my junior employee’s expectations are out of whack

A reader writes:

I have a relatively new staff member who is in his first professional job after grad school. He’s a great employee and is always eager to take on more, but I’m starting to see a problem that I need some help with — he’s getting dissatisfied because there isn’t always more for him to take on.

I want to be a supportive supervisor and offer him opportunities and challenges when they arise, but I think I need to help him understand that a big part of work life is just doing your job every day, especially when you’re new to the profession. There’s not always going to be some big new project you’re asked to take on, and when you’re a lower-level staff member, you’re not always going to be participating in the high-level work that involves decision-making. I think he’s still in the mindset of grad school and internships, where being a star is important, and everything is very project-oriented.

I’ve supervised staff before, but they were clerical workers in positions without opportunity for growth. This is my first time supervising someone who really wants to be challenged and who I feel I have an obligation to cultivate as a new member of the profession. But as a middle manager I don’t have the freedom to create opportunities for him. How can I help him adjust his expectations of what work life is like without being a total downer? (And conversely, how can I adjust my own mindset so I don’t feel guilty that the job is what it is?)

Yeah, the transition from being a star in school to being on the lowest rung of the ladder at work can be jarring. It’s super weird to go from spending your days debating Kant and dissecting symbolism in Victorian literature to being asked to spend hours collating documents or making PowerPoints for someone else’s work.

The reality, though, is that lots of jobs just aren’t that glamorous or exciting. Not every job, especially the jobs people typically have at the start of their careers, is going to come with a steady flow of new challenges and high-profile projects.

That can go down a lot more easily, I think, when two things are clear to the person in that kind of role: First, that it’s not a reflection on their talent or abilities, or the result of them not taking enough initiative, but rather just the nature of what the job requires; and second, that this isn’t all they can expect from work for the remainder of their days, that doing this work well now is what will get them access to more interesting work later.

But it might be that you need to lay that out pretty explicitly for your staff member. People don’t always understand this intuitively, and that can result in real frustration if someone on their side doesn’t take the time to explain it.

So I’d sit down with him and have a straightforward conversation about all this. To lead into it, you might start by asking him how things are going generally and how the job is measuring up to the expectations he had when he came onboard. Make it clear that you’re genuinely interested in knowing what his experience with the role has been like so far. If he doesn’t raise the concerns that you’re worried about, you could say something like this: “At times, I’ve gotten the sense that you’d like to be taking more on. I want to be transparent with you about the fact that the nature of this job is that sometimes there really isn’t more to take on. The measure of success in this job is really about [fill in what it’s about, for example, being responsive to client calls or supporting your research team], and it’s not a role with a ton of opportunity to take on work outside of that. That said, I think you’re quite talented and you’re building a track record of doing X really well. That track record and the rest of the experience you’re getting here is going to give you a good foundation for eventually moving on to roles like Y or Z, where you’ll have an opportunity to do higher-level work.”

Ideally, this will start a more open conversation with him about the nature of the role and what’s reasonable to expect from it. It’ll also probably give you more data about how much this is really bothering him (and you might find out that it’s less of an issue on his end than you think).

That said, though, it’s worth noting that for a lot of people, feeling like they’re growing and being challenged is one of the biggest determinants of their happiness at work. If this guy is talented and you want to retain him for a while and keep him reasonably fulfilled by his job, it’s worth thinking through whether there are additional things you could offer him. I hear you that there’s not a lot of opportunity to give him new projects, but what about other things? For example, could he occasionally sit in on meetings that he wouldn’t normally attend so that he can get a better feel for how decisions are made above him, or help coach an intern, or go to the sort of conferences that he’ll probably find deathly boring in a few years but which might be interesting and novel to him now?

And if he’s truly talented and you see a lot of potential in him, you also might find ways to mentor him. For instance, you might invite him to sit in while you run important meetings and then debrief with him afterward and point out why you did or said particular things. You might also look for opportunities to talk to him about challenges and decisions you’re facing in your own job, the options you’re considering, the factors you have to take into account, and what you’re deciding and why. Doing that sort of thing will help him hone his own instincts, which will be hugely helpful for whatever he does next and likely make him feel that he’s developing in ways that simply doing his own work wouldn’t provide.

But at the same time, it’s okay to recognize that this might be a transitory job for most people, one that they’ll use to build up work experience and then move on from after, say, two years. And that’s totally fine — your measure of success here shouldn’t be “person feels fulfilled by the work forever,” but “person stays a couple of years, does a good job, and then moves on.” The key, really, is to be transparent with people during the hiring process about the nature of the work and what the job does and doesn’t entail, so that people have a realistic picture of what they’re signing on for. Think of it as truth in advertising, so that people who will chafe against the constraints of the role can self-select out before you bring them on.

All of this should help with your guilt, too. If you know that you’re being upfront with people from the start and that you don’t expect people to stay forever, I think you’ll get more comfortable with the idea that this is just what the job is — and that you’re not doing anyone a disservice by acknowledging that openly and helping them figure out how to get what they can from the job within those confines.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 89 comments… read them below }

  1. Anna*

    I have a question that kind of builds on this question. I have one of these jobs where there “really isn’t a whole lot more to take on.” Most everything is very routine, and what shows that I’m doing my job the best is when no one notices. It is really hard to think of ways to stand out. I struggle with my resume and my yearly self evaluation, because both essentially ask “what have you accomplished?” When you have a job like this, how to you make yourself look, feel, and sound awesome enough to move up? (something I’d like to do soon, since I’ve been at this same job for more than five years and honestly, I’m bored out of my mind.)

    1. nofelix*

      “what shows that I’m doing my job the best is when no one notices”

      So can you talk about your reliability? How has your support helped important work get done smoothly?

    2. Adam*

      This is me to a T. My manager and I can go a week or more without talking as he knows he doesn’t need to keep tabs on me and the work will get done. It’s nice having that trust and freedom.

      On the other hand, my job is a very “as is” position that is not designed to grow and advance in, especially at the place I currently work. I can do my job in my sleep, so in the end I think it comes down to how long am I willing to be bored out of my skull before I seriously look elsewhere.

    3. Trout 'Waver*

      If your manager is halfway decent, they know that you get things done well. As a manager, it is a luxury to have a critical team function run well to the point you only have to check in occasionally.

      If it’s a support role, you can say things like, “Supported 23 internal customers with 0 complaints”. Or “Proofread 345 technical documents with only 3 reports of typos.” If it’s more technical, you could say something like, “Maintained the teapot kiln with 97% up-time,” or “retrieved 2,100 samples from the archives with 0 lost or missing samples.”

    4. Not an IT Guy*

      I had the same thing in mind when I read the question. It sounds like the staff member is aware and wants to have accomplishments right out of the gate, cause after all no accomplishments equals no resume.

  2. Aonn today*

    I agree with Alison’s comments on this, especially the part about being (or helping him find) a mentor. I would add that he owns 90% of charting and executing his career so don’t bear the entire burden of making his workplace all challenge and potential success vs dashing his expectations. Perhaps you can help him explore ways he can challenge himself and develop additional skills outside of work. Specialty course work? Writing a blog? Volunteering for something related? All those efforts are cumulative so he might be well served to do side things as an adjunct while he’s paying his dues in the workplace.

    1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

      We brought in new engineers recently, fresh out of school. I’m one of their mentors – my task is to help them transitions from grades and top performance and constant validation to….the real world. They all have tech mentors for skills, but they are all grateful to have someone help them get acquainted with the office.

      And yes, I told them straight off that they were in Kindergarten when I began my career and that’s OK. I’m not awkward about that. I saw visible signs of relief :)

      1. WorkingMom*

        This is great! I notice with new hires either fresh out of school, or even one or two years out of school; they struggle with the idea that you just do this job every day for a long period of time. They are used to being “promoted” to the next grade each year, being rewarded for performance both academic and music/sports/drama/art, etc. They are used to high praise. Then they get a job and they sit in their cube and do their work for month and wonder what’s next. I love the idea of a mentor to help with the transition!

  3. Important Moi*

    Isn’t the flip side of the OP who thought his/her teammates couldn’t do a any job as well as he/she could and wanted to do everything himself/herself?

    1. Karo*

      Not really, no. There’s no indication that the employee is running roughshod over everyone else to do all the work himself, or that he thinks he’s better than other employees. It’s just an employee wanting to be able to learn and grow.

  4. Important Moi*

    Now for my pragmatic answer.

    Are there any processes in your office this person could streamline or revamp?
    Can this person take an (ideally) free online course at work? (I may be reaching here.)

    Having said that, I’d look forward to the answers.

    1. AnotherHRPro*

      This is what I came to say. Even the most routine jobs provide opportunities for employees to improve the way the work is done. I would challenge the employee to look for ways they can improve the work for which they are responsible. Can the TPS report be reformatted to be more user friendly? Does the approval process flow for teapot indemnity need simplification? Is there a way to improve the customer experience when ordering teapot replacement parts? Employees can develop and be a star in their own jobs if they focus on the right thing. Sometime individuals want to receive special opportunities from their manager to shine when they can make those opportunities themselves.

    2. OhNo*

      Some possible additional ideas (from my current job in one of these roles):

      Is there any industry-specific software you can have him start training on? That can help him get set up for future projects that might require it.
      Are there any committees (hiring, departmental, process, etc.) that he can join? Bonus points if it’s anything he can attend in your stead or as a representative for the department.
      Can you give him any of the grunt work from one of your or someone else’s projects? It’s not very exciting, but cross-training with other positions might interest him.
      Do you have any repeating projects (reports, data collection, etc.) that he can take over? Again, not exciting, but being able to ‘own’ a repeat mini-project like that might help keep his dissatisfaction at bay.

  5. Amber T*

    This was a huge struggle for me for my first few years out of college, and honestly still can be. I’d get my tasks done, then sit there asking what else can I do? It would frustrate me to no end that I’d see so many people crazy busy and I’m sitting around browsing CNN (this was before I discovered AAM!). But I eventually realized that it’s one thing to assist the director of a department, it’s another thing to attempt to do the work of the director.

    OP, if you treat this right there’s a good chance you’ll have a star performer once he mellows out (and mellowing him out will definitely take some guidance from you).

    1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

      This! I have worked with several young professionals over the years who think that they can do it all or should have a say in every decision.

      I’ve found that being honest and forthright about why the decision makers are the decision makers, and helping them see the path to the next level have been helpful in coaching them to see the bigger picture.

      When I came up the idea was that you had to “earn” your seat at the table and several of my questions were answered with “why the f@&$ would you need to know that.” So I always err on the side of explaining.

      1. OP*

        Yes, this is good advice, and I do try to be honest and forthright when he asks why he’s not going to be on a particular committee (where everyone else is at a managerial level) or whatever. I take it as my responsibility to make sure he understands that there are layers of decision-making in our organization, and not everything is within my control but that I advocate for us and him specifically as much as possible and when appropriate. As a middle manager I know it’s also my responsibility sometimes to just enact and support a decision that’s made above me, even when I don’t agree with it, and I make sure he knows that’s sometimes how big organizations work. But I also hate just saying no, so I usually try to offer an alternative — eg. Project A that you thought you might be able to get involved in is already fully staffed, and with people at a higher level, but it would be really helpful if you could start laying the groundwork for Project B, that kind of thing.

        1. BusSys*

          Thinking back to my first job, ways my manager helped me with this same scenario:

          Letting me take on bigger/more challenging/ just more versions of the things I was already doing (eg from maintaining 12 accounts to 30 to 100+)

          Bringing people with problems/questions for him to me to try and help solve, particularly if I’d worked through something similar before (eg where can I get this information, how do I fix this error, how can we get this outstanding item finally taken care of)

          Taking on team documentation and policy change communication (eg when corporate decided some standards were changing, I read through what was changing and summarized to our team what it meant to us and what we needed to do to conform)

          Helping to gather and prep and do an initial review of the paperwork/filings he’d have to go through and sign off on (eg check that this cleared, that we got an answer to that, that x and y tie, and fixing or putting in motion/communicating with other parties re the fix etc

          Giving me choice bits of work from the reshuffle as people left the team through natural progression

          Training interns and new hires

          Nominating me to sit as team rep on the office team building planning and the safety committees (each team in the office would put forward a rep)

          Loaning me seasonally to another department during their crunch time (still had to do my day to day work, but helped them process year end work too)

          Noticing what I seemed particularly to enjoy about my job and introducing me to people at the next level of that that I could observe and interact with

          Being honest about how long this role would probably be one I’d stick in (2 years), and passing me great opportunities internally for my next step when the time came.

          He was a great mentor and we still keep in occasional touch. And I’d definitely consider working with him again if our job needs/wants ever lined up again.

      2. Amanda6*

        I don’t want to speak for other Millennials, but as one myself, I can say assertively that I have developed a complex about how I’m supposed to behave at work and this issue pushes a lot of buttons for me.

        I was taught by my parents to be creative, to be constantly looking for ways to improve my work, and to offer help if I can or when it may be needed. I was told that people who just sits quietly and do their work are less likely to get noticed, and that you have to stand out to advance.

        I have also internalized that my generation is lazy and entitled, or arrogant and entitled, and either way, we have to be content with working our way up slowly just like everyone else did, because we’re not special snowflakes.

        Again, I won’t speak for others, but I feel like these messages are somewhat contradictory, and while I have never felt that I can do it all or should have a say in every decision, I don’t want to be seen as the employee who only puts in the bare minimum. I am especially worried about this given, as Amber T says in her comment, that it is not uncommon for me to be able to faff around online for half my day as I have nothing else to do. I feel that it is only natural to see if there is anything else I can do, so that I am not wasting my employer’s time and money. It doesn’t have anything to do with me thinking I know better than the decision makers above me.

        This is also compounded by the fact that there seems to be limited upward mobility in a lot of the positions that are being offered graduates, and that sitting placidly like the cog in the machine that you are is a great way to get passed over come promotion time in favor of someone whose responsibilities adapted or changed over time (if both of those people don’t get shunted for an outside hire.)

        1. Jodi*

          I agree wholeheartedly with this. How are we supposed to balance “don’t look like a lazy stereotype” with “just sit there and do nothing if your work is done”?

    2. ButFirstCoffee*

      This comment was actually really helpful to me, as it is an issue I am struggling with. Some days I have a decent amount of work to do, other days I finish eveyrthing in an hour or two and a feel a mix of guilt and confusion, unsure if it is ME or the job that is the problem. Maybe the answer is neither? And this is normal? Thank you.

  6. Blurgle*

    I don’t think anyone in the history of human existence has known intuitively that their first job will likely be boring and repetitive. Everyone needs to be told that.

      1. Joan Callamezzo*

        Mine wasn’t either, which had a lot to do with why I stayed for 7 years and would’ve stayed longer, if corporate restructuring hadn’t made management go to hell in a handbasket.

    1. TCO*

      Mine either–and now I’m in my fourth post-college job and it’s the first that’s boring and repetitive. They keep telling me I need to “earn my dues,” but two years into this job and eight years into my professional career I am quite surprised to be told I’m not worthy of tasks I was performing at other workplaces several years ago.

    2. A Definite Beta Guy*

      I definitely came in expecting my first job to be boring and repetitive. I actually do not know of many young people who did not expect this.

      However, I did graduate in 2009, and anyone who had a job thanked all the deities and the devil for something that might theoretically result in a career at some point in time.

      I don’t find work fulfilling at this point. 6 months in, our “boring and repetitive” work roughly tripled, and we received a new “project” from our CEO (which was actually just boring and repetitive work our department was supposed to be doing but hadn’t. For years).
      After a couple months fo 70 hour work weeks (that’s how all new jobs are, right?) we received our performance reviews, and we were docked because we could not complete our boring work. We received no credit for the CEO’s project, because that wasn’t actually part of our goals.
      We were told “we can accomplish anything, as long as we talk about it.” Although we had been talking about our inability to meet our goals. Every month.
      “Can’t you just work the weekend this weekend?”
      No, my friend is getting married and I am standing up in the wedding.

      I guess it’s also normal to get screwed over in your first job and advocate for yourself by finding a new job, since that’s also virtually what all of us did. Not that the new jobs are really any better, but at least they pay better and actually focus on learning. First jobs for all of us were Dwayne Johnson style”know your role and shut your mouth.”

      I read AAM just for the hope that there are actually decent organizations out there! This post is a blast of sunshine.

  7. Fabulous*

    Something that I have to question is whether there is enough to keep him busy during the day and that is why he keeps asking for more. I’ve been in that situation all too often.

    1. Joseph*

      This, exactly. Not having enough work to fill a day is NOT the same as “I’m busy but bored”.
      Though if this is really the scenario, that’s actually probably a better problem to have since it’s always possible to find a way to fill empty hours. Have him come to meetings and quietly sit in the corner watching. Ask him to do some of those low-priority tasks that you’ve had to put on the back burner. Get him to start attending the monthly chapter meetings of Teapot Makers International. And so on.
      My personal favorite: Put him on a ‘research project’ of tracking down market information on your industry in general, potential clients, or major competitors. This helps him get a better feel for the business, is easy to slot in for a few hours here and there, and usually results in you learning something new and useful.

      1. OP*

        OP here — thanks, these are all great suggestions! I don’t think it’s the case necessarily that there isn’t enough work for him to do, but it may certainly be the case that he hasn’t had enough “stuff” assigned to him (in other words, as you say, there are plenty of things he could be doing that probably aren’t what he has in mind in terms of opportunities to excel, but that would kind of qualify as low-grade professional development). He’s also amazing at creating documentation and workflows, and I could see him offering to help other departments do some of that work, which would serve as cross-training for him as well as benefit them.

  8. Chickaletta*

    Oh man, if during the jobs I had in my 20s, one of my supervisors had just sat me down to say, “Look, I know this work is probably boring for you, but this is how it is for everyone. When I got out of college I did this type of work too. Almost everyone does. You’re doing a good job, and you can expect to be doing this type of work for a couple more years, then move up to X type of position in 5 years, and X type of position in 10 years. Here’s what you can do to help yourself get there (gives suggestions). Hang in there, you’re on the right track”. I tell you what, my life would be very different today because I wouldn’t have wasted all that time hoping from job to job and feeling so f’ing miserable about where I perceived my life was headed.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t have anyone in my life: friends, colleges, managers, or parents, who said something like this to me. In fact, I remember distinctly that the only career advice I got was from a manager (not mine), who told me that I might be able to move up one day if I went to college, but she didn’t realize that I already had a college degree and her “advice” just made me feel worse about myself.

    These days, I wonder at the 20 year olds who’ve figured these kinds of things out, because I sure as hell didn’t. I don’t know how you can without having lived through it.

    1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

      Yup! I wish someone had helped me connect the dots.

      Honestly, the skills I learned as a marketing coordinator (putting together presentations, editing, working with vendors/clients) are the skills that have helped me stand out.

    2. Alex the Alchemist*

      I’m 20 and I’m only figuring these things out due to the sheer luck of me finding this blog! :)

    3. copy run start*

      In fact, I remember distinctly that the only career advice I got was from a manager (not mine), who told me that I might be able to move up one day if I went to college, but she didn’t realize that I already had a college degree and her “advice” just made me feel worse about myself.

      Ugh, I’ve had that conversation too when discussing promotion opportunities. Not only did I have the required degree, but I also had exceeded the required experience for the job, which I pointed out. So my manager then doubled the experience requirements so he didn’t have to backtrack.

      RIP that awful job.

    4. GreyjoyGardens*

      If Alison’s blog had existed 20 years ago, my career would have benefited So. Much. But I am glad to see young workers being able to benefit from her advice, as well as other blogs and even discussions on generalist blogs such as Metafilter.

      People love to grouse and grumble and go all curmudgeonly about the Internet, but it has opened up whole new worlds of information for those of us who lack the social capital in our own networks. As it is, I remember getting a lot of my job information from magazines and books, which, alas, were full of The Hidden Job Market Can Be Accessed by Gumption! stuff which I know now doesn’t work. (Even kids of professional parents can miss out, if the parents are teachers or doctors or any other profession where credentialing is all-important and there really isn’t a “job ladder.”)

      The new guy the OP is writing about probably got a load of “You move up in the company by showing Gumption!” advice, not “Entry level jobs are boring and repetitive, and that’s the way it is for most of us” which is more realistic.

  9. FD*

    I was in a similar position for several years, and I had some great managers who helped me. Here are a few things that they did.

    1. They did give me random projects when they came up. Often these were very ordinary things–organize the supply room, take the fish inventory (no, really) every week, etc. These were small projects, but they were a chance for me to show that I was happy to go above and beyond my normal duties, which made me a more attractive candidate.

    2. They were honest about what I could do next in my career, and how I should get ready for it.

    3. If they knew there wasn’t an opportunity at this company, they supported me in looking for a new job. For example, I worked at a small hotel. The next logical position for me was a low-level manager, but there was only one such job at our hotel, and the person who held it had been there for many years and had no desire to go farther. (She was really good at it too.)

    1. OP*

      Thanks! Definitely yes to random projects, etc. – I responded to a similar suggestion, above. And you (and others here) are correct that this is not likely a job that he’s going to stay in long-term — in a way, this kills me because he’s such a great employee, required very little training, everyone loves him, etc. I don’t love managing but he’s made it super-easy for me. But I know that there is not likely to be a higher-level position here for him to move into for at least another couple of years, and he might not be interested in waiting that long. I need to be mindful about making sure that he’s well-prepared to move to another position elsewhere, if that’s best for him!

      1. helloitsme*

        The only thing you need to look out for though is overloading him. I had a mundane job, and I ended up liking the extra projects WAY more than my actual work. When I talked to my manager about it and let her know that my workload was doubled and I couldn’t get things done on time, she just kept telling me to push stuff off. And then months later, when everything fell way more behind… there was a problem. SO just be really aware of that, and if there is a time when he’s doing way more work, consider hiring on someone else too.

  10. C Average*

    I have nothing to add to Alison’s answer, which I thought was excellent.

    I am only here to comment on the stock image. Wasn’t she one of the Misses Moneypenny from the Roger Moore-era Bond films?

    1. OP*

      Can I just say, I’m thrilled that my letter was picked to be one of the New York Magazine columns, because of the fantastic vintage stock photos!

    2. Pennalynn Lott*

      This picture made me realize that dark lip liner with light lipstick and shiny gloss wasn’t solely a mid-80’s thing. ;-)

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        It was very, very “in” in the early 80’s, too, when I was in high school – but mostly among girls who wanted to project a “tough” image, in which case it was paired with heavy eyeliner and the signature 80’s frosted pink or peach blush. The memories!

  11. Chloe*

    I’m in a similar position to the employee in this situation. I have enough work to keep me busy for maybe 60-75% of each week and have no projects or roles which are ongoing. All of my work is to provide support to a colleague for a short time or to work on a small project.
    In the last couple of weeks I have noticed that my manager seems to have noticed that I have become frustrated with this and seems to assume the same as the OP, that I am looking for higher level work. She also seems to think that I am thinking of work as being like university, which I don’t think is happening.

    I agree with the advice to ask him how he feels about the situation, and what he wants to gain from the role. And then work with him to try to build in some of that development in smaller ways. I particularly like the idea about talking to him about situations, projects, reports etc. that you are working on and asking for input. I have been given development like this in the past and found it really valuable.

  12. Nervous Accountant*

    You know when I read the title I thought it was going to be about someone who expects huge raise/flexibility/freedom, and bracing myself for the onslaught of “millenials these days!” fist shaking posts, like that intern-petition post.

    Alison, as an aside question, I’m just curious—do you get to decide what’s posted on the NY mag website on Tuesdays? If so, how do you decide what gets posted there?

      1. Red*

        I’m guessing, but I read the question as more along the lines of “what decisions go into selecting a post as being a good fit for one of the external columns as opposed to the regular AAM page?”

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Oh! I’m not sure exactly how to articulate it, but I’ll try! I think for NYMag, I look for stuff with interesting interpersonal elements and stuff that might particularly appeal to their readership (The Cut, the section of the site where my column runs, targets women in a 25ish-40ish age range). It’s not the job search stuff or the more routine “how do I ask for a raise” type questions. Not sure if that quite captures it though.

          1. Jaguar*

            Do outlets you provide content for ever get mad that you keep a parallel comments section (that often has more activity than the destination article)?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Usually they care most about viewership numbers more than comments. I did have a freelance client ask about it once, but I explained that there’s an existing community here that AAM readers like to interact with.

  13. JP*

    I was this employee when I first started. Instead of doing anything like what Alison suggested, my boss just got annoyed with me and asked me to resign. Luckily, it didn’t impact my career, but it was a jarring experience for someone right out of grad school. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it made me realize I hated that type of work anyway.

  14. F.*

    I don’t know if they still have Career Day in most high schools, but this letter and some of the ones about interns who do not seem to have a clue about professional office norms make me think that a basic session on What to Expect in Your First Professional Job. Many of the same concepts would apply regardless of the type of job. Back when I was in high school and had my first jobs (and dinosaurs roamed the earth), I learned a lot of these things in fast food and retail, but as others pointed out on the earlier thread today, not very many young people hold jobs in high school or even in college these days. Perhaps some basic Working 101 type instruction would be useful. If not at a career day, then at least worked into the family & consumer science type course.

    1. Aurion*

      I had a Career Week where we got placed at a company and shadowed a person for a week to see what they do, follow them to do simple tasks, etc. I did internships in university too, which helped, but even so: I was still woefully unprepared when I graduated to work in the real world. Workplace norms really can’t be taught in a day (or a week).

      1. F.*

        I was thinking more along the lines of telling students that the job will sometimes be boring, that you don’t start out on the most high-profile projects, that you usually need to ask to be off work and not just take off in the middle of the day or be a no-show, that working life is nothing like you generally see on TV, etc. I’m talking very basic information.

        I agree that the subtleties cannot be taught in a day or even at all in a classroom setting, since they can vary so much from workplace to workplace.

        1. Vendrus*

          Eesh. That would have to be VERY carefully presented – I suspect it’s a pretty small selection of people who think that it’s going to be anything like you describe. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t be immediately ticked off by being told those things (though I suspect all of them would be too polite to say anything). It reeks of media attitude to ‘millennials’, whether or not it’s intended to be.

          I certainly don’t know of anyone who went into work expecting it to be particularly different to what it was, and honestly… given the course I was doing, my hours have been far shorter at work than at university (barring about a week’s worth of days). Home is also actively non-work time which just doesn’t exist at university – work is far easier in many ways!

    2. FD*

      It’d be a good idea. The tricky thing is that you’d want to have actual professionals teaching or guest-lecturing, or you’d end up with the sort of terrible advice people hear from their career counselors already.

      “Cold-call the manager!” “Send a gift to stand out!” Etc.

    3. Bookworm*

      Most schools DO offer these things, but often the info is outdated or lacks nuance (like understanding how the norms can vary by industry).

      1. CMT*

        I think some of the things you kind of just have to learn by doing, too. Even if somebody tries to warn you in advance, certain lessons just don’t stick until you’ve been there yourself.

    4. NacSacJack*

      I needed this when I graduated college. Here, this is what it is like to work in the real world. But also, what to do about all the workplace teasing that goes on. I’ve about had it with teasing in my personal and work place life.

    5. OhNo*

      I would have LOVED to have something like that in college. Or high school, or grad school, or anywhere along the line, really. Instead my first few jobs/internships seemed like a constant string of the boss asking, “The standard behavior here is XYZ. How do you not know that?” and me wondering, “Why would I know that? It’s not like I got a “how to be professional manual” in the mail the second I started working.”

    6. Elle*

      My kids’ high school invites local business professionals do “mock interview” day with the students. It’s part of a class that all of the juniors take about job preparedness. (I received the loveliest thank you letters from all of them too.)
      Also, I wanted to point out that I know quite a few high school and college students, and I’d say a good 75% of them hold down paying jobs (Target, fast food, landscaping, life guarding, etc.), as well as participate in extracurricular activities through the school – sports, band, National Honor Society, etc., volunteer work, etc. They are a busy bunch. This is just in my town though, I can’t speak for anywhere else.

    7. Pennalynn Lott*

      Everyone in the business school at my university has to take a Professional Development course wherein these topics are [supposedly] covered. But when I took it last fall, I was handed gems like, “Put your use of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram on your resume under ‘Technical Skills’ because the company that hires you might have a lot of older workers who could use help navigating those apps.” And, “Always wear business professional clothing at any job, ever.” [I raised my hand and pointed out that at my last job, a tech startup, you’d be laughed out of the room if you were dressed like that.] Also, even if you have 30 years’ work experience, your resume should still only be one page long, and should always include your GPA and school projects.

      Oh, and we had to read a book (a TEXTBOOK!) that told us to shower daily so we didn’t stink, to wear clean clothes to work, gave tips on how to wash our clothes, etc. This was a Junior-level course, not one for high-schoolers or incoming Freshmen.

      There was plenty of other eye-roll-worthy “advice”, but those stand out the most.

  15. animaniactoo*

    One thing that may be impacting this is if he has a certain kind of work ethic ingrained. When I was young and much newer to the workforce, it made me *nuts* to be paid for not doing work while I was waiting on somebody to be free so that I could get an answer/project and then proceed. Absolutely bonkers nuts. Because I was being paid to work. At some point, somebody explained to me that I was not just being paid to work, but also being paid to be *available* to work at my employer’s convenience, and prioritizing their time (dealing with me over dealing with something else) was their choice of how they “spent” my availability vs straight actual work product.

    I have now swung a bit too far in the other direction in my browsing time, and I need to work on that.* But that’s a separate thing… lol. I still hunt people down for more work (or chasing answers), but I am a lot more relaxed about it and it is phrased more in terms of availability “I’m dry if you have anything you need help with!”

    Do you have long-term projects that he might be able to work on? Absolutely dry no urgency attached “Hmmm… take a look at this and see if you see spot any issues/improvements” (are you getting the best deal on your office products? Is this the most efficient filing system? What other setups might be useful?) Are there PD things you would be happy to let him research and read during slack times? Can you point him at some of those?

    *I’m sitting here groaning today because something that I took the lead on implementing needs yet another round of changes (silly me, they always will as standards change sigh sigh), and of course I got the e-mail because I am now considered the lead contact and maintainer for this. I was mentally composing a letter to Alison: “Dear AAM. I did this thing and people keep expecting me to do it, can you tell me how I can get them to stop asking me so I can be lazier?”

    1. animaniactoo*

      btw, I don’t really want to give it up – I am the only one in my department who is detail-oriented enough to do it right consistently, and while I encourage my co-workers to learn how to do it and be comfortable doing it, this is the kind of thing that will always remain best in the hands of a person who itches if every last detail isn’t nailed down. It was just annoying today when another round of regulations came down just as the dust was settling from the last set.

    2. AR*

      Yes! Like others in this thread, I graduated college in 2009 and the best I could manage until last year was a string of slightly-better-than-bad service/retail jobs. The kinds of jobs where people use the phrases “time theft” and “if there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean” with completely straight faces. I’m 9 months into my first real office/professional job and I still expect to get yelled at/written up for doing non-work during work hours, even if I have no projects to be working on. It’s a trip.

      This particular question and response reminded me so much of me and my boss that I forwarded this to her. She already does everything Allison suggests and I had to tell her how grateful I am for spending so much time and effort developing and educating me when it’s absolutely not necessary.

  16. Jaguar*

    It’s also worth noting that this varies significantly by industry. I’ve worked in the service industry, an engineering firm, a dispatch area, and as a programmer. Programmer and engineering, there were tons of places I (or anyone else) could grow into at any given time. Service industry, not so much.

    It’s also worth considering that you might not need to supply the person new, interesting work. Why not tell him or her what challenges the company is trying to address and doesn’t currently have solutions for? A big part of growing career-wise is moving from regimented tasks to being assigned problems and having to develop new solutions. Typically, my experience has been, the more a company is willing to let employees off the leash like this, the better they are to work for.

    1. NacSacJack*

      Umm, no, not in programming. If your employer pigeonholes you to do the one thing you have tons of experience in doing and wont let you change, your only choices are: Look at your near 6 figure a year paycheck, leave for someone else who will also pigeon hole you, leave a career you’ve spent two decades building, or take a 50% cut in pay to go into some other kind of programming such as web design, web programming, database, Java.

      1. Dan*

        You have had exposure to a very limited piece of the programming world. I code, and my job is whatever I make it to be.

    2. MashaKasha*

      Came here to say this – that this varies by industry. In programming, being stuck doing boring, repetitive work is the kiss of death, because your job won’t be there forever, or likely for a long time even. A bigger company may acquire yours and lay you off, your company may go out of business, your job may be outsourced and so on. Which means that, on any given day, you need to be prepared to start looking for work. And when you do start looking, your employers won’t be looking for ten years of experience moving teapots from the shelf on your left to the shelf on your right. They will be looking for the proverbial sexy stuff on your resume. If they don’t find any, best case scenario, they will ask you why you have not done any of A, B, and C in the past ten years. Most likely, they won’t even call you back. Not only that, but the industry changes. One day you wake up to find out that teapots are obsolete and french press is all the rage now and you better learn french press and acquire some experience in working with french press. A few years down the road, french press becomes obsolete and it’s some other vacuum-brewed tea or tea in oak barrels or some other new thing and that new thing is now what every employer wants.

      The first ten or twelve years of my career had been an uphill battle to stay away from the dead-end projects and in relevant ones. I lost that battle many years ago. The kids were little and I needed flex time and good pay and good medical, so I stayed in a job that was not exactly cutting edge. And then the next, and then the next, all the way to now, where right at the moment things are good, but I have no idea whether I’ll find a next job if I need to. I would not recommend this career-building strategy to a fresh college grad, to be honest. In my field, I would absolutely 100% disagree with the idea that a college grad should start with something repetitive and boring and gradually work their way up to interesting things. If anything, in this industry, it’s more like the other way around.

  17. Julie*

    I’ve been in this employee’s situation — wanting to take on more but sometimes there just not being “more” to take on. What I’ve found useful in situations like that is to figure out what “more” stuff could be done in downtime or off-hours and get my boss to clear it. Because there’s almost always something. Some project on the back-burners that no one ever quite has time for, some element of market research, some aspect of professional development… something.

    It might be useful for the OP to get their employee to come up with some suggestions for what they’d like to do during down-time. If they’re a keener with a graduate degree, I’m sure they’ll come up with something.

    1. OP*

      Yes, good suggestion – thanks! I think asking him for ideas would be fruitful as well (and would help show that professional-level work has an aspect of self-direction, that it’s not all assignment-based).

  18. Rocky*

    I would say about half my management challenges are in the category of “junior employees expectations are out of whack,” but in general it’s not a bad problem to have.

    I do want to comment that the time I tried this piece of Alison’s advice: “For example, could he occasionally sit in on meetings that he wouldn’t normally attend so that he can get a better feel for how decisions are made above him,” it made the problem a lot worse. I invited an eager-beaver to attend a certain team meeting as her schedule allowed, and made it clear (or so I thought) that she was there to report on her work and just sit in for the rest. Unfortunately it fed her perception that she was over-qualified and under-recognized, because now she was going to this big meeting with higher-ups. She also asked to re-prioritize and change her projects to work more with this team, and then began trying to involve herself inappropriately with individual team members’ responsibilities. After multiple conversations that were unsatisfactory on both sides, I suggested she’d be happier in a different kind of position and she resigned. Anyway, huge mentoring fail on my part, but I think it was mainly because of the individual, not the overall soundness of Alison’s advice.

  19. Dan*

    You can do all the right things and still get an undesired outcome, so don’t beat yourself up too bad.

    1. Rocky*

      Thanks! It was my first experience having someone just not respond to mentoring/coaching at all, and in fact seeing the problem get worse rather than improving. I spent a few months trying before I realized I wasn’t the problem.

  20. mazzy*

    This is an interesting one. My thing is that there is work to go around but some things just have too much room to lose money to be used as fodder for career growth so I can’t give them to everyone.

  21. EddieSherbert*

    I don’t think anyone mentioned this – but one thing I thought of pretty quickly…

    Coming into your first professional job takes a lot of adjustment on different levels – from school mode, and possibly from food/retail/other-high-school job mode. I was food, and there was always something extra I could be working on. Down-time was a big no-no.

    Then…my first professional post-grad job heavily depended on other people getting their part done before things got to me. And I had down-time. Waiting for other people’s things. And I was pretty much terrified of those times I was JUST WAITING for work to get to me.

    And I would fill that time some of the more mundane stuff I could do in my role (like review old stuff to see if it needed updating) but I was super nervous I would get fired or something for “wasting time” on that instead of doing “real work.”

    So that’s something to consider . It may be way off-base… but this letter reminded me of younger me, except my motive was very different!

  22. worked too long in the one place*

    This question hit me where I live, so to speak, because i’m that junior employee who wants to do more, build their resume, and move up. And I’ve been that employee stuck in the same job for the last 17 years (!), constantly being faintly promised some of job progression but never getting it. The pay is good, REALLY good, so I’ve stayed, but my resume wouldn’t get me a job making meatballs at this point. It’s very frustrating, because I grew up watching my father progress through various levels of seniority and responsibility at his job, and watching all my friends parents around me progress the same way. My peers from my university graduating class have all progressed. I’ve done whatever I could to augment my skills to make myself promoteable, and I’ve come to the conclusion that job progression is only an illusional promise dangled in front of my nose to keep me from leaving.

    So, my advice to the OP is: Be 100% honest with this guy. If you like him and think he’s talented, and don’t watch those talents and all that eagerness and ambition fade away and eventually snuff out like a guttering candle, then tell him flat out there is no opportunity for advancement, that you’re glad he’s there for now, but that in two years or so when he really wants to get promoted, his best bet to look elsewhere. And tell him you’ll help him build his skills in the meantime, if doing so is of benefit to your company as well.

    But for the love of all that’s good and holy, do NOT string him along with false promises.

    As ‘expectations that are out of whack’ go, though, it’s not out of whack to expect growth and promotion in a job. It’s what was normal up until the mid-90s when downsizing became all the rage.

    1. OP*

      Yeah, I would not say his expectations are out of whack – that’s just how Alison chose to title the post. Thanks for your feedback – I agree that he will probably need to look elsewhere for promotion if he wants that change in the next couple of years. Change tends to be slow around here (but those who are able to be patient are rewarded, usually).

  23. NotAnotherManager!*

    I hire 3-5 recent graduates every year, and a segment of my interview is “things people find challenging about this job”. One of them is that it’s the lowest rung on the totem pole, and, if there is a low-level task to be completed, well, that’s you. we talk about the fact you months be working on a fun research project and then have to make photocopies for another. I’m sure it’s not the same as living it, but I like to at least give them a heads up.

  24. BeyondFrustratedintheCityandCounty*

    I am this new hire. And whats worse is that I feel the job description of my job completely contradicts what I am actually doing on a day to day basis. Its an awful thing to do to workers and it takes away their ability to choose another option that would be a good fit. Job descriptions need to describe the ACTUAL job. Mine for example explicitly said to be prepared to be out of the office, traveling through the city visiting clients in the community and at their homes. It asked for someone energetic and willing to do that. In my interview I was asked tons of questions about how I would feel navigating a new city.

    In reality I sit at my desk ALL DAY. Maybe twice a month I’ll leave to see a client who just wants to chat.
    Its been 6 months and there is no way to express my frustration and resentment. I try to remind myself that the paycheck comes twice a week and and I have great benefits. BUt come on! I’m in my late 20s/early 30s and I thought I was choosing a position that allowed me to be up and moving and engaging with people because that is what the description of this position said.

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