Let’s face it – Millennials get a bad rap sometimes, both as college students and as entry-level employees. A recent TIME magazine cover story blasted Millennials (those born from about 1980 to 2000) as being the “Me Me Me” generation. A quick survey of recent articles reveals any number of negative stereotypes. Millennials are frequently described as lazy, self-absorbed, and unprofessional. Wow!
So why are Millennials getting such bad press? Part of it is generational. All age groups have conflicting perspectives, values, and communication styles – everyone seems to believe “their way” is the best way. Our parents’ parents gave them a hard time, and we will probably do the same thing to our children. However, like it or not, many Millennials who are entering the workforce will have to learn how to meet the expectations of the Baby Boomer generation.
Learning how to navigate traditional business culture is easier said than done. In fact, it can be every bit as difficult as learning how to navigate a completely foreign society. Everything is different, ranging from the language and communication style to daily business rituals and the expectations for professional behavior.
Below are a few tips based on the most common complaints I hear from employers. Hopefully these pointers will help you make a positive impression as a Millennial employee and learn how to successfully navigate the business culture of your office:
1. Understand How to Use Email and Voicemail
Poor email, voicemail, or text message communication is probably the number one complaint that I hear about from employers. As Millennials, many of us are in a “communication bubble” that makes it difficult to adjust when we transition to a professional environment. We are constantly interacting with our peers using platforms where our grammar and content is not scrutinized very closely. These habits, reinforced heavily by constant use, can be very hard to break.
Nevertheless, you have to adapt quickly and learn professional email and voicemail skills when you enter the workforce (leave the text-messaging behind). Start practicing by using a more formal tone in your school emails, proofreading your messages for errors, and adding a professional email signature. You should also make sure your voicemail is set up appropriately (not just a default message reciting the phone number), and practice leaving professional voicemails that include your name, the reason for your call, and your phone number – you would not believe how many voicemails I receive from students that do not include a phone number! Attention to detail is the name of the game here, and that goes for both telephone and email interactions.
2. Know When to Say “No”
One of the positive stereotypes about Millennials is that we are “people pleasers,” and while this can be a great attribute, it can also be a dangerous pitfall. When you take on your first job, it can be tempting to say yes to every project that comes your way. After all, you are likely ambitious and want to make a positive impression as a team player. Just be aware that it will take you some time to master the fine art of time management. Taking on new projects is a great way to develop your skills and connections in your first job, but failing to deliver on a promise is a fast way to ruin your reputation. Be assertive, but pace yourself during your initial year on the job.
3. Be Focused, Prepared, and On Time
A good professional does all of the “little things” the right way. They show up on time and are alert, friendly, and engaging when communicating with co-workers. You need to emulate the behavior of other professionals in your office. Understand what is expected of you and try to perform accordingly.
For example, when going to a meeting, make sure you have any materials or reports you need to discuss with your coworkers. If you are just attending the meeting, make sure you have a pen and notepad with you to write down any important information. Show up on time (read: a few minutes early). Having to bring someone up to speed after a late arrival is both irritating and inefficient, and in the business world, time is money.
Give your colleagues your undivided attention – that means no texting or playing with your smart phone during the meeting. In essence, you need to “bring it” during every moment of the workday. This will initially be exhausting, but if you form good habits during the first few months on the job, it will pay off in the long run (literally).
4. Communicate Effectively
Effective communication is one of the primary complaints that employers mention on a regular basis. There are Three Cs you can keep in mind to help you in this area – be Clear, Concise, and Confident. Whether communicating in email or in person, state your case in a manner that is very clear, yet succinct. This means you will need to think about what you want to say before you say it. When speaking up in meetings, being clear and concise is also important, as well as displaying confidence. After all, if you do not believe in what you are saying, how can you expect others to buy in to your ideas?
Here are some examples of times when clear, concise, and confident communication could be very important:
- You have a question about an important project deadline. Even if you realize the information was shared during a meeting and you forgot to write it down (whoops!), it is better to approach a co-worker and get the correct information than trying to guess.
- You have a question about a company policy. It is almost always better to ask for clarification than to beg for forgiveness after a transgression. Do not be afraid to talk to a manager or someone in HR – they are there to help you!
- You are asking a colleague to do something for you. When requesting help, be clear about what you need and when you need it. Try to anticipate any questions they may have so you do not have to exchange 5-6 rounds of emails clarifying the issue.
- You have a conflict with a coworker. Be an adult and tactfully approach the person about the issue. Listen to their perspective and try to arrange a compromise. Only after this strategy fails should you speak to a manager. For major transgressions, such as harassment, talk to an HR representative. Do NOT spread gossip or air complaints behind a coworker’s back – it will likely get back to them!
5. Be Patient
Overall, you should try to develop a realistic expectation of your role in the office and be patient with yourself and others. This rule can be applied to daily tasks, such as email communication. When emailing a colleague, for example, give them ample time to respond before following up – around 48 hours is appropriate. You cannot assume that everyone else is on the same timetable as you are, so make sure you communicate your needs effectively and well in advance.
You should also be patient with yourself in terms of your career expectations. I think many Millennials (myself included) have some pretty ambitious visions for where they see their career headed. But those visions will not come to fruition right away. You will have to pay your dues first and gain the necessary experience before you can advance.
You will make mistakes along the way, but you will also learn a lot during your first few years on the job. Once you have developed enough skill and experience to bring significant value to the table, then you can exert more influence over your career path. Just remember, the timetable for achieving that goal is different for everyone. Be proactive about your career, but do not put too much pressure on yourself (and your colleagues) to see your accomplishments rewarded overnight.