how do I learn what is and isn’t okay at professional jobs?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I’m in high school, and I recently discovered your blog, and I was reading some posts. One of them was the infamous “fired for circulating a petition for a lax dress code” post. If I were in the shoes of one of the OP’s coworker-interns, and she came up to me and said that there was a petition for a lax dress code and all the interns had signed it, I almost certainly would have signed it and would have been fired with the rest of them.

I now know that petitions at the workplace are unprofessional, but I’m still concerned because next year I’m headed to college and into the real world, and I still have a somewhat naïve view of the world and I don’t really know what sorts of things are unwelcome at jobs. I’d like to avoid learning what is and isn’t rude the hard way (i.e., get fired for unintentionally aggravating a manager). So I’m asking you: What is and isn’t faux pas at professional-type jobs? How would I learn what not to do?

P.S. I have a job, but it’s at a local gas station that doesn’t have a strict dress code and it allows some goofing off. Nothing resembling a professional internship/job.

I want to throw this one to readers because I think a lot of people will have good advice on it. I also want to note — it’s not that a petition at work would be unprofessional in every instance (although typically a petition isn’t how you’d raise issues — face-to-face conversation is). But in that case, the interns were essentially guests of the company for the summer and were protesting something that’s a really basic, typical expectation at the majority of companies … as opposed to asking the reasons for the dress code and trying to get a better understanding of it (something that internships are all about).

Readers, beyond that, what input do you have for this letter-writer?

{ 514 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte*

    Watch, wait, and be pleasant :-).

    Seriously, people will forgive a lot of missteps if you’re kind and easy to get along with, and if you pay attention to what others, and not just others on the same level as you, are doing, that will give you a lot of information about the culture and practice.

    1. Felix*

      Just keep reading this blog (the new articles, and go for the occasional deep dive down the “You may also like” blackhole). If you keep absorbing the advice Alison gives, you’ll be on track by the time you need to know this stuff.

      1. Rena*

        This is what I did! I read AAM for four years through college-the-second while I was working retail grocery. Very little of the advice was directly applicable to my retail work, but I felt completely comfortable with “office norms” by the time I landed my first office job. It got to the point where my husband, who had 10 years experience in various offices, was coming to me to figure out how to word or handle things while I was still in school because I’d absorbed so much of Alison’s advice.

      2. Blue*

        Seriously, I think this would go a long way. I know I’ve learned a lot about norms and practices in other industries from Alison and the commenters, and I don’t see any reason a college student couldn’t pick up similar information, even without anything to compare it to. In fact, when I was working closely with college students, I used to recommend AAM to students who were feeling some anxiety about navigating the work world. It’s a great resource.

      3. I Like Math*

        I second the comment about reading this blog. I’ve been a manager for 20 years and I still find the posts and comments here very helpful. I wish I knew about it earlier.

        1. AnnaBananna*

          Oh, totally!! And I love how I’ve been reading her so long that I already know how she’s going to answer. But that isn’t the point, of course. I still love her ‘whys’, as they’re sometimes different from mine. And I also think I’ve learned a lot from commenters too.

          Common sense isn’t so common. :)

    2. AndersonDarling*

      And if you are receptive to feedback (thank them for their advice) then they will be more likely to tell you when you are making a social mistake. Being open and accepting allows people to be honest with you and that is like gold when you are trying to navigate the social norms of office life.

      1. Triplestep*

        This was what I was coming here to say. I have an intern this summer and on Friday I was expecting him to complete something that got re-prioritized when the big boss asked him to do something else. On Monday (when I found out) I told him that it was fine changed course; that he understood correctly that the big boss is to be given priority in most cases, but that when things like that happen, he needs to tell the person whose work he is de-prioritizing. He was totally cool about it and didn’t act like I was telling him he’d made some horrible mistake, which I wasn’t … because he didn’t!

      2. Cindy Featherbottom*

        +10000000 on this. Being receptive to feedback is CRUCIAL. It shouldn’t matter if its negative or positive, be open to hearing it. That can be **incredibly** hard for folks, especially when the feedback is a critique. I’ll admit that when I was in my early 20’s, I wasn’t the greatest with this. It took me time (and a good manager) to realize how important ALL feedback is. And don’t be afraid to ask questions during feedback either. Sometimes you’re going to have to figure out how to improve on your own, but asking for help or guidance if you dont know how to solve an issue is totally fine.

    3. AnonymousArts*

      Agree wholeheartedly. I learned a lot during part-time jobs in offices in high school and university by just quietly observing. Like that you should answer a phone with “NAME speaking,” not “hello?” Or email etiquette (saying “Hi” or “Dear”), lunch etiquette (eat at desk, versus leaving to run errands, versus eating together in a communal space), and so much more.

      1. Works in IT*

        And in my department, waiting for the caller to identify themselves before identifying yourself is common. We get A LOT of random phone calls from scammers, and it’s hard to tell ahead of time whether you’re picking up the phone to a real person calling on their cell phone, or a scam. Also because scammers will often record anything you say and use it as “proof” that you signed up for something, so giving them more word examples is a bad idea.

          1. Slartibartfast*

            It happened to me. I answered a call for a family member who wasn’t home. They asked if he’d be available that evening if they called back then, I said “yes”. Next month, there was a recurring $19.99 travel service fee on the phone bill, and when called about it, they played back my recorded “yes” as proof I had agreed to the charge. No other part of the call, just the one word “yes”. This was 20 years ago and the phone company refunded the charges eventually but it too months. This happened close to 20 years ago, but it happened.

    4. Aurion*

      Yes. You’re young and new to the workforce. If your colleagues are not glassbowls, OP, you will be cut a lot of slack for your mistakes. (And if your new colleagues are glassbowls there’s not much you can do on the preventative side.)

      For entry level jobs where you don’t have a lot of relevant experience coming in, I have a rule of thumb about keeping my mouth shut re: workplace practices for about the first six months. Be cheerful, be pleasant, be kind, and be receptive to feedback. After six months of hard work and good performance you either have enough social capital to start questioning why we do that thing That Way, or you will have learned enough that what didn’t make sense at first will start making sense.

      1. Ophelia*

        Also, I’d say that around the six month mark, you’ll know who to ASK about why we do that thing That Way, and be able to have a constructive conversation about it if you still have questions.

      2. 'Tis Me*

        I would say that advice is very much culture-dependent, and also some people’s learning styles mean that if they don’t understand the “why” behind it, they won’t remember the “what”. Obviously there are ways and ways of questioning something – but my company definitely invites it and is also open to the fact that if the answer is “because that’s what we’ve always done and nobody’s questioned it before” there might be a better way of doing it. We promote a strong change culture – we have personal and departmental goals to raise improvement suggestions or problem areas that could potentially be addressed by an improvement project; 100% of the department should be White and Yellow Belt Lean Six Sigma-trained and able to take part in projects (and Green and Black Belt training is also done)…

        Things like inviting all department members to monthly forums to discuss improvement suggestions, documentation on how to raise them, details of the suggestions made to date and their outcomes, our departmental hub explaining our processes and the principles behind them where appropriate, and the attitudes of people involved in training, handovers etc should make this sort of stuff pretty obvious to new starts. But honestly I would feel like I had failed as a colleague (not even a trainer/informal mentor) if I discovered 6 months after starting that somebody had been sitting on their questions all that time…

        Sometimes the response to an improvement suggestion is to explain to the individual raising it how to get the system to do something they didn’t think it could do (or why they shouldn’t be doing that, or changing permissions to stop them from doing something we should hardly ever do and where there is a process that needs to be followed or we will bring the output on that item to a screaming halt) – but ideas should be reviewed in teams before they’re raised, so finding knowledge gaps (or things that need to be locked down because it didn’t occur to the developers when our system was built that anybody would just blithely do whatever) is still valuable, and (and as somebody who actually often writes the “this is how…” emails and takes part in the suggestion reviews to decide which ones should be redirected and which need refinement/discussion, I can say this in full confidence) the emphasis is very much on helping people do their jobs as efficiently as possibly, not on shaming them for not knowing something.

        (I like my company. There are reasons I’ve been there 11 years now :-))

    5. Jaydee*

      There are two groups of people that I’ve found to be the best resources:

      – Support staff of any type (administrative assistants, secretaries, paralegals, etc.). Because they are usually either supporting the boss directly or supporting the office (or department or team) as a whole, they know a lot of things. Soft skill things. Institutional history things. They know why the boss does the weird thing the boss does. They know about “The Incident”at the 2015 llama groomers symposium, which is why only the two lead llama groomers are allowed to travel overnight so don’t even ask the boss if you can go because the answer will be no. They know who does what on the team. They know all the weird little rules that aren’t written down anywhere. They know where to find the stash of good pens. They know which people are liked versus which people are respected (an important distinction).

      – Coworkers who are just a little ahead of you in experience and seniority. They’re new enough to remember being in your shoes but experienced enough to have figured things out and learned things that you need to know. Don’t pester them all the time, but do figure out which ones have good reputations and go to them with questions about things that aren’t really appropriate to ask the boss but that your immediate peers (fellow interns and new hires) probably don’t know any better than you do.

      1. TootsNYC*

        love the recommendation of support staff!

        Also, they often get a bit overlooked, so they’re pretty willing to provide info to a rookie.

        And I agree about the colleagues about two steps up from you.

        1. Chinookwind*

          And when the support staff do something to support you, feel free to let your authentic gratitude show (we hate the fake gratitude and can tell the difference).

          I am always tickled pink when I do a regular part of my job and a new to work person is thrilled to find out that I can help them or even do something on their behalf. If being thrilled at getting to choose the colour of highlighter you need or having someone to find the information you need quickly (because it is their job) when you know it was going to take you hours, express that happiness. We love to know that others appreciate what for us are routine tasks. And we will pay that back by helping you out in ways we can.

          1. Alianora*

            “we hate the fake gratitude and can tell the difference” – so true! I (along with several coworkers) interviewed some interview candidates, and one of them took a question as the opportunity to gush about how great and underappreciated administrative staff are.

            But she didn’t really answer the question, and it didn’t feel like genuine gratitude. It felt more like someone who had read online that you should be nice to the admin, and who took that advice way over the top. It felt kind of condescending, honestly.

            So yeah, echoing that genuine gratitude is great, but faking it (beyond the standard please and thank you, if that’s something you need to fake) probably isn’t in your best interest.

      2. so many resumes, so little time*


        Support staff can be great sources of information; they often know the nuts-and-bolts aspects of a workplace better than the bosses do.

        1. Artemesia*

          And they often have power useful to you. Getting the head AA on your side can make a huge difference. This is true of senior people as well — the people who have built capital with support staff and are positively viewed get more support often.

          1. Creamsiclecati*

            I experienced this firsthand when I was an administrative assistant back in the day. My desk was right outside my boss’ office and when she was interviewing someone to join her team, I could usually hear part if not all of their conversation. As soon as the interview was over, she would walk the person out, come to my desk, and ask what I thought. She wanted my opinion every time. The candidates probably didn’t realize how much influence I had as just a “lowly” AA. At every job I’ve had since then I keep that in mind- the boss isn’t the only one with power. The AAs can have a lot of pull around the office as well.

            1. Snuck*

              AAs have a direct door to everyone in the building and their calendars… even people they don’t work for and in other depts … they have immense power

      3. leeapeea*

        Adding my vote for this! These are still my go-to folks when I start in a new position. Just be mindful to get info from multiple sources so you can recognize any outliers – folks who might have extreme responses (either good or bad) or who may be non-responsive as part of their personality.

      4. Vax is my disaster bicon*

        Great suggestions! Definitely have found both helpful (as a grad student, not in an office, but the reasoning is similar.)

    6. Alexander Graham Yell*

      I agree, with a caveat – if you see people deviating from the professional norms you’ve been taught “Be on time”, “Be respectful”, etc, wait to follow that particular lead.

      I’m thinking specifically of our intern right now. He has clearly internalized the idea that he’s here to learn, which is great! But he, for whatever reason, decided to model his behaviour in the office on a dude I enjoy being around, but is probably the least professional in our very laid-back office. So while it’s fine for somebody who has proven their worth to do some of the things he does, it’s not appropriate for somebody just starting their career. (Think: regularly strolling in late – fine because there are times he puts in 80 hour weeks and he’s always on time for his calls, but not fine for the intern trying to impress people when most of the office shows up *before* their scheduled start time; keeping a snack stash from the snacks put out by the company – fine when you only take one thing a day and squirrel it away so that you’re taking about what the average employee takes so that you’ve got snacks for nights you work late but not late enough to order delivery, but not fine when you see something good in the snack bowl and take half of it right away and put it in your drawer for later because it doesn’t give the rest of the office a fair shot to get some.)

      So yes, watch what people are doing at all levels, but remember there may be perks people have earned or habits they get away with but aren’t exactly embraced. When you start basing your behaviour on other people’s, make sure you’re finding the average and not basing your idea of what’s okay on an outlier.

    7. Nyltiak*

      Follow the lead of your fellow employees, but be sure in the first few weeks you identify the right employees to follow. Is there someone who seems well liked and respected by coworkers above and below their level? Probably a good example to follow. Someone who is well liked by their peers but not management is probably not the best example, nor is someone who is well liked by management but not their peers. I se a lot of new people, especially new people who haven’t had much experience, jump in with both feet and really flub a lot of company culture and norms.
      Another workplace foible I see a lot is when the new person comes in and wants to change everything because they think their way is better, when in reality there are reasons why the “better” way doesn’t work. Identifying the people who are willing to listen to new ideas, and making sure to present new ideas in a way that doesn’t say “you all are dumb for not doing this already” will help you to screen out good suggestions.

  2. Jellybean*

    This is a good question. First of all, we *all* make mistakes of varying degrees (I got a tut-tut last week after years of perfect performance).

    If I can offer just *one* piece of advice, it’s that your real job is to make sure that your boss is satisfied. Whether that’s with the actual work, the relationships with co-workers, whatever – concentrate on your work and keep your boss satisfied (I realize this can be difficult if you have a bad boss, but let’s assume that we’re not discussing true dysfunctional/toxic environments).

    Observe. Lurk. Be quiet and see how a culture works. What is okay behaviour at one place might be highly encouraged or fireable at another. Imagine a workplace sort of like a blog or forum like this one – do you start posting right away or do you read through it, get to know the place, and see what is expected?

    And always, if in doubt, don’t – or ask a supervisor. I’m not a fan of asking peers for more grey areas, I’ve been burned more than once for that (like last week!).

    1. Alianora*

      Great comment. You don’t want to be a suck-up, but you need to prioritize based on what your boss values most.

      About asking a supervisor for clarification instead of peers — this is important. It’s a bit difficult to navigate if your peer is the one who trained you, but if something seems off to you, it’s better to (discreetly) go to your boss and confirm what is correct.

      My best advice, aside from what Jellybean has said, is to assume the best of people (intentions and competency) when you’re interacting with them. People are sensitive and they can make your life so much harder if they feel defensive. If you think they’re making a mistake, find a tactful way to bring it up but don’t assume that they made a mistake. You might have missed something. Check in with your manager later if you feel you need to.

      1. Shirley Keeldar*

        Hmmmm. That’s an interesting point about asking supervisors rather than peers for guidance–those interns with their petition would have been well served by that advice. On the other hand, in my first professional job, it was intensely helpful to have a group of peers I could turn to. I especially relied on a few who had just a bit more experience than I did. I think managers and people with more experience can quickly forget the things newbies need help with. So much just seems obvious or natural when you’ve been in an industry for a few years, but it’s actually stuff that people need to learn! So I’d add a caveat to this–don’t be scared to use your peer network, but check in with those above you too, especially if a peer gives you advice that you’re not sure about.

        1. Anon for this, colleagues read here*

          Yes. I’m mentoring a new hire who I had to direct to make a plan to talk to every person in the office at least once in the next two weeks about a work question or to go over their next report (everyone has to write these things), starting with staff members they had not had any interactions with, and *ending* with the three people (all hired within the last year) they have been talking with most often.

          1. Former Employee*

            As someone who takes a long time to feel comfortable with people, I would have been totally stressed out by this directive and would have wondered if I had made a huge mistake in taking this particular job. Give me a little time to get to know people gradually and you’ll have to remind me that I’m chatting with so and so a little too much.

        2. Clisby*

          At least some of those interns *DID* ask their managers if there could be some leeway in the dress code, and the managers said no. They went ahead with the petition anyway.

        3. Alianora*

          Maybe we’re thinking of different scenarios. I work in a legal office as an administrative assistant. A lot of the questions I have are about procedure and policy, and my peers have steered me wrong several times before – because they didn’t question what their own peers had told them before, even if it didn’t make sense.

          For questions about the office itself, they’ve been a good resource. But if it’s something that could get your department into trouble or make it look bad, check with a supervisor.

        4. The New Wanderer*

          I think this balance is key. You don’t want to end up in an echo chamber with peers who feel one way (dress code should change!), when management has another mindset (dress code is what it is, with very few but justified exceptions).

          I see this happen with newer hires at my company. They agitate for, and to some extent appear to believe they are owed, opportunities that traditionally have gone to more senior people. And they’re more likely to leave if they don’t get them right away. And that’s fine, of course, but I bet their expectations at our company would be better served if they talked more to the more senior people to better understand why things are that way (experience and institutional knowledge are of way more value here, and to some degree, more necessary, than other big companies because of the specific nature of our work), and less to each other where they are reinforcing this approach of “if this company doesn’t give me what I want, I’ll go to X Company instead.”

      2. Anonym*

        Your last paragraph is especially spot on. You can avoid really difficult, long lasting issues by doing this – when people feel disrespected, they’re extremely unlikely to tell you, but it will affect how they interact with you in the long term, how much they help you, how they treat you. But don’t be scared! Just follow Alianora’s advice! (Which is very similar to advice I got from a managing director recently, and she credits much of her success to treating others with the assumption of good faith and competence, and assuming sensitivity. Especially interesting as she’s no nonsense and very direct.)

        1. Alianora*

          Oh, your comment made me remember something else, too. Try not to let popular opinion color how you treat your coworkers. It is possible to treat everyone with dignity while still keeping your eyes open about the reality of a situation.

          I had a coworker at a previous job who was very widely considered incompetent. To be honest, he was – not a good manager, and not good at his other job duties. But I still tried to treat him with respect and talk to him at office events. He asked me to show him how to do a few things that he really should have known how to do already, but I think the fact that I didn’t act judgmental towards him is what made him willing to ask in the first place. And ultimately him learning to do those things helped the whole office in the long run.

          1. Anonym*

            That is a really good point! I’ve benefited from doing that as well, I now realize, though it wasn’t the intent. I’ve remained respectful and caring even when frustrated with a colleague some of my team consider less than competent, and not only does he shut down less with me (part of the problem) so he’s more effective on our shared projects, but he’s actually shared helpful information that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

            Treat everyone with dignity!

          2. tamarack and fireweed*

            I think this is an important point. And more generally: Be very careful about which social cues to take, and check them against your own, well thought-out standards. Never ever treat someone poorly just because everyone does. This is also how implicit bias/discrimination is either propagated or broken down. When I see how many very senior women and people of color complain about not getting routine respect and attention that white men in their position are afforded I can’t help thinking that in that workplace, newbies are being socialized into the same patterns.

            If it’s the opposite, say, someone treated with excessive and unexplained deference, ask your mentor or a trusted team lead/supervisor. Gently. “I noticed no one ever interrupts Curt’s lunch hour with questions, and always knocks and apologizes. People are a lot more casual with Mike. Is there something I should know about that?” And then make your own decision whether to follow along.

            Don’t think you know everything better, but also don’t think that you should be deferential to how things have been done to the extreme. You may be mostly in learning mode, but you have skills as well. Test the waters before changing anything and do safe things first. Nothing that could potentially have side effects you don’t know about. Don’t recode the office master process spreadsheet even if you think it’s a monstrous work of formidable convolutedness, but if you’re asked to tabulate some data and happen to be much more efficient at it, AND someone notices *modestly* (and not fake-modestly) offer to, say, document how you do it, or if someone looks interested, show them. (NOT IF THEY DON’T.) Find and use the proper channels. If there’s, say, a “knowledge sharing brown bag lunch” or whatever, after a while go to the organizer and say “I used to maintain the whizzleflunks as a student worker, and I think X, Y and Z would like to see how to flunk a whizzlebang. If there’s interest, I can talk at a lunch peer-learning hour.” And if they say yes, don’t go over time, don’t get carried away by praise. The whole thing will come out as 99% just bloody learn the workplace and at most 1% gee-whizz new and improved things, because otherwise you’ll just be seen as a greenhorn whose beginner’s luck is getting to his or her head.

          3. TardyTardis*

            Yes! I was told that one older worker was grumpy and hard to work with, but if you just admired the deer she last shot and commiserated with her having to work in a cold office during the winter (I mean 56 degrees cold inside, there was something wrong with the power), and carry out her fairly few requests pretty quickly, she was a gem. And with another, I was told it was impossible to train her to send her accounts payable requests in the right form so I could upload them much more quickly, but with some gentle handholding and acknowledging that it was hard to make these changes–and being available as soon as she ran into trouble, plus being patient with her–I got my spreadsheets in the right format so I could just feed it to Mr. Computer and let it fly. (then I found out that she was a sewing genius and designed her own dress patterns, so people you think are slow at something are often amazing at something else).

    2. designbot*

      Exactly, a lot of this is about reading the room. If you’re the only one wearing jeans and sneakers, notice. If you show up to meetings when you thought it started but everyone else is already there and has their agendas, you may want to adjust how you approach meeting times. If everyone else goes out to lunch every day, make an effort to go with them say once a week to keep in the loop.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      On the topic of mistakes, too, be aware that the point of giving you feedback is that you grow professionally and learn the job. Your response to feedback should be pleasant (at worst neutral) and asking any clarifying questions to make sure you get it right the next time. Typically, a supervisor is not interested in all the reasons why you made the mistake, they just want to help you learn the right way. Don’t make excuses, just listen and learn.

      Also also, if you realize you made a mistake, let someone know and don’t hide it in a drawer. The sooner I know a mistake has occurred, the faster I can fix it. We ALL makes mistakes – I’ve personally made some really egregious ones over the years – but you fix it as best you can, learn how to avoid in the future, and move on (including not beating yourself up over it!).

    4. Manager in the middle*

      I feel a lot of ‘not ok’ behaviour essentially boils down to ‘My boss wanted me to do X but I wanted to do Y”.

      That’s not to say your boss will always be right or you’ll always agree with your boss. Assuming your boss isn’t toxic, you can ask why they want you to do X or explain why you would have chosen to do Y, provided the tone is, “I’m trying to get more information about how you want me to do my job” or “I’m giving you information you might not otherwise have to help you make a decision”, and not “This is why you’re wrong.”

      That being said, there may be times when X is big enough a thing that you’re definitely not going to do it and you can definitely tell your boss ‘no’ then – but you might discover you create yourself a hill to die on so you need to be prepared for that. So, for when you’re boss is asking you to do something illegal, immoral, or totally unreasonable, less so for when you want them to change the dress code.

      What’s less ok is this list of behaviours, all of which I’ve witnessed: giving your manager a lecture on how you would have done their job differently, rolling your eyes because you’re manager has pointed out you missed a deadline and asked you to get something done ASAP, muttering ‘I don’t even want to do Y anymore – I don’t know why we’re still talking about this’ when you’re manager says ‘Hey, we can’t do Y because of reasons but I see you’re really upset about X so I’ve given it some thought and let’s meet in the middle and do Z’, storming off because a manager has told you ‘no’ (and not a rude ‘no’, just a standard ‘thanks, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of project we want to pick up right now’), telling a manager they are insensitive and hurt your feelings because they told you ‘no’ (and, again, a standard ‘thanks, but no thanks’), going ahead with a project even though your manager has told you there are reasons why you can’t go ahead with it…you get the idea.

    5. Washed Out Data Analyst*

      I want to emphasize the fact that every different workplace is its own unique ecosystem. Before I started working, I had this idea of the “professional workplace” as an abstract area where there were certain rules across the board. While *some* rules are basic (like dress code), the culture tends to vary by the people in charge, for better or for worse, even in the same industry. For example, one company might encourage their employees to question or disagree with existing processes while others would look down on it.

    6. Zombeyonce*

      It’s great to make sure your boss is satisfied, but I want to add the career advice my mom always have me: the biggest part of your job is to make your boss look good.

      That can be done in a myriad of ways. They look good when your work is done on time and well, when you ask insightful questions in meetings with higher-ups, when they never have to make excuses for you or cover for something you did (which a good boss will do but definitely won’t enjoy), and when you save complaints and snark for one-on-one meetings.

      Making your boss look good isn’t just good for them, it’s an amazing long-term benefit for your career. Former bosses will praise you to reference checkers, they’ll try to hire you back when possible, and they’ll recommend jobs to you long after you’ve worked for them. (Of course there are exceptions with toxic workplaces and bad managers, but that’s a minority.) I’m so happy I got this advice early in my career; now I could contact almost every boss I’ve ever had and they’d help me get a new job however they can.

  3. anonymoushiker*

    I think eyes open, mouth shut is probably a very good mantra to have-I learned a lot during an internship about what I could and couldn’t do it and I learned it in the slightly hard way (not fired, but definitely not perfect for sure). Plus making sure that you have an internship and have a supervisor in the internship who is willing to talk through expectations with you.

    1. MAW*

      “eyes open, mouth shut” is good but “making sure you have an internship” comes from a place of privilege since most internships are still unpaid and that’s not possible for lots of folks (especially ones who’d be posing this kind of q in the first place and “have a supervisor in the internship will to talk through expectations” is not really within control of the original poster.

      1. ChimericalOne*

        The fact that many internships are unpaid is definitely a real barrier. Perhaps the advice is better framed as, “Do your best to get an internship if at all possible.”

        It might not be possible for some folks, but there are lots of non-traditional internships out there, too, if you’re persistent. Not every internship is 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. For example, I’m familiar with 2 different nonprofits that have had interns come in for 1-3 hours per week — they still get to see workplace norms, but they wouldn’t exactly have to give up a summer job for that.

      2. Carrie Fisher's Middle Finger*

        Not to mention, many academic programs now *require* internships, the majority of which will be unpaid — which means that you’re basically paying for the internship with the tuition you pay for those credit hours.

        1. BigLo*

          My undergrad university actually required *paid* internships for credit, so it’s worth looking into stuff like that if you have the ability to pick your school based on stuff like this!

        2. BTDT*

          My uni requires internships but if you get an unpaid one, the uni will pay you, and even they pay above minimum wage. I don’t doubt that many employers try to get away with skirting the law, but it’s WAY better than it was 20y ago when I was an undergrad. I’m an intern now, in grad school, so I saw first hand how much it has improved. It was nigh on impossible for me to find a paid internship in the late 90s. This time I never saw a single job posting for an unpaid internship. Again, not saying that never happens. Just that (thankfully!) it’s much improved.

          1. Classroom Diva*

            I have children in college (or recently graduated), and even my non-STEM son got a nice paid internship (although, he did have to work his behind off to get it! He had applied many places first, and–I helped him revamp his resume and cover letter based on Ask-a-Manager’s advice, and he *finally* got an internship right as it became imperative!)

            Now, unfortunately, teaching is still a huge exception. My oldest had to do all his student teaching AND attend classes full-time. There is no pay for student teaching, and no time to hold another job for pay. So, you either have to save up or have very loving parents who are able to help (my son had the latter).

            1. Classroom Diva*

              Point being (which I failed to mention) that paid internships are more the norm now. It wasn’t like that too long ago, but it is now.

      3. Jadelyn*

        And quite frankly, the fact that there are regulations around unpaid internships doesn’t mean companies don’t abuse them anyway. Plenty of companies have “internships” that are more like unpaid jobs, but the problem is they’ll never get caught at it if someone doesn’t report them for it, and that relies on the interns knowing their rights far more than most do (or particularly ethical managers who decide to blow the whistle on it, which…can be a toss-up sometimes).

        1. poodleoodle*

          Yep, I actually saw a record store post an unpaid internship, and the duties sounded like what you would expect someone who worked a record store to do…which to my knowledge was always a normal, paid, part or full time job for people. Since when do you need to “get experience in the industry before we move you to a paid position” for a retail job?!

          1. Jadelyn*

            An internship for retail? I…literally got hired into a shift manager role straight out of college with zero retail experience. What on earth would you need an internship for, for retail jobs? That’s a store that’s just straight up abusing the concept.

      4. NotAnotherManager!*

        Wait, executive kids were interning within their own company? That puts the people supervising them in a terrible position! I live in the land of the privileged, and they have what a former executive used to call the “nepotism exchange program” where the executives networked to find their kids internships at OTHER organizations in exchange for taking their kids into ours. (Ours were also paid internships – not much more than minimum wage, but still paid.)

        I would not want to supervise my c-suite’s kids. That is just too fraught.

        1. Alienor*

          Yep-this year’s batch were all good workers with chill parents, so it was alright, but we’ve had years where we were stuck with kids who were clearly just dragging themselves through the summer because mom or dad said they had to do an internship, and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. (It’s a huge company, so there’s a never-ending supply of new exec kids coming up to intern age.) I feel like it’s got to be awkward for the 1-2 interns who don’t have a family connection, too-I don’t think I’d want to be in that position.

        2. Not a cat*

          At my former employer not only were the interns the children of executives–we paid them more, depending on who their parent is. It was a really yucky system.

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            That is appalling. I was the connection-less kid, and I got paid the same minimum + $1 that everyone else got. I was just saving mine and offering to work any OT I could rather than spending mine at happy hour.

        3. Tazimodo*

          Yes, I’ve had to supervise my boss’s daughter during a summer internship. She was very pleasant, but she basically did what she wanted.

      5. lemon*

        Well, instead of an internship, a paid work-study position in one of the college’s administrative offices is often an option. Answering phones/scheduling appointments at a tutoring center, updating a department’s website, helping set up events for the women’s center (all jobs I’ve had through work-study)– they’re boring jobs but low-stakes ways to learn about professional standards from supervisors who understand that you’re a college student and so are more willing to be patient and direct when needed.

        1. Oh So Anon*

          +1. They’re boring jobs that may not provide much in the way of reinforcing skills relevant to whatever you’re studying, but there’s a lot to be said for having a reference who can say that you know how to show up, follow directions, and act appropriately.

          1. Chinookwind*

            As well, they may not be willing to give you the jobs that reinforce skills until they can be confident that you know how to follow directions and not make lazy mistakes. The boring jobs often have low consequences when done incorrectly but the more relevant ones are higher stakes with less tolerance for mistakes.

        2. Fortitude Jones*

          I did paid work study jobs all throughout college (in addition to two unpaid internships) – the work study positions taught me a lot about office norms and helped me obtain my first two professional post-grad jobs.

      6. Fortitude Jones*

        Right, ItsAllFunAndGames. I was a journalism major at a private university that was known for co-ops – most of the non-engineering/technical majors had unpaid internships in exchange for college credit.

    2. Celeste*

      I’ve heard it expressed as, “listen and learn”, or “if you’re talking you’re not learning”. It’s good advice when you’re new anywhere, whether it’s an internship or a paying job.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          It plays into that other famous intern, the one who was just so gosh darned astonished by everything he sent everyone in the office a video of the amazing electric stapler in their office in action. In class and at work, it’s possible to ask questions at the level where you are miles beyond “show interest” and well into “all your classmates/coworkers want to kill you because we can’t make any progress because you won’t shut up for 10 minutes.”

          1. Alienor*

            “all your classmates/coworkers want to kill you because we can’t make any progress because you won’t shut up for 10 minutes”

            I work with someone who’s in their early 30s and is still like this after 10 years in the workplace. I shudder to think what it would have been like to share a college classroom with them!

      1. Chinookwind*

        Listen and learn, but also ask questions if you don’t understand. When I on-board apprentices and interns, I point out that part of their job is to ask questions if they are confused but that there is a right and wrong time and place to do so and you may not like the answer.

        I also remind them that they can ask questions of anyone they work with, not just their boss or supervisor (as long as it doesn’t interrupt someone’s work). When you are starting out, everyone has knowledge that you can benefit from (even if it ends up being “don’t be like Bob.”).

    3. Bunny Girl*

      On the internship side, I do want to point out that not every internship will be like this. I’m an older student who just completed an internship that really sort of failed to teach professional norms. The supervisors preferred to complain about people’s unprofessionalism rather than address it with the intern themselves. So if you go through the internship and get no feedback and no notes or anything, I would still proceed with caution going into your next adventure.

      1. ChimericalOne*

        Might be possible to get around something like this by making it clear to your supervisor that you realize that, being new to the work world, you may be out of step with their workplace and setting up a meeting for the explicit purpose of getting feedback on where you can improve (esp. at the middle or near the end of the internship). Sometimes, if you tell people you’re soliciting –and welcoming — critical feedback, it can make it easier for them to tell you things. (Not to say that folks are right to gossip behind anyone’s back! Just to point out how one might short-circuit that.)

      2. delta cat*

        Oof, yes. On my final internship, my supervisor was, let’s say, pretty unprofessional. Showing up to work in a hospital wearing a Hard Rock Café t-shirt and strappy sandals, singing showtunes with the radiographer while prepping a frightened older lady for a scan level unprofessional.

        I made the mistake of trying to match her tone in the way I interacted with people and got slapped down for it more than once, including by the unprofessional supervisor herself. I was so deep in it that it took some time once that internship had ended to really process what had happened. And then I kept my mouth SO tightly shut for my first couple of months at my first real job!

        1. Chinookwind*

          When student teaching, the best supervising teacher emphasized that I need to find my own work style and personality, not just copy hers. She also pointed out that I can “steal” techniques and habits from others without having to become just like them. It takes time to see what will work for you and you may cross a line unintentionally (at which point you need to apologize and never do it again), but the key is to be aware of what works and what doesn’t FOR YOU professionally.

          Just remember – making different mistakes means your growing and trying new things but making the same mistake repeatedly means you have stopped.

      3. TootsNYC*

        every intern should be asking for feedback at two places: about 3 weeks in, and near the end.

        Ask for feedback about work skills, and ask for feedback about office norms, dress, etc.

      4. Anon for this, colleagues read here*

        No guarantee that the person supervising an intern has any skill, experience, or training in supervision or mentoring.

        Hell, in my office, there’s no guarantee that the person mentoring our new entry level hires has any skill, experience, or training in mentoring. They’ve just been here a long time and are good at their jobs, so of course they’re the right person.

        1. TootsNYC*

          Good point–rookies need to choose their mentors carefully. Someone may be your supervisor, but they may not be the best advisor.

          So treat it almost like a job search (don’t go interview people, but…): decide what the most important skills are, think about what actions (theirs, or others in reacting to them, like being treated with respect) would demonstrate those skills, and see who fits those criteria

          Also–a career or “military bearing” mentor might not be in your company! It might be someone else from some other part of your world.
          My mom was a great mentor, and a great person to take work problems to. I once asked her about something, and her answer was: “I can’t tell you about your industry, but I can tell you that you know people IN your industry who would answer that. And I can tell you this Greater Truth of Life that is probably applicable: Costumes carry meaning, so bucking this dress code is probably not worth it.”

          If you have a Sensible Aunt, or a Clear Communicating Uncle, maybe they’d be good.

          1. EinJungerLudendorff*

            That assumes you get a say in who your mentor is.
            In most of the internships I’ve seen, you just get assigned a mentor.

            1. TootsNYC*

              you absolutely can turn to someone else for advice, feedback, someone to bounce ideas off or to emulate–you don’t have to announce that you consider them your mentor.

              The best mentorships arrive organically and aren’t official at all.

    4. Samwise*

      Eyes open, mouth shut, stay out of factions — advice my dissertation director gave after I got my first fulltime teaching job. Best advice ever.

      1. London Calling*

        And not just for people who are new to the workforce. I’m still using that rule after working for 44 years; especially the stay out of factions.

    5. carrots and celery*

      I wish we could get away from the idea that internships are the be all end all of starting your career. I never did one, most of my friends never did one, and we all have successful jobs in big industries.

      Internships may help, but they’re not the most important thing in the world tbh. My company hires just as many people without internship experience as people with internship experience.

    6. Artemesia*

      Great advice. I used to prepare interns for job interviews and internships and we always stressed observation as the first step. We had a program that used various organizational frames to understand the workplace and so part of an internship was analyzing the business using different observational frames. When we debriefed this weekly with interns we always stressed that in the first few weeks on a new job it was very useful to keep your mouth shut and observe — looking at the place from a political frame (who has formal and informal power and influence), looking at it from a structural frame (what kind of organization is it – hierarchical or more flat or matrix etc) etc etc is helpful in understanding how to move ahead in that environment. The big newbie mistakes tend to involve things you wish you hadn’t said.

      Be pleasant, greet people, engage in small talk but don’t volunteer suggestions for major changes or criticize ANYONE or express negative views about the product or the organization until you are well established. (and the criticize anyone thing is good forever unless you are their manager )

      The other advise is to follow the rules like being on time, dress code, breaks, deadlines etc etc religiously until you know the place well. Once you are well established and see how the place works and they have some confidence in your reliability you can begin to explore flexibility. But start off doing what you are told and keeping your mouth shut.

    7. Former B4 Manager*

      I agree wholeheartedly with this, but do have one note on giving this advice.

      I was working in a field where all activities were project based at client locations, so the performance manager often did not directly work with, or even see regularly, the employees they managed, but were there to collect performance reports from their supervisors, advocate for them, provide guidance, etc. This was also a field where we hired almost exclusively straight out of college, and although you did learn the basics in college, the application of that knowledge was mostly taught on the job, so their was little expectation that you came in with specific knowledge of how

      I was once was assigned a female summer intern, and I (mid twenties male at the time) tried to give this advice. In my mind, I was trying to just say to not worry to much, you will learn on the job and just take it all in, etc. However, to her, it came across as me telling her as a young female professional should keep her head down and let others take advantage of her (or something to that extent).

      She didn’t mention anything to me in the moment, and she just didn’t reply when I tried to follow up with her on how things were going a few times over the next week. I didn’t find out that was the way this was taken until around a week and a half later where a higher up pulled me aside for this, and explained the way it came across.

      Again, I fully agree with this advice, and have given this general advice to many other young professionals over the years and never had any other issues, but I just wanted to put it out there to make sure it does not come across as saying that they should let their employer take advantage of them or something similar, especially if you don’t already have a rapport or background with that person.

      1. Former Employee*

        Wow! I can’t think why anyone would take this advice in the way this person did unless she had been warned by an older friend or relative that women are always being taken advantage of in the workplace and to watch out for that when she started her internship. With that in mind, almost anything that a male employee told her about observing how things are done and doing what you’re told would have come off as telling her to let people take advantage of her. I wonder how she would have reacted if she had been assigned to a female mentor.

  4. Anne of Green Gables*

    If you aren’t sure about something, ask. I look for candidates who are comfortable asking for clarification when they aren’t sure.

    Like Alison mentioned, if something seems off or odd to you, ask for the WHY. In the case of the dress code, there were good reasons for the dress code, the interns just weren’t aware of those reasons and didn’t take the time to fund out the why (or didn’t think it mattered once they were told).

    Observe. Watch what people do, and pay attention to how people are viewed. That’s a good way to learn work place norms. It’s also a good way to find out the one or two people (outside your boss) who might be good resources or sounding boards or gut-checkers for you.

    1. Jellybean*

      “In the case of the dress code, there were good reasons for the dress code, the interns just weren’t aware of those reasons and didn’t take the time to fund out the why (or didn’t think it mattered once they were told).”

      Great point. Something like this happened in my workplace. A senior-level manager said something that really stood out to me: “Senior management has access to a bigger picture and sometime decisions are made for reasons that aren’t always obvious to people working in a more narrow scope.”

      This really resonated with me. If the interns had taken the time to realize that their narrow scope of view might be missing the rest of the big picture, it could have been avoided (along with any other situation like that).

      1. Mockingjay*

        Re: narrow scope of view.

        OP, scope view will apply throughout your career, on both sides. My team just fixed a problem with new hires because we didn’t give them the big picture they needed to do their work. The problem was noted because someone asked questions.

        We hired a bunch of people, including a senior team member who kept asking who does what and why (because he didn’t know and couldn’t find the answer). My manager realized new guy, as well as the others, hadn’t been briefed properly on our processes. We’ve updated our welcome aboard steps to include a presentation on the team roles, the project history, and process procedures (including where to find them), then hold one-on-one meetings with each new person to answer questions in depth.

      2. DC Cliche*

        Yes, this. Assume good intentions, even as you should have a professional distance (this is a job and they can fire you). I used to spend the “ask management anything” part of retreats rallying for things like later start times and better snacks ….. and then I was management, and realized that all of those policies existed for Reasons.

    2. Rebecca*

      This–the ability to ask a question is so crucial! I’ve had new hires hand in work done incorrectly and when I asked them why, they told me they did not understand what they were asked to do. Clearly, they were embarrassed to ask for clarification but it is much more embarrassing to waste their time and mine doing work that can’t be used! Those are the folks I’m concerned won’t work out in the job, much more than someone who asked a few extra questions at the outset and then did the work just fine. When you’re new (and pretty much forever, as far as I’m concerned) you’re allowed to not know something–just be polite and proactive and find out how to find out!

    3. BettyBrant*

      Number one. Observing is great, but the lessons you learn from doing that includes the assumption that the people you’re observing are doing things correctly – if, for example, there’s no firm length of time you have for lunch and your coworker stays for forty five minutes, you may think it’s okay for you to take forty five minutes as well – unaware that the actual lunchbreak is thirty minutes and your boss isn’t impressed that you’re taking longer.

      Ask questions, be humble, and balance observations with clarifications.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Balance observations with clarifications.

        Almost all human behavior comes down to things landing in a middle range, which might be wide or narrow. I think part of observation comes down to realizing when you should speak up and when you should wait.

    4. Heidi*

      Seconded. I get the impression that OP would not have started the petition, so he or she wouldn’t have made that mistake. If OP had simply signed the petition because everyone else did it, he or she would have been following the lead and the initiative of people who were clueless, and that would have been the mistake. I also think it’s oversimplifying to say that all petitioning at work is unprofessional. There have been cases where employees have banded together and were successful in getting things changed. However, most of the time, they were asking for things that would improve the quality of their work or work environment. The dress code petition does not seem to have been based on those motivations. It’s possible that a more lax dress code would have actually detracted from the professional image the company wanted to project, but the interns just wanted to wear shorts, and that’s where the disconnect was.

      1. Ophelia*

        Also, the “petition” sort of thing can’t be just a standard a petition in the context of work, I think. I was part of a group of employees that wanted to change our company’s family leave policies. We did, theoretically, petition management to consider the change, but what we gave them was a brief market survey of competitor policies, a business case for the change, and an overall cost estimate of two different options for updated policies vs. the current one. And what we asked for wasn’t an immediate policy change, but instead for the company to dedicate a small amount of resources to doing a more thorough review of the policy, and to update it for the coming year. It was effective, it wasn’t adversarial, and it was evidence-based, which made it successful.

    5. Jules the 3rd*

      +1 Watch, ask, wait.
      Start by being more formal than you usually are, until you figure out the office culture.
      Be polite to everyone.
      If you ‘hear someone did something’, don’t repeat it except to HR/mgmt, be clear about ‘I heard it’ vs ‘I witnessed it’, and keep your eyes open so that your witnessing is true. eg, If a woman tells you ‘George is sexist’, watch George for the ‘socially deniable’ sexist behaviors like sexual jokes or comparing women’s chest sizes and cleavage. Make sure you don’t minimize behaviors that are part of the picture.
      If you need to document an interpersonal issue, include: date, time, audience, context (in person conversation, phone meeting, etc). Include quotes if possible, paraphrase if not, indicate which it is.

      1. topscallop*

        Also, before you ask, think. I got chewed out at my first college internship because I asked for clarification on something that had previously been explained to me (albeit quickly), and though that office setting was particularly fast-paced and self-important, and I think in general it’s good to ask if you’re not sure of something, it’s even better if you can phrase it as “my understanding is this is the way you want this done – do I have that right?” I kicked myself the rest of that day because I realized that if I had just taken a few minutes at my computer to try to work on the assignment I would have figured out the answer myself.

        Related, later in my career, I had a supervisor who would say she was frustrated that people would come to her with problems and no suggestions. Now I always try to make sure I have a suggestion or proposal for how to handle whatever has gone wrong, even if it’s not my responsibility. This demonstrates leadership skills, innovative thinking, creativity, and being a team player, and will get you recognized by your managers (unless your suggestions are always out of left field).

      2. Gymmie*

        Definitely start out more formal. I had an intern who had to be sent home due to wildly inappropriate dress. I kind of didn’t understand why, in a new environment, that you wouldn’t just be super conservative until you learned the norms of the place. To me, that is just a basic life skill. Kind of hang back until you know it’s ok and then adjust accordingly.

    6. Collarbone High*

      “pay attention to how people are viewed”

      Related to this, don’t immediately ally yourself with anyone at a new job. Be friendly to everyone, but get a sense of the office politics before you start spending a lot of time with any one person or group so that you don’t find yourself lumped in with people viewed unfavorably by management.

      In my experience, toxic co-workers will often “recruit” new people by befriending them and giving them one-sided, inaccurate descriptions of previous incidents and other co-workers. Be especially wary of people who have nothing good to say about anyone else, and make themselves out to be the office hero. It may be true that management is terrible and everyone else is incompetent – or maybe not, and you should decide that for yourself.

      1. Jadelyn*

        This, so hard. Be friendly with everyone as best you can, and give it some time to get a real feel for the social lay of the land before you throw in your lot with any particular person or group. I’ve seen the dynamic described here more than once – toxic folks latching onto newcomers and telling them horror stories about everyone else. In one case, that’s how we found out for sure the claims Ms Toxic was making about the rest of us, because after a month or two the new hire realized that what she was being told didn’t match up to what she’d observed of any of us, so she came to us to ask about it.

        1. Archaeopteryx*

          And get to know people at a reasonable pace, in general- not just so you can learn more about them before opening up (in case they’re terrible), but also because while in college it’s pretty common to bond with people and get close right away, as adults it can come across as weird or even fake to assume you and colleagues will be bffs right away. Be friendly and upbeat but get to know people before you get super buddyish with them.

      2. TootsNYC*

        this is so important–be careful who you choose.

        In Naomi Novick’s “Temeraire” series of books (dragons!), a navy captain joins the air force (dragon riders) and is held at arm’s length by everyone–except one particular dragon captain. He’s relieved, and becomes friendly–and then discovers that this man is a monster, and that everyone was MORE skeptical of him because of the alliance.

        And I agree with Collarbone High that people who have bad boundaries or who are toxic or who are users will actively seek out newbies. People with good boundaries and who are cautious will go slower. Sure, some people will be friendly, and will feel a social obligation to reach out and make you welcome, but that obligation will be lower at work.

        So go slow in terms of forming alliances. Watch, and maybe “sample” everyone’s company before you settle into patterns.

      3. S*

        “Be especially wary of people who have nothing good to say about anyone else, and make themselves out to be the office hero.” WOW yes, this applies in so many contexts, not just workplaces. This entire posts bears out well in my experience – yes, it is possible than someone could have been massively screwed over by everyone acting in some major conspiracy against them, or much more likely they are the problem.

        1. TootsNYC*

          yeah, the true office heroes don’t usually toot their horns about it. Or if they do, it’s not so overt

    7. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Yes, yes, yes! Asking is critical to success.

      I’ve done this a lot over the years and still do before trying to make any changes. “Why do we do it this way?” has also helped me simply learn my job better as well, so it’s not just about learning the norms of the office in the end.

      So many people will just do something one way forever because they never asked why, even though it’s tired and tedious since it hasn’t been evaluated in years upon years or sometimes simply since the procedure first started. So if you say “Why is it that we need 3 copies of this?”, it may turn into a detailed explanation or it may turn into a “Uh you know what, why do we do it that way?” and things are re-evaluated at that time.

    8. Avocado Toast*

      The best intern I ever had was awesome at asking questions. Not only did he ask about the work but he also asked about office norms. We worked in an open office/cubicle set up and one day he got a phone call that was for me. He said, across the office, “Avocado, can I transfer this call to you?” After I got off, he came to my desk and checked that it was okay to ‘yell’ across the room to me. (It totally was, we all did it frequently, but i LOVED that he clarified the office culture)

      1. Alexander Graham Yell*

        I love that and I wish that was more common. It’s so hard to figure out how to articulate the unspoken rules of an office culture, but it’s so annoying when people break them that they really should be the completely spoken rules, you know? I would never think to tell somebody “Yeah, it’s fine to just yell a question,” but this morning I was IMing somebody about non-work stuff and yelled a work-related question to him less than 30 seconds after sending him an IM. (The work thing was clarification on when somebody is getting back from vacation, and she works with a few people, so it benefited people to hear the answer vs. something that nobody else would find useful – but again, I would never think to teach anybody that distinction and only questioned it myself as I was typing this.)

    9. smoke tree*

      Although if you really want to stand out as an intern, try to find a good balance between asking and figuring things out on your own. Part of this is cultivating the judgment to know when a certain question is really important to get right, or if your best guess will do. And part of it is just making use of the resources you have to try to dig up what information you can before taking up someone else’s time. Even if you ask the question but have clearly thought it through yourself, they will appreciate that. It’s annoying to field a bunch of questions from someone who clearly just didn’t want to take the time to figure it out themselves. Without fail, this was the number one thing my internship supervisors appreciated about my work.

      1. Alexander Graham Yell*

        Yes! There is a huge difference between “How do we do x?” and “I tried y and z, and thought maybe a would work but none of them seem right – can you help me figure out what I’m missing for x?”

    10. Turtle Candle*

      Agreed, though with one caveat: if you ask ‘why’ for everything, or if you push back when you’re told something like ‘that was a decision made above my/our level’ or ‘because we’ve always done it that way and we’re not likely to change at this point,’ you can sometimes exhaust the people around you. I had a new hire who asked ‘why’ on everything and was often kind of dubious about actually accepting our answers if they didn’t satisfy him, and it was very tiring. (For example, he wanted each decision in our style guide explained to his satisfaction, which… was not going to happen. Sometimes it’s ‘we chose that way because we had to make a choice for consistency and no, we’re not going back and changing everything because you happen to disagree.’) It’s completely fair to ask, but be judicious, and recognize that you don’t have to understand or agree with the reason to accept it.

  5. mochazina*

    first read the HR manual. second observe your surroundings once you start. third talk to your coworkers.

    1. Alice's Rabbit*

      I would also add: observe your workplace *before* you start. You can learn a lot by just sitting in a car (or at a nearby cafe) and watching folks arrive and leave.
      Is everyone right on time? Then you know that punctuality is important here. So make sure to give yourself plenty of time to get there, especially your first week.
      What’s everyone wearing? If they’re all dressing at a particular level of formality, then you should too, unless specifically told otherwise. And if they’re all wearing one particular item of clothing (a sports coat or suit jacket, for example) make sure you wear one, too.

  6. J*

    Ask questions, listen to answers. Appear engaged, taking notes and actively listening. Don’t be afraid to ask questions such as, “I don’t know what to do in this situation. Can you guide me?” People are not expecting you to have all the answers – early in your career or ever, really. It actually builds up a lot of camaraderie to ask others for their advice. Use that tool!

    1. Lily Rowan*

      Yes! I am well into my career and still ask my boss that question. The more advanced way to do it is to say, “I was thinking X, Y, and Z, but what do you think?” but it’s also fine to ask when you don’t have any idea!

    2. TootsNYC*

      Another question to ask:

      “What is that other person going to do once they get the thing I’m giving them?”
      and “What are we planning to accomplish with this report?”
      “How will this information be used, and by whom?”
      “What’s the most important thing for people to get out of this meeting? Is it different from department to department?”

    3. Sleepy*

      I agree that asking questions is, in general, great. I would rather someone ask and learn the right way to do things instead of forging ahead, doing things wrong, and then needing their work to be redone.

      However, not *all* questions are good ones. There are certain, very basic things I have been asked about that have made me look at the intern differently, and not in a good way. For example:
      – “Is it okay to show up late?” (Intern’s *first* question when asked if they had any questions).
      – “Should I include the happy hour I went to with coworkers on my timesheet?”

      So yeah, 97% of questions are great…for certain ones, read through this blog’s archives before asking :)

    4. ErinFromAccounting*

      And don’t forget that your peers/near peers can also be really helpful! I’m new at my job, and if I have a stupid question (ex: how to use the copier), I like to ask someone who has been here just a bit longer than I have.

    5. ExceptionToTheRule*

      Part of the second sentence (and this is not exclusive to young people) is either put your phone away when you’re learning something OR clarify that you’re using your phone to take notes. For example, I frequently use mine to take photos of equipment settings or make notes that I made need to reference later but I’m always up front about why I’m on my phone.

      Several of our department heads are terrible about being on their phones during meetings or conversations and the only message it really conveys is that you don’t have their full attention & therefore matter less than the phone.

  7. Stephanie*

    Man, high schoolers reading AAM!

    I would say observe and follow (and err on the side of caution your first couple of days). If you feel comfortable, ask someone trusted.

    1. fposte*

      I know! I would have been so far ahead if I’d had AAM internalized when I entered the work force.

    2. Stephanie*

      I’ll add, if there are employee resource groups, those are sometimes good ways to learn about company culture in a more relaxed environment (because you’ve already established a rapport through your shared interest in hiking or whatever).

    3. Amber Rose*

      I feel like a lot of the cringe that keeps me up at night would have been avoided if AAM had been a thing for me in high school. xD

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I think we underestimate high schoolers a lot, their generation is used to the internet and finding out things from it. So that they’re here lurking makes complete sense to me. So much eaiser than my old dinosaur self that had to go to the public library and check out books from like 1991 on how to craft a resume . I love that it’s easier for kids these days.

    5. atalanta0jess*

      I have learned so much about assertiveness and boundary setting, as a early-thirties reading AAM. Can you imagine if I’d found it earlier!? Look out world!

  8. Murphy*

    Observe other people and see how they act. There are of course some bad examples, but all workplaces are different, so taking note of other people’s behavior, dress, etc. can really help inform you about the workplace.

    Ask questions! Particularly when an intern or a newbie, it’s OK to ask questions!

    Learn to take feedback well. There will be some missteps, but as long as you listen and learn from the feedback you receive you’ll be able to recover from most of them

    1. caddy*

      In addition, if you’re not getting feedback regularly, ask for it. Especially at smaller companies or for interns there may not be explicit performance reviews set up.

      1. fnom*

        This! My manager is terrible at remembering to schedule one-on-one meetings, so I set up a recurring meeting every 2 weeks for the following 6 months (I’d do longer but it makes our Exchange server cranky). If you’ve ever heard anyone say that what’s on an annual review should never be a surprise, this is the sort of meeting when you learn about those things during the course of the year.

    2. CM*

      I think it’s important to remember that you can’t categorically say what’s a faux pas in every office — as you say, it’s more about what a particular group of people finds normal. You can still decide that their normal isn’t acceptable to you and go against it, but they won’t be happy.

  9. Seeking Second Childhood*

    LW — You ARE learning something important at your gas station job. You’re learning to show up on time in proper attire (in your case a business suit would be out of place). You’re putting in your hours, carefully following your supervisor’s instructions, and socializing with your co-workers in a way that fits in. You’re demonstrating trustworthy behavior, whether you’re handling money or changing the oil filter for someone’s only way to get to work.
    And by writing this letter I can tell that you are asking questions when necessary, and in an appropriate forum. That is the way to learn — ask questions when you need the answers, but sometimes it’s better to wait until later and ask your manager in private, or ask someone else. People don’t like being put on the spot or called out in meetings — but “Can I have a few minutes of your time later to ask some questions” is something that I truly appreciated from our interns.
    The co-worker who didn’t ask questions about her assumptions? That’s the one I didn’t appreciate.

    1. BRR*

      Very good point! These are all things that I think are hugely transferable to most jobs. I wouldn’t highlight them in an interview or anything like that, but doing a job well so that a company will pay you to do the work is an overlooked and important skill.

    2. starsaphire*

      This, for sure.

      Showing up on time in the right outfit/uniform is about 70% of the battle. (This includes calling in if you’re not well — never be a No Call No Show.)

      A good 25% is being attentive, productive, and not worrying about Expressing your Individuality. (Ignore this last bit if you go into a job in the arts!)

      You’re already so far ahead of the game just because you’re thinking about these things early. Honest! :)

      1. Minhag*

        “not worrying about Expressing your Individuality” is such a good point that it took me a while to internalize.

        A corollary is that an employer only wants you to serve their interests and that’s what they pay you for. They want you to show up when they need someone there, do the tasks that they prioritize, serve their customers, etc. This was hard for me to internalize because when I was young, I saw jobs as mostly a chance to hang out with my coworkers and friends. I’m embarrassed to say my posture was, “What, I don’t get to text my friends or do only the fun tasks or leave when I feel sleepy? Ugh!” I didn’t realize that the exchange is: my labor for their enterprise in exchange for their money in my bank account. It can take some time to build the “calluses” of working for someone else’s benefit and not your own.

        In good workplaces, there is space to express yourself and create your own projects and have a pleasant time with coworkers. But the expectation is that you don’t prioritize those things over the tasks you are being assigned.

      2. Manon*

        > Showing up on time in the right outfit/uniform is about 70% of the battle. (This includes calling in if you’re not well — never be a No Call No Show.)

        This, 100%. I’m a student manager at an on-campus job and the number of student staff who come in late, don’t come in at all, and don’t follow the dress code never fails to surprise me. Doing what you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it will put you ahead of the curve at many places.

    3. Rusty Shackelford*

      Yes, you are learning a LOT of important things. Unfortunately, you might also be learning some things that should be left behind at that job. It’s good that you’re aware that the norms at one job might put you on the naughty list at another.

    4. Serin*

      It varies *enormously* from job to job, and it continues to trip people up even when they’re well established in their careers. So maybe it helps to know that *everyone* needs to learn this and keep learning it?

      And even when you’ve been working a job for years, you can get a new boss, or a new VP several levels up the ladder, and a new set of cultural expectations will trickle down, and everybody will have to adapt. I once worked at a job where a new managing editor was hired and all of a sudden people were getting told to put their shoes on and not go barefoot in the office, and this was a big adjustment for us.

      Reading this column is a great way to start.

      Also — did you ever take an anthropology/sociology class and have to write an ethnography? Or write a work of fiction and have to describe people’s relationships to each other? Doing that kind of thinking is part of working.

      Once you notice it, you’ll probably see that you’re already doing it.

    5. F+1*

      I was just coming here to say this. I have a child with ASD who will be 16 next summer and he plans to get a part time job somewhere with a schedule and uniform/dress requirements (like at a gas station) then. He still struggles with reading social cues in new situations and knows this will help him learn some basic workplace culture when the stakes are lower and it shouldn’t matter too badly if he messes up.

      Side note: the biggest thing I learned in front-facing customer service that I still use in my professional career is this: people want to know what you can do for them, not what you can’t.

      1. knitcrazybooknut*

        As someone who works in payroll, I learned many techniques on how to calm someone down. 1. Speak slowly. 2. Speak quietly. 3. Let them rant until they wear themselves out. 4. Present the solution plainly, without talking about what went wrong. As you said, they don’t care what went wrong. They want to know what you can do to fix it. And if it is your fault, 5. Apologize.

        1. London Calling*

          Point 5 I have used so many times in my career – ‘yup, I’m sorry, it was my fault.’ I’ve seen managers taking a deep breath all ready to chew me out and those few words deflated them because they were expecting excuses and the run around, not an admission of guilt.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Recognizing our own mistakes solves 50% of the problem. The worst thing is to say, “No, I did not do that!” when it is clearly your mistake.

            If you don’t understand how you erred that is fine, “I don’t understand what went wrong. Please show me how to never make this mistake again. [ OR: Show me how to correct it. OR: I will develop a plan so I do not make this simple error again.]

            A good goal to aim for is to not make the same mistake twice. People do notice. Yeah, there might be a few times where you do the same error twice but aim for a heavy percentage of the time a mistake does not recur.

            I have supervised and/or trained a lot of people. The people who were able to catch most of their mistakes and tell me they had a problem were the people who made out the best in their jobs. I never worried about people making mistakes, rather I worried about them not figuring out something was wrong.

        2. Djuna*

          Owning your mistakes is so important. It builds trust more than never making any mistakes does.
          People know if you mess up, you’ll admit it and not look for someone else to blame. Gets you a rep for being honest and responsible (provided you don’t make the same mistake again), and easy to deal with.

        3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          #3 is critical in a lot of positions, especially customer service and that includes internal customer service, like dealing with payroll issues that pop up.

          Let them be heard in general and don’t just glaze over while they’re speaking. Even if you cannot do something for them, they’re emotions are valid and they need to run their course.

          Then you can stay calm, steady and measured while you tell them the steps to fix their issue if it’s something you can handle or if the next step is going to be to talk to someone else. Even then you have shown them the respect and dignity they deserve by listening and being helpful in some way, even if the helpfulness is just to be kind in their moments of distress.

  10. Eve's Husband's Mustache*

    It’s going to vary pretty widely from job to job, which is essential to the best advice I ever got on the subject:

    When you start at a new place, lay low for at least a month. Be friendly and polite, but your main job at first is learning the ropes. That means not just what your actual job function is (you get hired as an entry-level Teapot Painter, so you’ll be doing the solid-color background before passing it along to the Skilled Teapot Detailer), but also the norms of that office. How are other people dressing? How do they relate to each other? How rigid is the hierarchy?

    Don’t be the new kid coming in on day one all gung-ho to Improve Things. You won’t yet know WHY things are the way that they are, so your suggestions will likely be ill-informed and unwelcome (“who’s this new kid trying to tell us what to do?”). Don’t be the new kid coming in saying “Well at my LAST job we did it THIS way and it was WAY BETTER.” Don’t be the new kid trying to spice things up with lots of extracurricular invitations and work parties and warm fuzzies on everybody’s desk.

    Hold your horses and figure stuff out first. Feel free to ask questions about How Things Are Done Here. If, after a while of working there, you decide you have good ideas about how to change things? THEN you can start working toward that, from a place of information and already-built-up goodwill.

    1. londonedit*

      This is pretty much what I was going to say. With any luck you might end up getting an exciting job in an industry you really want to work in, and that’s great, but beware of being overenthusiastic. Watch and listen to people with more experience and industry knowledge than you.

      Also, work isn’t pass/fail like school is, and no one expects you to know all the answers straight away. Most bosses will be far more impressed with a new employee who asks thoughtful questions and who isn’t afraid to say ‘I’m not sure off the top of my head; let me find out about that and get back to you’ than with someone who fudges things because they’re too scared to admit they don’t know, or to ask for clarification if they’re not sure about something they’ve been asked to do.

    2. Fortitude Jones*

      Don’t be the new kid coming in on day one all gung-ho to Improve Things. You won’t yet know WHY things are the way that they are, so your suggestions will likely be ill-informed and unwelcome (“who’s this new kid trying to tell us what to do?”). Don’t be the new kid coming in saying “Well at my LAST job we did it THIS way and it was WAY BETTER.” Don’t be the new kid trying to spice things up with lots of extracurricular invitations and work parties and warm fuzzies on everybody’s desk.

      THIS. So much. Stay in your lane when you first start, OP, and you’ll be golden.

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        This advice is true for everyone starting a new job, ESPECIALLY managers.

        So much of my job is based on legal requirements (Sarbanes Oxley, etc), it’s really important to know *why* we do each thing so that you can figure out *what* can change. We recently overhauled some processes that were based on legal decisions that had recently changed, and I could do that because I knew which things we did were because of those decisions vs current ones.

      2. Manon*

        About 6 months into an internship/work-study I did last year, our team hired a full-time person who shared a lot of my responsibilities. Before even learning how to complete certain processes correctly, she wanted to change them to be more efficient and like the way they were done at her last job which led to 1) my manager having to explain “we do x and not y because of [list of problems/reasons/past procedures]” for every little task and 2) me correcting/re-doing a bunch of work because she wasn’t taking the time to learn how things were done at this organization. She was let go after a few months.

        So yeah, learn how to do your job as it is before trying to change everything.

    3. LunaLena*

      Completely agree, was going to say myself that it’s going to vary widely from job to job, and industry to industry. Also agree that it’s important to be humble and realize that you’re going to be the new kid on the block who has to learn what everyone else has been doing for a while.

      The only other thing I would add is that, when in doubt and you don’t know who or what to ask, err on the side of being conservative and cautious. There’s a saying in Korean: “spilled rice can be picked up, but you can’t take back spilled words.” In other words, err on the side of staying quiet and seeing how others react, or wait until you can talk to someone in private. Trust takes time to build up, but only a second to shatter, so you want to be sure you’re not stepping on toes before you stick your neck out.

    4. Blarg*

      This is mostly true. But if you come in and inherit a filing system that is based on whether something is stapled or paper-clipped, it’s acceptable to ask pretty early on what the background is and if you can change it. In our case, besides being laughably absurd, it increased the risk of error and things being missed. I’d replaced it within the first week and within six months had us off paper entirely. Sometimes the way things are is dangerous/creating massive liability/a recipe for disaster. Don’t ignore that! People get blinded by “the way we’ve always done it.”

  11. Fortitude Jones*

    What is and isn’t faux pas at professional-type jobs? How would I learn what not to do?

    If you have questions about what is and isn’t appropriate in whatever workplace you end up in – ask. Every workplace is different, and what would be a faux pas in one situation wouldn’t necessarily be so somewhere else. Be observant – look around and see how your manager is dressing, behaving, etc. Take note of what your coworkers do/wear/etc. Then follow their lead, especially your manager’s, unless the workplace you end up in is dysfunctional – then completely ignore everything I just said and look for a new position if the dysfunction veers into abuse.

    1. Junior Assistant Peon*

      This is something I still struggle with after many years of work experience and several different companies – at every new job, I commit some faux pas that wouldn’t have been a big deal at Last Job. Every workplace culture is different, and it takes a long time to figure out the subtleties.

  12. JM in England*

    To repeat a comment I made on a previous post, always observe the golden rule of diplomacy “Before speaking, engage brain!”. Another commenter then expanded on this with the WAIT principle (Why Am I Talking?)…

  13. EMP*

    If you’re going to college soon that’s a great time to learn about professional norms. You’ll almost definitely have a career center or alumni outreach office and I would try to leverage that into getting an office tour (or several!) My sister just finished a degree program where the school organized 3 or 4 office visits. Most of her classmates didn’t go but these are amazing opportunities to see a professional office and meet people you hope to work with.

    I’m trying to think of a general metaphor for “how to act when you’re new in an office” and the best I can do is “going to a formal dinner party” – dress nicely (and the internet/careers office can help tell you what that is), don’t be too loud or boisterous, watch what other people are doing if you don’t know which fork to use and follow along. It can be different from what you’re used to, but it’s also not completely bonkers and if you’re ready to learn you’ll pick up what counts as normal in no time.

    1. time for lunch*

      Yes, this. Don’t worry too much that you might make a terrible faux pas. Just get into the career center early, meet the counselors, and attend some of their sessions periodically.

      The intern petition story is especially shocking because, if I recall correctly, it seemed to be a company that admits a class of interns. Internships of this kind temd to be well systematized. If you go through your career center to seek out internships through them, with companies that work with your college, you’ll have their support through the learning process. You may also have a better shot at paid internships and ways to get a stipend to help with internships that offer no pay but course credit instead.

      If your school does not have a robust career counseling service, check in with the alumni association, and also look for similar free services in your city, for example through the public library or community center.

      And rather than be nervous about making mistakes, if you are comfortable doing so, tell your supervisor when you start that you are new to the work world and interested in learning about the professional norms in their office. This way they will know you will gladly accept pointers and corrections, and that will lower the tension in case you make a misstep.

      Reading AAM every day is great, but also see what counselors recommend for your stage of career. Start there.

    2. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

      Yes! This dinner party metaphor is perfect!
      If I can mangle it further (and run the risk of offending an entire sector of the office!) – if the office admin could be considered the equivalent of the wait staff (in as much as they interact with nearly everyone), *be nice to them*.
      These people can be wonderful mentors about how your particular office works – just don’t monopolize their time.

    3. so many resumes, so little time*

      I’m not sure “dress for a dinner party” is helpful to a high school student; I have a child in her early 20s and I’m pretty sure she’s never been to an actual dinner party where people dressed up. Even at family holiday meals she’s seen people in a wide range of outfits, from dressy to jeans and back again. In her social circle, every time I see photos of a bunch of them eating together in someone’s home, it’s more of a potluck than a dinner party and people are wearing whatever they like.

      That said, “business casual” is a thing, and a decent department store might be helpful in terms of LW figuring out a basic work wardrobe. Many stores offer personal shoppers which _anyone_ can use; you don’t have to have a ton of money to spend and the service is usually free (and sometimes comes with a discount on whatever you buy from the appointment).

      I would suggest avoiding the “interview suit” unless you’re aiming to work in a field where wearing a suit every day is common; separates can look perfectly professional and office-worthy.

  14. cncx*

    My first internship was where i really learned about stuff like…being on time…
    I was really lucky in that my manager at that internship was really upfront about it being a learning experience for me. It was unpaid but it wasn’t her fault (work permit locale issues, i was an american in europe) and so she really committed to making this a learning experience for me. Besides showing up on time (i know i cringe 20 years later), i learned stuff like how to answer the phone to relay a message, taking notes in meetings, a lot of word and powerpoint- stuff that is considered basic office skills but isn’t really taught in high school. On some level internships can be really low stakes ways to watch and learn (not talking about some of the competitive law and science internship ones of course)- i would really suggest getting an office internship and then people watching.

    1. time for lunch*

      This is a good point! Learning about things like being on time is not the same kind of learning as memorizing facts. In your early career stages you’re learning how to do your adult work rhythms. How to get enough rest, pick up dry cleaning, get yourself feed and your house clean, pay bills, not run out of breakfast food, and get places on time. It’s like riding a bicycle. It’s an embodied knowledge. You can’t learn to ride a bicycle by reading about it either, though you can pick up some things. You have to do it. You will fall off the bike a couple times. This is the secret big challenge of that stage of life.

      1. Peter*

        “Adult work rhythms.”

        Thank you – that’s the phrase (and underlying concept) I needed to explain to my teenage godson.

  15. Amber Rose*

    ASK QUESTIONS. Never assume anything. If you aren’t sure, even if you think it’s the dumbest question in the world, ask anyway. When you’re young/new is the time when people are most understanding of that.

    Also avoid the urge to hop on bandwagons. In the case that someone presents a petition, instead of just blithely going along with it, find out all the whys. But maybe just stay out of it anyway. Typically when you’re new, petitions are the worst thing. You’re too new to know enough background, and a petition is a very aggressive move to make as your first one. You want to get along with and work WITH your managers and coworkers, not just present demands. Generally speaking, some solid advice is that demanding anything of anyone is gonna go over like a lead balloon.

    I feel like if even one of those interns had, instead of creating a petition, just asked why the dress code was the way it was and why X was allowed to circumvent it, the whole mess would have been avoided because typically managers do not get mad about questions.

    1. Colette*

      Oh, yes. And if you’re stuck or don’t know what to do, ASK. It’s so important, and so easy to end up in a lot of trouble if you don’t.

    2. fposte*

      Though I’d say a corollary to “Ask questions” is “Let stuff go.” Sometimes you don’t get the answer but you’ve used up enough time on the matter; sometimes also you have to let stuff go because we all have to let stuff, ranging from weird policy to annoying co-workers, go.

      1. Amber Rose*

        That’s true. Sometimes you have to just accept things at face value. I’m thinking of a discussion sometime back where someone was getting some heat for asking a lot of questions and people were pointing out that a lot of the things being asked would probably be learned on the job over time.

        LW, you don’t need the full history on why everything is the way it is right away. Stick to asking questions about things that matter right now.

        1. fposte*

          I think that’s a really good differentiation. “Which back entrance has the alarm on it?” is a different question from “Can we get the alarm turned off on the back door?”

    3. LKW*

      Ah, but once you’ve asked the question and gotten the answer. WRITE IT DOWN. Put it in an email that says “Hi, thanks for taking time to talk to me about x. My understanding is… ” that way you now have a guide that is confirmed by whomever you asked.

      Don’t be the person who asks the same question over and over.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Yes this!!!!

        Take notes. Review your notes. Rewrite your notes or type them up in a cleaner format.

      2. Quinalla*

        This is a great caveat. My additional one is don’t shop for an answer you like. I’ve observe folks ask me a question and clearly not like the answer, so then I hear then ask many other people hoping to get a different answer. Don’t do this, makes you look like a little kid trying to get around one parent saying no by asking the other!

        If you don’t like the answer, either gently push back or ask for clarity or decide to let it go forever or let it go for now and revisit in X timeframe. For the latter, if you are bringing something up again, make sure you have reasons for it that your boss/higher up will care about. Not “I’ve been filling the TPS reports out like you told me to and I hate doing them!” but “I’ve been filling out the TPS reports like you told me to, I know we use them for X&Y, would you be open to suggestions on improvements/replacements that could test out that still fulfill X&Y?” or “I’ve been filling out the TPS reports and it is taking me X time to do them. Is there something I’m missing to increase efficiency?”

        And i know for some folks, asking questions can make you feel really vulnerable, that you are showing you don’t know something. It does and can be uncomfortable, but it is WAY worse to do something wrong for a long time when someone catches it and then have to explain that you just didn’t ask the question even though you were guessing on what was the right thing to do. Really just ask! And the newer you are, the more slack people give you on asking too, so ask early!

        1. Djuna*

          Ah yes, the don’t be an askhole rule.

          All of this is important, as is asking the right person. We see a lot of people trying to get “face time” with leadership by asking them a question about something our team does instead of just, y’know, asking us.
          Our grandboss has a wonderful technique for that, “Oh, I don’t know too much about that, I’m afraid. Have you asked Djuna about it? You haven’t? Oh, well let’s go over and ask her together.”
          She’ll then bring them right to my desk, ask if I have a few minutes to spare (I love that she signals that I’m busy too, and that she’s conscious of my time), introduce me to them, fill me in, then go off to do grandboss things of greater importance. It’s such an elegant deflection, and smart people don’t try it twice.

      3. Kes*

        Also, if you do have a guide or document that may have the answer, consider checking it first before going to ask – asking questions is good but asking questions you could easily get the answer to yourself can be annoying

        1. fnom*

          And if that guide or document doesn’t exist (because the tasks were done by multiple people, or there weren’t that many, or the previous person could do the tasks in their sleep, or you’re the first new hire in forever), being the person to make it, even if only you use it for the moment, looks good–that kind of guide/document/FAQ adds value, because you are not going to be the only person in that role forever and ever. Hoarding knowledge isn’t a virtue, and making the relevant information more accessible means that while you might have to ask thirty questions to get the answers you need, the next person won’t have to waste the time of the person/people who had your answers by asking the same questions you did again.

    4. Fortitude Jones*

      I feel like if even one of those interns had, instead of creating a petition, just asked why the dress code was the way it was and why X was allowed to circumvent it, the whole mess would have been avoided because typically managers do not get mad about questions.

      It was my understanding from that letter that the lead intern did ask why they couldn’t wear casual shoes and clothes in the office and were told no. Then she went and circulated a petition and wrote a proposal about this on company time. Finally, when she was told the dress code was different for the full-time employee who was wearing sneakers because of a medical condition, the intern doubled down on the petition idea saying that had she known about the colleague’s condition, she would have factored it into her argument for getting rid of the business dress code. Management wasn’t upset about the question – they were upset because they had already given an answer to the question, that answer was no, and the intern wouldn’t accept it and move on.

      1. fposte*

        I think Amber Rose is differentiating “Can we wear tennis shoes?” (the question the interns apparently asked) from “Can you explain why this part of the dress code is like this?” That being said, I think the interns may have received “This is the professional convention for our field” and found it insufficient, and I think the reasonable responses about Jane (“We don’t discuss other employees, but if you have a personal reason for an exemption, we can explore that”) might not have been enough either.

      2. Amber Rose*

        Sorry, I mean if they had JUST asked. Asking the question: OK. Not accepting the answer: not OK.

        The petition was the step too far, as it would be in almost ever circumstance I can ever imagine. Which is why my advice to anyone new is to not sign one. You just don’t know enough to be putting your name on stuff like that. Don’t blindly hop on bandwagons. =P

    5. Not So NewReader*

      Bandwagons. Early on I decided to avoid bandwagon situations. There is a reason why everyone is worked up over something and typically they have chosen the wrong path to solving it. Using emotions to make decisions seldom works.
      So for bandwagon situations I chose to remain quiet. This got interesting. If the group had chosen the wrong idea, TPTB noticed that I did not chime in. However, if the group chose the right idea my silence meant I had the good sense not to object. People are funny/odd with how they try to read other people’s reactions or non-reactions.

      Be especially aware of situations where a number of people decide to tease one particular person. I even go as far as not to laugh but rather look directly at the person to see if they are laughing. If the laughter seems forced, which most times it does, I make sure I am not laughing.

  16. Kay Vis*

    Be comfortable saying “I’d like to think about it first. Can I let you know tomorrow?” That gives you time to search boards like this and get advice from others.

    1. Just J.*

      This is GREAT advice. If someone asks you a question and you do not know the answer, it’s ok to not have an answer and say “I need to look into that.” Don’t ever fudge or make up stuff. EVER.

  17. Ye old*

    I find that most workplaces I’ve been were very forgiving to the interns for their professional faux pas, with one caveat – the intern needs to learn from the mistake and not repeat it, e.g. the first time we invite the intern to a work meeting, and it turns out they forgotten to take notes and didn’t catch 50% of what the boss asked them to do. It’s okay, the more senior colleague will try to go through it again with you. Next time, remember to take notes. If you persistent in forget boss’s instructions by not giving yourself reminders or caring, the bosses would definitely not give you the reference you needed after leaving the office.

    1. dance dance dance*

      Oh and don’t lie about stuff. We had someone once say that she wasn’t at the all-hands meeting because it wasn’t on her calendar.

      It was absolutely on her calendar. We know this because everyone could view everyone else’s calendar. And one of the onboarding steps was to forward meeting invitations. There’s a record of these things.

      It did not start this person out very well and, well, I wish I could say that she was more responsible and reliable and honest than that first week’s interactions had shown. She wasn’t.

      1. President Porpoise*

        This deserves highlighting. Always act with integrity in everything you do. If you must lie, have it be that you’re going to the doctor (while heading to a job interview), not that you understand what you need to do (when in reality you have no clue, but it’ll be six months before you fess up and there’s six months of undone or badly done work that now needs to be fixed). Also, don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something – but go seek knowledge whenever you can.

        1. londonedit*

          Yes! There was a letter about this a while back, but also – if you make a mistake, do NOT sit on it. Everyone makes mistakes, and while it’s totally mortifying to have to own up, that’s what you’ve got to do. A reasonable boss will respect and understand someone who comes to them and says ‘This thing happened, I know it was my mistake, it happened because I did X instead of Y, and this is how I plan not to do X again’. Whereas the only thing that’ll happen if you try to hide your mistake is that you’ll feel awful, it’ll probably make things ten times worse when it does eventually come out (which it will), and your boss and coworkers will likely lose respect for you and your work.

          1. knitcrazybooknut*

            I always tell my team, “Recovery is everything.” Mistakes happen. People aren’t robots. We deal with such volume that even a 1% error rate will cause issues, and we have to figure out how to fix them.

            If you make an error, see if you can figure out how to fix it. And any time you need help with something and you’re concerned about the attitude of the person you’re approaching, sit down with them and say, “I need your help.” This is something that people automatically respond to sympathetically, and it’ll make them more open to your question.

        2. TootsNYC*

          and also–if trouble is coming–you think you won’t finish something on time, or someone expects you to do something on a day you’ll be off, tell someone early.

          We can fix anything in advance–and it’s easier. And you’re not in trouble (you’ll win points, actually). It’s your supervisor’s job to help you handle (or to handle for you) when things don’t go right.

          1. Koala dreams*

            I found that a big difference between school and work. In school, it doesn’t matter if you tell your english teacher that you won’t be able to hand in the essay in time because you have a chemistry test to study for, but if you tell your boss that you won’t have time to finish the report because you have so many documents you need to scan, your boss probably will help you. Maybe they’ll tell you the scanning can wait because the report is more important, or they can show you how to scan many documents more efficiently so you can do both.

  18. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I’m from a family of blue collar workers so had nobody to fall back on in that way to ask about norms.

    So my go-to was to watch and really absorb the environments I’m in. I also always read the handbook, I know this actually isn’t a thing a lot of people do, which is a disservice to them. I also don’t try to “change” anything until I’m in deep enough to understand what’s going on here.

    So I don’t show up, see something is “like it is” re: dress code, decide that’s just unfair and try to change the system. The key is always to emerge yourself and understand why things are the way they are. Then you can figure out how “flexible” things can be and how people there are accepting of change in general. The thing to keep in mind is that professional norms aren’t the same everywhere you end up, they vary drastically. Don’t get stuck in the mindset that one way is the only way and really pay attention to your surroundings.

    1. ArtyOfficeMouse*

      Same same. I needed to keep my eyes open and figure out in what ways I needed to adjust my expectations of myself and others.

      Something I’ll add is to absorb your environment at college, too. Colleges are businesses. There are offices there that do different things. When you’re a student visiting an office (say, the financial aid office) as a “customer,” pay attention to how they’re functioning while you wait for your turn and interact with the employees.

      One step further is to get a campus job, not just an internship! Student workers are in a unique situation where they often have as much responsibility as non-student workers, but they tend to have extra leeway to ask questions, mess up (within reason) and work to fix the issue. I worked in residence life as a resident adviser (free room and board!) and as an office assistant, plus I worked in the campus theater as an usher. These set me up with great customer service skills as well as experience working in office settings.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I can expand on it though and say that you can still observe other work environments that you may find yourself in. If you go to the doctor’s office, look at how the office is setup and how people are dressed or speaking with one another. Same if you’re going to a bank, look at everything around you to see what that atmosphere is like.

        I say this because not all of us go to college [I didn’t].

        I do recall years going to places with my parents and noticing the workers at the neighborhood one-man shop mechanic shop with their front desk in the shop itself verses the fancy dealership parts department. So I had a feeling of the differences just from that!

        1. ArtyOfficeMouse*

          Absolutely! Great points, as always. I focused on the college part because that’s where OP says they are headed.

          I remember trailing my mom in the grocery store and watching the employees interacting with their managers, or listening to the medical assistants and nurses interacting while waiting at the doctor (I was sick a lot as a kid). I learned so much from those experiences, too.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I am also a big fan of reading the employee manuals or whatever else they give you. I even have taken them home to read them. I can not tell you, OP, how many times that has saved my butt. I was never surprised when someone said, “Well in the employee book it says blah, blah, blah.” I already knew that.

      Sometimes you can catch little quirks of the particular company that would not have been something you gathered any where else. For example, certain shoes are to be worn in certain areas. You need to change into the correct shoes if you have to go to that area for something. If you do not have a change of shoes you may need to ask someone to help you get that item.

      Read. And read everything they give you. You can deduce stuff, for example by reading a short history of the company, you may find out the person at the front desk is the founder’s granddaughter. This is good to know.

  19. Escapee from Corporate Management*

    OP, my advice is to find mentors in the fields in which you are interested. How do you do that? Do your parents have friends in those fields? Are your friends’ parents in the field. Ask them. If not, leverage the alumni organization once you get to college. Many schools have alums who volunteer to work with students to help them in your career.

    1. Local Helpful CPA*

      To piggyback on this, see if your high school will organize a career day. My local high school does this and has those of us in various career paths come and talk. One of the points we’re supposed to cover is how to get hired and keep being employed. I usually cover workplace topics such as treating each other with respect and workplace norms in big and small companies.

  20. Sneaky Ninja for this one*

    Watch what other people are doing. What seems to be the norm. Note that the norm is not always ok. If someone is always cursing up a blue streak and showing up to work in a pink tutu, and no one else is, I wouldn’t suggest cursing in a tutu at work. There might be Reasons.

    Read the handbook. A lot of companies don’t follow them to the letter, but it’s good info to know.

    Stay more on the conservative side until you get a good feel for the place.

    Kinda like high school, see if you can determine the good kids from the bad kids. The rebels from the pushovers. The leaders from the followers. See how others react to these different types, and chose your type wisely.

    Always be kind, but not necessarily a pushover.

    Don’t get tied up in office gossip.

    1. LKW*

      Wanted to say the same things:

      Don’t gossip. Just figure out ways to remove yourself from those discussions as gracefully as possible. “Oh, gotta hit the rest room” or “I could use some water, anyone want any?”

      If the norm is unethical, illegal or otherwise cruel or harmful – get out. Adults don’t always know what’s best. Look at Wells Fargo among other multibillion dollar corporations that behaved absolutely unethically. Don’t shrug and assume that’s how all companies are. Also – remember, shit rolls down hill. The lowest person is the one who gets fired for following the direction of those above. Also, there is nothing wrong with calling or contacting a compliance hotline if you see unethical or irresponsible behavior. Alerting the powers that be to suspicious behaviors is not “tattling” – it’s actually being a responsible employee and citizen.

    2. Ashley*

      Remember these people are co-workers or your boss not your friend. Avoid the gossip and overly personal information sharing.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Definitely watch what the majority of people are doing. I have even gone as far as lagging behind on the way to a meeting, to see how the people settle themselves into the room. By lagging behind, I mean I was in the middle somewhere as the group arrived at the meeting space.

  21. Kaitlyn*

    You learn by observing, you learn by doing. Who are the folks who are doing well at their jobs? Watch to see how they dress, how they manage their time, how they treat their colleagues and superiors and (most importantly) the people they manage. Who are the folks who are well-liked? Same goes for them.

    You also do well at “professional” (I assume you mean office?) jobs by reminding yourself that, especially in entry-level positions, you’re going to learn so much, probably more than you bring to the table when you’re hired. Be open to new pathways and systems and protocols. Be open to the idea that things might change, or be different. Be pleasant when people offer you feedback, both critical and complimentary. Retain a bit of distance – remind yourself that a job doesn’t define who you are as a person, but how you act while you’re there certainly counts for something. That your boss and your coworkers aren’t always truly your friends, but friendliness and being pleasant can count for so much. And that you can, and should, refuse to tolerate situations where your alarm bells go off.

    This is vague, but succeeding in offices (and work in general!) is so much about interpersonal dynamics and adaptability, and so not about the right outfit or the right binders.

  22. AnotherSarah*

    I think “use your words” is always good advice (and advice those interns could have used). Most of my bad-ish workplace experiences would have been avoided if someone had simply asked a question or confronted someone who had messed up (as opposed to petitions, silent treatment, rumor-spreading, etc.)

  23. hadoukenpunch*

    As an extrovert who likes to problem-solve this skill did not come naturally, but I’ve found great success focusing on active listening (rather than talking) a majority of the time, which accomplishes two things: Learning more about how your colleagues and supervisors think, and making your words more impactful when you do speak.

    In terms of when to speak up, my criteria are: Are you the right person to address this? Is this the best time to do so? What can your perspective bring that others’ cant?

    It’s certainly not self-censorship but does have the effect of making your contributions very focused and worthwhile.

  24. Colette*

    Assume that the rules apply to you. Follow the dress code, show up on time, do what you’re supposed to do. If you notice other people are coming in late or not following the dress code, ask if you can do the same (but if the answer is no, accept it and move on).

    Be polite to everyone.

    Keep drama in your personal life out of the office. No complaining about your partner, or PDAs in the hallway. You want to be known as the great intern who got stuff done, not the one who had to be talked to because she was making out with someone in the kitchen.

    Listen, and remember that if there were easy solutions to problems, they’d probably already be solved. If you think you see an easy solution, ask “Hey, have you considered doing X?” instead of saying “We need to do X.”

    1. AndersonDarling*

      Your first point is the key. Newbees will be observing and looking for clues on how to behave and when they see someone taking a long lunch, wearing flip-flops on Friday, or everyone leaving 15 minutes early, it is easy to assume that is the “normal.” It is absolutely okay to ask about those things to make sure you can be granted those privileges.

    2. President Porpoise*

      Yes – keep your private life private. Feel free to share what you did over the weekend, or pictures of your pets/kids/whatever, but don’t bring your super personal stuff out for everyone to see. A close friend who is also a coworker – sure, share. But no one needs to know about the weird rash on your butt, or the fight you had with your sister.
      Don’t make blanket statements about groups of people or engage in stereotyping.
      Accept good faith criticism with grace and a real resolve to improve, and avoid defensiveness. If you must defend yourself, do so in a calm and measured way – even if that means you need to take some time after the initial conversation to get yourself in a position to do so.
      Avoid dating in the office, if possible. If you must, ensure you abide by your company’s policies, don’t be romantic at work, and if you break it off don’t bring your bad feelings into the office.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Remaining calm is a whole huge topic by itself.

        A good piece of advice I heard was to think about what you want BEFORE you speak. I still do this. Sometimes I realize what I want is foolish and I need to just be quiet. This happens less and less as you work because you start to learn what companies will and will not be open to discussing and changing.

        But it is easy to catch ourselves vehemently saying, “We need to do ABC.” And what we actually want is Unrelated X that has nothing to do with ABC. So a question that helps here, is asking ourselves “How does ABC get me to Unrelated X?”

    3. Escapee from Corporate Management*

      “If you notice other people are coming in late or not following the dress code, ask if you can do the same (but if the answer is no, accept it and move on).”

      And understand that not everyone will be treated equally. The person coming in late may be the top salesperson in the company. The person not following the dress code may be the only employee who understands how to use the woefully-out-of-date accounting software. As the newest person on the team, the expectations you will follow the rules are likely to be higher than for a longer-tenured employee.

    4. Sutemi*

      If you have a job with a safety-related dress code, follow it. Do not flout the rules for using protective equipment and clothing even if you see someone else ignoring them. Wear the safety glasses, the labcoat, the full-foot shoes as directed.

  25. Jaime*

    I’m with everyone else here who says the best answers are “observe” and “ask.” When you start out, err on the side of too much formality, but once you’re in a job, watch what everyone else says and does, what they wear, how they talk, and adjust your own behavior to be compatible with theirs. If you have a question, most people won’t mind at all if you just ask. There are always the outlier assholes, but you can’t really plan for them.

    This may be harder if you’re neuroatypical, but it’s still important to do. If picking up on social cues is hard for you, I’d suggest either enlisting your supervisor or a friendly coworker to answer questions for you sooner rather than later.

  26. CatCat*

    Oooh, such a great question! It would be so useful for those new to the workforce going to jobs to have a general list of “these things are normal” and “these things are not normal” for [insert type of job, e.g., white collar office job, science/lab job, academia, etc.]

    Just seeing how an office operates is a good way to gauge norms for that office. Unfortunately, when you’re really new, it’s soooooo hard to know if those particular office norms are even reasonable or representative of the norms generally for that type of work. It can be very difficult to shake problematic norms from your mind/behavior so being able to flag them would be a great benefit,.

    One I can think of and have experienced, is yelling. Yelling at others in the workplace is not okay absent an imminent threat to safety and health (e.g., “fire!” “call 9-1-1-!”) . If you end up working at an office where yelling is normal, that is not at all normal for office type work on the whole and you should avoid adopting that behavior.

    Another, your boss is NOT your friend. Your boss should be enforcing personal/professional boundaries, but they might not be good at that or recognize the problem. Avoid, avoid, avoid any personal life entanglements with your boss. I had to learn that one the hard way.

    1. techRando*

      I will say: there are SOME industries where things like yelling in an office are somewhat expected. However, you can google your specific industry, ask college professors, etc if that’s true of any specific industry you’re looking into.

      I would also say, failing good evidence otherwise, it’s better for your wellbeing to assume that your industry is NOT one of those.

      Basically some industries have bad things about them. In some industries levels of overwork are considered normal that are crazy to most others, etc. You need to research what’s normal for your industry, and consider whether those negatives are worth living with for you. Can you put up with yelling? With very long hours? With completely irregular schedules? And, of course, even in those industries where those negatives are basically ubiquitous, you can still unionize and fight for them to be only a sometimes problem. It’s up to you what route you’re willing to go though.

  27. Lilith*

    Keep your phone off as much as possible for personal texts/IMs. You need to be engaged in learning your work product/details.
    Good on you for asking.

  28. Anon4This*

    It my seem obvious but I made horrible mistakes when I was young in the workplace by thinking that 1) My coworker friends were the same as my personal friends and acting stupid in front of them 2) That just because there was alcohol at an event it was ok to get wasted and 3) dating in the office (serial dating, tbh) was ok. Basically letting my extreme partying personal and professional lives completely overlap- which cost me promotions and a lot of respect. My advice is to keep things very separate- you can be friendly with colleagues but they aren’t the ones to go to clubs with or share your deepest secrets, and definitely a no dating at work policy.

    1. Amethystmoon*

      Right. Never share anything with co-workers that you don’t want spread around the office for your boss to eventually get wind of, because chances are good that your boss will eventually hear it.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        YES! Assume absolutely every single thing you say will be repeated.

        And use this to work FOR you where it fits appropriately in conversations.

        Tell Sam that Sue helped you a lot with your problem about X. (If it’s true.)
        Tell Carol that Jane said you should ask her about Y because she is super-good at it. (Only if this is true, Jane did say that.)
        Tell the boss that everyone has been warm and welcoming. (If true.)

        Don’t lie to butter people up. Only say things that are true. And say them in the natural course of conversation. Don’t go out of your way to mention these things.

        The result is you will come across as a happy and open conversationalist and maybe by extension be seen as a positive thinker and a good employee.

    2. TootsNYC*

      the type of association we have in high school and in college is not the same as in the workplace.

      We may spend the majority of the day there, but it’s not our social life (whereas high school was, and college was).

    3. techRando*

      Dating “within” the office can be okay depending on the size and culture of the “office” in question.

      If you work at an office where there are 1,000+ workers in the same building, *and* it’s explicitly considered okay by your employer handbook, you can date within an office. Still, be circumspect anyways. There are risks associated with it– are they going to be cool if you break up or come yell at you in your office? If you’re LGBT and closeted at work, are they going to out you? And, even in this scenario, you don’t wanna date anyone your work regularly overlaps with.

      And if an office has like, only 100 people and explicitly says dating is okay you’d still be much better off NOT to date coworkers. It’s not just the fact that you might be breaking rules that makes dating coworkers a bad idea.

  29. SometimesALurker*

    I agree with the commenters cautioning against the way that this can go very wrong, but I also agree with Wendie that it can go well, if you’re lucky enough to have parents who are in the know. I got a lot of good job advice from my mom when I was in college and early post-grad, because at the time, she supervised a number of college students at her job (and I hadn’t seen any red flags about her as a supervisor). Of course, we’re not always the best judge of whether our parents are doing something well, so it’s important to get outside advice too.

    1. SometimesALurker*

      Oops, the comment thread I was replying to seems to have disappeared while I was typing my comment — I wasn’t trying to ressurrect it!

  30. Catsaber*

    A good way to learn is to just watch and listen. Pay attention to how people talk to each other; the things they praise; the things they criticize. How/if they follow through on what they talk about.

    Also, it’s okay to ask questions about these things to your coworkers. I’d pick someone you develop a natural rapport with, and typically they are happy to help.

  31. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    You know when you have a new class and you aren’t sure how it’s going to be? Will it be laid back? Super strict? So you just go along and pay attention to how the teacher and other students behave? That’s what starting a new job is like. If you pay attention, you’ll catch on pretty quickly.

    And if you already know how to be respectful to your teachers/boss and fellow students/coworkers, that’s a great start. Really knowing what is and isn’t professional ultimately boils down to respect.

  32. nnn*

    Since you’re headed to college next year, you might see if your college hires students for on-campus office jobs, and apply for those kinds of jobs.

    This gives you an opportunity to gain office experience in an environment that’s fully expecting you to be a brand-new student who doesn’t have any office experience yet. In this kind of context, it’s usually acceptable to ask your manager things about general office norms (e.g., “What exactly do I say when I call this person about this thing?”) and also to observe what experienced office workers do in an office environment. (I learned so much about professional phone calls and emails just from sharing an office with my boss at my campus job!)

    1. Wordnerd*

      Yep! Came looking for this. I supervise student workers, and they learn a lot about professional norms while they’re here but in an environment where it’s reaaaaaaally hard to get fired for little faux pas type stuff.

      1. Semprini!*

        Added to that, worst-case scenario if you do get fired, you can leave it off your resume without leaving a gap because you were in school at the time.

        Best-case scenario, it can be an excellent networking opportunity within the university, and, depending on how your school works, it might give you access to internal job postings, which could give you further employment options both during school and after graduation.

  33. Jurassicgoddess*

    Choose a few people that seem to have had good career paths, or have really well-grounded and have stable relationships with other humans. Talk to those people and observe how they interact. Search this blog, capt. awkward, or reach out to for how to handle difficult things. Take up dungeons and dragons to practice negotiation skills, people reading, and interpersonal interactions in a lower-stakes way.
    Mostly though, when you are new, try to keep your emotions from spilling all over your work. You don’t have to full robot, aim for warm and friendly, but try to avoid getting too emotionally tangled in your coworkers, boss, and company.

  34. OrigCassandra*

    During college, it might help you to take jobs in different environments — and college tends to be target-rich here, so you should be able to manage it without too much trouble. Food service, retail, office temping, whatever’s handy. You will learn plenty about how workplace cultures can differ.

    As you consider college extracurriculars, try for at least one experience that gives you exposure to meetings and how they work. Get on the board of an organization, run for student government, or (if the opportunity is there) be a student representative on a college or department committee. (The department I teach for has student reps on most of its standing committees, but we are a bit unusual in that.) Offer to take minutes! Hardly anyone wants to, and it’s a great introduction to workplace tact (appropriately boiling down a giant argument during a meeting for the meeting minutes is A Skill), workplace-appropriate writing, and Keeping Stuff Organized.

    Lots of good advice here already; hope this helps. Good luck, and congratulations to you for getting ahead of the game by reading AAM!

    1. OrigCassandra*

      Oh, and you’ll read here that “academia isn’t like other workplaces,” and that’s — sometimes true and sometimes not. Unless you’re working for an exceptionally dysfunctional department (they do exist) with awful people (they also exist), meetings in academia are pretty similar to meetings elsewhere.

      One thing you may be able to do in college is leverage your online-ness into a job. Lots of college/university offices and departments need people who can Twitter and Facebook and Insta and aren’t afraid of a WordPress edit screen… and the closest people with those skills are often students. Make ’em pay you — some of the places that need this work most secretly or not-so-secretly despise social media and work associated with it, so they post unpaid internships. Don’t fall for it; you’re absolutely worth paying!

      1. lemonade*

        I wrote in another comment about the differences within academia, but I agree with you here. I was thinking of being a student/grad student. I work at a university now, outside of teaching, and it is incredibly functional and respectful. If you can get a work study job within a department, that would be great practice.

  35. Amethystmoon*

    Don’t always trust what you’re told by people at work. I was once on a temp job where it was a red flag that they hired a whole bunch of temps (like more than 20) at once. I had asked permission from the person in charge to do something on my break, I forget what it was, and it wasn’t entirely 100% clear the break was officially over yet because not everyone was still back in the room. I was let go for doing what they had given me permission to do, even though not everyone was back from the break yet. There was no warning or anything. Clearly they were looking to whittle down the number of temps for stupid reasons. This was well over 10 years ago, but be wary, especially of temp jobs.

    As far as dress codes go, it always depends on the company. There are usually written documents and these days, they’re usually posted on the internal web site under policies or at least, handed out to new people. You can always ask your boss or an HR person if you have questions on that.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Ugh. My nightmare the yes that means no.

      OP, until you learn the personalities involved, it’s good not to ask for anything too extra for yourself. Do as the majority of others are doing, don’t ask to have an exception. You will only have to work this way for a bit then you will learn what is acceptable to ask for and what is not.

      Amethystmoon, bullet dodged. The ones you left behind were probably in total fear that they would be canned next for the slightest transgression. That is NO way to have to work.
      OP, if you find yourself in a similar situation, just get out. I always said, “If they are going to look for excuses to can me they WILL find them. I would rather chose when I leave rather than let them chose when I leave.”

  36. Admin Warrior*

    Watch the culture of your own office and get a second set of eyes on most things. Cultures vary from office to office and what is acceptable in one workplace (emailing w emojis for example) ie abhorrent in another.

    I often ask my boss or a collegue to “look over my email/deck for tone” etc. Having an open mind, asking myriad questions and paying attention to how people talk, dress, and interact is key.

  37. Another young office worker*

    I think a really important thing (as another very young office worker who worked in gas stations/restaurants before a nice business professional office setting) is to not get caught up in the politics of a new work place. My first real work place after the gas stations and restaurants I got swept up with new coworker drama, because that was how the gas station atmosphere was. You play jokes, you goof off, you gossip, you talk crap about Sally who called in sick to work again because her boyfriend is in town, etc.. You’re not going to want to do that. Come into your new environment knowing you will be coming into circles that have existed before you arrived. Dress nicely, be attentive, get to know your new coworkers but don’t attach yourself and become BFF’s with a new coworker and immediately take up their drama in the workplace. It takes time to figure those things out in a workplace, and that’s okay! Do so at your own pace.

    1. StressedButOkay*

      but don’t attach yourself and become BFF’s

      This! I think the biggest thing that I struggled with was realizing that while I could end up making good friends … that was rare. Like, really rare. Don’t confuse being friendly with getting a friend or a new BFF.

      After I left a job that I worked at for 10 years, I had exactly one good friend there that I still see. I’m Facebook friends with a few others but the majority of people that I worked with every day, I haven’t talked to in years.

    2. MistOrMister*

      Yes to this! Especially about gossipping/badmouthing coworkers. Obviously loads of people of all ages do this, but it is SO easy to fall into this trap when you’re young. You’re commisserating with your coworkers, it’s great bonding over that huge thing Chad in accounting screwed up and then BAM!! You’ve been overheard bashing Chad, one of your coworkers went to the manager about what you said, you bash Chad to the wrong person…and now you’re in a heap of trouble. Or you get a reputation for being a nasty person. You can come back from many of those things but it’s best to establish the best reputation you can and not have to do damage control once you’ve bruised yours.

      Also, obsevrving before jumping into friendships is a good one. That person who seems great at first might end up being a horrible, gossipy Negative Nancy or a huge slacker and, rightly or wrongly, if you are known to be close with them, you risk being painted with the same brush. So not worth it.

  38. StressedButOkay*

    Here’s some quick tips

    a) If you aren’t given an employee or HR guidebook when starting a job, ask for one and read over it.
    b) Be super vigilant when starting a new job – limit any social media/personal email time to your phone when you’re on break. You might find that your office is lax on that but you don’t want to start off jumping onto Instagram or Gmail on your first day – and you might find out that your organization really doesn’t like people using those sites on company time in general. Same goes with personal phone calls unless they’re for doctors appointments/etc.

    On that note, I worked at a job in my early 20s who would highlight what they thought were personal calls made through work phones and bill the employees for it. It was (and is) a terrible practice but some companies really ARE that crazy strict.

    c) Watch your boss and immediate coworkers. For example, sometimes the rest of the organization might be more lax on arrival/leave time but your boss is a ‘butt in the seat at exactly 9 a.m.’ kind of person. And other habits, too, like internet usage or chatter around the water cooler.

    d) Ask questions! Be prepared to make mistakes! Learn to take feedback to heart but not personally – they generally aren’t out to get you and this is the time of your life where you’re going to be expected to not know things right off the bat and learn as you go, especially office culture.

    1. Forgot my username*

      YES to item (b)! I think the norms around phone use are changing in the workplace, but I still feel really strongly that a new person should not be on their phone for personal use during work at all for the first month or two. (Frankly, some of us have bad habits of checking our phones at work constantly, and so while it might be the norm in some places, I still don’t think it’s very healthy/productive.)

  39. WellRed*

    Lots of good advice here, on observing, watching, etc. I will add, college is most definitely not the real world, so you have time to continually learn norms, especially during internships and other jobs you may hold over the next few years. You are 18 reading a workplace advice blog. You are already ahead of the game!

  40. Summertime*

    I definitely agree with fposte! Observing what everyone is doing is key, and ask if something is unclear! Especially when one is earlier in their career, there’s a lot of leeway because everyone is expecting that there will be things you don’t know. It becomes weird when you’re in the middle of the career and you’re making professional etiquette mistakes that one should’ve normally picked up by then.

    For example, different offices will have different unspoken rules about how you keep your schedule. In some, people will trickle in at different times and leave at different times. Or their starts times will sometimes vary based on whether they have a early morning or late afternoon errand/doctor’s appt without needing to alert their supervisor. In others, the expectations will be for you to arrive at the same time as everyone else and notify your supervisor if you need to leave early or arrive late. You can always ask what the expectations are! “I have to run to the bank this week in the morning, so would it be alright if I came in a little late and stayed late?” or “I noticed that Fergus gets in at 7AM instead of 8AM like most of the other people in the building. I’m a morning person, so would it be alright for me to adjust my schedule and come in at 7AM instead?”

  41. Quill*

    Slightly tangential, but the shoe petition one always rubbed me the wrong way.

    Were the interns in the wrong to say “if she can do it why can’t we?” and single out a coworker? Yes. But as someone who’s had chronic pain since my teens and who would still have no medical documentation of it or assistance for it if my parents hadn’t had great insurance when it reached a breaking point in college, the professional expectation of “no tennis shoes” (the only medically viable shoe for me and for a lot of other people with foot problems,) should be pushed back on at all fronts.

    Especially when it comes to women’s dress/business casual shoes, which are generally less well constructed and less good for your feet than the equivalent shoes for men. Believe me, foot damage is cumulative.

    1. Amber Rose*

      A petition is literally the worst way to push back on something. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever been presented a list of demands and been happy about it.

      1. Quill*

        Yup, the petition was a definite problem but tbh I feel for the interns deep in my soles. If I’d had that internship at a company as stuffy as described, I have no doubt that a discreet word along the lines of “I have a medical problem that requires me to wear tennis shoes, no, specific tennis shoes you really cannot put style requirements on them they have to fit perfectly,” would have required a doctor’s note and weeks worth of rigamarole to deal with. Especially when I was the interns’ age & more likely to be dismissed with “you’re too young to have medical problems / you’re making it up.”

        Had my medical problems popped off a couple years later than they did I could easily have attempted to wear non tennis shoes (for the first time in years) while on my feet for a full internship day and rapidly been in too much pain to be able to drive home – and without the “evidence” via a doctor’s note to ask for an accommodation.

        If there’s one thing I’ve learned since that age it’s been to be more proactive in seeking accomodations, because there’s no faster way to tank your reputation at work than by overextending yourself and ending up in too much pain to do your job.

        1. Junior Dev*

          Thanks for pointing that out. I’m dealing with a bunch of health problems now and I wonder how many could have been avoided if I’d stood up for myself better at work.

    2. Koala dreams*

      This reminds me of the KuToo movement in Japan recently. According to an article I read, close to 20000 japanese women have signed a petition to end sexist shoe rules.

  42. Celeste*

    Basic manners will take you very far. Please and thank you, being courteous, considering others’ feelings, showing respect. At work this can look like holding doors open, covering coughs, manners in the break room, timeliness, hygiene, interpersonal politeness, and so on.

  43. Mr. Tyzik*

    Treat people with courtesy and respect when you meet them, and in interactions. You never know who’s watching, and you might find one of those people in a position above you later. First impressions count big time. This includes being respectful in email, IM, and other communications.

    For example, I once worked for an analyst who did the bare minimum, micro managed me, and was generally dismissive for the 2 years I was with her. She treated me as second-class. About 10 years later as a lead analyst, I was hiring for a position on my team – lo and behold, she applied. She hadn’t moved from her level. She was overly familiar in the interview and didn’t answer questions. I didn’t hire her. I knew she wouldn’t work with the team based on how she treated me. And I suppose she could have changed, but first impressions count.

  44. Liza*

    Not advice so much as a comforting word: the dress code petition was a particularly drastic example. A great many of us make mistakes and are simply informed gently to rethink our approach. Also, there is no “one side fits all” approach to professional behaviour. Office culture will dictate a great deal and vary immensely. Observe the culture around you and adapt.

    Case in point: on Monday I had to call in sick and couldn’t reach the office. Having worked in retail/CS for years, I was used to an environment where no-showing was a dire offence and you would do everything you could to notify somebody. So I called my manager on her day off – not knowing – and woke her up. She was lovely about it, but it hadn’t occurred to me NOT to go frantic trying to reach someone. My colleagues subsequently teased me (good naturedly) for my lack of boundaries and I felt pretty bad, but no harm done.

    I’m 35 next month, by the way. Still learning.

  45. FernLaPlante*

    We have a few college interns at work that frequently get into nerf gun battles in the office. We can’t say much because the company gave them the nerf guns as a…”perk”(?). We have a fairly relaxed atmosphere here but still getting conked in the noggin with a Nerf dart while trying to work is not very professional. However, there are a few interns of the bunch that after the first “battle” read the room and haven’t participated since. My advice would be to take observation of your co-workers and get the vibe from them. It’s okay to be a bit reserved for a few weeks while trying to figure out the culture. Better to err on the side of caution. One piece of advice is to think “would I do this behavior/say this thing in a library?” if the answer is no, then don’t.

  46. Owlimentary*

    If you’re an intern or a new grad/current student getting an office job, people will cut you more slack than they would others if you ask “silly” questions, so ask them. Ideally your boss, or if there’s someone nice training you who seems open to questions. I mean, obviously keep your eyes open and if you can pick it up by observation, even better, but if you’re genuinely not sure, ask. You can frame it as a “I think it’s this but just wanted to double check” if you want to, but ime at least people are super forgiving if it’s clear you’re just being conscientious and want to get it right. Especially right at the beginning and especially if you take note, act on the answer and don’t have to ask the same question multiple times.

    Also I realised as I stayed in job longer (and managed people) a lot of the things I suuuuuper worried about at the start were actually the ones I’d have got a lot more slack on (like dresscodes), and what actually mattered in a new employee was them visibly trying their best, however that ended up looking. If they’re trying, they can probably take correction.

  47. Christy*

    Ask questions, and actually remember or write down the answer. Don’t be the last one in or the first one out at first. Be proactive but also check with your manager before doing anything too major. Oh and the big one—admit when you’re wrong or you mess up!!

  48. Sharrbe*

    The fact that you are reading this blog and asking these kinds of questions shows that you are far ahead of many of your peers. When I was heading to college, I was worried about shared bathrooms and where to buy my books. You will be fine. You are not naive, you just haven’t had much experience yet. Good rule of thumb – if you’re ever unsure about how to handle conflict at work, sleep on it. If at all possible, don’t react in the moment because emotions can cloud judgment, especially if your co-workers are trying to influence you to do something like sign a petition. And think through all of the potential consequences of your actions, both good and bad, and decide if they’re worth it.

  49. dance dance dance*

    how do I learn what is and isn’t okay at professional jobs?

    Never ever ever trust anything you see in movies or tv shows. I cannot think off-hand of any show or movie I’ve seen that depicts people behaving professionally in an office setting. Because behaving professionally is boring, and that doesn’t work well with drama or comedy.

      1. dance dance dance*

        A non-exhaustive list of things I’ve seen presented as normal in entertainment but that are not within professional norms:
        -your boss should not hit you
        -your boss should not constantly threaten to take away your bonus or demote you
        -your boss should not threaten to send you to jail
        -your coworker should not heavily pressure you and another coworker to date while you’re all at work
        -don’t have sex on premises or during duty hours
        -don’t have sex with patients
        -don’t run a personal livestream while at work
        -don’t do drugs
        -don’t use someone else’s e-mail to send messages as if you were them

        1. Amethystmoon*

          Add to that list your boss should also not actually raise his or her voice and berate you in front of your co-workers. It is professional to discuss mistakes privately in an office with the door closed. That having been said, it does still happen in many workplaces, so be aware.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Or in books. There’s a scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo where they leave her alone all night in the archives, and I was like >>record scratch<< WHAT NO. We don't let patrons in our stacks without us, ever, never mind on their own all night. What on earth.

  50. Oxford Comma*

    Some of this is going to sound really obvious.

    Learn to read a room before you speak. You probably have more skills here then you realize.
    Think before you speak in meetings.
    Observe. You want to model your behavior from productive, sane coworkers, not the dysfunctional ones and sometimes it can be hard to figure out which is which right away.
    Don’t feel you have to be best friends with your coworkers. You need to be friendly, but you don’t have to be friends.
    Ask for feedback from your managers and supervisors.

  51. AnonEMoose*

    Understand that you are going to have coworkers you really like and mesh with, coworkers who aren’t your favorite people, but you can appreciate things about them, and coworkers you really don’t much like and with whom you struggle to find common ground. That’s ok. Just make sure you’re polite and reasonable when dealing with all of them.

    Also, people have different priorities, and most of the time, there are solid reasons for that. For example…if I’m up to my ears in something that’s a huge priority for my role, and you’re asking me for something for your role, and you need it by a specific time/date, it’s going to go much better if you give me a reason that you need whatever it is by this particular deadline. Even if it’s just “My supervisor is really insistent on this; I’m not sure of the reasons, but they were really specific about needing it.”

    Finally, if you ask someone for something, and they redirect you, don’t take it personally or think that they’re not being helpful. They should still be polite about it, too, but chances are, they’re not trying to get rid of you, they’re trying to give you information on the person who can actually help you.

  52. Qwerty*

    When asking why something is done a certain way, come at it with the attitude that there’s a good reason for why it is done that way. It assumes that your coworkers are capable people who try to do things logically and will preserve positive relationships with them. The reason might turn out to be because of red tape or just no one looked at the process recently, but usually systems that seem silly from the outside have a cause that’s rooted in working around a complication of a different system or some compliance law. Think of it as “what do I not know that would make this make sense?”

    Also, if you aren’t given a mentor during your internship, try to find someone (or multiple people) who you can ask simple, basic questions to that will give good answers. People who seem professional and/or knowledgeable work have better odds of more useful information. The office curmudgeon or office gossip might have more entertaining answers, but it might skew your views into a non-productive manner.

    To use the intern-dress-code example, they could have asked a full-time team member if the dress code was standard for the industry or unique to the company. Since shoes were their biggest issue, maybe ask someone about what makes a shoe seem professional or not and how to find comfortable-but-professional shoes. It doesn’t call out the policy at all, but asks how to understand it.

    Choose your protests wisely. When making a big fuss, you need to determine if this is the proverbial “hill to die on”. Making a huge wave will result in a lot of attention and affect the reputation that you have.

  53. Sarah Simpson*

    My main advice would be to avoid drama – don’t start it, don’t participate in it, don’t encourage others. Stay away from personal drama and work drama – yours and others. Focus on your work and learning about your job, your coworkers, your administration, and how things are done. Listen to everything, really listen, and ask questions until you really understand what you’re supposed to be doing, and then check in once in a while to make sure you’re on track. Build your reputation as a hard worker, someone who gets things done and is a great coworker and employee. It takes time to build up a solid reputation, and you do that by solving problems not by being a problem. Once your work is known and respected, your ability to suggest or create positive change will emerge.

  54. Mbarr*

    It’s not only interns who rotate petitions… At Old Company, it was announced our entire Finance department would be consolidated from 2 buildings into the somewhat older and a bit darker building. Staff (grown adults) raised a petition (I certainly didn’t sign) to try to be allowed to stay where they were.

    Honestly, keep reading the blog. Even as a working professional, I find I’m still learning about business norms and what I could do better.

  55. LibbyG*

    What a great question! I think a general way to think about professionalism is knowing what your role is in the organization. A lot of lapses in professionalism come from a lack of awareness about one’s role.

    Like, say you are hired just out of college as a program assistant. In that new gig, you’re likely to see processes or patterns that seem inefficient or weird in some way. But if you’re aware of your role as a newbie and as someone that isn’t at the crossroads of a lot of information in the organization, you’ll know to ask for clarification at an appropriate time rather than proposing some wholesale replacement for some process in an all-hands meeting. Maybe you’re a creative person who has been praised for taking initiative and having good ideas! But the role you play doesn’t always demand that of you in every situation. If you’re more focused on who you are as a person rather than the role you’ve been hired to fulfill, you could run into problems.

    Higher up, bad managers are often people who lack awareness of their managerial role and the difference it makes for how their words and behavior are received. Like, trying to be too friends-like with direct reports or being moody or failing to address issues as a manager.

    Those are my thoughts – good on you for thinking big picture!

  56. Art3mis*

    Adding on to the example, don’t assume what’s OK for other employees is OK for you. For one, you don’t know their situation. Like the person allowed other footwear, it was because of a medical reason. For two, it’s not your concern. Keep your own nose clean. Other people may have special permission or they just may have more cache than an intern does. Once you’ve been in a job for awhile and proven yourself to be reliable and a good producer, your manager may let some minor things slide. I realize is contrary to what a lot of people are saying, but if you wouldn’t do or say it at your grandma’s dinner table during Thanksgiving, you probably shouldn’t do or say it at work.

    We have interns right now on my team and most are doing really well from my perspective, but a couple spend way too much time on their phones and take longer breaks than they should.

    If you’re not sure, ask. Tasks, what’s normal or acceptable, concerns, etc. just ask. Ask your manager, intern contact, someone else that’s been there awhile, etc. If your parents work in a different industry or environment they may not be the best sources. My dad was a union telephone repairman, his experiences in no way prepared me for working in an insurance carrier’s office.

  57. LuckyClover*

    Familiarize yourself with company handbook if they have one, listen to instructions, and honestly when in doubt just ask! You are there to learn. Other than that, just try your best.

  58. Lobsterman*

    Lots of great advice here! I might also add:

    If you’re getting paid, you’re an employee.

    If you’re paying them, you’re a customer.

    If no money (or highly reduced money) is changing hands, you’re the product.

    It’s important to know your role in the chain.

    1. bdg*

      this makes no sense in this context. if no money is changing hands and you’re the intern, you’re still an intern, not the product.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This is too diluted and missing a lot of aspects of the chain of business. Including vendors and contractors.

    3. fnom*

      This is important for anyone trying not to get sucked into the time- and money-sink that is MLMs, which sometimes appear (very inappropriately!) in offices.

  59. Anoymouse*

    A professional distance with your co-workers is healthy especially starting out in your career especially as an intern. Don’t gossip. Ask questions and actively listen to the answers.. Unless you are the person of honor do not be the first in line for food at company events. As for dress code- I found it really liberating to create a work uniform for myself (HR but business casual) … It ended up being 7 pairs of the same pants that I felt amazing in-3 black, 1 grey, 1 navy and 1 dark brown.. 10 button down shirts same style mostly neutral colors. It was one of the best decisions I made-i always felt like I looked my best and felt confident and didn’t have to stress about what I was going to wear every day.
    I expressed my creativity in my accessories and lipstick colors. I understand that this isn’t for everyone but for me it was wonderful.. It also had the added benefit of minimizing the amount of clothing that I purchased but didn’t wear because it was an impulse purchase or did not fit “right” in the real world

    1. agnes*

      The “work uniform” is a great idea. I guess I have kind of done the same thing without realizing it. Khaki or black pants/skirts, and solid color tops/blouses. And blazers..some solids, some are prints. . amazing how easy it is to throw on a blazer and immediately look professional. I actually get so many compliments on my blazers and I buy most of them at consignment stores.

      1. dance dance dance*

        Thirding this. I have black khakis and then I buy every color they make of a top when I find a good one (polos for summer, sweaters or turtlenecks for winter). Then getting dressed is just a matter of grabbing whatever shirt is next in the drawer. Boom, out the door in five minutes.

  60. Quickbeam*

    My company hires their interns at a full time, full benefit job if they work out. Most of our interns don’t know that but it’s true. Some we have failed to hire:
    –Came in late every day
    –watched movies at their desk
    –were heard yelling “Yahtzee!” at their desk
    –dressed in beach wear (conservative office)
    Don’t do those things. If you are pleasant, alert and engaged with the company mission, you should do fine.

  61. Hobbit*

    Hi OP,
    I recommend getting an on-campus job if you have the time. I work at a local community college. For most of our part-time employees, this is their first job. All of the managers in my area are aware of this and take extra steps to mentor inexperienced employees in professionalism. This will also help you when you are looking for jobs/internships after college.
    Also, everyone makes really dumb mistakes when they first start, I know I did.
    Good Luck!
    (PS – Keep reading this blog!)

  62. Anonymous Poster*

    – Watch what other experience people are doing that appear well-respected.
    If the crowd is deferring to Susan when she steps into the room, you should too. If the majority do but Chaz doesn’t, don’t follow Chaz’s lead. Maybe he has a pass for some reason, maybe he isn’t well respected, you simply don’t have information right away to know, but you’re low on the totem pole and should do what the general population does.
    – Ask questions of your supervisor/manager
    You’re new, it’s no secret! Even older folks at a new place need to ask questions to understand what the culture at a new workplace is like, and the supervisor knows this. Many think it’s a good thing if you come to them with a few questions about norms/acronyms/dress code/behavior, because it shows you want to operate well within that workplace and are self aware. But people aren’t going to generally handhold you; you have to ask the questions.
    – Be polite
    Everyone should know you’re new and generally will cut you slack for it. But if you’re a jerk about it, that slack gets short really fast. Be polite to people, thank them for their patience, and ask them if they can help you understand something or explain something to you. You’re a part of a team and everyone wants you to win.

    Best of luck!

  63. JediSquirrel*

    Also, find someone who can mentor you. Ask them basically what you asked here, and if they’re willing to guide you and answer your questions. Unless they’re short on time, most people are usually happy to help you. I know I am.

  64. agnes*

    1. Do not get hooked into office gossip. It never goes well. Do not say anything to a coworker about someone else that you would not say to that person directly.
    2. Be selective about who you allow to have access to your social media and what you post there. Nothing is ever really deleted from the internet and sometimes things come back to haunt you.
    3. Only one alcoholic drink at an office party–it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing, an office party is actually an extension of the workday. I know people who have been fired for their behavior at an office party.
    4. Don’t date your coworkers. There are 8 billion people on the planet. Surely there is someone else out there to date besides the person you will have to continue to make nice with even after you break up.
    5. DO ask for help.
    6. It’s OK to say “I don’t know”
    7. Recognize that other people may have information you don’t have and that’s why they are making a different decision than you might make.

  65. Bow Ties Are Cool*

    The best advice I can give you for starting out in the working world is this: When you start a new job, figure out as quickly as you can who the most respected people at or near your level are, and when in doubt, ask one of them! The folks in my first few jobs who had been there for a while and were good at their jobs taught me SO MUCH. Don’t make a pest of yourself, but judiciously use these folks as resources. Chances are that if you are polite and grateful, they (aside from the occasional curmudgeon) will be happy to help you along.

  66. FamousBlueRaincoat*

    Something that I struggled with early in my switch from retail to corporate: Figuring out what kind of humor/informal conversation is OK versus what kind is totally unacceptable in a professional/corporate setting.

    While you should be a version of “yourself” at work, you may want to be very cognizant that humor is extremely subjective and not everyone will get sarcasm or understand when you’re being silly. If you base your ideas of workplace norms on, say, The Office TV show, re-calibrate. “That’s what she said” and other Michael Scott-isms are not OK in almost any corporate workplace. Avoid swearing until you’ve been there several months and have a sense of what level (if any) is acceptable. Avoid talking about drinking/smoking pot/partying; avoid sharing too many personal details about your relationships or medical needs; and don’t do too much complaining about work/co-workers even if you hear others doing that.

    Working at a gas station is probably a little like working retail/food service in that you get used to talking to your co-workers and perhaps even your boss about whatever’s going on in your personal life. In most corporate environments, your relationships with co-workers and boss are a lot less intimate and need more boundaries. It’s ok to tell people you went to a cool restaurant/saw a movie/did some yard work over the weekend; but you probably don’t want to get into how badly a date went or that you & your significant other are thinking about moving in together. This may not be true of all offices but til you have a good lay of the land, it’s probably a safe rule of thumb.

  67. CupcakeCounter*

    Wardrobe: If you would wear it to a party, club, or gym…don’t wear it to work. If you are even remotely unsure, don’t wear it to work. I would also have a few basics (2 pairs nice slacks, khakis, dark wash jeans, polo/button down, a few nice tops and shell/cami cardigan sets) for your first couple days/weeks while you get the feel of the office and what people at your level and a level or two above are wearing and follow suit.
    Attitude: You know nothing Jon Snow so avoid speaking up with opinions unless specifically asked (especially as an intern or in your first few weeks on a job)
    Punctuality: seniority will usually earn some perks – you don’t have those yet. Make sure to be on time to work, all meetings, etc…and observe your colleagues. After 6 months or so IF you notice that a lot of people seem to flex start and stop times (i.e. people show up between 7 and 9am and leave between 4 and 6pm and “core hours” are 9-4) THEN you can broach the subject of an alternate start/stop time with the boss. If you are late for whatever reason, contact boss using their preferred method with a heads up and a very brief explanation (not excuse…there is a difference) such as “Hey Boss – just wanted to give you a heads up I will probably be a few minutes late. Huge accident on X Highway and we are at a standstill. I’ll be there as soon as I can!”
    Learn the proper way to ask Why?: It is good to know why you are doing something but when given an assignment asking “Why?” all the time doesn’t always translate well. You can get to that using slightly different language. “What information are we hoping to glean from this report?” “Is there a particular area you would like me to concentrate on?” “Is this going to be a one time request or should I set this up as a regular task?” “”Do you happen to know the rationale behind the request?”

    Treat everyone with kindness especially the people “beneath” you.

  68. hey*

    Rule number 1: forget everything you’ve learned about office workings from sitcoms and movies. Realize that in healthy workplaces, people like being there AND they like going home. When someone says,
    “this project is the worst and I can’t believe I’m on a team with Bob,” reply to this vent with “let me know if you need help” and move on.
    When someone in a group says, “omg, I have to go to my kid’s ukulele concert tonight, got to beg the boss for some overtime, haha” smile and move on.

  69. LKW*

    Some general comments:

    It’s ok to say “I don’t know” but don’t stop the sentence there. Try “I don’t know, but I’ll ask (person) to find out?” or
    “I don’t know, who might be able to guide me?” – ask for help rather than spin your wheels.

    You’ll see people goofing off. Don’t assume goofing off is acceptable. They may be on a PIP, be blackmailing a manager, you don’t know. Do the work that’s asked and ask for a little more or try to learn more about your department or organization. At a minimum, don’t be the employee that no one wants to work with because you make them do the heavy lifting (just like with team projects).

    While dating someone at work does happen, try to avoid it as much as possible and definitely don’t engage in PDA at work. Ever. Eew.

  70. Phil*

    Eyes and ears open with the mouth shut is very good advice. I wish I had taken it early in my career. About 6 months into my first professional job I told a real bigwig he didn’t know what the f#@$ he was doing. In those words. And kept my job! I must have been pretty good at it.
    The thing is, just because you went to school doesn’t mean that you know anything. You don’t. My field is loaded with school graduates pumped full of knowledge and raring to let it out. Don’t be that person. Sit back, learn your duties, keep your mouth shut and you’ll go far. And a little humility goes a long way.

  71. SeluciaMD*

    Great question! There’s going to be a lot of stuff that is different from company to company and from industry to industry so kind of a good general idea is when you start a new job take the first few weeks to spend a lot of time listening and observing. Ask questions (respectfully). And if there is someone on your team or in your department that is well-respected that seems to be a good model for the kind of employee/team member you’d like to be, let them be a bit of a guidepost for you. You may even want to ask your manager or supervisor if there is someone there that you should look to as a good example.

    I think some of Alison’s advice around interviewing is also useful in a new job. For example, ask your manager or supervisor if there are things that might not be in the handbook or orientation that are “norms” for that office/organization/team that you should know so you can get a sense of what the culture is there. (Do people go out for lunch or bring it? Eat together in the lunch room or separate at their desks? Are breaks planned or personally managed? How does the company feel about start and end times – are they hard and fast or are people trusted to manage their own time? How are holidays celebrated – or not? Stuff like that.) Ask them what success in your role looks like. Ask them what they think your learning curve for your new role should look like so you have a barometer for your progress. Ask colleagues what they know now that they wish they’d understood when they started at the organization.

    As I’m a talker, learning to just listen, listen, listen was one of the hardest – and most helpful – skills I had to learn when I started working in a more traditional office setting. I also kept a notebook handy so when I had questions I could write them down and think about them before I asked them or could jot down notes on things I observed or was told as they happened. I’d review that at the end of the day and sometimes I realized that thinking about some of my questions I had an idea of where to look for the answers. Or if there were related questions I tried to kind of bundle them together to talk with my supervisor about at one time rather than constantly peppering them with questions as the day progressed.

    A couple of other little suggestions:
    – Err on the side of being more conservative or formal at first: in dress, in conversation/language, email, etc. I’ve found it’s easier to loosen up on those things once you have a better sense of your office/team culture then it is to have to go the other direction and try to reclaim some credibility if you’ve been too casual or informal.
    – Keep a to do list and calendar even if it isn’t required. A good manager is going to want to see that you have some kind of system for knowing your workload and deliverables rather than having to be reminded or prodded on a regular basis. I still like a good old hard copy list myself, but there’s a bunch of apps and tools out there if you are more comfortable with a tech-based solution. (I also love Google calendar and tasks for this stuff).

    Know that you are definitely going to learn some things the hard way but that doesn’t mean that stuff will rise to the level of a PIP or being fired because most of it won’t. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes in general because that is often the best way to learn. No one gets it right every time and most don’t get it right the first time so don’t make that your bar or your litmus test. But even if you screw up once in awhile or make a faux pas or whatever, as long as you can be responsible and accountable and learn from those mistakes you will be OK! GOOD LUCK!

    Can’t wait to see what others suggest!

    1. JSPA*

      Concur on “you can always loosen up.” Starting out careful (and not believing the first person who encourages you to loosen up) is basically never wrong.

      “Jermaine is always so polite, it took me months to find out that he’s got this quietly ironic sense of humor in private” is way better than, “Jermaine has been really buttoned up since that thing he said outside the VP’s door nearly got him canned.”

      Don’t imitate people–real or imaginary, individuals or groups, famous or infamous or even your family–for laughs, unless your job is “standup comedy.”

      If you disagree with someone in the normal course of business, be very careful to disagree with what they’re saying, and only that. Not who they are, how they speak, why you think they think what they think. (There are indeed some exceptions here. But the internet would have you believe that it is always your job to call people out for any badly-considered comment in the most inflammatory language possible. There are all sorts of ways to make it clear that you don’t agree with or condone someone else’s statement without going on full offensive. In the moment, “Uh, I find that statement uncomfortable” or “Ouch” is quite enough to signal “that’s your bias, which I don’t share.”)

      If someone gives you a “you just said something awkward” reaction, don’t double down. Also, don’t insist that they explain it to you right then and there. Say, “I think that came out wrong, sorry” (even if you’re not clear on the details–you’re sorry that it’s awkward). If you have an inkling what the issue would be, google it on your own time. Maybe come back later, say that you’re aware you said a thing that landed all wrong, and that you can’t tell if you were using the wrong terms or being ignorant on a deeper level. Or whether the problem was that you were talking in the first place.

      (Yesterday, I listened to a would-be straight ally with an elderly trans housemate try to tell a couple of young trans people–relative strangers–about how the law should treat kids with gender dysphoria. Not only was he mistaken on the current state of practice and local laws, he…really didn’t need to be in that conversation at all, given that there were so many people there with current, detailed, lived experience.)

      Which brings up another thing: when you’re new, the number of times that you need to spontaneously bring up your expertise and prior experience are…few. If this reminds you of “that time at camp,” that’s a note to yourself, inside your head. Not “for sharing.”

  72. Sarah N.*

    Lots of great advice here! I think one big thing for me thinking back on this age is to remind myself that it’s always okay to wait before making a decision and ask for more information. Like, in the petition situation, rather than just going ahead and signing, say “Thanks for asking me — I need to think about it but I’ll let you know!” and then talk to your supervisor to get a bigger picture before making a decision. This applies to a lot of things. Is it okay to flex your schedule when you see other people doing it? Is that box of muffins in the break room up for grabs? Is it ok to use the company printer to print out your boarding pass for a personal flight? Often the answer to all of these things is yes! But as a new person, it’s also okay to just wait, watch, and ask for clarification rather than simply forging ahead.

  73. StressedButOkay*

    And following up from my comment about friends in the workplace, a lot of workplaces will talk about how their employees are family or the employees themselves are family. No, your workplace is not your family – it’s your workplace and there are boundaries. Both on your side and on the side of your employer/fellow employees. A lot of employers/employees forget that and sometimes you’re the one who has to put that line in the sand and sometimes they have to remind you about that line in the sand.

    It might take you some time to figure out what those lines in the sand are but once you do, it’ll save you a lot of stress! I’m still learning and I’ve been in the workforce for a while!

  74. mindovermoneychick*

    Remember that school is there to serve you but at a job you are there to serve the employer. A good employer will care about your growth and development, but it will never be the focus the way it is in school. If you can remember that at work the bottom line to your employer is what value you bring to them.

    That means be good at your job and don’t cause headaches for you boss (the petition was a headache, interpersonal drama can be a headache) You, of course, should be evaluating what the job brings to you and advocate for yourself after you have watched and listened to see what the norms are. Or move on if the job isn’t giving you what you want. But if you can remember the perspective above that will help guide you.

    I realize this is all a bit vague so to give you something more concrete: don’t show your bra straps! At most companies this will help keep you from running afoul of dress codes. We had a heck of a time at my last company getting some people on board with this.

    Also at most jobs they should give you the supplies you need to do your job. I remember how surprised I was at my first job that they gave me notebook, pens, a stapler etc. Basically I got to pick from a store what I needed and I was so surprised.

    1. President Porpoise*

      Ways that work is not like school:
      – Deadlines are firm and have real consequence. If you don’t hand in that spreadsheet, you won’t get a bad grade – but maybe your boss won’t be able to made that federally required report, maybe your company defaults on a contract and is hit with a million dollar penalty, maybe you get fired. Or maybe none of the above – but you get a reputation for not being dependable that’s hard to shake.
      – Written communication should be clear and concise. People will at best skim your emails if they’re too long.
      – You are in charge of your own development, and you must be your own advocate. Learn to state your accomplishments factually without embarrassment.

      1. JSPA*

        Unlike school, you don’t get the project back with comments, and a chance to revise. Or rather, if you feel you need that, you ideally ask for it up front, and allow time for it on your end–

        “Here are the graphics for last quarter’s numbers, which I got from Danila. I dropped them into a template from my predecessor labeled “default template.” I’m sending it to you early in case that’s not the format you need. I did two versions. The second one is more detailed. I have last two quarters’ numbers if you want me to do a year-to-date.” If there’s a standard file labeling convention, use that. If not, use titles that make it easy to know what they are, like: “Q3graphTODAYSDATE” and “Q3graphTODAYSDATEdet.” Not “Timothyfile” and “Timothyfile2.”

  75. Moray*

    If a traditional internship isn’t an option, AmeriCorps might be.

    VISTA will pay (more or less) a stipend you can live on, and they encourage diversity. (Saying ‘nobody in my family has had a white-collar job’ is going to help your application). You’ll get a lot of coaching, both in terms of professional norms and living-on-your-own, and from multiple sources, some of whom who are extremely used to naive young adults. (So there are people you can ask questions like “is it okay to look at my phone sometimes?” and people you can ask “hey, what is fabric softener?”)

    I think it’s much better in terms of easing into the adult world than a regular internship, with the added benefit that they’ll help you relocate and see a new part of the country. AND national service still looks good on a resume multiple years later, when an internship would no longer be relevant. :)

    1. Lora*

      Or a department-sponsored work-study: there was no way I could have afforded any time unpaid as an undergrad (or heck even graduate student, for which I was scolded and refused basically ANY choice of PhD lab rotation: “you’ll have to take whoever has room for you whenever they can fit you in, if you can’t start unpaid in June”), but I had a couple of work-study jobs both preparing reagents and teaching lower level lab courses and they taught the basics of 1) following SOPs closely 2) showing up on time every time I was scheduled, in work-appropriate clothes 3) workplace safety and not blowing things up or staining the autoclave pink, things which many of my colleagues after undergrad did not master until they were threatened with being fired.

          1. Lora*

            When you are making microbiology dyes, they are often quite lovely colors (in this case it was Rose Bengal). You use such a tiny amount that it’s impractical to weigh out a few milligrams, and besides, most are in alcohol solutions that last for ages. So you make a big batch, but inevitably you’ll have a lot left over after you’ve filled up all the eyedropper bottles in the labs.

            We often put glassware with dried-on goop in a big Nalgene bin of soapy water in the autoclave to loosen up the biological crud stuck on them. The heat and pressure of the gravity cycle both soaks the dried-on crud right off and kills any errant cooties; this was in the age where actual pathogens (some of which are now classified as Select Agents and BSL-3s) were used in undergrad laboratory work.

            One of the student workers tossed all the used glassware he could find in the sink (including the containers that had been used to prepare the Rose Bengal stain), into a Nalgene bin, filled it with soapy water all the way to the top (as opposed to leaving some space for the soapy water to boil when the pressure is released) and ran the cycle.

            So. Much. Pink. Everything pink. For weeks on end, everything completely pink.

    2. Liane*

      Or Cooperative Education programs at colleges and universities, where students do (usually) fulltime, but always PAID, work at companies in their field, getting 1 credit per work semseter. At many, you alternate a semester of full coursework with semesters of fulltime work. The work semesters are called internships (or were when I was in college 30 years ago), but again paid, and not minimum wage. I was paid $8/hour in the late 80s, comparable to an entry level regular employee of the municipal water department where I interned. Among other things, I was able to buy my first car and pay for my campus housing (for both study & work terms).
      (Will put link in a reply)

    3. Oh So Anon*

      I did something close to the Canadian equivalent of VISTA. It was great to get paid (well, not that much about minimum wage IIRC), but if I’m going to be totally honest I ended up at a site that wasn’t all that helpful for learning professional norms due to some of the…personalities involved. Was it good resume content? Sure. Did I get some good experience that helped me later on? Definitely. Did I make good friends? Yeah.

      Did it build my confidence in navigating the work world in my next job or two? It probably did the opposite, and in fact left me feeling very wary of working for a non-profit community organization ever again.

  76. LeNerd*

    I would also start working on your own personal habits now — I recommend reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Crucial Conversations. Read them (and do the work they suggest) every few years. No matter where you work, you’re almost always going to be working with humans. Being effective with other humans is what will make you successful. And being effective with other humans is almost always about cultivating yourself — your character, integrity, and ability to understand/listen.

  77. Khoots*

    Just a quick one – be aware of your language!

    A lot of places are okay with the occasional swear here and there, but there are also places where people would be extremely offended with that. While you’re an intern or in your first job, try and avoid any “inappropriate” language while you’re in the office.

      1. LKW*

        This is why I use phrases like “dingity dang” “dagnabit” and “persnickety”. They’re all ridiculous and cause no offense, but they get my toned down point across.

    1. JSPA*

      P.S. don’t instead use what might be milder swears that you picked up from what you assume are more cultured sources. (“Bloody” and “Bugger” are not actually mild even if you got them from BBC shows on PBS.) Similarly, what you believe to be “gamer” or other in-group terms may actually be real words that have other meanings and resonances outside that group.

      Darn, crud, heck, ouch–or skip the exclamation entirely.

      Be aware of rank and attitude when copying others, in this regard. It may turn out that the boss yells F-words in the sanctity of her office after she gets off the phone with irritating people, but that doesn’t mean you can (or should) do it, too.

    2. Alianora*

      Also don’t be that person who goes “Shii….” or “fuuu…” under your breath. I mean, it’s better than actually saying the words, but it’s still not going to come across as professional in most workplaces.

  78. lemonade*

    This makes feel kind of sad to type out, but in light of the dress code example I think it is fitting. In high school, college, and even some academic grad programs, you can more safely rebel than you can in the workplace. You can start a petition or challenge things in a way that won’t necessarily have far-reaching consequences. For example, I once had a college student who really didn’t want to do an assignment the way it was designed. He expressed that to me, I offered my reasoning and tried to work with him, he chose to do the assignment in a way that he felt was “better.” He didn’t get a good grade on that assignment, but he still passed the class because his other work was fine. When I was in grad school, classmates and I organized against changes proposed by a Dean; it did not effect our relationships with professors or our grades. If, in a work place, you refused to do an assignment from your boss, or went above your boss’s head to organize against the head of your organization (not talking in a Union-way), you can expect to be fired or face other repercussions.

    I think that’s the biggest difference between school/academic work and non-academic work. In academia, there is at least lip service paid to the idea that dissent is healthy and good. In non-academic work, tread carefully.

  79. Safely Retired*

    The book that helped me get my head in a good spot going into my first professional job after college was Up The Organization by Robert Townsend. That was over 40 years ago, so a lot of it is dated, but the attitude it teaches is as appropriate now as ever. It is short and a very easy read, not some obscure, dense tome.

  80. Anonymous Engineer*

    I heard a first-year-out-of-college coworker talking about “giving feedback” to a manager about 4 levels up from her. That phrasing struck me as incredibly naive. While many in management do want to hear from people at all levels of the organization, there is a better way to approach that (and a better way to describe that process).

    My advice to you is to always first approach upper management with the attitude of trying to learn more about the rationale behind their decisions or actions. My company likes the phrase “make your thinking visible” and that can be a useful way to tease out legitimate business reasons behind decisions you may not initially agree with. THEN once that person has shared all they can or are willing to share with you, you may still want to offer your perspective. But assuming, right off the bat, that anyone superior to you will value your “feedback” and take it positively (or even neutrally) can be a dangerous move!

    1. The New Wanderer*

      The only reasonable feedback a brand new employee could give to an extremely senior manager is, *by request*, that employee’s own experience during onboarding or something similar. NOT, “hey I’m going to tell super-senior manager what she could do better.”

      My division offers the opportunity for any levels of employee to meet with super-senior management and ask questions or advice on a quarterly basis (limited to small groups, first come first served). The time I went, so did a number of interns. I thought that was a great way for them to ask about big picture stuff and get information that isn’t always flowed down. So if you find that your company offers this type of interaction (formally or informally), take advantage of it! But don’t presume to offer feedback or grill executives on your own volition.

    2. Ledgerman*

      I had a totally different reaction to this! At my workplace, giving feedback to those we work with – upwards, downwards, and sideways – is welcomed and accepted. So the lesson to the letter writer here is to observe the culture of your workplace! What would be more than fine at my work may not fly at Anonymous Engineer’s.

  81. AnotherLibrarian*

    My best advice to anyone starting out this is- There are always rats in the basement. You don’t know what those rats are yet and often they appear harmless at first. Your job for the first six months at a new job is to keep your mouth closed and your eyes open. Eventually, you’ll discover the rats, but listen, ask questions, be neutral and very polite until you have some sense of them.

    1. LKW*

      This is a really good point. Sometimes the people that reach out to the newbies are the most toxic and manipulative of the bunch. Get the lay of the land, be polite and professional but take your time learning who is trustworthy.

      1. AnotherLibrarian*

        And the “rats” aren’t always people. Sometimes, they are situations or histories between departments or something else. You just don’t know. And the last thing you want to do is step into something or end up misunderstanding something and really hurting yourself professionally.

        1. Anon for This*

          Like how the Statistics Department has never ever gotten over being moved under the Mathematics Department and even though that was 20 years ago, you should never ever mention the Mathematics Department to the Statistics Department.

          Ask me how I know.

  82. Katertot*

    I worked retail during college – and in my first professional job I would ask or let my coworker know what I was doing every time I left the office, or ask permission. Such as, “Do you mind if I run to the bathroom?” After the first couple times she just said, “You don’t have to let me know and you don’t have to run.”

    I wasn’t used to being able to manage so much of my own time – when I was getting paid to do it. Get a sense of what people need to know and what they don’t. You don’t want to come and go with no communication if people need to know where you are, but watch others to see how much freedom you can have with coming and going to meetings and other errands when you’re away from your desk/office.

    1. LKW*

      In my firm you decide when you’re taking vacation and then you take vacation. A relative of mine, with 30 years of professional experience, joined a similar firm. She was told that she had to get her vacation approved. She was stunned that any firm would expect that from professionals. It was clearly not a good match. She left shortly thereafter.

  83. gbca*

    Lots of great advice here! I’ll add that many, many managers are reluctant to give employees feedback on some of the softer professionalism items (dress code, etc) , and instead will let you silently build up a reputation for being less than professional. That’s poor management, but it happens a LOT, even from otherwise good managers. I don’t say this to make you paranoid, and if you follow the advice here you’ll be on the right track for sure. But in your first professional job, I’d actively solicit the information from your boss. Say something like “Since this is my first (full time job, office job, etc) I want to make sure I’m getting off to the right start in terms of how I present myself professionally. Do you have any feedback for me in that area?” If they say no, encourage them to tell you if they do think of something.

  84. Lissa*

    If you find yourself thinking “wow, I’ve only been here a week and even I can see that Procedure A is super inefficient and Change D would make it SO much better! I should let people know!” stop and consider. It’s highly unlikely that you’re the first person to ever make that observation. Not impossible, but the media trope of “young inexperienced protagonist knows better than everyone with 20 years of experience” rarely plays out that way. Even if you’re technically correct it probably won’t go the way you want it to.

    It’s not that the change you see might not be a good idea – it could be. But there are almost certainly reasons it isn’t already being done, and you really run the risk of looking at best tone deaf, at worst obnoxious, if you make that suggestion. (asking someone “oh, why do we do it this way” is more OK but still be careful it’s not coming off like the “just asking questions” thing some people do.)

    1. JSPA*

      Make a list for yourself. Add to the bottom. Skim from the top every six months. If after a couple of years and a promotion, you still don’t see why the processes are as they are, you can start to work on making change. By then, you’ll know who’s open to good ideas, who isn’t, and who will encourage you to stick your neck out just so they can step on it, on their way up.

  85. LB*

    All the best advice is taken, so I’ll mention something I haven’t seen. You’re young and earnest and that will be to your advantage short term. Now, that’s still a few years but never forget it had an expiration date. And while you’re learning the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. But the sooner you stop thinking of yourself that way, as a new kid, the sooner you’ll be a contender for more important and serious assignments with authority and responsibility. Don’t get stuck in a self image of new kid – you want to hit “adult” sooner rather than later.

  86. JoJo*

    Don’t post anything complaining about your company on social media, in the way you might have griped on social media about school, homework, someone in the line at the store, etc. (Ideally, don’t post about your company at all — but if you must, or have a Twitter account that your company wants you to use, keep mentions of your company positive (promotional?), and keep the posts strictly professional, not personal commentary). Even reporters, who are given huge leeway to make any comment they want on any political or social issue, get into trouble, when they could have just avoided that by keeping the retweets strictly professional.

    One of the hardest things for me was remaining calm calm calm. People get fired all the time for just popping off, or behaving unprofessionally in the heat of the moment. DO NOT SEND AN EMAIL WHEN YOU ARE ANGRY, you will never regret NOT sending an angry email. Just breathe. Fake it if you have to. In response to a superior who sends you an email saying Could you please not do this, do that instead, just breathe, don’t send an email explaining what you did. When you are calm, just send a simple: Of course, thanks! or somesuch.

  87. Rich*

    You’re getting lots of great advice here, and the learning-strategy recommendations are excellent. The first thing to remember, though, is that a lot of it is going to vary by industry and by individual employer. Degree of formality, dress expectations, adherence to chain of command, expectations around schedules, dispute handling are all the sorts of things that can change dramatically by going across the street to another job.

    I spent well over a decade consulting, which meant I got dropped into hundreds of (generally office-job) companies with different cultures and different styles, and I need to adapt quickly to make it easier to work with “the locals”. Once I got a sense of things, I would always try to be JUST A LITTLE MORE FORMAL than was the norm for whatever I was doing. That’s a good rule of thumb, because formal is generally “safer” than informal, and you’re more likely to be on the right side of that line.

    The things I’d pay most attention to:
    – How does the hierarchy work: what are the behavior expectations between staff and management. Do some people or ranks get Sir/Ma’am-ed while others are first name (or last name) only? If you’re using honorifics, Ms is always best for female colleagues if you’re unsure, and if it’s not Dr. — don’t miss that one ;-)

    – How does communication work: Do people drop in on each other to discuss things, or do they schedule meetings? If they do schedule, how big a crowd tends to be involved? Does it feel like consensus decision making (giving a large group a say until all/most agree) or ‘expert’ decision making (the person in the best position — by knowledge or authority — makes the call). That will change a lot about who you involve in questions.

    – General communication style: Do they tend toward discussion based or written communication? Is the written formal or informal (e.g. is it unfailingly polite and proper, as though you were corresponding with Jane Austen, or is it more colloquial and conversational)? Regardless of office norms, avoid profanity unless you’re really sure you understand the office norms around it — like, really sure.

    – Who do you go to for help: Always be willing to ask your manager if you’re unsure about something. One of the things you should _always_ ask your manager about is who else you should go to for advice — if they don’t “assign” those people to you. Sometimes you’ll have quick questions and that peer/co-worker is a fast path to an answer, but without experience it’s hard to pick the right people on your own. So ask who they should be (This, BTW, would have saved you from the “petition purge”).

    But a lot of it is being a careful observer. Watch what people do. And while you’re watching, make a point of being a little bit more, just in case — a little more polite and proper, a little more on time, a little more careful in your work, a little more tidy…

    Finally, do your best to avoid drama — some places that’s easy, some it’s really hard. But always, something happens that gets people fired up. When you feel it happening to you, stop and ask yourself “is my excitement/agitation about this meaningful to my job, or is it just affecting me personally?” Some things (like harassment and discrimination) are both! But a lot of things — disagreements about parking spaces, or the refrigerator, or how someone else unrelated to your work does their job or keeps their schedule — aren’t about the work, only about feelings. Try to let those go.

    And please don’t talk politics and religion. Those of us who can’t bear it at work will thank you.

  88. ellex42*

    In every job I’ve had, I’ve ended up training new people. Some of them were stepping into their first “full time, real world” job, and some had lots of prior experience. The ones with prior experience made just as many – and many of the same – mistakes as those without.

    “Eyes open, mouth shut” is repeated by several commenters. Observe what’s going on around you and use that as a template for your behavior, but also remember that some of the people you’ll be observing have been working together for some time, and some people are much higher on the totem pole, and that can give those people certain privileges outside the expected norm. Err on the side of politeness and formality.

    “Do what you’re told to do without pushback” is essential. You don’t know how things work, or why things are done the way they’re done. It may not make sense to you – it may not make sense to the person training you! – but pushing back on that is a bad idea. Wait to make suggestions for change until you’ve been there a while and have a broader view of what’s going on.

    “Take notes” is my biggest pet peeve. You’re going to be learning a lot, especially in the first few days. You won’t remember it all. I don’t mind if you double-check something, or ask me to run through a process a second time. If you ask me the same question 4 or 5 times, I’m going to be annoyed and suspicious that you’re not listening and not learning.

    ” Ask questions” is a big one. If you don’t understand, ask. If you feel you need help, ask. If you’re not sure, ask.

    But also on that score, think about your questions before you ask them. It may be quicker and easier to ask, but can you find that information for yourself (without spending half the day looking for it, of course). Can you figure out the answer with a little thought? Is it relevant to what you’re doing? You shouldn’t be asking about what other people/other departments are doing until you have a good grasp of what you’re doing. Learn your job – then you can start learning about the jobs around you.

    “Friendly does not mean friends” is something I’ve seen quite a few newbies to the workplace need to learn. You should be friendly with your coworkers, which means a pleasant attitude and a willingness to work together. That doesn’t mean you have to be BFFs with your coworkers. While you may, in time, form close friendships with coworkers outside of work, learning how to maintain working relationships that are professional, rather than intimate, even with people you dislike, is essential.

    Hand in hand with that goes “be considerate”. Think about how what you do, and how you behave, affects your coworkers, and not just in terms of the work you produce. You don’t want to be that person who irritates everyone else by being loud, being smelly (BO, food, lotions/candles and perfumes/colognes), playing music/podcasts without earphones, being messy (last time I got a new job, the keyboard was so dirty/full of crumbs that I asked for, and got, a new keyboard on my second day). Remember that other people have their own work to do, and it may take precedence over yours. You, and the work you do, don’t exist in a vacuum.

    1. ILikeMeJustFine*

      OP, please pay attention to these. These are GOLD.
      I’ve trained more newbies than I can count and would especially second 2 of these comments:
      1. Pushback: Don’t do it, just don’t. Not yet. If you’re new to a workplace and/or new to an industry, there’s just no way you know enough about what’s going on to consistently question or object to things. Doesn’t mean that there aren’t functions in every workplace that need changing. But many things are the way they are for very good reasons. When you’re new, you almost certainly do not have enough data to know which is which.
      2. Asking Questions: Yes, do this when you don’t understand a process or an instruction. But as ellex42 says, try to do some independent thought first. As a manager of new hires myself, I don’t mind clarifying for you exactly the way we do things here or what is expected of you. But I am not Google. Please do not ask me how to make a table in Word or how to load letterhead in the printer. There are only 4 ways to put down a piece of paper; try them until you find the right one. I am also not your external memory bank. Once you’re told something, you’ll be expected to remember it. Which takes us back to “take notes” . . .

  89. Thatoneoverthere*

    I agree… watch, wait and learn. Offices vary some much on culture. What will be acceptable some places will be frowned upon at others. For example right, now nobody cares if I come in late or leave early for doctor appointments, child care obligations etc. As long as I get my work done, and I don’t abuse it. I worked somewhere right out of college where, even leaving 5 min early was a no-no (and I left there quick).

    Don’t be the person that DOESNT WANT TO LEARN ANYTHING. However big or small it might be. My husband loves to tell this story to our kids.. When he was fresh out of school, he was cocky, know it all dude type. He didn’t want help from anyone. I mean anything from how to do his job, to how to operate the copier at work. He was struggling at his job and didn’t want help from anyone. His boss sat him down and said you need to let others help you, or you’ll never succeed here. He used several examples and one was as simple as he sat and struggled with the copy machine for like 15 mins. He turned down several offers of help. He never stopped to think.. how that may look to his co-workers. So from then on, he asked for and accepted help when appropriate.

  90. TootsNYC*

    Find a mentor, and bounce everything off them.

    Finding that mentor is the tricky part.

    Ideally it would be your supervisor, especially if you’re an intern, but even at your first job. And remember that you can have different types of mentors: Maybe one person is your “military bearing” mentor (that’s what my CW5 brother got an awards for; I’ve always loved that term), and another is your “email communications” mentor, and someone else is your “interacting with the big boss” mentor. And someone else is your “how to be an adult” mentor who can coach you through finding a car mechanic (sometimes parents aren’t the best or only sources for this).

    Before you decide whom to use as a mentor, observe them, and see how they are reacted to by others, and how they compare with others.

    And remember that people who are very green are probably not your best mentors. So, fellow interns wouldn’t know whether a petition is a good idea, so don’t act on their comments, requests, etc.

    Watch your mentors and model what they do, but also take them all kinds of questions. Like, never sign a petition until you’ve discussed it with your mentor. Ask them to look over your email. Request advice or feedback.

    And try not to be emphatic when you’re still green. Don’t react quickly (don’t sign petitions the moment someone presents them to you, for example).
    There’s a motivational saying that I heard when I was in therapy about “the space between the stimulus and the response, and that is where our power it.” So give yourself that space.

    1. AnotherLibrarian*

      I really like “the space between the stimulus and the response, and that is where our power is” and I shall have to steal it. The other one I use a lot is- “I can not control how I feel. I can control how I act on those feelings.”

  91. Mainely Professional*

    Pay your dues–treat people with seniority with respect whether or not they personally deserve it.

    Then again, if you see something, say something. That doesn’t mean tattle on your coworkers because they come in late (that’s what respecting the seniority factor means), but if someone’s doing something that *negatively* impacts your work, your customers, or the organization, bring it politely to the attention of your boss. Use the scripts AAM has.

  92. Eric the Red*

    I have 27 years at a Fortune 500 company. I would say you have to have your private life habits and work habits (or face). At work, you cannot tell any of color jokes, act to casual, be respectful of others opinions and idiosyncrasys. Think of it as acting like you are at church. On your best behavior with goofing off to a minimum. Find out the general office cultures and conform, on the conservative side until you are sure your understanding was correct.

  93. Not a Blossom*

    Talk to people you know in as many fields as possible. You won’t be able to learn everything, but if you ask them a few basic office norms (maybe even specify that you’re interested in some that aren’t intuitive), you will get a pretty wide range of behaviors. Some will contradict and not all will apply to every situation, but it will give you a baseline and help make it easier for you to judge what will and won’t fly.

    Once you are in a professional workplace, keep your eyes open to see how more senior folks act. If you think you see something that really needs to change, start by asking your mentor, manager, or someone with seniority why things are done the way they are; just make sure it comes from a place of wanting to understand how things work, NOT from a place of thinking you know better. Once you have your answer, you will know if you should advocate for change. And in general, unless the problem is related to safety or egregious law violations, wait a few months before you suggest altering anything that affects more than just yourself so that you will have a better concept of how the department functions.

  94. Jennifer*

    I learned the hard way and got fired lol. It’s really difficult sometimes when you’re first starting out because at least in my experience the first “real” job I got was for a really unprofessional attorney that didn’t respect boundaries and I picked up some bad practices I thought were normal, which led to the aforementioned firing.

    I’d say if you work in a professional office, follow the example of people who happen to be well-respected and ask questions. Also read. Read blogs like this. Buy books like Alison’s or borrow them if they aren’t in your budget. Do your own research instead of expecting others to do all of the heavy lifting. That way when you find yourself in a tricky situation, like the example in the OP, you’ll recognize it without someone having to call you.

    1. LKW*

      Years and years ago I worked for a firm that treated their admins like crap. Yelling, blaming, the works. I saw one of the newer engineers picking up the habit and I pulled him to the side and told him that it was clearly the norm there, but if he tried it at any of the big players, he’d be handed his hat and walked out the door. He looked at me like a deer in the headlights. I left there shortly after so I don’t know whatever happened to him, but I hope he learned that lesson.

  95. dance dance dance*

    Oh and one more: acronyms can sometimes seem… confusing. This one time my manager sent me an e-mail with “f/u” in the subject line. It means that the e-mail was a “follow up”, not that she was cursing me out.

    1. Alianora*

      That always startles me! I can’t help but think that people who send those must know how it sounds.

  96. Toodie*

    Take advantage of your internship to find out if the path you’re on is the path you want to be on, too.

    I was required to take a paid internship between my junior and senior years. My major was journalism, and I always thought it was a great fit for me because if there’s anything Toodie can do, it’s write on a deadline. But I found out that good journalism is a lot more than that, and it includes a lot of things I just didn’t like. Lots of time on the phone, and sometimes asking questions that just felt awfully pressing or rude to me. (I covered a local search team dragging a river for a young guy who’d dived from a boat one sunny afternoon, and had hit his head and drowned. The mom was there, watching this. My editor: Did you ask her how she felt? and I just … couldn’t.)

    1. TootsNYC*

      I’m a little surprised your editor did that–that’s the classic stereotype of What Not to Do.

      And anybody with any skill as a reporter would say, “Tell me about your son, may I quote you? Did he spend a lot of time on the water?”

  97. Jk*

    I would always pay attention to more senior staff members and their behavior. You may be lucky enough to get someone willing to mentor you and help along the way.

    I’ve had to work with some really naive people in the past. One thought it would be ok to sneak her dog in and hide it in a meeting room (right next to the executive offices, plus pets weren’t allowed). The same girl got into some drama outside of work and it made its way inside. Someone else got wasted at the work Christmas party and was twerking up and down all the men. One senior manager stole cookies and chips intended for a client luncheon.

    Basically have some level of social awareness. Be considerate. Be courteous. Be cognisant of conversations, atmospheres, and the impact your actions may have on others.

    Get a notebook, take notes, follow-up, remember things. Ask questions when you need help.

  98. Wendie*

    I learned from my grandfather and dad! Your parents may give you pointers if you ask nicely. I told my sons to deaf ears.

      1. MicroManagered*

        Agreed. The “What bad advice did your parents give you” threads are always full of examples of why this isn’t the best practice. #gumption

      2. Oh So Anon*

        +1. I definitely got some really problematic (in a white-collar/professional context) pointers from blue-collar and pink-collar relatives, particularly those who work in high-turnover jobs or have never had supervisory experience.

      3. Oxford Comma*

        Maybe. Maybe not. I think a lot of advice would apply across the board, particularly in terms of work ethic.

        The trick is knowing when to ignore the advice.

        1. Oh So Anon*

          Work ethic? Not when you’ve got the sorts of parents who think that using sick days in protest is an okay thing to do…

          1. Oxford Comma*

            My grandfather was solidly blue collar. My grandma did piece work. They could never have advised me about office politics, but they both believed in doing a job well, showing up on time, being polite, being responsible for your actions. All of those things have been useful to me,

            Obviously YMMV.

    1. Brandy*

      My mom retired from her office job and is looking for something part time now and interviewing and I now just let her do. I give her no advice and she gives me none. We have different ideas of work and we’re both office workers.

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        Yeah, my mother was looking for a new job off and on the last couple of years – she refused to listen to any of the advice my brother and I tried to give her, preferring to do it her way (she hasn’t been in the job market for over a decade), and she never did get a new job. She ended up so frustrated that she stopped looking altogether. Some parents are not the best source of guidance on today’s job market because it’s changed and the methods they used to employ to find work doesn’t really work much anymore.

      1. Dwight*

        Gumption: shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness.

        I don’t see why you’re sarcastically saying that initiative and resourcefulness is the reason we shouldn’t take advise from our parents. Some of the most successful people from those generations were the ones who took the most initiative.

        If you’re referring to a letter a long time ago where someone called a potential employer readily or did something annoyingly relentlessly, and someone called it gumption, that’s just a misuse of the word, and doesn’t help the LW.

        1. BRR*

          It’s how gumption is commonly referenced here and many places online, usually in a job search context. Usually it’s used in connection to outdated advice and I could have been more clear on the wording I use. But bad advice from parents and/or grandparents is much more common than one letter.

        2. Tinker*

          It’s not just one letter — it’s a reference to an entire genre of stories involving older (though possibly not all that old) people:

          — Advising younger or perceived-as-younger people to do things that are odd, ineffective, and sometimes wildly inappropriate as a supposed way of demonstrating “gumption”.
          — Having a disrespectful attitude towards the knowledge others have of their own job market.
          — Being unwilling to entertain the suggestion that they may not be correct.
          — Attributing the decision to not follow their advice to lack of virtue on the part of the person advised — that they lack or have a dismissive attitude to initiative and resourcefulness itself, rather than having different ideas about how to effectively act according to those virtues.

          1. Dwight*

            Huh, I guess I missed that part of the definition. That may be accepted as the definition on this specific website, but I’m still not sure how telling a youngling seeking advise that they shouldn’t have gumption (shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness) is helpful.

            1. Tinker*

              Nobody is telling people seeking advice that they should not have gumption in the dictionary sense of the word. They are recommending caution (“I’d be [wary]”) at uncritically following certain kinds of advice, by using a shorthand reference to the context I just described above.

              I can appreciate that there is some danger that people will be unfamiliar with the idiom and take it literally. That is another reason why it is unwise to uncritically follow advice that does not seem to make sense given one’s understanding of one’s own present situation.

            2. Rugby*

              Because shrewd or spirited initiative can mean violating workplace norms. The interns who started a petition to change the dress code showed spirited initiative and it got them all fired.

              1. Dwight*

                I would argue that it wasn’t very shrewd, therefore not gumption. More like reckless, or impulsive.

    2. Starfire117*

      As I was the first member of my family to receive a post-secondary, university education and degree, my dad had zero work advice he can give me, other than general “be on time, be responsible, and work hard”. My mom, being a SAHM my whole life, also had zero advice. I am the first salaried professional in my family.

      So your advice isn’t exactly helpful.

      1. Amber Rose*

        Well, being on time, responsible and hard working is solid advice for anyone in any work place. :)

        But maybe too vague/common sense to be all that helpful, admittedly.

      2. Mainely Professional*

        Absolutely–that advice applies to every job. And that’s about it! (Which is not to say that blue collar jobs don’t have their own norms. Procedure and safety are important norms a white collar worker would have to learn to succeed in a blue collar context.)

      3. Jennifer*

        It may not have been helpful to you but may be to someone else. Every piece of advice here doesn’t have to apply to every single person that will read it.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      My grandfather was a lumberjack with a 4th grade education, I can only imagine what his advice would be.

      Similar to my dad’s probably, who was also in timber.

      “Show up! Do what you’re told! Don’t stick your hands in machines!”

      I got my worth ethic from them but oh nelly did I not get any advice about how to act in an office.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          You’re not wrong.

          I once had to drive someone to the hospital who needed to get a finger tip amputated in the end. Guess what they diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiid [spoiler, they reached over the GD guard, THE GUARD IS THERE TO GUARD YOUR FINGERS FROM GETTING CHOPPED MAN!]

      1. President Porpoise*

        My 85 year old grandmother lost three fingers to a woodchipper. That last bit is really good advice.

        But more broadly – take safety training and rules seriously. No amount of workman’s comp is worth breaking your back because you were goofing off on a ladder and slipped.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          For real, training and safety is important.

          Thankfully the most dangerous machine I’ve used is the paper shredder, which don’t get me wrong, it can cause damage if you put your hand in there! Also don’t use a butter knife to get stuff out of the toaster, guys…and unplug things, wtf are you doing, etc.

    4. TootsNYC*

      I’m a regular reader, a current manager, and a highly successful job hunter in the past.

      My DD actually came to ask me how to handle a work crisis she’d gotten into. She didn’t take all my suggestions, but it gave me a chance to sketch some bigger-picture things.

      My own mom was a great advisor, but mostly because she painted in broad strokes instead of details, and because she said, “I don’t know your industry; I do know this Life Principle or this Standard of Behavior in Other Situations That Seem Similar.”

      Maybe your parents wouldn’t be good for this, but aunts and uncles might be; the friendly parents of your own friends might be; folks from social clubs or church might be.

      Look around–there are good advisors in lots of places. (for our OP, the regional manager might be, if the OP is acquainted)

      Sometimes you create those mentorships by reaching out to someone with a specific request for advice.

      And that’s what a mentor should be, really–almost like an encyclopedia/dictionary/etiquette manual/reference book that you go to when you need advice on something specific. (even if “specific” is “how would I go about getting a job in your field?”)

      The secret is to find a grownup who has some familiarity with the type of field you’re talking about.

      My teacher dad wouldn’t be much help with advice about working in a car dealership

  99. Hillary*

    If you see someone at work whose professionalism you admire, it’s 100% ok to emulate them. I’m almost 40 and I occasionally think what would so-and-so do when I’m stuck. There’s one person whose interpersonal style I really admire, someone else whose negotiating is amazing, and a third person who dresses so perfectly for our office. I suspect I’m that person for some of the younger people in my office.

    Try to keep the personal out of work. You’re going to meet genuinely good people and snakes, and they can be very hard to tell apart. Staying out of gossip is important, but keeping potential gossip to yourself is also a good skill.

    For dress code, if you’re not sure about something don’t wear it. That can be anything from a funny t-shirt, a skirt length, to a pair of casual shoes. One easy shorthand is if you’d wear it in a club, don’t wear it to work. And if you can’t picture your boss’s boss wearing it (or someone with a similar body to you at their level) probably also don’t wear it.

    But do participate. If your office does jersey Friday or aloha Friday, participating is an easy way to build camaraderie. Don’t be the guy who always wears slacks and a button down when everyone is in jeans and t-shirts.

    Finally, if you get/have a smart watch practice ignoring it. Turn the sound off and get used to checking it when there’s a natural break, nothing says I’m not paying attention like abruptly looking down to check your texts. I think watches are even worse than phones in this, and I say that while wearing one.

    1. Hillary*

      Just because I’m amused, I am in fact wearing an outfit that I can’t picture my boss’s boss’s boss wearing. But she’s the CEO, so this only goes so far.

      My shoes are on the edge of being too casual, but my boss’s boss commented positively on them when I had just moved and couldn’t find anything else.

  100. CJ Cregg*

    Such a wealth of advice! Make sure you bookmark this thread!

    Some thoughts:
    -Put your phone down. Down. Away. Don’t bring it to meetings (even if your supervisor does and your supervisor’s supervisor). We had an intern one summer who was great in her interview and seemed really eager to be with us, but she literally never put her phone down. We told her that she HAD TO. And she did for a while until she started sneaking her phone into meetings. Not just looking at while at her desk at the end of the day or something. But in like high level meetings with the boss. She would keep it in her bag on the floor next to her chair and pretend to be like looking for a pen but was really on her phone! We tried a couple more times and then we gave up.
    -Avoid drama with fellow interns: don’t be pulled in.
    -Listen and observe those around you!
    -Speak to your supervisor FIRST. Let’s say you get pulled into an all-hands-on-deck meeting or some other large group meeting with clients/partners. You don’t understand something or you have a fantastic idea or you have a better way to do it or you think someone who just said something is DEAD wrong about it. Do not speak up in that meeting. Do not call anyone out. Wait until your next check-in with your supervisor or some other time to ask them/share with them what was in your head.

  101. Fibchopkin*

    All the advice here is great, I would also just like to throw in that you’ll rarely go wrong when you’re feeling a little at sea in a job by simply asking your supervisor a polite, straight-forward question about things you aren’t sure of/don’t understand. 99 times out of 100 it will not be as new or dumb a question as you think, and your supervisor will be happy to clear it up for you.

    On another note, oh man, I remember that letter today’s OP is referencing! I felt so bad for the poor former intern. Who among hasn’t unintentionally pulled a bone-headed move as a young person? I knew from the opening paragraph that the “footware petition incident” was going to be an instance OP looked back at for the rest of ever with at least a mild cringe. And the whole internet seemed to jump all over them! Did we ever get any updates from that LW? Hope they’re doing okay now that they’ve (presumably) graduated and have had a few of experience in the workforce.

    1. Oh So Anon*

      Hey, I remember that one! Jen Dziura’s writing on the world of work was a really great resource when I was early in my career. Really resonated.

  102. jnsunique*

    Mostly professionalism is about respect and consideration for others, and also trusting that the folks in charge typically know what they’re doing. There are some norms that support that. I had one employee who had to be told the following: don’t sleep in meetings, keep things neat and tidy and if you’re working on something sporadically over several days in a shared space, you need to keep it clean so others can also use the space, wear deodorant (his desk neighbor really let him know!), show up on time to meetings, don’t mumble because people can’t hear you. Once warned, he always changed his behavior, but I was so surprised that these kinds of things had to be said.

  103. Rexish*

    I think it’s something you absorb. I don’t really recall getting advice. Showing respect to others, being polite and not being a jerk will go a long way. If in doubt, ask. Ignore articles and books about mak8ng impression. Keep your head down at first and learn how others do.
    I dont think this is a blue collar/white collar thing. People in all professionals have to be professional and adjust to the norms of that place.

  104. Monty & Millie's Mom*

    I haven’t read all the comments, but you’re getting a lot of the same advice. I agree with pretty much everything here, and just wanted to add that since mistakes are inevitable, this is really something only time and experience will make you more comfortable with! And even WITH time and experience, the advice is good – watch others, listen more than you talk, be aware of policies. You’re going to be do just fine!

  105. Emails*

    If it’s too embarrassing / awkward / offensive to stand in front of your boss and say aloud, don’t type it in an email.

  106. Foon*

    I’m nearing ten years of experience in an office environment and here are some of my top takeaways:
    Do not microwave fish or popcorn in the breakroom microwave.
    Do not ever comment on anyone’s personal appearance for any reason, and do not comment on their habits unless they interfere with your own work.
    If you receive feedback from a supervisor that you don’t agree with, do not raise your objections then and there- take time to organize your thoughts and control your defensiveness/anger/self-pity and go back to the feedback giver the next day and begin a new conversation with “I’ve thought a lot about X, here’s my thought process behind doing it that way, can you clarify…” and continue the conversation as though you are really open to trying to understand their point of view.
    Never show up to work late with Starbucks/Dunkin/any type of restaurant coffee or breakfast in your hands.
    If you want to be taken seriously or looked at as a leader, don’t bring in homemade treats for your office- people might begin to subconsciously categorize you into a caretaker/mother type role. The (very) occasional treat purchased from a store (a box of doughnuts for instance) may not go amiss, if appropriate to the office culture.
    Put a lot of thought into your time management. Sometimes you want to get tasks done asap, despite the deadline, because you never know when something larger or more urgent may get dropped in your lap. Other times you may want to take your time so that people know you are being detail oriented and proofing yourself. It really varies based on culture and role, just make sure you determine what’s right for you.
    If your lunch is particularly smelly, don’t throw your lunch trash away at your desk, take it back to the kitchen trashcan.
    Don’t get caught in the grapevine- there are gossips in every office, and everyone knows who they are. Listening to tidbits and passing along what you’ve heard seems harmless, until it’s not. When that stuff comes back to bite you in the a** it bites HARD.

  107. Lily Rowan*

    While you’re in college, take advantage of career services, but be wary as well! They can often connect you to great resources, but their lens is pretty narrow, and their real area of expertise may be academia rather than the business world. If you hear something that contradicts what you’ve read here, Alison is right!

  108. always in email jail*

    I just want to say that I think your current job is likely more valuable than you give it credit for. Do well in your current job so you have a good reference, I take a good reference from a paying job (yes, even at a gas station) a lot more seriously than an internship reference when I’m hiring entry-level recent grads. You’re already learning about showing up on time, navigating dynamics with coworkers, customer service, having to arrange someone to cover your shift/work if you aren’t going to make it, etc. Those are valuable lessons.

    Other than that, be polite, and be respectful of your colleague’s personal experience. It’s great to have ideas, but sit back and watch how things are done before trying to overhaul the system or suggest a “better” way. Trust me- in most cases, if that way was truly better, they’d already be doing it. If they aren’t, there’s a good reason it won’t work.

  109. Shabang*

    I see many people come in and decide they want to rise up the ladder fast – they talk a good game and then after being with the company for a short period of time and barely competent in their basic job (barring any malfunctions or break downs) start comparing themselves to people that have 10 – 20 years worth of experience – “We are all doing the same job, we should all get the same pay…” Routinely, these were the ones that every time something would happen (malfunctions or break downs), they would call anyone else to get things back together as they didn’t have a clue. Apparently we are not doing the same job and that experience, certifications, and institutional memory all account for something.

    You will get there – learn from other workers, show up when you are supposed to, do what you’re supposed to do.

    Another is that we all bring something to the table – we all have different experiences and skills. Just because you might have the same job title doesn’t mean that you have the same skill set, or that I ask the same identical tasks from each one. I had to point that out to an employee who kept saying “So and so isn’t doing this, why should I have to?” The answer was I had the other doing something else that was equally important to me, and between the two of them, everything was being looked after.

    Everything you do will be considered when an opportunity for advancement comes up. If you routinely call out (especially with little notice), abuse sick time, have difficulty interacting with your coworkers and make a point of “playing games” with coworkers, I can guarantee you that I will not be thinking of you to move ahead unless I have no other choice. Not all open positions have to be filled from within.

    This is my experience – YMMV

  110. Sally*

    I would add that it’s a good idea to consider all input from experienced colleagues, even when they might seem to be joking. The reason I say this is – in my first office job, I did some ridiculous things that I didn’t know were not OK until my co-workers (good-naturedly) made fun of me. One example: I had a very bad sunburn on my back, so I wore a strapless cotton jersey dress without a bra that was just not appropriate for work. Another: When my colleague mentioned her “husband’s brother,” I said, “you mean your brother’s….” I assumed that she was too young to be married. After a few weeks at the job, I (fortunately) learned to listen more and talk less and to observe what other people did. I already knew from being around the two women I was closest to that you can have social conversations and laugh at work and still be very professional and serious about your work. I cringe at how naive I was then, but at least I learned from the experience, and I was lucky to work with people who were willing to put up with my mistakes and teach me how to be at work.

  111. Amy*

    It may be controversial but I think there is such thing as a dumb question.

    Sure, most questions don’t fall into this category.

    – Can you explain this internal process?
    – How has the company handled this before?

    There’s also the occasional “maybe I’m confused but won’t X be an issue?” and it’s a complete emperor has no clothes/ back to the drawing board/ the intern found a huge flaw in our plan situation.

    But.. there are also questions that can betray that you haven’t been paying attention or doing your homework. I was in a meeting with a lobbyist recently and he asked a question that clarified what I’ve always suspected – he knows nothing about our industry and has done zero research.

    I wish there was a formula to know which kinds of questions are good and which are cringe-worthy but in the beginning, not asking too many questions in large groups may help. And listen, listen, listen,

    1. Elspeth Mcgillicuddy*

      My categories of dumb questions:
      1. Questions that you already know the answer, or would know the answer if you stopped and thought about it two seconds.
      2. Questions that the person you’re asking obviously does not know the answer.

  112. Ptarmigan*

    When you start your job and, pretty early on, someone comes to you and tells you all about how the company “really” is, who to trust, who is good, who is bad, who should be fired, who is about to be fired…listen quietly, walk away, don’t respond in kind, and don’t trust that person. Don’t talk smack about anyone until you’ve been at a job a good long while (a year minimum), because you will learn later that you were completely wrong about a lot of what you thought you were seeing.

  113. Katherine*

    Reading AAM as a high school student puts you way ahead of the curve!! You’ll figure this stuff out. And retail-type jobs actually can teach you a lot about how to succeed in office jobs, so good for you for having one!

    I know the intern letter is just one example of what you’re concerned about, but it’s worth pointing out that in that example, those students *had already asked* that the dress code be relaxed, they were told no, and instead of accepting that “no,” they drew up a petition (presumably on work time) to argue the point a second time, and THAT’s what got them fired. So, #1 maybe you wouldn’t have known not to sign a petition, but would you have known to take no for an answer the first time? and #2 the petition wasn’t the only thing that got them fired, it was the repeated pushback. Just thought it was worth pointing that out to you :)

  114. That Would be a Good Band Name*

    I went from a gas station to my first professional job. A couple of big differences: language and time off. At the gas station I worked for, it was no big deal to curse. Not so much in front of customers, but “can you believe the f%#^$ mess that dayshift left us?” was a pretty common topic of discussion when I was working. I haven’t worked in an professional setting where that would be appropriate. Even if another department *did* f*ck something up, you don’t say it that way. You’d just calmly state facts: “I thought we were proceeding with X, but other dept did Y. How should we proceed?”

    As for time off, it took me years to get used to the idea that vacation/sick are benefits that I’m entitled to use because of how long I worked in places that acted like someone taking any time off was the end of the world. There are still professional workplaces where you’ll run into that attitude, but in a non-toxic work environment it shouldn’t be a big deal to take scheduled time off or a sick day.

  115. Me*

    Your employer is not a democracy. They get to make the decisions. You get to decide if you can live with them by working there. Yes there are times and ways it is appropriate to push back and make suggestions but generally “it’s not fair” isn’t a reason to do (see dress code petition).

    And while it doesn’t apply to legal/illegal stuff, in a way it does. An employer doing shady things is unlikely to appreciate nor change that because you point it out. That doesn’t mean don’t do so, but that does mean anticipate being let go or needing to look for other jobs.

    Find someone who has been there a while and is respected. Watch and listen as you can learn a lot just from passive observation, but also ask if they would mind being a bit of a mentor who you can run questions about “is this ok?” or “how should I handle this”. Sometimes you super luck out and your supervisor is such a person (I have a lot), but sometimes it’s people in other departments or even other workplaces.

    Also, you’ll mess up because you are human. How you handle those instances is key. Always always always own up to mistakes and attempt to provide either a solution to the problem created, a way to ensure it doesn’t happen again or ideally both.

    And keep reading this blog. You’ll learn a lot just about tactful response and firm boundary language and behavior that will serve you even if a situation you find yourself in isn’t addressed here.

  116. pcake*

    Regarding the interns with the dress code petition, they’re a good example of one other thing.

    Don’t try to change anything when you’re new to a company.

  117. logicbutton*

    I would frame the dress code petition firings not as a huge professional gaffe as such, but as a political gambit that failed. The reason it failed was that it was attempted entirely by people with no political power who played all the cards they did have at once, and the reason they attempted it was because they had no experience in trying to effect workplace change and don’t seem to have consulted anyone who did. So that’s my advice: before initiating or signing on to anything that involves trying to get the boss to change, run the idea by someone (not a coworker unless you’re 100% positive their loyalty is to you, like they’re your sister or something) who can tell you whether what you’re asking is reasonable and how to go about asking it.

    1. Koala dreams*

      I think that’s one of the advantages of being in an union. You have people in similar jobs who can discuss strategies and learn from each other’s bad experiences. Even so, there are many examples of unsuccessful union protests. Be careful.

    2. Heidi*

      Honestly, that intern dress code debacle is such a great teaching case. I’m sure that OP is not alone out there thinking, “What was so bad about what they did?” and not realizing that there were so many places in the story where a bad decision was made. I also would clarify for the OP that the firing was not necessarily an inevitable outcome in that case. The bosses chose to fire the interns rather than put up with them. Other bosses might have made a different call in the same situation.

  118. Frankie*

    1) Watch & listen. High school and college are very different from most work environments. It will be disorienting and you’ll need to learn a lot of new processes and habits.
    2) Be patient. As a newer, less experienced employee, you will have a lot of bandwidth. Many of the people above you are likely to be very busy. Be quick with the work you can and be understanding when/if you have to delay because someone above you doesn’t have the time yet. If you have holes in your time, see if there’s anything you can be proactive about and if not, teach yourself a new skill in your down time.
    3) Find mentors. You can do this with faculty or college staff before you even get out into the working world. Ask questions about what their work is like, professional advice they have, and don’t ever take one person’s word for it. Get diverse opinions and people with a range of experience.
    4) Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something, or to ask for someone’s understanding of how a process works, etc.
    5) Don’s assume your way is right.

  119. sovanness*

    I don’t have time to read through all these comments so I apologize if this is a repeat:

    Since you mentioned you’re heading to college, check to see if your school has a career services office. For example, the university where I work (and hire and supervise students!) we have a career services office that helps students learn appropriate professional norms, how to talk about transferrable skills, how to write a resume and cover letter, and more..including even mock interviews. Plus, we’re increasingly incorporating “learning how to be a professional” into student jobs on campus; the students who work for me also learn about those things in addition to just doing their library jobs, and are evaluated on NACE career readiness competencies ( Another bonus of having a student job on campus may be that if your supervisor is a good one, they’re going to be more forgiving of these little incidents of naivete because they’ll be working under the context of the fact that you’re a student and you’re learning.

    But also keep reading AAM, since some of those career services offices are better than others!

  120. Orange You Glad*

    I agree with all the advice already provided!

    I’ll add something I see a lot of college-aged interns/co-ops struggle with – no matter what dress code your workplace has (business, casual, or any variation in between), always err on the side of more conservative dress in the beginning. Once your in the office, observed how other dress and behave and emulate them. I’ve had interns show up dressed like they’re going out dancing (I guess they though that was “formal” enough for work?) and I’ve had interns show up in grubby hoodies. Neither are appropriate for our pretty lax dress code.

  121. Jaybeetee*

    One thing that makes this question interesting, LW, is that workplace norms are essentially a subset of “social norms” – which, even now you likely know, can vary wildly between one environment and another. What’s okay around your family may not be okay around your friends, what’s okay at home isn’t necessarily okay at school, that kind of thing. People from different cultures and backgrounds will also have differing ideas of what’s normal or acceptable in any given situation, and we’re all thrashing through this life together. With workplaces, different industries will have different norms and expectations – but different companies within the same industry can also vary, and even within a single building, different teams and groups might have their own ways of doing things. No wonder we struggle so hard to get along.

    But with that, the best way you approach a new workplace is the way you approach any new social setting – with sensitivity and tact. Understanding that not everyone does things as you do, and that different ways of doing things aren’t necessarily “wrong”. These are skills you’re already building in your day-to-day life, and work is just an extension of that.

    The reason the petition was a bad idea, in the letter you referenced, was because that intern was not approaching a new (for her) situation with sensitivity or tact. She rolled into a new environment like a wrecking ball, decided her preferences were correct and that the company’s rules were “wrong”, and immediately went for a very aggressive gesture in making her displeasure known. Making it worse, she was only going to be there a few months anyway, and still took it upon herself to try to effect a significant change in that workplace, via aggressive and adversarial measures. It was simply too much. In a social setting, this would be like making friends with someone staying in your town temporarily, inadvertently annoying them, and that friend writing a public social media rant about you without discussing it with you first. It’s just this, “…and who the heck are *you*?” moment, too much, too fast, too aggressive. When interacting adult-to-adult, you’re supposed to start with the benefit of the doubt.

    You may encounter genuinely bad workplaces that need to change – young people tend to particularly get caught in those traps, specifically *because* they don’t yet know what’s okay or acceptable at work. Alison has many letters here about how to spot a toxic workplace, and what you can do. Usually, advocacy in the form of petitions or strikes, etc, is not at all on the list. Talking to your management or to HR, changing jobs – if you have a union, running things by them. Even consulting a labour board or employment lawyer, if you’re really unsure about something. But you don’t start off gathering a group of rebels to your cause.

    When it does come to workplace advocacy, one lesson that tends not to land for young people in academic environments, is that meaningful change on an industry level is *slow*. If your particular office or team has some bad habit you’d like to see changed, you might be able to make that happen fairly quickly, simply with conversations (and if that group resists change and the bad habit truly bothers you, it’s relatively easy to find a different environment). But if what you’re protesting is an industry-wide toxicity (like, say, punishingly long work hours in certain industries), you’re not going to make that change as a summer intern. Some industries are pushing back on things like extremely long hours, but that change is being lead by people who have been in the field for years, and those changes are *taking* years. It’s often a case of literally waiting for key players to retire before you really see changes taking root.

    We do encourage young people to question, and to push back against injustice when they see it – in the end, we don’t actually want young people to be obedient drones who never push back. But the stumbling block tends to be nuance, shades of grey, the reality of “putting it all on the line” when a student has little to lose, but an adult with bills and a family might have much to lose. Trying to see others’ point of view, trying to see if there are reasons things are the way they are, having calm conversations before escalating, will rarely steer you wrong.

  122. a*

    First, don’t sell yourself short – working at any job means that you already know that you need to show up on time and ready to work when scheduled…even if it’s a fairly casual environment.

    Second, do not put anything in writing that you do not want haunting you forever. So…do not send emails to friends about non-work stuff on your work computer, even if those friends work at the same company. Make sure your communications on emails or chats or anything else that might have a transcript are professional – not that you can’t make jokes or inquire about personal stuff, but it has to be in a polite and professional manner. I’ve had coworkers who were fired for sending an obnoxious joke over email and for bragging to friends about how they were slacking off on overtime. You never know who’s reading that stuff, so if it’s questionable, don’t write it down.

    Learn the culture – if your boss is habitually late, she may overlook it when you are…or she may be more of a stickler to overcompensate for her shortcomings.

    Treat coworkers with caution – while it’s possible to meet your best friend or future spouse at work, it’s also possible that someone you thought was a pal will throw you under the bus to draw attention from whatever they’re doing wrong. Since work is a source of income, it’s always better to be more cautious than you would be in the rest of the world.

  123. designbot*

    Don’t assume you’ll be able to communicate entirely through email/IM. A lot of younger people who are newer to the workplace do this thing where they try email, then if it doesn’t work, email again, and again… but never change their tactics despite not getting results. If you aren’t getting the answers you need over email, be ready to pick up the phone and call someone, or ask them when you pass them in the hall “hey did you see my email from Tuesday?” If those don’t work, be ready to schedule a meeting to get the answers you need to do your work.

  124. Dust Bunny*

    Look up “An Excessive Need to be Me”. The article is about being kind of a jerk at work because you think it’s Who You Are, but it applies to a lot of things: Dress, language, sense of humor, etc. The fact that I like graveyard humor and Doc Martens is irrelevant–that’s not who I get to be at work. Or, if it’s that important to me to be able to indulge these aspects of myself, I need to work somewhere that serves a different clientele. But sometimes you can’t have both the job and your undimmed-in-the-workplace self.

    (This has limits, of course, but if your employer wants you to do something dangerous, illegal, or unethical, then the answer is still, per the above, that you need to work somewhere else. For your own sake.)

  125. A*

    Your job (all jobs) are going to be doing some ridiculously old fashioned things when you start. You’ll wonder why these old people can’t just get on board with anything modern. Do NOT point this out to them in any sort of way unless you’ve been there at least six months. If you do so make sure you do it in a way of “I’ve noticed that our office is still making teapots this way. I believe that if we transitioned to making them this new way we could save both time and money for the company and here’s how. However, if we have a reason for making teapots this old way I completely understand.” People get stuck in ruts, companies don’t spend money on new tech or even training often so office jobs in a lot of fields are very slow to take on new ideas. It’ll drive you crazy because yeah, it is dumb and outdated but seriously do not think you can come in and shake things up. I learned this the hard way (wasn’t fired just was seen as bossy and probably annoying). Decades into working office jobs it still drives me insane, but now I have the seniority to have people actually listen to me even though we still don’t change often I at least know better now when to speak up and how to better do it.

  126. Alex Di Marco*

    1. Continue reading AAM.
    2. Talk to your family members and friends about their jobs.
    3. Ask questions when something is unclear.
    4. Once you have an internship or a job, ask if there are staff rules, guidelines. Read them.
    5. Be prepared to be surprised by people.
    (I could go on but if you’re already doing 1. you’ll be fine)

  127. Mama Bear*

    I agree with suggestions to observe and ask questions and remember you are there to learn something about how the world (at least via this company) works. Talk to your supervisor – they’re supposed to help you learn. My internship taught me things like how to network, how to set up a gala, and how to handle a business lunch. Most internships aren’t long, and if you know you’ll only be there for the summer, then don’t waste that time worrying about someone else’s sneakers. Something I tell my own daughter is don’t make the problem bigger than it is. In this case, there were several avenues they could have taken other than “nuke it from orbit.” If you take that track then the response may be just as nuclear when it need not be.

    I would also question what value they were getting from the internship if they spent that much effort on a proposal and petition about the dress code. What were they actually there to learn, paid or not? Remember, too, that some internships can be a ticket to a FT job. We often hire our interns, so the investment we make in the summer may weigh heavily in future employment considerations. I might not fire an intern over balking at a dress code, but I wouldn’t be quick to hire them later, either. That the OP asked and received an answer they didn’t like makes the petition even worse. This was not a hill to die on. I wouldn’t want interns trying to do an end run around me when I said no, and the firing may also have been as much about insubordination and respect (or perceived lack thereof). Treat people with respect and most will respect you back. Put the phone down, be on time and prepared when you arrive, wear appropriate clothing…that kind of thing. Good luck!

  128. animaniactoo*

    My list gleaned from reading here and my own life experience (in no particular order):

    1) Read the room as best you can. If someone is fairly busy or seems out of sorts, that’s just probably not a good time to ask for whatever you need unless it’s really urgent. Always be willing to come back later and leave time for the other person to have plowed through a bunch of stuff before you come back/remind someone/etc.

    2) If you have to remind someone of something you want a balance between 5 minutes after you asked and 5 minutes before it’s due – somewhere in the middle of that is your sweet spot for following up, especially if you think you may need to remind a 2nd time.

    3) Don’t feel that you have to defend every time you do something or are given a correction. Apologize for your mistakes calmly and quickly and state that you’ll make the corrections – and then do so as quickly as possible. Sometimes it will be worth explaining your thinking or why you did something, but most of the time it probably won’t be compared to just learning from it and not continually doing whatever it was you did.

    4) If you’re in over your head, say so and ask for help getting sorted out. Whether that’s a question of workload or not knowing where stuff is. Make a decent attempt at figuring it out yourself first, but don’t spend a bunch of time on it – go get the answers and be efficient about getting it completed.

    5) Do not take or make personal phone calls or texts except on your breaks during your first few months. Even then, keep it super limited unless you’re dealing with something that is urgent and then give your supervisor/boss a head’s up about it if your doing so is going to be generally visible or will last more than a day.

    6) Be organized – make sure your stuff is your responsibility and not somebody else’s because you weren’t organized about it and now it needs to get done.

    7) Think about the importance of things you raise. How well do you think it will be received? Who is it important to? You? The work you do in your job? The company? How important is it to each of those? If you don’t know, err on the side of leaving it alone until you have some more information.

    8) When you do raise something, remember that there’s capital behind it. You have to build up capital of “seriousness” and “reasonableness” by showing yourself to understand and respect what other people consider serious and reasonable. When you use some of your capital, you want it to count, so make sure that this is a thing that is important enough to you if it’s not going to be that important to others to spend that capital on it.

    9) Do not vent to your co-workers. Go home and do that. One-offs are fine at the office on occasion, as long as they are short. But for anything longer – if you can’t keep yourself from being aggravated and needing to talk about it, keep it out of the view of your company.

    10) Yes, sometimes your boss will be completely ridiculous about the way they want something as far as you are concerned. Don’t argue with them about it unless you REALLY have the standing to do so – and you won’t until you’re at least a year into the job. You can ask if there’s a reason not to do it X way or if X way would be okay – but if they tell you no/don’t want to explain… don’t push it, just do it the way they want it.

  129. VictorianCowgirl*

    Hi OP, it’s great that you’re prepping for this now since as you have seen the workplace is rife with unique situations. I don’t think that we can cover them all here. One thing I would like to stress is becoming comfortable with being kindly assertive and setting boundaries. Being able to stand up for yourself and advocate for yourself in a calm, professional and kind manner is – in my opinion – a priceless skill. You’ve likely noticed that a majority of the letters written in are by OPs who haven’t mastered this.

    I think a great way to do this is by binge reading the site to start. Alison has great scripts and once you start applying them, they come easily. Practice with friends and family!

    The commentariat has become somewhat aggressive as of late however in previous years there is much to glean from the comments as well, and not as many reactionary ones to sort through.

    Because you’re already focused on this, I think you’ll do great.

  130. LeighTX*

    One small suggestion: take a notebook and pen with you every time you meet with someone or attend a meeting. Even if you don’t end up needing to write anything down, it makes you seem (and feel!) prepared. Some offices may be okay with note-taking on your phone but that can give the wrong impression if someone doesn’t realize that’s what you’re doing–it looks like you’re not paying attention.

    And I agree with everyone else who has said if you’re unsure about directions or a task, ask!! I would much rather answer half a dozen questions than have to re-do something that was done incorrectly.

    1. Ariana Grande's Ponytail*

      On the other end of this, don’t bring your phone with you unless you have good reason to (i.e. expecting a call about your sick grandma, need to access an app related to work, etc.). Even just having your phone there indicates you are less focused, and even if you have coworkers who are using their phones, maybe they have a good reason (see above, also for example one of my coworkers has a kid in daycare that she needs to communicate with occasionally), so just generally assume you can make it the hour or whatever without it.

  131. Becky*

    As a few people pointed out above, there are things you are learning in your current job that you can take with you–such as being on time and in appropriate clothing for the job.

    Here are a few other things I can think of that you can learn or implement from your current job:
    1. Handling money – I don’t know how much you work with cash but it is always important to make sure you are scrupulously honest with anything to do with it.
    2. Admitting mistakes – if you make a mistake and can’t or don’t know how to correct it, or if it could have greater repercussions even though you fixed it, admit it immediately. I’m 35 years old and I made a mistake last week that I wasn’t sure how to fix. I immediately went to the manager who knew the most about it to tell him what had happened and ask how to fix it.
    3. Appropriate behavior – you mention there is some goofing off permitted. That’s fine! just make sure you use good judgement and by good judgement make sure the goofing off is nothing that could cause damage to property or person. Make sure that the goofing off stops immediately when there is a customer who needs assistance or (depending on the extent of the goofing off) is even present at all. Make sure the goofing off doesn’t involve crude/bad taste jokes, especially in customer hearing. And DON’T record shenanigans. If the gas station has cameras running–keep that in mind at all times.

    1. Clay on my apron*

      Also, think carefully about doing anything at all where your integrity could be called into question. For example, a family member of mine who worked in HR was formally disciplined for taking home (overnight) some gift vouchers that were for staff incentives*, because it was against the company’s financial policies to remove them from the premises and technically counted as theft.

      *She had received them at the end of the day and didn’t have time to put them in the safe. She put them in her handbag and brought them in the following day.

  132. Abogado Avocado*

    Let’s talk about what you should DO rather than focusing only on what you should not. It’s likely in many places that you’ll be starting in the lowest position in whatever office/place you work. So, please DO:
    (1) be open to learning all you can about all aspects of your job, even if some of them seem boring (like scanning) or servile (like making coffee) and internalize the important fact that ALL work is honorable;
    (2) be willing to learn all you can about your company/business so that you understand the big picture and where you fit in that picture;
    (3) perform your assigned tasks efficiently and well and you will stand out for not putting off boring or difficult work;
    (4) ask your supervisors every day how you can help them as that will mark you as a team player;
    (5) learn to take criticism from your bosses, especially if it’s about spelling, grammar, or how you interact with others on the job; and
    (6) learn to get along with your coworkers; you’re going to be spending more time with them than most of your family.

  133. Ariana Grande's Ponytail*

    As a young(er) woman, I want to recommend wearing appropriate clothing to YOUR job/field! Fashion magazines and websites will encourage all sorts of crazy, trendy stuff (culottes! stilettos with fancy shorts! a crop top with high waisted pants!), but keep in mind that the folks who write/publish this stuff a) want clicks and b) all work in creative professions where the workwear norms might be a little bit more relaxed than say, business, science, or finance. Plus, avoiding trendy stuff will save you money in the long run. Having a bunch of basics makes it easier to get dressed in the morning and means that it is unlikely your main pieces will ever go out of style.

    The piece of advice that has helped me to the most is to make sure you do not look like you are “playing dress up” for the job (I recognize that this is somewhat infantilizing of a statement, but the mental image helps me judge my outfits). Get a good pair of flats/dress shoes for men, reserve some of your clothes for only work situations (yes, everyone can tell when that is the same shirt you were wearing Saturday night), and don’t overdo the makeup/hair gel/jazzy socks. Do not wear heels, especially “going out” heels, to interviews or job fairs, or even in the beginning of your first job until you understand what other folks wear. Pants and a nice, ironed shirt will do with your nice flats/dress shoes. You are new to the working world, and you want to give off the impression that you understand your place and take yourself seriously.

    1. No Tribble At All*

      +1. It’s a good baseline to assume that no young woman on a TV show is dressed appropriately for an office environment.

    2. Batgirl*

      Yeah, a journalist colleague once wrote a great piece about how offices should not be filled with Girls Aloud (UK girl band) wannabes. Thing is, if you’re working class you’re pretty dependant on the media for non-overall dress up tips and that’s bad. Even those higher up the social scale struggle, a middle class intern complained she “looked like her mum” when she looked perfectly fine. It was simply a new look to her.

  134. ellis55*

    Two things a lot of my interns (and me) learned the hard way:
    1. Resist the urge to bond with others via common complaining. A little venting is normal but having complaining be the foundation of your closeness isn’t a great basis for friendships and also keeps you focused on the things that make you unhappy at work. The result? You’ll be unhappy at work. Also, the people who complain the most are usually in the wrong job (for them) and probably eventually going to decide to leave, amicably or not.
    2. WATCH what you put in writing. Text messages and e-mails and Skype can seem really private as a member of the social media generation, but they’re not. Never put anything online anywhere that you wouldn’t want your employer to read, even though that seems very unfair. Would you still feel so trusting of your friend if they felt slighted and passed over for a promotion that you received? Would you be panicking about what they could screenshot?
    3. When in doubt, be kind. People have to go to work even on their worst days, their sick days, the days they had to drive their parent to hospice, the days they went for a biopsy. You’re allowed to stand up for yourself, but I wish when I was younger I would realize how many times I would be not at my best at work and would need to dip into the well of understanding. Assume good intent whenever you can and try to avoid bean counting – favors tend to come back around eventually.
    4. Always come to a meeting about a problem with a proposed solution – it may not end up being what your supervisor will decide to do, but it definitely sets you apart to go the extra mile. You don’t want to overstep – don’t do a ton of work on a proposal before you get the green light – but you also don’t want to dump your problem in your boss’s lap. A good format is, “One thing I considered I could do is [x]. Did you want me to research what that would take cost and personnel-wise or should we handle it differently?”
    5. Google is your friend for basic office stuff. If I had a nickle for how many times I Googled something I didn’t know – like how to do a conditional format or a mail merge or any of those office skills you seem to need to know but no one really teaches you – I’d be rich.

    Good luck!

    1. Bee*

      This is such a good point. Complaint based bonding is suuuuper common in my experience and it’s easy to be sympathetic when something annoys you too but in my experience the people who spend the most time bitching could expend some more of that energy into finding solutions

  135. so many resumes, so little time*

    Make sure you talk to at least two people whenever you need a question answered or if someone is teaching you a process or procedure. I’ve been at workplaces where different people did things differently because they had been trained by different people. Sometimes that didn’t make a difference in the end and sometimes it did. If the usual process is A, then B, then C, but someone does A, then C, then B and gets away with that because they’ve been there for a while…well, a new person is unlikely to be cut that sort of slack, so you really need to learn that A, then B, then C is the correct process. It will keep you from getting yelled at or publicly embarrassed (both of which I’ve seen happen) and it will make sure that your work won’t be held up because you’re going back over steps you missed.

    Also, some people love to stir the pot. I have seen situations where one coworker complains so much that even when their complaints are valid, people ignore them. I have seen coworkers manipulate newcomers into complaining on their behalf–about things that either are not a problem or about things that the person has already been told are not going to change–which doesn’t make the second complainer look very good. I’ve seen people do end-runs around procedure because they don’t like the person in charge of the procedure; this tends to cause more work for everyone in the end.

    So always get at least two sources for everything, and if there are written how-tos, check them out.

    1. dance dance dance*

      Make sure you talk to at least two people whenever you need a question answered or if someone is teaching you a process or procedure.

      This only works if there are a ton of different people doing the thing and they all can have different ways of doing it. At my last few workplaces, anyone wanting to ask someone else about processes related to what I work on would end up sending me an e-mail. So in this situation, I’d tell Newbie “do it this way” and then I’d get an e-mail from the next room over saying “hey, Newbie wants to know how to do the thing, where can I find that documentation.”

      I’ve had enough people go to someone else when they didn’t like the answer I gave them, only to have that person route it back to me, that I find it amusing. But if it’s someone new in the office who asked me something, only to turn around and ask someone else to verify that what I told them is true, I’d have a very poor view on that new person.

      Generally, it’s safe to assume that the person teaching you the process or procedure knows how to do it.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Perhaps but it could also be that you’ve been in much bigger places than dance dance dance has been!

          There are places where there are multiple people doing the same procedures over and over again, I’m thinking something like a big office with a dozen data entry clerks or customer service representatives. Then it’s totally understandable for Newbie to be taught by Jane who’s the one who got tasked with training Newbie, to then ask Joanie for clarification to go over a procedure.

          However in my case, I do [many different random tasks]. So if I teach you how to say input check payments for customers, I’m literally the only one who can do that for you. If you then turn and ask someone else, they’ll look at you like you have six heads and tell you to go ask me! I’m also the default answer for anyone who doesn’t know something, including the boss to go to so that I can at least figure out where you should be looking for something, so it’s like all roads lead to this lady right here in some cases ;)

          I’ve never worked anywhere that multiple people could be asked much but I know they exist! So you just have to be aware of the setup in terms of “do multiple people handle these reports or is it just the person who trained me].

    2. Clay on my apron*

      I would rather advise that you find out from your supervisor, who the correct source of information is. Especially at first. When you have been there longer, you can say “oh, I see you’re doing it this way, I was shown a different way”. But as a newbie, if you ask Person 2 when Person 1 already showed you, you could end up with 2 conflicting answers and then you still don’t know what to do. Plus it will annoy Person 1 who will assume that you either don’t believe them or weren’t listening properly.

    3. nnn*

      At a minimum, I’d say that depends on who the sources are. If you have one clear supervisor, or one specific person who is your designated trainer, it would look bad to be constantly checking what they’ve already told you with other people.

  136. blue*

    On your first day or two, ask your boss who they suggest you go to for regular advice. Introduce yourself to that person or persons, buy them a coffee, and consider them a trusted mentor/advisor. This is a good way to know who the right people are to trust right off the bat. Think Draco Malfoy and “I can spot the right sort for myself, thanks.” The vultures will try to get to you quickly.

    Shut up, listen, and take everything in. Don’t act before you think.

    Don’t volunteer for everything. Be choosy, and consider the things that will make new connections, develop new skills, or create new projects.

    Don’t be obnoxious. That is, mind your own business, don’t play loud music, talk about your sex life or medical situations, make gross noises or stinky smells, ask intrusive questions, suck up, talk about people’s food choices, or play boss’ pet. Clean up after yourself and keep your workspace neat.

    Don’t ever put anything in an email you wouldn’t want your mother or boss to see.

    Don’t date your coworkers.

    Don’t complain about your job or coworkers.

    Be nice (friendly), but not a doormat and not anyone’s BFF.

    Don’t ask for special treatment (obviously ADA accommodations aside)

    There ARE stupid questions. Anyone who says there aren’t is either stupid or lying. Questions that are stupid are ones that have already been answered but you didn’t read or listen to the presented information the first time, or you were late for the meeting. So when you have a question first check the information you’ve already been given. Then ask.

    Call people what they want to be called. You can usually recognize this by how they introduce themselves or sign emails. Don’t call them James if they introduce themselves as Jim, and don’t call her Ms. Smith if she introduces herself to you as Jane. However, if everyone calls Jane Ms. Smith because that’s the culture, do that. [I work for a slew of medical doctors. They all sign and introduce using their first name, but they culture is that they are all always Dr. So-and-so.]

    When you make a mistake (and when mistakes are pointed out to you), do.not.explain. It doesn’t matter. Don’t whine, cry, justify, or reason. It doesn’t matter. Just say, “thank you,” do what you are told and move on. They aren’t criticizing *you,* they’re criticizing the product of whatever process and need you to fix it.

    When you know that something is going to be a problem – you won’t make a deadline, you told someone the wrong thing, you mailed a shipment to the wrong address, you ran the copies for the meeting upside down, you turned on the teapot machine instead of the llama machine – do at least one thing to try to fix it yourself first, and if that doesn’t work, alert your boss immediately. Say, “The X isn’t going to be done correctly because I messed up Y. I’ve already tried Z and it didn’t work. What should I do?” This is scary and awkward – but everyone screws up. Taking responsibility for screwing up and getting help to fix it before it explodes is what separates the kids from the grownups.

    HR is not your mommy/best friend. They work for the company, not you. Don’t tattle about minor personal grievances.

    Dress at the same level as the people who are one rung above you. Not five rungs, and not at. Keep a clean shirt in your office/locker for when you spill strawberry smoothie or spaghetti sauce.

    Once you gain even a little bit of political goodwill/power use it to help those who need it.

    This isn’t Survivor. Don’t gossip, backstab, form cliques, or make enemies or BFFs.

    If you’re female, don’t:
    offer to make/get coffee or snacks for others
    bring in homemade baked goods
    let anyone tell you what or how to eat
    let men talk over/interrupt you. cut those bitches off
    offer to or agree to make copies, take notes, answer phones for others (unless those things are specifically in your job description)

  137. Jerk Store*

    One thing that caught up with me when I started working in offices and what I have observed from young people in offices that differs from school and the cashier and retail jobs that I had was that the rules aren’t black and white. People won’t necessarily tell you, “You can’t do X”, they will just think to themselves that you are unprofessional.

    When I worked as a cashier and in retail, my boss or the shift supervisor would tell me things like, Your break is over, you need to sweep the backroom now while it’s slow, you can’t sit on the counter in between customers, you can’t spend 15 minutes gabbing with your friends when they come in, etc. In an office, if you are told your lunch is half an hour, you are expected to be at your desk working around that time. Your boss isn’t going to go in the break room to tell you lunch time is over. In many professional offices, people are going to think you’re odd if you sit on cabinets and tables or on the floor, but most likely no one will tell you “can’t”.

    The way you complete work is different. In high school and college, if a teacher/professor assigns something on Monday that’s due Friday, they don’t care when you work on it as long as you get it done in time. In most professional jobs, if your boss assigns a project on Monday that she doesn’t need completed until Friday and you have no assigned work to do on Tuesday, you need to work on that project that’s not due until Friday.

  138. Robin Ellacott*

    Like many others, I’d say it boils down to: approach work as if you are aware there’s a lot you won’t know yet and being willing to listen and learn. Keep a mindset of observing and trying to understand. Understand that people who have been there a while have more “credit” and can do things someone new probably can’t, so test the waters cautiously.

    Assume that there is probably a reason things are done the way they are, and if something doesn’t make sense to you ask about it in that spirit. Even if there isn’t a good reason, as A mentions above, it might not be so easy to change or may just be a low priority for them compared with other things. It should be ok to ask about how/why things are done, just do it in a spirit of interest, and only when you have some knowledge about the process.

    Work hard not to telegraph that you think you know better or are better than others. We just had a new employee describe a much more challenging role she clearly does not understand as “boring stuff she was doing years ago” and it just made her look unobservant, entitled, and unlikely to be suitable for the responsibility she clearly wants. I was considering offering her some more advanced work, and now I’m not.

    In general, do your job with good grace. Act like being there is not an imposition (be on time, don’t complain about how long the day/week feels, try to be cheerful and willing). If someone rolls their eyes, sighs, complains, and so on when asked to do something, even if they then go on to do it well it will really affect how people see them. Sometimes tasks are outside your job description but still reflect well on the person who is happy to pitch in.

    Don’t be afraid to ask questions but take notes and work to remember what you have been shown, so you don’t usually have to ask over and over about the same things. Be appreciative of the time people put into showing you things, but it shouldn’t feel like you have to grovel when you need something.

    Don’t engage with negativity. Even if senior staff are complaining or gossiping, just keep an “I’m too new to have noticed anything like that/they seem nice to me” tone. Long-term staffers know what they can get away with and with whom – a newbie doesn’t and will be judged much more harshly.

    Usually, it’s best to keep the overlap between your personal and work life minimal… don’t share too much, minimize personal calls at work, and so on. It’s another area where (unfairly) more senior people can blur lines more than a new employee can get away with.

    If you find yourself in a truly toxic or crazy workplace, try to look at it from a “wow, people are interesting and weird, let me observe them” headspace. And then get out if you can!

    Good luck – you’ll do great! Anyone who asks and cares about how to present themselves is definitely on track. :)

    1. Clay on my apron*

      “Long-term staffers know what they can get away with and with whom” – also, some senior staff have an agenda that you know nothing about and that you almost certainly do not want to get involved in.

  139. Susana*

    LW, the fact that you’re asking is a great sign already! As for dress code.. that’s easy. First, nothing wrong with asking, but also, take a look at others in the office and figure out how to dress *like* them, but still appropriate to your age and position. If you’re an intern in an office, you don’t need to wear a Chanel suit because the CEO does. But it probably means a nice skirt and blouse, something like that.
    As for that petition… well, good general advice is not to overstep your station. And yes, I know it’s hard to know what that is. But basically, it means asking what a policy is – and asking (respectfully) what the goal of the policy is – NOT staging an insurrection to undo it.
    Honestly, I get the sense you have good instincts. I’m sure you’ll do well!

  140. Heffalump*

    Be careful about joking around, even if the joking isn’t sexually tinged. As a former grade school and high school class clown, I had toned things down a fair amount by the time I entered the work world, but I needed to tone it down some more. Fortunately I had a manager who told me in a reasonable manner why I was out of line and what I should do going forward.

  141. No Tribble At All*

    Again, you’re already ahead of the curve for reading AAM in high school!

    One thing I’ll add: computer use. If your professional job provides you with a computer, assume that everything you do on it will be logged and/or monitored. Don’t use your personal social media, etc, on the work laptop, even if you’re on a break from work. Don’t be googling weird stuff on your work laptop. It’s not your laptop; it’s loaned to you for office use.

  142. Zapthrottle*

    My advice to anyone looking for workplace insight is (and has always been), “big ears, small mouth”.

    That’s not to say that I’m as quiet as a mouse, quite the opposite, actually. But I always listen more than I speak, ask questions (and listen to the answers) before I initiate something, and I always, always abide by this, taken from Davy Crockett, “Be sure you are right — then go ahead.”

    If it isn’t clear to me what the right path is, the I believe that I’m not in possession of all the facts, don’t have complete information OR there’s misinformation somewhere- I will sift through everything until I arrive at the right path, then I proceed accordingly. :)

  143. Sleepy*

    One issue I’ve seen our interns run into is applying a mentality that works well in school to their internship. For example:

    – The perfectionist–someone who is used to getting perfect scores on everything and has a hard time adapting to a workplace where certain tasks do not need to be done to perfection, because they are not a valuable use of time. Even when told the task does not need to be perfect, they think they will stand out by doing it perfectly. This person wastes time by spending way too long on small, insignificant tasks. For example, an intern I worked with put off revising a rather insignificant report (which needed to be finished more than it needed to be brilliant) because she was having trouble thinking of synonyms for certain words.

    – Conversely, the person who wants their work to be good-enough but doesn’t care about getting all the way there. In school, good-enough is totally fine. This person gets about 85% or 90% of the way through a task and calls it good, even on tasks that need to be completed 100%. For example, I had an intern who was in charge of placing lunch orders for our youth participants. Each day, she seemed to order something that missed some participants’ dietary needs. Yes, about 90% or more of the people were fed–but having some people with nothing to eat really isn’t okay.

    In a workplace, you need to be able to adjust to the level of effort and accuracy that different tasks deserve. It’s okay to ask your supervisor to help you prioritize and figure out how to spend your time.

    1. Clay on my apron*

      This is really important and I’ve seen even fairly experienced colleagues struggle with “good enough” and “what’s needed right now” aka “fit for purpose”.

      If you’re asked to put together an agenda for a meeting, you’re unlikely to take it through the copywriting and graphic design department, and have it printed on cardstock. Because you know what an agenda will be used for.

      Sometimes your assumptions about the purpose, audience or longevity of something is incorrect and you produce something that’s not fit for purpose. If you put together a presentation about challenges faced by Llama Groomers and the opportunities this presents for Llamas Inc, you need to know who the audience is and what the presenter wants to achieve. If it’s your business strategy team, and you want budget to do further research, that’s a different presentation than if it’s the LLama Professionals Association and you’re hoping to partner with them.

      Don’t make assumptions and always know the timelines and priorities of what you’ve been asked to do.

  144. Oaktree*

    Err on the side of too formal rather than not formal enough. Google “dress code for [type of place you’re working]” to get a sense of what to wear.

    Assume all your internet use can be monitored. (It can.) It’s unlikely your history/activity online will be looked at, but be discreet about any non-work-related usage, and always use an incognito browser. (This will not actually protect you, but it’s a best practice not to have your personal gmail, twitter, and facebook kicking around in your Chrome history.)

    Better to look ignorant than to make big mistakes- ask questions about typical lunch lengths (is the norm an hour? a half hour? do you have to clock out or note this time on a timesheet?). Pay attention to what other interns or lower-level employees do with regards to short coffee breaks- is that a done thing? Or do you have to clock out for 15 minutes to go get a pop or a cup of tea?

    Leave the house with enough time to get to work 15 minutes early.

    Find out what food is available in the vicinity of the office, and if there’s none or it’s all too expensive, get good at meal prep. (Budget Bytes is great for this.)

    Keep a notebook and make notes of anything you observe that seems important, and be ready to take notes in any meetings you’re invited to.

    If you’re cc’d on an email, but you’re not addressed in the body of the email, don’t reply all, even if you think you know the answer to the question/problem or have some “helpful input”. Chances are you’re being copied as a courtesy so you’re in the loop- your input is probably not required or desired.

    That’s all I can think of for now! Good on you for realizing that this stuff isn’t always that intuitive, and keep reading the blog.

  145. Oblique Fed*

    Based on my experiences:

    Show an appropriate amount of initiative and confidence. Don’t make your boss hold your hand through every tiny thing, but also don’t just go full steam ahead without checking in.
    When you ask someone a question, get right to the point. If you need to do a bunch of background, make an appointment with them, don’t just stick your head in and interrupt them.
    Prepare for meetings. All meetings. Review the agenda and think about the topics. Think about how the topics relate to your work.
    Don’t be afraid to ask questions like “Do I have an action item from this, or is this more just information I need for context?”
    If you call a meeting, you need to have an agenda, even if it’s just written down in your notebook for an informal thing.
    At the end of a meeting, save time to do a quick review. “So I wrote down that Bob is going to email Purchasing about that invoice tomorrow, and Trinh is going to draft the slides by the 28th, and I am going to get the updated template from the communications office by the end of the day and send it out to the group. Did I miss anything?”
    Note: do actually write that stuff down. If you do this and then refer back to it and actually do the things you will be at least 75% of the way toward being a reliability superstar in your office.
    Related: always bring a notebook and a pen to a meeting.
    About notes: you will often be asked to take notes for meetings when you are new. You usually don’t need to record every word, or every point in a debate; you need to capture decisions and action items.
    Don’t interrupt large meetings or big boss presentations with questions that derail the agenda; record your question for later and follow up in private (with your supervisor, peer mentor, etc.)
    Ask questions like “Can you explain why we do it this way?” and pay attention.
    Bring things to their supervisor’s attention as soon as you know there is a conflict/mistake/error
    When you bring your supervisor a problem, be able to talk about what you already tried, or that you’ve thought of two potential solutions but don’t know which would be best – show that you are thinking about the issue
    Don’t try to hide it when you make a mistake or fall behind. You will get cut slack for making mistakes, but not for making a mistake, covering it up while frantically trying to fix it, and having your project crash and burn when everything could have been avoided if you’d fessed up three weeks ago.
    It’s always better to ask than to assume wrong (“Do I need to be prepared to speak to X at this meeting?” “Did you want me to start on that project now or are we waiting until the fall?” I’m not sure I understand this assignment, did you mean XYZ or ABC?”)
    But also – choose your moments; don’t take up meeting time with things that you could handle one on one later.
    Your supervisor should never be surprised when someone else at work tells them something about you or your projects. You need to be keeping them informed about major developments.
    If you aren’t sure what rises to the “tell your supervisor” level, ASK YOUR SUPERVISOR. “Would you prefer I come to you with issues like this, or should I deal with it myself?”

  146. 30 Years in the Biz*

    “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz works well as a foundation for professionalism and success at work. They are:
    1) Be impeccable with your word. ”Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.”
    2) Don’t make assumptions. ”Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”
    3) Don’t take anything personally. ”Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”
    4) Always do your best. ”Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.”
    #2 is always challenging for me!
    As mentioned previously, being a good listener and dressing professionally for your industry are also important.

  147. Jspock*

    #1 tip that helped me transition into the professional word: read “How to Win Friends and Influence People”

    Cannot overstate that book’s value.

  148. Clay on my apron*

    You’ve made an excellent start by reading AAM and asking the question! :)

    Understand the essential nature of a workplace, and why you are there. You are an autonomous adult, who has “contracted” (there isn’t always a contract in place) to provide a service for and in the best interests of your employer. That should guide many of your decisions. You owe them your best work and appropriate behaviour, they owe you acceptable working conditions and a salary. If you don’t have enough work to do, ask for more. If you’re not doing enough to earn your salary, someone will notice at some point.

    They get to make the rules, but if you find those rules contradict your own rules or values, you get to leave. If at any point it’s not working out, and things can’t be resolved in a constructive way, it’s perfectly fine to gracefully exit the arrangement. It’s not a family, you are not a dependent child, they are not doing you a favour by giving you a job. You don’t need to put up with verbal abuse, arbitrary changes to your working hours or not being allowed to use your benefits. However, not getting an increase after 6 months and not being given more challenging work based on your own assessment of your capabilities, is not a reason to resign, without getting a second opinion.

    Your workplace is somewhere to establish your professional reputation and develop your skills. It’s not an opportunity to establish your individuality (industry dependent, of course). Fit in as much as necessary, so that your colleagues will think of you as “that person who delivered the amazing presentation” and not “the one with the green hair”. Once you’ve established a solid professional reputation you can decide whether you still want the green hair.

    It’s not the place to focus your social life and your colleagues should not be your closest friends (this is a grey area especially in your first few jobs). Do not blur the boundaries so that you’d treat some colleagues differently than others.

    Do not gossip or complain about your colleagues and think it will stay a secret. It won’t. I’m about to have a conversation with two colleagues who gossiped about me in front of a supplier, who felt uncomfortable and told me about it. Unfortunately for them, the lasting impression is one of unprofessionalism.

    If you aren’t sure about something, or are concerned, voice it to the appropriate person in a constructive way. Don’t complain to someone else and hope for the best. I have another colleague, very new, who told someone, “Clay isn’t giving me enough work, I’m not even sure why I’m here” – Someone pointed out that she needed to TELL me if her work was finished, rather than trying to look busy.

    I think you’ll be absolutely fine, OP, because you’re actually thinking about this and asking questions. It took me a really long time to figure out that there was professional behaviour and I wasn’t doing it ‍♀️

  149. pegster*

    Lots of great advice here. At risk of repeating some, here’s what I’ve found helped:

    1) develop a work persona. Depending on your personality, this is probably a politer, quieter, more focused version of yourself. I find this helps distance yourself a bit from emotional investment in work issues (which can often lead to problems, as this website illustrates), and helps you take feedback in the way it is intended: to help you do your job, not as a personal attack. This may not work for all people in all jobs, and may seem a bit odd at first, but it definitely helped me.

    2) especially at the start of a new job, write everything down. It may feel strange, but honestly most people will be thinking to themselves “wow, I wish I had done that when I started”. It makes you look proactive and avoids repeatedly asking questions – you’ll be overwhelmed with information at the start and this is a record of where to look. Even write things down you’re pretty sure you’ll remember such as every single step in a computer program or process.

    3) own your mistakes as soon as you learn of them. Mistakes happen and you help limit the fallout if you let everyone know right away. People are much more likely to forgive if you let them know instead of them finding out after the fact. Your goal is to help the company not make yourself feel better by pretending it didn’t happen.

    4) if you make mistakes come up with a plan on how to not repeat that mistake: new procedure, reminders, whatever. Let your manager know you’ve done this, ask if they have additional suggestions, and stick to it. Improve or change if new mistakes occur.

    5) stay in your lane. Unless someone else’s work is directly affecting your work, try not to get involved.

  150. Betty*

    One thing I haven’t noticed mentioned (but I may have missed) is to carry a small notebook when you first start somewhere. You’ll have a lot of things explained to you, from how to work the photocopier to the procedure for producing a report. People will be very happy to explain things to you the first time, understanding when they explain it the second time, and increasingly hacked off the third time onwards. (I’m not talking about clarifying questions or double checking one bit – I mean going through the whole thing from scratch with you again.) When people explain a process or piece of equipment, say “I’d just like to write this down so I’m sure I’ll remember.” People will be grateful and you’ll make fewer mistakes.

  151. Laughing Alone with Salad*

    Know that it can difficult, even for non-newbies, to distinguish between toxic work environments, differences in office cultures that are neither good or bad, and environments that are reasonably healthy but aren’t great for you individually. This blog is really good for helping make those distinctions. Two things I’d add:

    1) Look for the people who are respected by just about everyone and who is never involved in drama. Emulate that person, with adjustments for differences in position. There’s an article about there called “Find Your Marigold” which is for new teachers, but has a lot of crossover, that I’d really recommend. It’s called this because (apparently) when you plant a marigold near other plants, it can be really helpful for the growth and protection of these plants.

    2) You want to build capital in case you need it. Coming in on time, consistently dressing towards the more formal norm for that environment, making sure they know your focus is on working hard/being thorough/double checking for accuracy/etc. and not on getting out as soon as you can, holding off on requests for exceptions/flexibility until you need it, etc., will help. Once you’ve proved to folks that you’re competent and reliable, you can have more freedom to do things like dress down, ask for leeway, etc., because they know you’re an asset and that you’re going to make sure everything that needs to be done will be.

  152. Fabulous*

    Along the dress code theme… Always dress a little more professionally than you think you need to, especially in your first few days. Remember that clubwear is not officewear. If you would wear it to church, you would probably be OK to wear it to the office. You don’t need to wear a suit to an interview (unless it’s in a conservative field), slacks and a blouse/cardigan or a modest dress is fine, or khakis and button down/collared shirt.

    Similarly, one office’s dress code isn’t going to be the same as another’s. Some offices are more relaxed than others,. Business casual in one place may allow jeans or sneakers, another won’t. Some offices want your shoulders to be covered and some don’t care. Watch what other people are wearing and take cues from them. Also read the HR handbook if you want specifics. But a general rule for ALL offices regardless of their code is no underwear showing.

  153. LQ*

    Find a good way to be you, but professional you. For me I think of this very much like clothes.
    I wouldn’t wear the same clothes on a hot date as to family holiday as to watching movies at my place with a friend as to watching movies at my place with myself. You want to be you at work, but you’re going to want to find a good way to be a professional version of you and make sure that the professional version aligns with who you are and what your values are.

    Don’t think that you have to be able to be the exact same you with your friends as you are at work, I think that way lies dragons and isn’t good for you. It also means you can’t take off your work you as easily. Thinking of the work version of you as a set of clothes that you put on, it’s still you, but a slightly different presentation. (A little of this is beware the trap of “authentic” you as if you are immutable and can never change. Being you and adapting to what is around you is important.)

  154. ExceptionToTheRule*

    If you made it this far down you’ve read a lot of really great advice. Here’s a couple of related pieces: 1) don’t be defensive when given feedback or constructive criticism; 2) if someone corrects how you’re doing something – don’t argue about it unless there is a safety issue. If you need additional clarification, seek it from your direct manager/supervisor until you get the lay of the land. IE: “Bob told me X but Bob’s supervisor told me Y. Who should I listen too?”

  155. Rainbow Roses*

    Keep your ears open but don’t believe or repeat(!) information until you here anything official straight from the higher-ups.

  156. Argh!*

    If you can do some job shadowing with the type of employee you want to be, you can ask those questions. A lot of decorum issues are specific to an industry and sometimes to a particular workplace.

    But for starters, you can assume that anything that would get you expelled from school would get you fired from a job. Anything that would cause you to have to re-take a course would probably get you a warning. The equivalent of a low G.P.A. would be a low evaluation score, which could result in a performance improvement plan, which is the equivalent of academic probation.

    One thing to keep in mind is that many supervisors and managers really don’t know how to manager or supervise. That would include holding you to account for first & second infractions, so it’s best not to have a second infraction if possible.

  157. Anonym*

    I know this will be buried all the way at the bottom, but it’s worth saying: the skills listed in this thread and those on the site in general (observation, listening, asking instead of assuming, kindness + boundaries, et al) will serve you not just at work, but in life in general.

    The learning I’ve done here has not only strengthened my career and made me a better employee, it’s also made me more insightful, a better friend and a better member of my community. I wish the same for you, OP, and I’m sure you’re going to be great wherever you put this energy, thoughtfulness and attention!

  158. GreenDoor*

    When you’re newer and your not sure, ask! And I mean, ask someone with actual authority. I wouldn’t think twice if a less-experienced worker came to me and asked, “Lots of places do “causual Friday”…is it OK for me towear jeans?” I got the e-vite to the summer picnic. What kinds of activities typically happen? How should I dress? May I bring my signifcant other?”

    ANd if said worker pled a bit of ignorance, I’d find it both charming and responsible. So, “I feel silly asking this, but I honestly don’t know how X works here….” or “I’m getting mixed messges on Y and I want to make sure I”m handling Y right….”

  159. Beancounter Eric*

    Some thoughts from a middle-aged manager:

    1. Don’t assume – ask. This ties in with “The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask”…..I’d rather my team ask questions, than assume or guess, and make mistakes.
    2. Pay attention.
    3. Details matter.
    4. Learn constantly.
    5. Be flexible.
    6. A notebook and a pen are your friend – use them!! Take notes and refer back to them.
    7. You don’t have to be friends with your co-workers; you do need to be friendly.
    8. Dress appropriately – and don’t be afraid to ask HR what’s appropriate. In fact, don’t be afraid to ask questions of HR about the overall culture of the company.

    and finally,

    9. The company exists to create wealth for it’s owners/investors. Making/selling a product or delivering a service is the means toward that end.

    Forget this at your own peril.

    1. Krabby*

      I second the ‘take notes’ part, even if you have a near-photographic memory. I have so much more sympathy re-teaching something I’ve already taught to someone if they diligently took notes the first time. It’s a lot of information, I understand if you can’t retain it, but if you aren’t taking notes then I’m assuming you didn’t even try.

  160. Noah*

    It’s worth noting that I don’t think most companies that hire high school interns would have fired that same group of interns if they were high school students rather than college students.

    One thing you’ll figure out quickly is that you pick this stuff up when you get out in the world. It is highly weird and troubling that a large group of college students had not picked this up (or that only a few had and were afraid to act on it). High school students would not be held to as high an expectation. Frankly, part of what made that letter so weird and off putting was that the OP was a college student who sounded like they had learned nothing (including communication style) since high school. The fact that you’re even asking this question means that probably will not be you.

    tl;dr: you’re in high school and not expected to know anything. You’re curious, so you’ll pick it up on college. Total lack of comprehension by college students, like the dress code group, is rare.

  161. Krabby*

    My advice would be to ask your manager (ha!). 2-3 weeks in (or after you’ve made an obvious error, whichever comes first), go talk to them. Say, “Since I’m new to corporate workplaces I’m finding I need a little extra guidance in certain areas, such as [writing more professional emails]. I would really appreciate any feedback you have on how I could improve there. Can I set up a monthly/bi-weekly meeting with you to go over that and any other areas you want me to improve?” This has the added benefit of building a regular feedback loop if your manager isn’t already providing it.

    Trust me, your manager will be much happier taking 15-20 minutes every few weeks to help you improve, rather than having to explain to the CEO why you reply-alled the yearly holiday party invite with a meme about butt-chugging (true story).

  162. Goose Lavel*

    Besides all the good advice from the above posts, I also recommend getting a copy of Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. Athough it’s an old book, reading it and applying its techniques will take you far in the Working World.

  163. Ruthless Professional*

    Please remember that your coworkers are not your friends! Set boundaries with coworkers but always be warm and pleasant. Separating your personal and professional life will really help.

  164. Oh So Anon*

    In school, you’re often expected to “show your work” when solving a problem so that you can show that you understand the process and to get partial marks if you get the final solution wrong. In the workplace, “showing your work” by explaining your process in response to being told to correct something can be construed as defensive, even when you don’t mean to be that way. It may seem ridiculous, but it’s a thing that annoys even the types of managers who typically assume good faith.

    The first things you want to get across when you receive feedback are that you’re thankful for the feedback and that you’ll correct whatever mistake you made. Those things show that you’re coachable; if you start off with explaining yourself that message might get lost. Remember that even if you make a mistake, you don’t need to prove to your manager that you’re smart or thoughtful by explaining your intent. Your manager’s objective when correcting you is to make sure the work gets done properly, so you want to respond in a way that shows that you are willing to do that as efficiently as possible. Especially when it comes to minor things like, I dunno, font choices or something, it wastes everyone’s time to launch into an explanation of why you made a particular choice.

    That doesn’t mean that you should feel afraid to ask for clarification about how you’re working through something. It’s just that timing and clear communication is important. If you’re someone who likes to work through a process out loud, wait to think about the feedback you received, and then ask your manager for clarification.

  165. new kid*

    I have to disagree with some of the advice here around ‘do what you’re told without question because you don’t have the context’ – questioning processes is exactly how you get that context! Maybe it’s a personality thing, but I’m never able to learn anything unless I can connect it to the ‘why’. You may not agree with that ‘why’ and that’s where the advice to lay low and observe for awhile before trying to propose changes makes sense to me, but just questioning why things are done the way they are isn’t a bad thing imo (maybe some of this depends on tone? you want to be neutrally interested, not adversarial)

    Also, set appropriate work life balance boundaries for yourself and do so early on. If you answer one email on a Saturday morning, then you’ve set the expectation that you answer emails on Saturday mornings. If that’s the only way to advance in your industry/company then you can consider your actions accordingly, but it’s easier to set a hard line early and then ease up on it later than to let yourself be run ragged and try to set harder boundaries later on.

    1. Oh So Anon*

      You’re right that it’s about tone, but it’s also about timing. Asking why is fine so long as you’re neutrally interested, not adversarial, and also not doing it in direct response to being asked to do something or correct something you did before. I also like to be able to understand process and ask questions, but it’s important to show that you’re not doing it to stall or avoid doing something.

      1. Alexander Graham Yell*

        When I want to understand why something is being done and am not challenging it, just need to understand so that everything sticks properly in my head, I ask about what it affects down the line. So if I’m being told to do something and I don’t understand why, I’ll ask what it impacts or what happens if I make a mistake (since we’re all human and we make mistakes, especially when we’re learning). This way I can piece together the larger process, understand what parts of it I impact, and who will be working with what I’m producing (and therefore who I might need to keep in the loop at some point).

        1. Oh So Anon*

          I really like that way of framing a “why” question. It shows that you understand that you don’t need the whole story (including things that aren’t really part of your job scope), but just the details that connect to your work. It’s conscientious without being…inquisitive.

          1. new kid*

            What’s so terrible about being inquisitive though? I agree with your response above thread that the timing is important and you should be conscious of that in general and in training especially (ie. your coworkers/manager are taking time from their own work to get you up to speed so respect and be mindful of that), but I feel like people who are generally annoyed with questions are those who don’t have good answers and/or don’t want to think about the answer. Claiming someone doesn’t need to understand the bigger picture to do their direct job always feels like such a cop out to me. This isn’t a two year old responding to everything with ‘why?’ because it’s their favorite new word, it’s a professional adult trying to learn the ropes and understand the larger context of a new position.

            1. Oh So Anon*

              So, I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve managed entry-level employees at one point and I was more than happy to answer their questions. That said, I’m also someone who, at the beginning of my career, got a lot of flack for either asking questions too much or asking them the wrong way. I also thought it was a cop out (and yes, sometimes it is), but sometimes it’s legitimate criticism.

              There’s nothing wrong with wanting to know all the things, but there’s good inquisitive, and bad inquisitive. Good inquisitive is being curious about how your work connects to the bigger picture. It also includes prioritizing what you need to know to effectively get something done. I can give you the entire origin story of a project, but a lot of the details are no longer relevant to present-day circumstances because of organizational changes or something else. That’s not something a new employee has the context to know.

              Bad inquisitive includes a bunch of things that demonstrate that someone’s not great at reading context. Tone and timing issues play into this, but it also includes asking questions about things you have insufficient professional experience or organizational context to evaluate. Like when we do things a certain way due to personnel or stakeholder-related reasons (for example, when a process is done in a cumbersome way because its owner doesn’t have the technical skills to do it differently and investing in their upskilling for this isn’t a priority for us) I’m not giving a new employee a fulsome answer because of discretion.

              I find this challenging to articulate, but some questions are ones that don’t have particularly good answers beyond “it’s our convention”. For those kinds of questions…before you begin to ask the question, I think it’s important to consider these two questions:
              (1) Would doing things differently be of any benefit? If so, lead with that.
              (2) Is this something that I or the person I’m asking this question to can put into action? If you’re asking a question that leads to *you* doing something differently without changing the effect of the final product, then that’s fantastic. If you’re asking a question about trying to change someone else’s work process…

              Another way bad inquisitive shows up is when someone doesn’t “bundle” their questions. Sometimes if you sit with your questions for a bit and keep working through a problem, you’ll answer your questions yourself. Another is when someone can’t just “trust the process” of incremental learning. This is something that comes up when I’m teaching someone a system. We might be on Step 3, and they ask me a question that they will need proficiency in Steps 3-15 to understand the answer to. You’re eager to learn, that’s cool, but if I say that that’s an advanced task that we probably shouldn’t jump forward to yet, don’t keep pushing with questions. The answer will make a lot more sense soon.

              You’d be surprised – there are folks who do ask “why” questions like, well, toddlers. It’s not common, but they’re out there. This is just a very long way of saying that some people’s flavour of being inquisitive tends towards a lack of patience in allowing themselves to learn organically through doing and observation.

              I hope this is helpful somehow, to someone. I can see things from the perspective of the newbie who asks too much as well as the manager who wants to encourage self-sufficiency, diplomacy, and good problem-solving skills.

      2. Mary Richards*

        And also, with regards to timing, not when something is super urgent! Sometimes, it’s worth doing now and asking later.

    2. BigRedGum*

      YES! set boundaries. Honestly, i try to never ever ever volunteer to do things outside of my 8 – 5. i’ll volunteer for other things, but if you become the person who is always available, you’ll be expected to be always available.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Setting boundaries is a tricky balance because by not making yourself readily available, you miss out on impressing people as well. So sure, if your goal is to just get into the industry, stay comfortable and stay within a sphere, then you don’t need to really go out of your way too much. That’s completely fine as well!

      However if your goal is even remotely to climb any ladders, just about anywhere, deciding weekends and your break time is all yours is going to do you a great disservice in the end. It’s unfair and annoying in a lot of ways but it’s how you create careers. You just have to know when to pull that plug as well. If you’re responding rapidly and being the go-to person and they are treating you like a stepping stone instead of someone who is a valued asset to them, hard-pass and don’t keep investing your time there.

      Also I do agree that asking why is all about the tone and should be done if it helps you learn the processes better. I’m all for questions but it has to be in the proper time and not like an interrogation.

  166. Oh So Anon*

    Another thing: It is not necessarily “tattling” nor “a** kissing” to discuss problems with a colleague with your manager. There will be times when a colleague’s actions make it difficult for you to do *your* job (e.g. they don’t deliver on timelines you depend on, they don’t show up to meeting you need them to be at, they don’t pull their weight on a shared task, they’re being condescending to you). Sometimes you can resolve these issues on your own with your colleague. Sometimes it makes sense to get your manager involved, particularly when the other person involved is senior to you.

    That said, there are boundaries that you should expect your manager to have in these kinds of discussions, such as:
    -Gossiping about your colleague’s personal problems
    -Making commentary on their personality or quirks
    -Discussing your colleague’s performance issues with you or any other HR-related matters

    Their focus in these discussions needs to be on the behaviours that are causing the issue. Similarly, in these discussions, you’re expected to focus on behaviours, not personality. Like, you don’t go into one of these meetings saying to your boss that you’re having trouble working with Fergus because he’s a jerk. Instead, you explain that Fergus has been taking credit for your work and talking over you in client meetings, discussing the issue with him hasn’t gotten you anywhere, and if there’s anything they suggest to resolve the situation.

    Conversely, there will probably be times when a colleague may need to discuss something related to you with your manager, because no one’s perfect. Their doing this does not necessarily represent any sort of betrayal.

    This isn’t necessarily a white vs blue-collar difference (because managers with bad boundaries can be in any industry), but if you’re not familiar with environments where it’s okay and normal for manager-employee relationships to be collegial and where there’s an expectation that you have ownership over your relationship with your manager.

    It’s not grade school, so doing this doesn’t mean you’re trying to be teacher’s pet, or are gunning for a promotion. Stuff that actually affects you and your job, even when it’s coming from another person, isn’t gossip. If someone’s actions have nothing to do with you (e.g. someone whose work you’re not at all involved in takes a lot of sick leave), then don’t get involved.

  167. Margaery Tyrell*

    When in doubt, ask! I think you can’t go wrong to assume the Most Formal Guidelines and then relax as you go along. Look for someone earlyish in their career but not completely new (i.e. working for 2+ years). They’ll have a good gauge of what rules are Most Important and what rules are more like guidelines, especially in your specific workplace. Some places are “you can wear jeans, but no using social media at work, EVER” and some places are “dress business casual, but as long as you get your work done, it’s fine.”

    Especially if you start off as an intern, people will be happy to help (as long as you’re not bombarding them with questions).

  168. Policy Wonk*

    Lots of good advice here. About the only thing I didn’t see (and apologies if someone mentioned it and I missed it):
    Respect everyone in the office. I’ve seen lots of interns and lower level employees treat the secretarial staff as if they were minions, those who order office supplies as their servants, the janitorial staff as if they were invisible. These people are the grease on the wheels that make the office hum along. You can’t get an appointment, a reimbursement, office supplies, etc. without them.

    1. BigRedGum*

      This is so important. Say hello and thank you to the janitorial staff. Treat them (& everyone) exactly like the person you want to impress the most.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Yes. Treat everyone kindly and understand they’re all valuable to keep things running smoothly. If you find yourself ever saying “oh they just clean toilets” or “oh they just answer the phone.”, go ahead and take it upon yourself to try that for yourself, while juggling all your other tasks and tell me it’s “just cleaning toilets” or “just answer phones.”

      Years ago we had one person who did all the unsavory “meh” jobs in the shop, some of the guys felt superior to him for it and classified the jobs as “”Jimmy jobs”” and guess what happened when he retired, someone else had to take them over. He wasn’t replaced because we had slowed down and didn’t actually need that position because again, he was just doing the unfun/clean-up style tasks. They were bummed AF when it fell at their feet to clean up after their GD selves. “Yeah, Jimmy was pretty important now wasn’t he? I miss him too.” They all tucked their tails and sulked away. [They did like him and were nice the majority of the time, they just gave him a lot of noise, it was a teasing atmosphere due to the typical shop floor setup, think rowdy goofy kids in adult bodies.]

  169. BigRedGum*

    don’t sign work petitions a a good rule of thumb!

    at my job we hire college students and one thing I notice is that most of them don’t know how do deal with dress codes. our poor student last year didn’t really know how to dress for an office. one lady wore a VERY cute dress, but it was backless. my work has a very relaxed business casual dress code and i usually wear some type of blouse, dress pants or a skirt, and slip on tennis shoes. not everyone will allow the slip on tennis shoes though! as far as the length of skirts and dresses, a good way to figure out what might be too short is to look at your backside in a mirror and then imagine it being 2 or so inches shorter, since they tend to flap a little when you walk.

    Most of our students haven’t been previous taught how to use work email, so just always start with “hello” or “good morning/afternoon” and sign off with thank you. It will make life easier. One of our students emailed a doctor and signed off with “good luck with that.” The doctor didn’t say anything about it, but we had a good laugh.

    watching everyone you work with is always a good way to learn the culture. if you find something that you really question or think needs changed/updated, think it over. some things are just the way they are for no reason at all, and can definitely use updating.

  170. Oh So Anon*

    Something else! Show that you’re taking ownership of your mistakes, and learn what it looks like to do that in a way that is professional and appropriate.

    Beating yourself up in response to corrections/negative feedback – especially doing it openly – isn’t the same as taking feedback into consideration. Worse, it makes it more difficult for people to give you constructive feedback (remember, managers are people too and may struggle in the face of strong emotions) and in some cases it can come across as manipulative. If you’ve gotta cry, try to do it in the bathroom or your car or just not at work. Self-flagellation doesn’t make an apology come across as more sincere or give the other person faith that you won’t do the thing again – it only creates a lot of extra emotional labour for them to deal with.

    Making yourself easy to coach pays dividends in your career. Taking negative feedback well the first few times means that people will probably find it more comfortable to coach and mentor you. In my experience, it’s the folks who don’t appear to respond to feedback well who most often end up in situations where they do something problematic for a long time without anyone telling them (until their final warning or firing). For interns this can be a particularly bad situation; because there’s an expiration date on your stay, it’s often easier (sadly) to let a problem intern continue until the end of an internship without telling them to get their crap together. Then the rude awakening comes when you can’t get a positive reference or hired for a full-time job at that organization.

  171. Turtle Candle*

    One thing that I’d say is that there is a lesson that you can easily pick up in school—ironically, especially if you have good teachers!—that isn’t helpful in the workplace is the idea that questioning assumptions and applying critical thinking to everything and making a lot of arguments for/about things is good. This isn’t true everywhere, but a lot of good teachers value students who want to think everything through and understand the reasoning for everything and even will reward lots of pushback and debate because it’s a sign of good critical thinking. Critical thinking is important at the workplace too, of course… but employers are less likely to think that debate in and of itself is positive, because while critical thinking is important, so is getting the work done. I think this was at play in that intern petition letter: lots of professors will love it if students band together to make what appears to be a well-thought-out rational argument, and even if the students don’t ‘win’ they may very well get rewarded. In the workplace…. not so much, because workplaces aren’t as centered on the development of the employee as (good) schools are on the development of the student.

    That isn’t to say ‘never push back’ or ‘never question decisions made by people above you’ or whatever, but be aware that it isn’t given the same value in the workplace as it is in education.

    (That said, there are plenty of schools/teachers that don’t really value critical thinking in that way either—and working at a gas station is probably already giving you the experience to know that things aren’t endlessly debateable—but it’s something that I definitely see come as a surprise to new hires, especially if they were high-achieving students.)

  172. Mary Richards*

    This is an amazing thread! I just want to add that I admire your ability to reflect on your own understanding (or lack thereof) and the fact that you are so willing to learn! Introspection and humility are both hard for a lot of people, so you’re already doing something great by asking this question and (presumably) following the advice that everyone gives you. And you’re so young—at this age (and even into college), being ready and willing to learn and prepared to discover that you aren’t always right is going to help you tremendously.

  173. Batgirl*

    The only exception to “watch and follow the crowd” is to beware that suuuuper friendly person who makes a beeline for you on your first day.
    Professional people will give you space to learn and think for yourself and will model a ‘friendly but not friends’ type of vibe.
    However there are always people in life who like to take advantage of the less experienced, so take any keen to be your BFF types with a pinch of salt.
    Professional people won’t openly speak out about them, and may not even know what they are doing.
    The biggest red flag includes getting you on your own a lot, either to dish out toxic gossip, give you bad advice, complain and vent, be sexually creepy, or to get themselves a friend because they prefer to socialise at work and no one likes them.
    Sometimes this can be a small clique rather than an individual, but you can still spot them by their hushed tones, allllllll the drama, and a focus on socialising and friendship-style loyalties.
    Be vague and non committal with them and wait for a wider reading of the culture without joining any factions (or petitions!).

  174. His Grace*

    First off, LW, let me commend you on taking the initiative. That in and of itself shows character and the potential for leadership.
    Now, on to your question…
    A good character is welcome 99.99% of the time (and if it is not, that should say more about the workplace than it does about you.)
    A clean appearance. Good hygiene is a must (I doubt I need to say that, but just in case I do, here you go)
    A willingness to own up to your mistakes and your victories.
    Speak less, listen more
    When in doubt, ask. (Who knows, you might not be the only person thinking about asking the same question)
    Get what you can in writing
    Share what you know, and be willing to lean more.

    All the best, LW.

  175. I coulda been a lawyer*

    If you are considering an office- based career, you should consider getting an office-based job at college. I know someone who learned a lot about office norms while making copies, maintaining a database, and proofreading newsletter articles in their schools alumni affairs office ten hours a week.

  176. Remote Worker and Dog Lover*

    Thinking back to my first jobs, the biggest stumbles happened when I did something that wasn’t necessarily allowed by our rules or standards and my boss found out about it. Either it was how I behaved when my boss wasn’t around and then my boss saw me behave that way or it was things I did that someone brought to my boss’ attention. Nothing was a major mistake but it mostly centered around professionalism. I would always assume that everything you do can get back to your boss and behave accordingly.

    Also, Allison says this whenever it comes up, but it’s rarely appropriate to have your parents get involved with your job. If you’re sick or need to request a last minute change of schedule, call it in yourself.

    1. Washed Out Data Analyst*

      Eh – I caution against #2. My workplace wouldnt expect you to work more hours than you need to. I do recommend being on time, and at least 15 minutes early.

  177. Adhara*

    I think one thing that hasn’t been touched on here is when/if you ask questions, to try and explain why you’re asking.
    “Is the printer broken?” vs “I tried to print a PDF and it’s not worked, is the printer broken?”
    Sometimes the question is really obvious “How do you want me to file these documents?” and sometimes it needs clarification to get the answer you’re actually looking for. Obviously please don’t try and wrangle the question to get the answer you want, but your coworkers and higher ups appreciate getting to the point rather than play 20 questions. And sometimes you still need a bit of back and forth because they know some nuance you don’t, like a customer prefers a particular version of the document or font or whatnot.

  178. Will's Mom*

    Don’t lie.
    Always ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. What has helped me in my almost 50 years in the work force is to say something like, “just to make sure I am understanding this correctly, you said … or you want me to…”
    That alone has saved me from making mistakes and bonus, it shows that you are paying attention.
    Fess up to your mistakes. Don’t get defensive if someone has to have a talk with you about a mistake you have made. Apologize, and if appropriate, explain you reasoning behind you actions, and then offer or ask what if anything can be done to prevent it from happening again.
    Don’t take criticism personally.
    Of course, if you are in a toxic workplace, little of this applies, and get the h@!! out of the situation. ASAP

  179. PerfectlyPerfect*

    For the first few weeks AT LEAST, listen more than you speak. Learn how things work before making suggestions for changes. Ask if you don’t know something you need to know and write down critical info you will need so you can refer to it until it is committed to memory (so you’re not asking the same questions over and over).

    Use full sentences and proper grammar & punctuation in emails, and check spelling in emails and texts before sending; at work this is more formal communication than with friends and family.

    DO NOT BE LATE. Really. Being late makes a very bad impression esp. if chronic.

    Do what you say you’re going to do, every time. Let people gossip to you but keep most of what you know to yourself (useful info can come your way via casual conversation and gossip – you don’t want to be out of the loop – and people will value the fact that you can keep a secret). Steer clear of taking sides in the disputes of others, esp. before you know who can be trusted.

    Try to make your boss’s job easier whenever possible.

  180. Kitty*

    Norms and expectations can be really dependent on the particular organisation. So when I start a new job, I like to be on my best most polite behaviour for a few weeks while I get a sense of what is and isn’t appropriate at the organisation. E.g. I won’t swear at all unless I’ve heard peers or superiors drop a swear pretty regularly and I know it’s okay in that culture.

    Best of luck at college!

  181. Cassie*

    This is going to be super duper picky, but I wish supervisors would tell the student workers in our office:

    – Don’t wear athletic wear like crop tops and leggings (unless you are working in the gym). Maybe your teachers don’t care (maybe they do), but think about the professional image you want to portray (even if “just” a student worker). Look at the dress code and the other employees around you. You probably don’t have to wear a suit, but don’t show up like you just crawled out of bed.

    – If you are recovering from a cold or have allergies, please blow your nose :) Don’t just keep sniffling please (those of us in nearby cubicles thank you).

    – Try to keep your voice down, especially when you are socializing with someone else. Voices carry in cubicleland and open spaces. If you have to take a personal call on your phone, go out into the hallway or to the break room.

    – Eating at your desk/cubicle may or may not be allowed. If you do eat, try not to crunch on chips loudly and continuously crinkle the bag. Try to keep the food odors to a minimum.

    – Check what work needs to be done. If there is nothing in particular, straighten up your desk area, do some filing. Studying/doing homework is allowed in my dept, but it should be *after* work is completed, AND the student worker should appear to be available to stop studying/doing homework if something is needed.

    – Don’t sing to yourself – this is not American Idol..

    – Take notes. Don’t make people repeat themselves.

    – Don’t “assume” – take the time to double-check before stating something as fact.

  182. Former Employee*

    I have to say that I am surprised at how many people thought it was perfectly fine that the company in question fired all of the interns for signing the petition about changing the dress code.

    While I am old now, I was a child of the 60’s and the idea that you should shut up and do as you’re told is still annoying to me unless you are saving me from a disaster (fire, shooting, etc.) or a serious medical situation.
    For example, if I am in a building that is on fire and you are a firefighter, I will do what you tell me to do, without question.

    So, management had all of the interns assemble in a conference room under the pretense that they were going to discuss the petition with them and then proceeded to fire them all. Nice. Imagine if they had actually discussed the matter with the interns. I thought it showed ingenuity for them to come up with the petition. However, management could have explained why they saw the petition as inappropriate, suggested other ways the interns could have handled the issue, etc. An internship is where young people are supposed to learn industry norms, not be fired for not knowing them ahead of time. While I am no longer working, I certainly would not want to work for a bunch of stuffed shirts such as the management of whatever company that was and I hope that young people in their area avoid becoming interns for that company in the future.

  183. KaladinSB*

    Get to know the janitor. Not just treating them with respect, though that’s important too. Talk to them, get to know them. They know more about what’s happening and why than anyone else, most of the time.

  184. Kisses*

    I hate that the gas station job isn’t considered a real job. I have a degree and still work retail, restaurants, and daycare, all of which pay hourly and are something most people wouldn’t consider a “real job”. These are real jobs, with real opportunities for learning and growth. Just because it’s not a professional track, don’t discount what you’ve picked up. A lot of times career minded people who have never had a menial job tend to look down on us, but those of us who have been there? We tend to treat people with a bit more humanity (not everyone! I don’t mean to knock anyone- I just wish everyone had to wait tables or work in a call center at least once.) These jobs can be hard and not very rewarding, but at the risk of sounding like a geezer, they build character.

  185. Kisses*

    Ah yes, after reading through some other suggestions, the not lying one stands out to me. You’d be surprised how many people just say it wasn’t them if a mistake comes up. Me, I always took responsibility for any mistake I made. Always. And tried hard to learn from them. I wasn’t sure this was the way until I overheard a manager and assistant manager speaking about me. Pretty much “Kisses always owns up to her mistakes. I trust her on anything.” It built up trust that I took my work seriously and was willing to be a team player.

  186. WannaAlp*

    Adding a couple of things I haven’t seen in the comments:

    * Be careful when taking initiative. It’s not that you shouldn’t ever take the initiative, but the more experience you have in the working world and at a particular workplace, the more you’ll have an idea how much and what kind of thing you can do on your own initiative, and what you really need to run past other more senior/experienced people.

    * Be very cautious doing anything that runs against existing power structures. The interns protesting against the dress code fell foul of this one: essentially they were saying “We don’t like how you do this, and we are pushing back.” People with more power than you have don’t like it when you push back, and they have the power to penalise you.

  187. Susie*

    Some words of advice:

    Limit your sick leave if you can in your first few months. Yes, people get sick but you’re building a reputation here, you want it to be reliable. Unless yiu brrak a leg. Also if you book holidays, don’t try to bag all the plum dates around holidays. It will be remembered and you’ll burn goodwill that way.

    Do smile and appear happy to be there without tipping into Cheshire Cat territory. Save your pre-coffee grumps for friends. Miserable colleagues aren’t much fun.

    Take notes and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Make a mental note of suggestions or alternative ways of working until you master the system then bring them out.

    Prioritise any compulsory or additional training (health and safety, data protection, safeguarding policies) even the fire drill practice. You neve know when you might need it and it’s good practice to keep your personal training up to date.

    Don’t leave the printer without paper or the shredder blocked as the person after you will blame you for being lazy or careless even if you didn’t do it. Let someone else know if you can’t or shouldn’t be fixing it or if its taking a long time; your manager might have other priorities for you.

    Use a personal email rather than your organisation’s email for private stuff, preferably in your own time. You don’t want to be locked out of your data if you lose your job or the organisation shuts down suddenly or your manager/IT dept reading it.

    Enjoy your role.

  188. Fine Point Pen*

    I hope you will have regular 1:1 time with your manager. In additon to all the great advice above you and explicitly ask for feedback. If you accept it well “Thank you, I will work on that.” they will feel more comfortable giving you tip when you need them.

    Here are some scripts you can use either with your manager or other people on your team to help get some feedback specifically:

    “Tomorrow will be the first time I attend a stand up, can you give me an idea of what is expected of me?”
    “That was my first time glazing a teapot, can you tell me if there’s anything I should do differently next time?”
    “Now that I’ve been mixing the glaze for a couple weeks I wonder if you have any feedback for me about how it’s going.”

    If you’re not getting useful feedback you can ask for more specific feedback too:
    “Now that I’ve been mxing the glaze for a couple weeks, can I ask you if you think I’ve been mixing it thick enough and making big enough batches?”

    In a good work place a positive attitude and a willingness to learn will earn you a lot of good will. I hope you find a job that will teach you well and forgive your faux pas :)

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