can I ask my boss to coach me on professionalism?

A reader writes:

I’ve recently started a new job and in, reflecting on my work experience, I’ve realized that I’m not nearly as attuned to professional norms as I would like to be. Given my background, it’s not terribly surprising. My parents are musicians, and there were large parts of my childhood that we spent living on tour. Neither ever had a regular “9 to 5” job while I was growing up, though they both worked very hard at what they did.

I have worked in offices in the past, but my longest-term office had really dysfunctional boundaries. Everyone knew everything about everyone’s personal business, including health, relationships, and for some people, even their sex lives, and it wasn’t the best opportunity to learn professionalism.

Now I’ll be working in legal support for a firm that is a bit highbrow, and I’m concerned that I’m going to run afoul of my new colleagues’ boundaries and expectations.

I’m smart, I work hard, I pitch in and support my team whenever anyone needs help, and make an extra effort to be kind and friendly, but that’s partially because I know there will inevitably be a time when I say something strange, and everyone will look blankly at me while cricket chirps fill the air, and I want to be sure I have some capital on hand when those moments arise.

Would it be out of line to ask my new supervisor for a little focused coaching in this area? I don’t want to signal that I’m not prepared to do the job she hired me to do. Part of my new job will involve going to board meetings to take minutes, and I’m anxious about making a bad impression. I’m also concerned that if I “try” too hard, it’s going to seem like I’m trying and something will seem off, anyway. I’m going to be 40 this summer and it’s an area of embarrassment for me, but I’d rather be coached ahead of time than corrected after making a mistake.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. Smithy*

    I wonder for a situation like this if it might also make sense to ask about mentoring relationships? Depending on the OP’s field or longer term ambitions – seeking out a more formal mentoring relationship outside of their supervisor might afford some opportunity to disclose some of these concerns and ambitions more directly. And the stated desire of the mentoring relationship might be around moving into greater leadership roles, taking on more external or C-suite facing roles professionally, etc. – and all of that might include strengthening and finessing some of those softer professional skills around workplace norms.

    1. KTC*

      Yes! Came to the comments to say something similar. Mentorships can really help so much with soft skills like this, especially ones that are very nuanced to a certain field.

  2. Anonymous Koala*

    This is exactly the sort of thing you could ask a professional mentor to do, and why professional mentorship programs need to be expanded. In my field it’s rare to find a formal mentorship program, and even rarer that participation on either side will count as “work,” which limits participation for so many new grads.

  3. cardigarden*

    Whenever I start a new job, I’m always friendly and respectful, but until I get a decent vibe check (like, office culture and interpersonal politics) I don’t really let my personality out. Then again, I’m just really comfortable learning from observation. Ymmv on this one.

  4. Scrooge McPenguin*

    I work in a law firm and the two things that stand out to me in our summer associates (generally in their 20’s) are: 1. Cursing. Don’t curse. It’s unprofessional. Even if a partner curses, don’t take that as a green light that it’s okay for you to do it. 2. Stop clutching your phone like it’s an emotional support device. Do NOT bring it with you into meetings, into partners’ offices, and do NOT put it on the table when you’re taken out to lunch. Do not think we are too stupid to notice you holding it in your lap and looking down as you text while a retired judge is talking to you (true story).

    1. Happy meal with extra happy*

      Just to go to how to different specific offices can be, at the law firms I’ve worked out, those two things wouldn’t be an issue there. A curse or two, as long as it wasn’t directed at someone, wouldn’t be a big deal, and as long as someone wasn’t actively on their phone, leaving it on the table isn’t a big deal.

      1. Ellis Bell*

        It would have to be an exceptionally easy going place for it to be used while someone senior is talking to you though!

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I worked in law firms for over a decade.

      #1 is a know-your-audience thing – definitely do not curse until you know where people stand on it and don’t do it frequently/capriciously, but it’s not strictly verboten. If there is any place that routinely induces situations for which profanity is appropriate, it is law firms. My boss and I have had conversations that sound like Roy Kent having a discussion with himself.

      #2 requires a lot more nuance – a number of the partners I’ve worked with expect immediate responses and expect you to respond even more immediate responses to clients (more for associates, less for summers). Everyone, partners included, bring phones to meetings and lunches and knows how the industry works – one of the partners I used to work with had the philosophy that, if the client couldn’t reach you, they’d reach someone else and you’d lose the opportunity/business. If you’re going into a client meeting or a situation where it matters, you either pocket it or apologize in advance that you have to monitor for something important related to their case, etc. I know summers who were dinged for not responding to emails fast enough.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, I think it should be “don’t bring your *personal* phone to meetings…” As long as the company issues you with a work phone, which is by no means certain, but which they should do for security reasons. They could even have burner phones for summer interns.

    3. Selina Luna*

      I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t speak to this from that angle, but I take notes on my phone. Before you tell me to use paper, that genuinely doesn’t work for me because I use the recording feature of my phone to help with note-taking. My boss speaks extremely quickly. I have an audio-processing disorder, so “just write it down” is literally impossible for me. I generally record meetings and listen to the beginning and the end later to put events into my calendar. I have to have my phone to do this.
      Before you ask, I do have permission to record meetings. I just have to delete them later and not publish them.

      1. Duckles*

        This is an example of something that even if it makes sense for you, if it’s not what most people do, people will think you’re weird for it. (Thinking specifically of the junior attorney who brought her laptop to all meetings to take notes when NO ONE does that. Even if it makes sense/shouldn’t be an issue, it’s true the clicking is distracting and it looks like no one is paying attention, and people judged her for it.)

  5. An Australian In London (currently in London)*

    I am often mentoring a small (3 or 4) cohort of mentees; sometimes recent grads starting in the workforce, sometimes people making later in life career changes.

    More than half of what I talk about is some form of professional norms: either “is this normal?” or “how should I behave when …”

    All that’s to say: yes, seconding everything said so far about mentors. They have the added bonus of being unconnected to your workplace and so can be much safer to ask vulnerable questions of. There are many resources for finding mentors. (And gosh how I would love to see an AAM mentor matchmaking system!)

  6. CharlieBrown*

    What I love about this letter is that it points to the fact that anybody can need some coaching about norms and standards. It isn’t just about young people who just got out of college.

    (Which is also a self-check if you’ve been around a while and don’t seem to be connecting — are you violating or not observing some sort of norm that’s perfectly clear to others, but not, apparently, to you.)

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      Same. One of the things we do with new hires on my team is a short presentation about working norms within our organization. Even people with work experience benefit from a heads-up on how things work here.

      1. CharlieBrown*

        I got a warm feeling reading your response. This is such a great thing for organizations to do!

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          I think I’ve mentioned it here before, but this was something we were working on when the AAM commentariat had a spirited discussion about whether or not it was appropriate to leave things in people’s chairs. People felt strongly about it. My organization is a stuff-in-chairs culture, and I didn’t want anyone new to think it was being done at them or just to them, so we started a list of how-we-do-things-here and then asked some of our most recent hires what they would have found helpful to know when they started. It’s a short session, but it gets good feedback.

      2. kiki*

        I think this is so important! Especially if an organization has relatively low turnover, it can be tough for existing folks to remember that the systems and processes they’re used to aren’t necessarily obvious or intuitive to somebody new.

    2. SallyForth*

      There is also the issue of the flip side of this question – the older worker who comes across as too proper because office norms have changed.

  7. NeedRain47*

    kind of tangential question – Do people whose parents have 9 to 5 jobs normally teach them professional norms? Does this happen to men but not women? Because mine sure as heck didn’t, at all, whatsoever. I don’t know where “what jokes to make in a meeting” would have ever come into the conversation.

    1. Scrooge McPenguin*

      I grew up in a family where my father worked in an office and my mother was mostly a SAHM. We ate dinner together every night (before you fantasize about how great this is, I hated it vehemently). My mother would ask my dad “How was your day?” and my dad would talk for an hour. You could ask questions or make comments about what he said as you wished. But it was very boring. However, I learned from him about how one talks with coworkers, with bosses/managers, how one mentors employees, what’s funny and appropriate vs. funny but not appropriate.

    2. angstrom*

      Mine never specifically taught me professional norms, but I picked up a lot listening to them talk about work.
      Having summer jobs that were mostly working with adults instead of with other kids also helped.

      1. MsClaw*

        I think this is exactly the kind of thing people mean when they talk about how you can’t just assume people know how to behave in an office setting. It’s not that office-working parents sit little Junior down and explain ‘this is how to behave in a meeting’. It’s that they hear their parents talk — ‘You’ll never believe was Jane said in front of the customer this morning!’, ‘That idiot Clem waltzed in 20 minutes late *again* today and was shocked, shocked I say when he got fired.’, ‘Theresa did a great job on the presentation but apparently she didn’t realize she was briefing today because she showed up in a Raider’s jersey’, etc, etc. There’s a ton of stuff you probably don’t even realized you picked up around the dinner table, etc, as a kid that just seeps in.

      2. Vio*

        Most of what I heard from my parents talk about work made me believe that it was perfectly normal to hate your job but feel obligated to do it anyway. I always struggled to know what kind of job I wanted to eventually do once I finished school and that was part of the reason why. I was sure that whatever it was, I’d be miserable. It probably didn’t help that I had undiagnosed depression and cPTSD as well.
        Fortunately I did eventually end up in a job I enjoy (I also had a previous job that was sometimes fun, sometimes awful, the joys of working retail!)

        1. MsClaw*

          “made me believe that it was perfectly normal to hate your job but feel obligated to do it anyway. ”

          I mean…. it *is* perfectly normal.

          There are definitely people who have jobs they love, jobs they don’t mind, or jobs they like some days and don’t other days. But it’s actually probably much more common to hate your job but hate destitution more.

          1. Expelliarmus*

            Sure, but I doubt it’s a given that one will hate every possible job they could have, which is what I think Vio meant when they said “whatever it was, I’d be miserable”

          2. Dinwar*


            It’s perfectly normal to have PARTS OF your job you hate. Every job has crappy aspects. But it’s definitely not normal to hate your job, and it’s extremely abnormal to hate every job. Most people in my experience find a good balance between “a job I like” and “a job that pays the bills”.

            I think part of the issue is that we’re taught as kids that we should follow our passion, and that anything less than blissful pure enjoyment is failure. We don’t teach people to find joy in the work they do. And I don’t mean that as looking down on anyone; I mean that as in “Dirty Jobs”. There’s always something to enjoy in a job. And if there’s not, or the joy isn’t worth it, you can always quit and start a new one (if you’re fiscally strapped you may have to do more planning).

            Another part of the problem is that we’ve trained people to hate friction. Anything that’s even mildly inconvenient is treated as intolerable by some people. What that trains you to do is to focus on the negative. If you look hard enough OF COURSE any job is going to suck–look hard enough and life itself sucks. That’s not because the job or life actually sucks, but because you’ve chosen to only look at the parts that do. I was fortunate enough to grow up with people that did subsistence farming and factory work before OSHA, and have a deep appreciation for just how fortunate I am. Yeah, I’m working 12 hours a day–but I only know of two people that lost fingers at work, and no one that’s lost a limb or a life, and part of my schedule is self-imposed.

            I’m trying to teach my kids that last bit. There’s a useful essay on that. There are three types of fun. Type 1 fun is fun while you’re doing it. Playing a game, for example. Type 2 fun is fun in retrospect–a difficult hike, or a hard job that you look back on with pride. Type 3 fun isn’t fun at all, it just sucks. (This was written in the context of extreme backpacking/outdoor adventures, stuff people were doing specifically to have fun.) A good job, at least given my personality, has a lot of Type 2 fun, a significant amount of Type 1 fun, and not too much Type 3 fun (my career demands there be some). The thing is, Type 2 fun requires that you accept a certain amount of not-fun in order to appreciate the fun aspects.

            1. MsClaw*

              All of that is very reasonable — but plenty of people work jobs they’d never do one second more of if they didn’t have rent to pay and few prospects to do anything better. Sometimes just accepting that you hate it and it’s okay to hate it is the best you can do for your peace of mind.

              1. Dinwar*

                There’s a difference between “plenty of people” and much more common than the combination of “jobs they love, jobs they don’t mind, or jobs they like some days and don’t other days”, which is what you stated in your previous comment. There’s also a difference between doing so temporarily and doing so as a matter of course (which is implied in your comment).

                Hating work is not normal. It is an abnormal state of affairs, to be corrected if at all possible. And in a fairly free society where we get to choose what jobs we apply for, “at all possible” is far wider than “plenty of people” think.

                This trend of hating work reminds me of the “cool” kids in high school who thought that hating school made them better somehow. I’d like to think that by the time we get to the professional world we’ve outgrown such childishness. Some jobs suck, sure–I’ve had my share! But at a certain point you need to take responsibility for your own happiness and at least try to find something you can enjoy doing.

                1. Chief Petty Officer Tabby*

                  That’s how I ended up in animal care — I hate working, but I’m always up for hanging with animals, so there’s a decent trade off for me.

                  I honestly don’t think people need to enjoy working, though it’s awesome that many do. We need to get away from the misconception that work is something everyone should enjoy. Many of us don’t, and that should be okay! As long as that person does their job well, why care if they aren’t enthusiastic about working? That’s such a weird take to me.

                  There’s a quote about not dreaming of labor, and I love it. Because, seriously, I’d MUCH rather lounge around playing video games, doing mani-pedis, and playing around with various fashion choices all day than work, but work I must. That attitude may come from having had to work since 14, in one form or another, but damn, I am sick of working.

              2. Elenna*

                Sure, but I wouldn’t say that “would leave job instantly if you didn’t need the money” is equivalent to “hate the job”. I guarantee you I would leave me job instantly* if I won a multi-million lottery or something, but I certainly wouldn’t say I hate my job. I’m indifferent to it, don’t find it particularly fun, and there are plenty of things I would rather be doing – but I certainly don’t hate it. Hate is a much stronger feeling than vague indifference/annoyance.

                *”instantly” in the sense of “after all the paperwork of paying off my mortgage, investing the rest of the money into something with fairly guaranteed returns, creating a budget, and ensuring that I have enough to live comfortably and deal with any future large payments”. So, probably several months later. I refuse to be someone who comes back a few years later shamefacedly asking for my job back because I’ve burned through all the money. Not that I play the lottery in the first place, but I’ve had a few daydreams.

          3. lilsheba*

            “But it’s actually probably much more common to hate your job but hate destitution more.” — This was me when I worked in a call center. Hated it every second, only took it because I needed a job. But now I have a job I love, and I have so much more freedom.

    3. Ellis Bell*

      My dad gave me all kinds of union style advice; if he’d ever had an office job he absolutely would have passed on office politics advice in a similar way. I have middle class friends who definitely have more of an edge when it comes to a bunch of things, particularly those whose parents have climbed high. Caveat in that I also have friends whose parents have pretty dreadful advice.

    4. Chilipepper Attitude*

      Well yes, mine exposed me to them by just talking about their work and they explicitly told me things.
      Almost all of it was wrong and quickly outdated!

      My parents had professional jobs (dad had a career, mom had a job) and they navigated them very poorly, both of them for very different reasons but mostly due to their own anxiety and lack of exposure to professional norms from their own parents. Dad’s parents were so rich that they had no clue and mom’s dad was a musician.

      As a side note, my husband’s parents are from China and Japan. They gave him a give (really a thank you bribe gift) to give his boss at his first academic job! It would have been so inappropriate!

    5. OyHiOh*

      I did not have strong examples of “office” culture growing up (musicians and teachers in my family). However, I’m trying to share things with my kids. We have quite a bit of commuting time, so I try to share things when we’re in the car. How I solved a work problem. A funny thing that happened in the break room. Even why I dress differently on board meeting days compared to not. Not lectures, just casual stuff, especially on the drive home when I’m tired and they want to know why we’re getting drive thru rather than eating what’s been prepped at home.

      I work with people who keep lists of the current top 10 careers + salaries on the fridge, to kind of imprint an awareness of those choices are. One person in this camp has teens and twenty-somethings – they have not necessarily chosen careers on the lists their parents maintained, but they have picked combinations of passion plus practical.

    6. turquoisecow*

      not directly, but my dad has worked in an office job since I was a small child (he actually switched from a more blue collar role into management, went back to school and got a degree in business) and although he never said, “here’s how you should behave in an office,” he has told me stories about how his day went, enough that I could glean some business norms from him.

      One time when I was in college he was giving me and my roommate a ride back to our dorm after a weekend visit, and he told us he was switching jobs. My roommate asked if he was going to tell his old boss off and he explained that was never a great idea since he might need his old boss to be a reference in the future, and you don’t want to burn bridges.

      My mom worked briefly in a small office so she didn’t have the same sort of experience – though she did give me plenty of advice about my retail jobs because she did the same ones 30 years earlier and lots of things were the same. I also had other relatives around with office jobs who would comment on different things re: work attitudes.

      1. tamarack and fireweed*

        This is such a good example of what’s meant by intergenerational social capital. And it’s not just about the *amount* of this social capital, but also the *kind*. Someone could absorb from the dinner conversation how to be an academic, another how to function in a corporate office, or in a hospital, or in a rural farming community, or how to run a pub, or how to be a shop steward in a particular kind of job.

        And sometimes – quite often – the kid’s set of options (or realistic aspirations) are not at all covered by what could have been gleaned at the family table. Maybe because the parents’ jobs were devalued, or becoming obsolete (miners!), or had enabled climbing to a higher social strata, or simply because the family was dysfunctional, or stressed out, or living in dire straits for some reason or other, and there was no rich and relaxed passing on of functional norms.

    7. Kimmy Schmidt*

      I think most of the “teaching” is really years of observation and the secondhand feel of an office environment. If you watch your parent leave the house at 7:45 everyday and then hear them make a comment about how they can’t be late on the day they leave at 7:50, you absorb the idea that being on time is important. If you hear your parent tell a story that they were shocked about a curse word, you get the idea that curse words aren’t appropriate. You may witness your parent get dressed for an afterhours holiday party, maybe grumbling about having to make small talk with their boss, absorbing the idea that work events are still work. It’s a lifetime of pieces that are really hard to separate into important individual instances.

    8. Gerry Keay*

      My mom was an HR professional so “professional norms” was actually a pretty common dinner conversation. I heard all the gossip about who messed up by doing what and learned a bunch about office politics while watching my mom navigate some pretty toxic jobs. I even heard about how she would get feedback on needing a better poker face in meetings during her performance reviews!

      Then when I started working, she did such a good job explaining comp and ben, negotiating, writing high stakes emails, navigating work conflict, etc. She was my ask a manager before I found Ask a Manager! And now I get to be the work-advice-giver for my friends. I think it had a real, material impact on my ability to thrive in an office environment.

      (FWIW, I’m AFAB nonbinary and spent my childhood living as a girl.)

    9. The One Who Burned the Popcorn*

      Sort of. One of my parents always told me “Never put anything in writing you wouldn’t want your boss to read.” I’ve always behaved accordingly at work. I like to think it’s made me better at creatively phrasing issues when I need to communicate sensitive information in writing.

    10. NotAnotherManager!*

      We do with our teenagers now. My spouse and I both come from blue collar backgrounds but both became office workers and definitely struggled a little bit with some of the soft skills. Especially since we were all at home and my kids probably overheard some of my routine work stuff and now that they are old enough that getting a job is in sight, we have been talking about more directly and with examples (not always real ones). One of my children is also has an extracurricular activity where they need to learn some basics of professionalism to be considered for leadership roles. We also use examples of their frustrations at school on group projects or in extracurriculars as good/needs improvement examples of how to be a good teammate/coworker. And talk them through the “why” of things a lot so they know how we got there.

      I was very fortunate, as a young professional, to have several really wonderful people who gently and kindly guided me in the right direction when I would make missteps like saying the wrong thing in a meeting. I would not be where I am today without them.

    11. Gnome*

      My parents were both office professionals. We are dinner together every night. Work was never discussed. For that matter, I can’t think of much that WAS discussed. Sports probably.

      1. Thence*

        Yeah, I’m reading this thread and realizing how thoroughly my parents (a higher-level office job and a part-time office admin) both just never really talked about work when I was a kid. The whole thing was kind of a black box to me.

    12. allathian*

      One advantage of WFH and remote school is that a lot of kids in the last 2.5 years got a chance to see their parent’s work persona, or at least a little bit of it. For better or worse…

      Both of my parents were scientists in the STEM field, so I didn’t really learn any office norms from them. I’m good at learning by observing others, so I learned as an intern, and in my first office jobs after I got my degree, as most people do. I was lucky in the sense that I was an established professional by the time I ran into my first truly incompetent, micromanaging boss, and while I no doubt learned some coping mechanisms that weren’t the best once I no longer worked for that boss, I had enough previous experience of good managers that I unlearned those lessons pretty quickly with a better boss.

  8. learnedthehardway*

    Honestly, until you know that your manager is a good example of professionalism, I would refrain from asking them for mentoring in this area. Also, you might not want to ask a direct manager for this kind of training, as they may figure you already know how to be a professional and that is why they hired you.

    What you could do, though, is to look up and read some books on professional behaviour, ethical standards in business, and good management.

    I mean, I’m assuming that you have nobody else you can reliably approach about this, and while it might sound a bit dry, having a baseline and a comprehensive understanding will be much better than relying on people who are unreliable narrators.

    1. CharlieBrown*

      I’m not sure how you’re going to know your manager is a professional unless you already know what professionalism looks like, though.

      And presumably they hired you for skills and knowledge primarily. I’ve often realized that most hires are going to need a little coaching here and there, especially on how to write emails, etc. And some may need a lot. It’s just part of the process and cost of hiring and training people.

      I think it’s a good idea to read up on it, but inevitably, none of those books and magazines will speak to specific norms in your own office.

      Personally, I’ve always had a good impression of people who ask questions like this. They recognize an area where they may be weak and are actively looking to strengthen that area.

  9. Chilipepper Attitude*

    I know this is an older letter, but judging by the letter, the OP already has some great professional skills and I’m impressed!

    I hope it went well for them!

    1. CharlieBrown*

      That was my thought, as well. I would think really well of an employee who asked me this, and the scripts Alison provided are really good ones.

  10. Tau*

    I personally recommend reading the entirety of AAM’s archives going back several years. And buying Alison’s books.

    I mean, this sounds like a joke but I was very nervous going into my first job because I’d spent a lot of time in academia and my parents also worked in that area (my mother joked that I was striking into new unfamiliar territory by going into industry), so I didn’t have a good feel for professional norms. Reading a ton of AAM really helped me get a feel for what those were likely to be and what sort of boundaries were to be expected at your standard office job – and that is including the fact that there was a culture offset involved (I’m German and was looking for a job in the UK at the time). I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have done nearly as well in my first years at work without this blog.

  11. ILoveLlamas*

    I would suggest that if you want to learn more about business etiquette, read Ask a Manager! LOL. When I went back into a much more traditional office for the first time in 15+ years, I read this column constantly. It has been a lifesaver. In the meantime, I would suggest that less is more in the bigger meetings. You don’t necessarily need to weigh in the first couple of meetings — get a sense of the dynamics. Ask your manager prior to the meeting what their expectations is for your role. Agreed about the update request!

  12. Leandra*

    I’d also love to see an update from OP, if they gave one.

    Even the biggest law firms can vary in this regard. I’ve worked in several, and I’ve seen it. Agree with cardigarden above to be generally professional and polite, until you get a feel for the place.

  13. Lifelong student*

    I want to push back slightly on the implication that young people learn about professional norms only if they have parents who have office/management jobs. My father worked in factories and when I was in high school my mother became an elementary teacher. I learned proper behavior with and around others, proper attire in various places, and respect for those in authority in my life from them, my extended family- none of whom had “professional” jobs, and from teachers and community standards of behavior. Now admittedly, not all have have that growing up- but it doesn’t require money or status to maintain!

  14. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

    I went through some of this coming from a working class background and just having no clue in other sorts of settings. I read a lot of Miss Manners back in the day, trying to catch up and suss out the world I’m in now.

  15. Budgie Buddy*

    The part about not wanting to look like you’re “trying” gave me feels. Trying to learn a new skill shouldn’t be something shameful and yet I also understand the pressure to look like you just “know” all the things that you “should know.”

    1. angstrom*

      Asking “How do you do X *here*?” is usually safe because it implies: 1) That you already know how to do X, and 2) That you are aware that different workplaces have different standards, and want to learn the norms for this one.

  16. Pickles*

    I grew up blue collar, and twenty years later still struggle with it. I’ve been in management or senior / representative positions for over six years. It does get easier, FWIW, and sometimes there’s benefit to being the quirky (read: approachable) person.

    One item I haven’t seen in the comments so far is the general attitude toward management that stands out whenever I visit or talk to my parents. There’s very much an us-versus-them mentality when it comes to bosses. Don’t do that!

    Just in case it’s not clear, here are some examples of the attitude:

    – Bosses are inevitably bad or idiots – all of them, even the good ones, just because they’re management. All. Of. Them. Even if the person saying it wound up in management.

    – They give poor advice and silly directions, that for some reason still absolutely must be followed without question. But because they are idiots (see above), then subverting, sabotaging, “forgetting,” or outright ignoring their direction is a triumph that must be proclaimed with great joy and frequent storytelling for years to come. Similarly, that one time the boss was wrong and you saved the day will be an anecdote told long into retirement. Malicious compliance also falls into this category.

    – Bosses must be asked for permission for absolutely everything…unless you don’t want the boss to know about something you’re doing. Meanwhile, a boss-I-intend-to mentality, once the norms are established a bit more, goes a long way toward showing initiative while getting corrections and on-the-spot mentoring. (But definitely try to figure out the boundaries of “normal” first, before working with/around those limits.)

    Instead, if you have a good one, try to figure out why they’re good and take on those qualities. If you have a bad one, identify what not to do.

    Oh, and dressing for the position you want, rather than the one you have, goes a long way. This doesn’t have to be onerous and can be built over time. Even a blazer goes a long way. You can still keep pops of personality with accessories.

    I don’t know if this specifically would help someone who grew up on tour like the OP, but I wish I’d had this info years ago.

  17. Junior Assistant Peon*

    I struggled with figuring out the social norms in my first several workplaces. My first job hired a lot of fresh college grads, we had little interaction with management or other company departments, and the social vibe felt much more like a continuation of college than a professional workplace. I had a terrible time adjusting to my second workplace because I didn’t know any of the office cultural norms everyone else learns in their first job. Job #3 was similar culturally to #2, and I had an easy time understanding what was expected of me socially. Job #4 was a curveball for me. I was shocked to see managers cursing and telling dirty jokes that would have brought HR intervention in my last few workplaces, and incorrectly concluded that I could pretty much say whatever I want! They still had standards and social norms; it just took me a long time to figure them out.

  18. Lisa*

    This letter stirred up some Things for me. I had a strange childhood and weird background that did not set me up properly for the working world I found myself in, and I sometimes had to warn my boss about things that would not be obvious to me. I will never forget… when was mid-career (late 30s) I had a boss who was SO mainstream… (she was a literally named Jessica) that one time we were dealing with a really ugly workplace situation and she so casually dropped “this might be harder for you because of your history” it was gracious and I was grateful. In the words of the late great Jim Morrison, “People are strange when you’re a stranger.” I didn’t remember telling her but she remembered. If you have weird history and a decent boss, tell her. She will remember and give you grace.

  19. Erin*

    I could have been this LW 20 years ago! I was in the performing arts my entire life until then, and transitioned to the office world, and I was a little out of sync.

    After a couple of months, my manager approached me about my professionalism. She framed it as being concerned that people weren’t taking me seriously, when, I was producing great quality work. Initially, it wasn’t the easiest thing to hear, but I realized that she was right, and I didn’t want to be known as irresponsible, or not serious about my professional growth.

    I’m still grateful to her for pointing this out to me! In the first few weeks/months, I really sat back and absorbed how other people in my same role conducted themselves. I had many lightbulb moments! My manager also encouraged me to meet with mid & senior level people to ask then about their professional growth paths. These short meetings also served as a time for more prominent folks in the org to know me beyond whatever perceptions they had.

    I made a point of brining up professionalism in my 1:1s with my manager, and the documented growth helped me to really see all of the changes I had made. I now make a point of doing this same thing for struggling junior level employees that fit the same bill. If they are receptive to it, awesome. If not, I tried.

    If you came to me with this, it would serve as a relationship building point, as well as you trusting me enough to guide you with a critical piece of working in a professional setting. It would also serve as a professional data point for me when you get promoted. Maybe frame it as “due to my background in the performing arts, I’m looking to expand my skillset in professional norms and career development”.

    Also, don’t be scared to ask for help with this. Everyone has to start somewhere, and it takes courage to ask for help.

    Apologies for the TLDR!

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