my job.

    1. Jamie*

      Thank you for this recommendation – I didn’t see it as an ebook on Amazon, but if I can’t find it elsewhere I’ll pick up the paperback.

      I looked through the excerpts on Amazon and it really looks very well written and fascinating. I thought it was interesting that the author said that many people interviewed did not identify as poor even if they were on welfare, and that it was the same for wealthy people not identifying as wealthy as they site others with more.

      I guess it’s true – everyone identifies as middle class regardless of income.

      I also found interesting the references to the different registers of speech and that formal register is something that some people just do not have. This fascinates me, and is why I want to read the book, because I’ve always wondered why this isn’t something picked up from society, even if it’s not practiced within the home? People from all walks of life have access to television, radio, and other media where they can hear people speaking properly.

      It’s the same with people who send and receive emails constantly, yet don’t pick up the punctuation and correct grammar even when being immersed in those written correctly. Wouldn’t you just pick it up?

      I’m looking forward to reading this.

  33. CC*

    I worked a lot of what would be considered blue collar jobs (food service, retail) during college and didn’t have my first “real” job until I finished my Master’s degree (which was partially funded by those blue collar jobs, so I’m thankful for them).

    One of the first things that surprised me at my job was that I could control my own schedule and negotiate extra work. The first time I rejected extra work because my caseload was full (I was terrified of sending that e-mail to the boss, I’ll tell you), THEY LISTENED TO ME.

    I was surprised! Do you mean I can say “I can’t take on this project because my plate is already full with X and Y” and people will respect it? Obviously, this doesn’t mean I can reject every new addition to my workload, but for the first time I felt like I had some authority on what I worked on.

    The second thing was learning to navigate and negotiate benefits. I had not had insurance for years before this job, so I had to take my time looking into the benefits package, researching the definition of an FSA, an HMO versus a PPO, retirement accounts, etc. My parents did not teach me about these things so I had to figure them out on my own.

    I think the third and most important difference between my old jobs and this job (though this has already been mentioned upstream by many) is learning how to interact in an office environment. I had thankfully already had some research internships in college so I was not intimidated by people in authority figures, as I had done research with people in high power positions. However, it is still tricky learning to be succint, clear, but still polite in your request to coworkers and any person in charge of assisting you. In blue collar work you are usually told what to do, but never really in a position to tell others what to do, and it may feel unnatural at first. (Granted, many people in positions of authority have no tact for interaction, so obviously it’s not a strict requirement, but that doesn’t mean you have to be one of those people.)

    1. Sasha*

      “One of the first things that surprised me at my job was that I could control my own schedule and negotiate extra work. The first time I rejected extra work because my caseload was full (I was terrified of sending that e-mail to the boss, I’ll tell you), THEY LISTENED TO ME.”

      It’s interesting that you mentioned this. I come from a mostly white collar background, but it was ingrained in me to always do what I was told, don’t complain, always take extra work, never say no to the boss. I really have had to work on this because I was brought up as a people-pleaser.

      1. CC*

        Yeah, I think it may depend on the culture of your workplace and if it is something that is expected and allowed. My current supervisor TOLD me not to be afraid to reject new clients if my caseload was full.

        I can sympathize with you because my parents have blue collar jobs and I have seen that in their case, you hold on to a job as long as possible because you are just thankful to have a job.

        1. Sasha*

          Yes! I came from that family of, be thankful you have a job. And it always confused me when I had people tell me if I was unhappy with a job, just quit it and find another. That baffled me. Of course less people are saying that now because of hiring these days, but that mindset is still out there.

          And even with parents like this, my sister turned out opposite – she quit jobs all the time just because her boss was annoying, she didn’t like her coworker’s hair, etc. Same background, different results.

  34. jill*

    I second Heather’s post above hoping that more folks from blue collar and low income backgrounds will chime in.

    I’ll try coming at this in a different way, as a person from a privileged background with two professional parents. I learned from a very young age how to talk to people in positions of power, and (for better or worse) to feel entitled to their consideration. I learned this with my parents’ peers and friends, doctors, members of the clergy, teachers/faculty, etc. I learned how negotiate deftly, without insulting the person of authority but while still being heard, and generally speaking, my communication patterns are accepted and privileged in the workplace. This is discussed to some extent in the great book Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau.

    1. Jamie*

      I learned from a very young age how to talk to people in positions of power, and (for better or worse) to feel entitled to their consideration.

      This is so beautifully stated.

      That’s exactly what it is – entitled to their consideration.

      And to take the entitled (without entitlement) thing a step further – I think people who grew up with professional parents feel entitled to attain that level of success themselves.

      That is not the same as entitlement to have it handed to you, or entitled to any specific job…which is unconscionable…but entitlement to take your place among whatever professional sphere you choose. I think it was in the comments of the other thread where someone thought perhaps some who identify as blue collar stop when they’ve hit “enough” on the success ladder…and maybe the more your parents had the more different your definition of “enough” is.

      I know I complain (to my husband only) about wanting more when I’m sure some people with whom I work would think I’m doing pretty well. It’s all a matter of perspective.

      1. CC*

        “I think people who grew up with professional parents feel entitled to attain that level of success themselves.”

        THIS! It’s possible that this is a matter of perception and I am mistaken, but I often felt undeserving of my current professional/financial position and I didn’t see that same doubt in my colleagues. They just expected it, but in my case, I was constantly surprised and doubtful of it.

        It’s possible that these expectations manifest when it’s time to apply for promotions or negotiate salary. If you feel entitled to a better position and more money, I suppose you might come across as more confident.

  35. Anonymous*

    Understanding that your employment is a business deal between you and the company – they’re not just doing you a favour by employing you and it’s fine for you to raise issues and problems.

    In one of my first white-collar jobs, I started to feel like I was under too much pressure and was essentially given 2-3 people’s workload to tackle on my own. When I asked my parents for advice, I was told to simply suck it up and that I should be grateful for having a job at all. Bringing up any issues with my manager was a no-no to my parents, because they felt if I did I would be fired and that as an employee I had a duty to do all that was asked of me. Their view was that “The Managers” should be respected and never questioned. I think that viewpoint comes from having held unskilled jobs for much of their life – being a squeaky wheel was not the done thing – they knew they could easily be fired and replaced and so to keep their jobs, they had to keep their mouths shut.

  36. -X-*

    The distinction of blue collar/white collar in a lot of this is confusing me.

    I think too many of the posters are assuming blue collar in a very hierarchical environment, such as many factories. But that’s not always the case – some workshop and even factories can give blue collar workers a fair amount of autonomy.

    Similarly, a call center (especially a large, badly run one) might ostensibly be white collar, but have near zero opportunity for personal initiative or autonomy.

    1. Heather*

      I think we’re all just using it mean someone who is socialized as working-class vs. people who were socialized as middle-class. Yes you can make good money as a plumber, but your social values tend to be different (although not always). You can also make horrible money as a university adjunct professor, but again the social values are different. While often times it does come to straight money economics, a big part that most of us are focusing on is the social aspect. I wasn’t expected to go to college, it was a choice I made. Almost none of my other classmates felt that this was a choice but something that they had to do.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, I see this as a class discussion couched in work terms. And as long as the observations are useful to somebody, I’m not sure it matters exactly what categorization we’re using.

    2. Natalie*

      Interesting. I tend to use the vocabulary of blue collar and white collar out of habit, but I would not consider a call center to be white collar work.

      In present day America the distinction seems to be more between jobs that require a higher level of education and grant a bit more autonomy, versus jobs that require very little education and are highly structured. A call center is typically the latter.

      I do wonder how rigid the distinction was 50 or 100 years ago. I suspect there was a lot more fuzziness then, too, but we’ve lost that as we’ve developed a cultural narrative.

      1. Lulu*

        This distinction confuses me, maybe because I never felt like my “admin” type jobs technically required much education, and I didn’t really have much autonomy (although sometimes I just decided I was going to create my own projects to add because I was so bored). But I still considered it to be a white collar job. To me, blue collar is more a trade or physical labor – maybe the kind of thing you don’t really “advance” out of, you might just continue to gain more years of experience and thus pass through different levels. Or as Heather and fposte mentioned, a social class distinction.

      2. doreen*

        Some of those jobs didn’t exist ( like call centers) but in the 70s-80s there was another term – “pink collar worker” . I’m not sure how popular the term was, but it referred to stereotypically female jobs without much autonomy and that usually didn’t require much education. It’s not really accurate anymore, as there are more men in these jobs than there used to be, and for this group of jobs working-class is a better description than either white or blue collar.

  37. Anon*

    I feel like I come from a mix-my parents started as blue collar and transitioned into white collar. We also started in a city and then moved to an affluent suburb. Though neither parent has a degree, they have self educated quite a bit and are very intelligent and well-spoken. My father especially worked hard to build his vocabulary. At the same time, we didn’t have as much money as everyone else, though we were comfortable and middle class by this point. It did make me feel a little self conscious, especially as a lot of the girls had designer bags and would tease me about my “fakes.” Even our house was one of the smaller ones and, compared to everyone else’s, felt crowded.

    I did notice that, in families more affluent than my own, parents watched their kids like hawks. They kept their kids on very regimented schedules, had no qualms about contesting grades kids received, were horrified that my parents “let” me go to college in “the big city” because I’m their “baby” (really, I’m actually the eldest and had proven myself quite responsible, level headed, and practical), and were OK with calling their kids’ professors about grades. These kids were so overwrought with expectations, they did a lot of drugs (and could afford coke and the like). We actually lost quite a few teens to drugs and reckless behavior. Just goes to show you that wealthy communities have problems, too.

    I’ve also noticed this in classmates at university. A lot of them had everything handed to them and didn’t take school seriously, yet God forbid they get less than an “A.” A lot of kids got away with not having to work at all-no summer jobs, not even internships, yet would cry about it their senior year. Further, because of their helicopter parents, a lot of them had very few survival skills. They’d get fired from food service jobs in a month because they “didn’t feel like working.” They never had to save diligently to pay their rent, because Mommy and Daddy paid it for them. It reminded me of a saying in my own family, “Oh, poor me! My diamond shoes are too tight and my wallet can’t hold my 100’s!”

    I know these are huge generalizations and certainly, not every person from an affluent background is like this (my partner isn’t and is quite conscious of privilege). I also know that there are many who did a lot worse than my family and I’m awed by how much work my parents did. All the same, I think that there is a stereotype about people from white collar backgrounds coming off as a bit pretentious and entitled, especially if they are well educated or in high up positions. Of course, this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, but it is something I’ve noticed quite a bit.

    1. Editor*

      “She’s a rich girl, she don’t try to hide it, diamonds on the soles of her shoes…”

      Thanks for the Paul Simon moment.

    2. Rana*

      As a child of middle-class, professional parents (one of whom grew up blue-collar), I definitely think the survival skills part of that is very true. My parents wanted my brother and I to be independent sorts, but that awareness of the parental and family safety net does get into your head in a fairly permanent way. I still have trouble with my “hustle” work-wise, because part of me still feels that if I screw up in a serious way, I can count on my family to fix things at least financially, even if I’d be horribly embarrassed should it come to that.

      1. JT*

        “that awareness of the parental and family safety net does get into your head in a fairly permanent way.”


        Though that’s perhaps more of a class/money thing and not due, per se, to blue collar vs white collar.

  38. Vicki*

    At my first “real” job out of grad school (a programmer at a large Biotech firm, very “white collar”), we started out living 50 miles from where I got the job. The commute included a bridge, a tunnel, and a lot of bad traffic. So I found a vanpool.

    The vanpool got me to work at 7:45 am and left in the evening at 6pm (that’s more than 9 hours on site even if you don’t count lunch). I talked to my manager about this and he gave me advice that I cherish to this day.

    He said “You’re paid to work 40 hours a week. If you work more than 40 hours, the pay doesn’t change. So, unless there is an urgent need to work longer, you should put in 40 hours per week.”

    We set my schedule so that I took the vanpool 4 days a week. On Wednesdays, I slept later, had brunch with my spouse, then drove in at 1:30 (no traffic) and left between 6:30 and 7 (lighter traffic).

  39. Tiff*

    Oh, and I’ll also add: Know when to shut it.

    This may apply to folks like me who are natural talkers, think out loud, not very shy. I see a lot of advice aimed at folks who are naturally more quiet, but us blabbermouths need help too.

    Before you speak, pause for a few moments. Don’t talk over people, and make sure your comments add value to a conversation rather than taking it off track.

    Also, a general rule for everyone: find out who has authority, and what kind. One of the things I learned from my first corporate job is that there are sharks out there, and if you’re not careful someone will come along and “assign” something to you that you shouldn’t have to do. It’s almost a right of passage in some offices.

  40. An HR Person*

    My mother’s family has been white-collar for generations (therapist, bankers, etc.). My father’s family has been blue-collar for generations (autoworkers, postal carriers, etc.). I have had the benefit, in my upbringing to take advantage of many of the opportunities children of middle-class, white-collar folks, while being exposed every day to blue collar experiences.

    It’s interesting hearing the perspective of my parents as I’ve progressed through my career. When I had a problem, my dad would say things like, “just talk to your rep” or “tell them it’s not in your job description” (which I knew were not applicable to my situation.) My father also made references to “putting in his 8 hours” and talked a lot about seniority as a determination of pay, and cushy positions. To this day, even though my father knows that I have progressed pretty far down the white-collar career track, he still makes comments such as this. I can see how I could have entered the workforce with a profound lack of understanding of how the white-collar world operated if I hadn’t also been exposed to my mother’s influence.

    I think my main advice would be twofold:
    1. Be aware that your blue-collar parent(s), friends, etc. may not truly understand your work situation and you should keep that in mind when taking their advice. That’s not to say all the advice is bad, just that some of it may not work well for your situation. I learned very early on that I needed to be careful about double-checking work advice coming from my father.

    2. Realize that in many white-collar positions your job description is most likely not an all inclusive list of your work duties, and is subject to change (with or without notice) in a way that might not be true in a blue collar environment. My father cannot understand why I’m involved in some things at work – he considers it extra work without pay, whereas my mother considers it an great opportunity to learn new things.

  41. Diane*

    My parents came from blue-collar backgrounds, but pushed us toward white-collar professions. Both of my parents grew up on farms. Nothing was every wasted, and it’s a point of pride to fix things rather than call for help. We were also expected to do well in school, use proper speech and writing, read voraciously, go to college, and look up things we don’t understand.

    Some of that made my professional life easier, but there were so many things I just didn’t get.

    Communication and boundaries always mystified me. I didn’t get the nuances of communication. I took criticism far too personally, was far too hesitant to provide feedback or criticism to others, was completely unequipped to stand up to unreasonable criticism or demands (because I couldn’t tell the difference), and couldn’t keep my own reactions in check, so I was too visibly upset. I’m still working on reading the difference between professional interest and personal, especially in my current overly-friendly, boundary-blind workplace that calls itself family (but is the dysfunctional kind that plays favorites, not the mythical Norman Rockwell kind). So, knowing where the line is between oversharing and professional chatter is tough (“How is your family?” gets “Fine” and maybe even, “My mom is recovering well from knee surgery. How’s your dad?” rather than, “My stupid sister just blah blah blah . . . “).

    I wish I could tell my younger self to talk less and listen more, to mirror others’ communication, even if it feels insincere, and practice honest, unemotional communication when it’s truly called for. That and find a mentor or two.

    1. Editor*

      I grew up in a rural area, and so communicating at work is sometimes an issue with me still, because my perspective was based on knowing everyone in the room. I learned to be comfortable with lots of different people (rich farmers still get dirty dealing with sick cows), and I tend not to judge by appearance. But I share too much sometimes.

      Basically, however, I had a middle class white collar background. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

      A. Keep your desk as clean or cleaner as other desks and work areas. In the last several places I’ve worked, the slobs have all been blue-collar-background males. There are plenty of blue-collar males who aren’t slobs, but the worst of the dirty were guys who were not well spoken, even when they could and did write properly. This is about cleanliness, not tidiness. If you have more empty soda cans and dead papers under your desk than anyone else, if no one will willingly touch your keyboard because of the crumbs and general dirt and if there’s trash in your hovel that isn’t in the garbage can, clean up.

      B. Practice speaking properly and eating with proper table manners so you can do so when necessary. If you have to do code-switching, do your practice speech and manners over lunch, when running errands and any other time you’re not at home. If you code-switch to write but not to speak, start talking like other people do at work — don’t write “Jason and I will review the deliverables report this afternoon” in an email and then announce to all and sundry that “George and me are going to lunch.”

      C. Learn about benefits, retirement plans, and money. Read all the handouts. Watch Suze Orman or Dave Ramsey to learn about money. Buy a basic investment guide to learn terms, and listen to some kind of business news radio broadcast every day to become more familiar with money, insurance, the stock market and so on. Understand that your company cannot tell you which funds to allocate your 401(k) to, and all the funds in a cheaply run 401(k) may be mediocre at best. Review your financial situation and update your beneficiaries at least once a year — probably whenever it is time to sign up for benefits at work. If at all possible, use Quicken or something to track your spending. Don’t draw on retirement money or borrow against it to pay for anything except the most dire emergencies.

      D. Even if you can’t afford expensive clothes, look at what more expensive shops are presenting in their windows and ads. This is particularly true for guys. Men who have to wear dress pants may be able to get by with only a few pairs if the pants are washable and can be cleaned in two small loads of laundry a week at home. If you pay by the load, buy light and medium colored shirts and pair them with khakis so you can wash them all together, or buy dark colored shirts and slacks and combine them for a load. Go to a store like Macy’s and ask in the men’s department for help buying one item — a shirt — to find out whether lighter colors look better on you or whether darker colors are good, and get all the info out of the sales people you can while spending relatively less than say, you would on a suit. (About color — my husband had medium brown hair and fair skin, and wearing tan made him fade into the woodwork, but a medium or dark blue shirt made him and his blue eyes more visible in a totally businesslike way.) If your drycleaner has a tailor and you have size issues, see if the tailor has any useful advice about the best brands for alterations or the most durable fabrics that wash or clean well.

      E. Listening to a podcast while reading a transcription can help a white-collar employee learn the correct spellings of words that they may have heard but not looked up. Or look up words your spell checker flags unless they’re minor typos.

      F. Learn things on your own in your own time, either by asking questions, watching work-related videos, taking college classes, or reading. One big thing I noticed about blue-collar-background people who weren’t advancing is that they weren’t observant, they waited for training to be offered, and they didn’t plan their work flow or their career trajectories at all. The people who didn’t advance — no matter where they grew up — seemed to be more passive about decision-making and learning in general.

      G. Keep your car free of trash, too. Because your co-workers will notice all those fast-food bags in the back seat and they will confirm your worst fears by talking about it behind your back, even if you aren’t blue collar or messy in the office.

  42. Mints*

    I feel like my situation is kind of peculiar. My mom is from a country that was socialist and had a civil war, so even if you had a white collar profession, there was a sense of everyone being on the same team at all times. There wasn’t much of a distinction unless you were very very rich.
    My mom always stressed being polite and nice to everybody, so some of that “white collar people are more diplomatic” does not resonate with me. And she speaks really proper (not English)
    One thing that I often feel nervous about is meals or business lunches. We eat food differently at home. Whenever I see more than one fork, that lady from the Titanic pops in my head (start outside and work your way in). One time in particular, I was trying really hard to not make a mess of something saucy I was eating, thus eating really slowly, and the big cheese made a joke about how little I had ate. I laughed, but I felt more nervous that he had noticed anything, when I was trying to blend in

    1. Diane*

      Oh, you’re so right about food and eating! I cringe when I’m at a meal with coworkers or friends who hunch over their plates and shovel food into their mouths like they’re starving, or talk with their mouths full. I always try to keep my orders simple and non-messy so that when I inevitably drip sauce on my shirt, it’s not too visible.

  43. Poncho*

    Marking this thread for later. Still need to figure out cultural norms for office work, so this seems as good a place as any to start.

  44. KPI*

    I grew up with blue-collared parents and am now working in a white-collar environment. I definitely can relate to many of the differences my blue-collared parents raised me compared to a white-collared family.

    The other day, I found myself in a 5-person team meeting with the senior director at my department. Every one of my team members were interacting with the sr. director and talking about their personal lives while I was really quiet (I usually am anyway) but I also felt timid to speak with him. I’m sure everyone in my team noticed and the sr. director even tried to get me to join in on the conversation. I just didn’t feel comfortable regardless of how personable the sr. director is. There is always this feeling of nervousness/anxiety I get around people with authority.

    One other thing I don’t feel comfortable doing is going into my manager’s office. My teammate and I had a question and she was very open about going into my manager’s office just out of the blue and asking her a question, while I always feel hesitant and feel like she would be busy to. I always send anIM or e-mail with a heads up first, lol, is that weird or what.

    1. Anonymous*

      Well different people have different communication styles. Maybe your manager prefers IMs over people barging into her office.

  45. BCranston*

    This is a really interesting discussion and something I have witnessed here at my first “real” corporate job. The coworkers with white collar parents seem (to me) to have different nuanced capabilities. I may be just as smart and accomplished and capable as they are, but they have social capabilities, expectations and viewpoints that are set differently from mine.

    My father is an artist and my mother was a graphic designer, and they both came from blue collar families. We got one hell of a message growing up – the blue collar “put your head down, do your work, work hard, do what the boss says and be humble” along with “fight The Man! fight The Man! You must be original and walk your own path!” which, obviously, are two opposite ends of the spectrum and difficult to reconcile.

    I have learned more at my job about how to work long term in a true white collar large company space than I have with expanding my work capabilities. I will admit I have been guilty of plenty of the transgressions listed above: I wasn’t skilled in voicing my opinion/concerns/thoughts, that I took criticism personally, and have had difficulty adapting my personality (which tends to the blunt) to the environment. I do work for a very conservative company, which hasn’t exactly helped, and I haven’t been able to find mentors (or even a decent coach) or have been stymied by politics here and there. It does make me feel better that there are others who have also had the same difficulties and challenges, and it also helps to see that they have overcome these challenges with time and some coaching. I can tell I have managed to improve somewhat on my own, but I do need to find a mentor and better opportunities at work to finish the process.

    My mom came from a family that had been wealthy and high-placed the previous generation and so we were raised to know how to make small talk and pleasantries, to listen effectively, dress appropriately, and how to hold a decent cocktail conversation (and how to handle liquor), regardless of who you were speaking with. At the very least I have those skills down, which have come in very handy at points along the way!

  46. KPI*

    Yes white-collared kids have advantages but so do blue-collared kids.

    I think it’s important to look at it the other way around. In my experience, growing up with blue-collared parents does have its own advantages. Maturity and independence is the biggest difference. I know someone who grew up with blue-collared parents and found a salaried paying job right out of college and has her own place and is financially independent while there are white-collared parent’s kids who are still at home and working in a job they are not happy in.

    Blue-collared kids know how to follow directions and respect people more. I think they are the ones who ie know the maintenance worker’s name.

    1. Anonymous*

      Your description of white-collared kids seem more like ‘spoiled brats’ than anything else. I think that attitude is possible in both white- and blue-collared households.

      1. Rana*

        Well, it is a simple fact that middle-class and upper-middle-class families are more able to offer a financial cushion for struggling young adults, and there are social pressures on them to do so, too. Speaking for myself, as someone raised in such a family, I do think that my life-long awareness of that safety net has affected my attitude toward work, especially hard or difficult work, and not always in a good way.

        1. Jamie*

          This is very astute. I didn’t have that as an adult because I lost my parents when I was younger (before working) but almost 20 years later there isn’t one rough patch I’ve hit, emotionally or financially, that I don’t ache for my dad wishing he were here to fix everything.

          I still feel that loss of security very acutely.

  47. FreeThinkerTX*

    My boyfriend comes from a blue-collar family. And while he owns his own residential and store-front window cleaning company, he has never worked in Corporate America. When I’ve come home with some complaint or another about work, he has never been able to help me. His advice is of the, “That’s not fair! You should report them!” variety. I have to point out to him that (A) Life isn’t fair, and (B) There isn’t anyone to “report them to”, because my grievances are of the I’m-annoyed-by-office-politics variety. He has no understanding of how to “manage” people, especially how to “manage” one’s manager.

    I think blue-collar workers — especially those with union experience — are not adequately prepared to deal with the subtle finessing that is needed in the corporate world to get things done. There is no Overseer or Board that exists to make your job easier. You own all of it. If you don’t get along with another employee… you own that relationship. If you don’t get along with your boss… you own that relationship. If you think you’re carrying too large of a workload, or aren’t paid enough for what you do… it’s up to you to make a solid case to your management for why you should have a lighter workload or a heavier paycheck. You can’t just complain to a higher-up and have them take care of it for you.

    I am a second-generation white collar worker. My mom encouraged me to read lots of books on business etiquette and on entrepreneurship (to learn to think like a business owner, not like an entitled employee). And to read whatever was top on the Forbes business book list, to be in-sync with what the execs of my company were probably reading and thinking. It was great advice that has served me well over the years.

  48. BCranston*

    I would be interested to know if these findings carried over to corporate environments in other countries. Is that mentioned in the book anywhere?

  49. Anonymous*

    One thing I don’t see mentioned is education. A lot of blue collar workers, didn’t graduate high school or just barely graduated, due to low GPAs. It’s more a symptom of a blue collar background, and not the reason for it. There is still a stigma against not having a high school diploma. A lot of people who managed to move from a blue collar background to white collar work, did much better in high school and are much more likely to go to college. Those same skills used in higher level education – asking questions, being able to find info on your own, being able to do your own projects without hand holding – is reflected in how must white collar jobs work.

    1. aname*

      I think this is an overgeneralisation to be honest. A considerable amount of the Blue Collar job holders at my company did well in school. They just drifted to the more physical manufacturing jobs rather than the office/computer/talking white colour jobs.

      1. LPBB*

        This really is an overgeneralization and I think it reflects what others have mentioned upthread about the need to define terms. Plumbers and factory line workers are both considered “blue collar,” but both require completely different skill sets and, I would argue, that something like plumbing requires a lot of what you stated as being white collar skills — ” asking questions, being able to find info on your own, being able to do your own projects without hand holding.”

        Just because someone works with their hands doesn’t mean that they are dumb, did not do well in school, etc. Some people prefer to work in one environment rather than another. No offense, but I think that your attitude is part of why trade work has been so devalued in our economy and society and why we have such a glut of college degree holders who can’t find work and employers who can’t find skilled trade workers.

      2. KayDay*

        Also late to the party, but this discussion is worth coming back to.

        I think the difference isn’t if an individual got a college degree, but if a college degree is normally required in the industry as a whole.

        Also, I know a surmising number of people from my middle-class/white collar high school and college who graduated college and then decided to get training to be a nurse*/police officer/etc when they realized they didn’t really like office work.

        *p.s. I do realize that RNs normally need a BA. And many police officers have degrees, too.

    2. Amanda*

      Coming late to the party, but not everyone would be happy in an office job and staring at the computer 8 hours a day. Even though I would probably be classified as “white collar” I can understand that mindset and have found myself attracted to lower-level nonprofit jobs that tend to involve more face to face interaction with clients/people served by the organization. Some very smart and capable people LIKE a more physical job and cringe at an office environment.

  50. Anonadog*

    Some of you have touched on this above: I think a big part of blue-collar mentality is staying at a job for the long haul.

    Both of my parents were blue-collar workers. My mother has worked at the same hospital for 30+ years. My father worked at an industrial plant for 25+ years, until they closed and laid him off. All my great aunts and uncles held the same jobs for 20+ years. No one ever looked for another job unless they were laid off and had to.

    When I, one of the first white-collar workers in my family, express my frustration about my job (been there almost 6 years) and mention I might try to find another, my parents express concern: “Oh wow, isn’t it risky to try to find another job? Wouldn’t you rather stay and see if things get better?”

    I’m not sure quite what drives the stay-with-it mindset, even for a job that’s terrible. Most of the people in my family hate/hated their jobs, but they still did them for decades. I have to remind myself that I don’t “have to” stay at my job until I’m laid off or retire.

  51. Aunt Snow*

    Wow, this is an amazing discussion. I worked in a union-represented blue-collar job for some 20 years, and then changed careers into a white collar office job in a large bureaucracy. I can say there certainly are a lot of differences and it’s tricky to navigate.

    In my blue-collar job, we worked really hard, physically, when there was work to do. When there wasn’t actual work to be done at that moment, if we were still on the clock, it was OK to play cards, watch TV, read books, sit around and talk. (this was consistent with the way our industry worked). When I moved to the office world, I was surprised to discover that I had to look busy, even when there was nothing to do.

    I also didn’t really know what the office people did; in my mind and my co-workers’ we thought they were always scheming to keep us down – when I moved into the office, I realized quickly that was totally not the case.

    One very odd thing I noticed when I moved from blue-collar to white collar is regarding sexism. I was among the first women in my blue-collar job when I began it, and it was a hard-fought battle to achieve equality and respect, but it eventually happened.

    Then I moved into the office, and I began to notice sexism everywhere – not so much harassment or ugliness, but subtle sexism I never encountered in the shop or in the field. Things like making the women do all the work that has to do with typing – even among teams of peers, the men were never assigned to write the reports. it always seemed to be accepted that the women would prepare the documents, etc. And I never heard the word “girls” used on the shop floor as I much as I did in the office. People would say things like “that girl in accounts payable” or “I talked to the girl at the bank,” – when I was a blue-collar worker, the only time anyone used the word “girl” it was with irony and air-quotes. We were “women” in our work clothes.

    Another big change is visibility. Blue collar workers are invisible – you can hide. But it seems like in an office you’re always being watched.

  52. Jasmine*

    Coming almost entirely from a blue collar background, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of language and social skills. The fact that I am a giant bookworm has done more to prepare me for the white collar world than almost anything else in my life.

    Because I read books like “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and books by Steven Covey when I was 12 (thank you Mom!), it simply never occurred to me to seek out anything other than white collar work or becoming a business owner. And, much more significantly, it never seemed to occur to anyone else either, including family members.

    My high degree of social and linguistic fluency is entirely the result of reading constantly, and absorbing social nuances in fantasy and historical fiction. As a nice side effect, I feel utterly at home with the complex social nuances of the office world. (And when I don’t, I seek out more information on that topic…which is why I read this blog!)

    (I learned how to speak with authority from “How to Win Friends and Influence People”….basically the most useful book ever written. Seriously. It teaches you how to hack human relationships. It’s amazing. All of you who are nervous around authority figures? Go read that book.)

    One of the distinguishing factors about white collar work is that it is invisible. There is often no physical accomplishment at the end of the day- you can’t count or measure the amount of product you have touched; your sore muscles don’t tell you how hard you have worked. When you DO have those markers, your social and cultural fluency simply doesn’t matter as much; your output is obvious and visible to anyone who wants to see it.

    When you’re working white collar, you need skills of persuasion, rhetoric, social manoeuvring, and interpersonal communication. Nobody knows how productive you are. They know how pleasant you are, how helpful , whether you can convincingly show that you have too much work or not enough. Your work itself can be entirely invisible; it is your behaviour when you’re NOT working that tells other people whether or not you know what you are doing. And it’s that second set of cultural and social “rules” that can trip people up when they move from one workplace culture to another.

  53. Arvesse*

    Having had jobs in both world, I’d say the biggest difference was the percentage of smokers & tobacco chewers. Smoking is common among all age groups in the blue collar world, and fairly rare in the white collar world, especially among young professionals. There were some older smokers in the offices I’ve worked in, but it seems to be getting rarer. And chewing tobacco even more so! Of course there’s other addiction problems in white collar workers, they’re just much, much less likely to talk about it at work. Tone is also important when talking about tobacco, drinking, and drug use: at an hourly-sales job, I’ve had coworkers freely talk about these to anyone within range, while at a engineering firm I can’t imagine it even being mentioned.

    Other things others have covered that I’ll second: if you’re new to the white collar world, read a reputable newspaper, learn about money, and dress as well as you can.

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