Career Advice May 14 2012

The Young Professional's Guide to Workplace Etiquette

By Kelly Eggers

With 28-year-olds like Mark Zuckerberg running billion dollar companies, it's easy to think that youth rules in the workplace. After all, if he can get away with wearing a hoodie to meet potential investors twice his age, why can't you?

Well, because you're not the inventor of a social networking site with 845 million users across the globe. Most young people fresh to the workforce still must observe some basic rules of workplace etiquette. Steve Jobs may have gotten away with not bathing and screaming at employees during his youth (and later on), but most people can't behave this way and survive.

"I've seen people who are immensely talented who can't get ahead because of their etiquette," says Nicole Williams, LinkedIn's connection director. "Showing respect, indicating respect by dressing up for an interview, wearing appropriate clothing at work, sending appropriate emails with full spelling and no typos, saying 'please' and 'thank you': That's what will get you noticed, it's what people promote."

With unemployment among those between 20 and 24 years old over 13%, those with little work experience are under a microscope. By deciding not to play the game, they're doing themselves a disservice, Williams says. "The small stuff ends up being the enormous stuff that will end up defining you in your career."

Here are five areas where you're better off following the formalities.

Using the Keyboard

Any young person who hasn't been under a rock should know by now that using Internet shorthand like "lol" and "ha-ha" should be kept out of professional emails. Unless it's to a "work friend" or with someone you've developed a friendly professional rapport with, there's no reason to speak in acronyms.

It goes beyond common Internet slang. One magazine industry professional noted a young assistant who consistently uses "O" in lieu of "Oh" in email communication to people at all levels of the organization. "If you're assisting the publisher, who is the equivalent of a department head or VP, you'd think there would be full sentences, and no use of just the letter 'O' when corresponding on behalf of the boss."

Overusing exclamation points is a rookie mistake that a lot of young people -- particularly women -- make. "You need to be really careful, especially for the older generations who don't necessarily get the nuances of punctuation in email," says Williams. "You don't know if they're reading it as shouting or rude. It throws people off." It might seem like a forgivable mistake or miscommunication, but exclamation points can also give off an air of insincerity or sarcasm.

If you must use exclamation points to convey your personality, limit it to one per email. "If it is something to a stranger, outside vendor, outside customer, the boss's boss -- reread it again and edit out the excessive exclamation points," says Jennifer Owens, the editorial director of Working Mother magazine and Working Mother Research Institute. "I'm upbeat and positive, no doubt, but it's like saying, 'I am happy about this sentence, this sentence and that sentence.' Go back through and decide which one actually gets the exclamation point. Every sentence can't be that enthusiastic."

Maintaining Manners

If you reach out to someone and they provide you with any kind of assistance, you should send them a thank-you note. "The world is busy, people are busy," says Williams, which is why it is important to be gracious when people take a few minutes to assist you. Imagine if you turned your back on someone and walked away without a word after they've answered your question or provided you with help of some kind. "Just because you're asking via keyboard doesn't mean you should lose the nuances of human relationships," she says.

For Jodi Glickman, author of "Great on the Job" and founder of a career consultancy by the same name, one of the biggest rules young professionals need to follow is being considerate of other people's time. "If you are stopping by someone's office or picking up the phone to call them, first ask if they have a moment to speak, or if you are catching them at a bad time," she says. It's a small, easy-to-forget courtesy, but one that goes a long way, Glickman says.

There is also no shortage of complaints these days that young people act "entitled" in the workplace. You aren't entitled to much as a young worker, and you need to show a level of respect for people who may, quite frankly, not show a lot of respect for you.

Williams recalls one young woman who told the owner of a company that she was "meddling" in a project she didn't need to be involved in. "There is an arrogance, like 'I know best, and the rules don't apply to me,'" Williams says. "That's wrong. There may be very few instances where you get respect for that sort of thing, but by and large that will work against you."

The same goes for criticizing existing systems before you understand them. The young assistant described above by the magazine industry professional made a faux pas by going to her boss about a very senior colleague who she believed was being difficult. "It erupted in a screaming match" between the three of them, the more senior colleague explains. "Her mistake wasn't playing a neutral role until she knew the workplace."

Responding to Requests

In responding to requests, be quick, be concise, and be conscious of who you're speaking to. If you are specifically addressed in a message, respond to it. If there's a greeting in the message (i.e., "Hi Jane,"), keep it in place until the other person drops the greeting altogether.

Timeliness -- especially when it involves a request from someone more senior than you -- can have a significant impact on your reputation. "You should respond immediately," says Glickman, but that doesn't have to mean you complete the request immediately if you have a lot of priorities on your plate. The key here, she says, is to simply tell them when you plan to get to it.

"Let me know what your timing is going to be," she says. "If you aren't going to get to it in three days, say 'Thanks so much, I received your request, I will look at this Wednesday, but let me know if you need it sooner." Then, it's your responsibility to remember to look at it on Wednesday and report back.

Second, do not send long-winded explanations over email at work. Unless you are completely certain that every last bit of detail is necessary, you want to make paragraphs no more than two or three average-length sentences, with the expectation that whoever is reading that email is probably going to just briefly scan it over to get the gist of it.

If you can tell that your boss didn't read through the message you sent her last week, chances are the email was too long. "If there are people above me who need to know the situation, boil it down to the most important point," Owens says. If you can't manage to make it concise, pick up the phone. "Sometimes you need to just talk," says Owens.

With your boss, it's your responsibility to ask your manager how and when they want to hear from you instead of assuming they will tell you themselves. "Be really clear with people about when and how they want to hear from you," Glickman says.

Dressing the Part

It's easy to get in the habit of dressing down for work, particularly if you're in an office that tends to dress casually. You shouldn't take that as an open invitation to wear jeans every day. "There is nothing wrong with being a little on the professional side of things," Owens says.

Pay attention when you're dressed up and dressed down: Are you being asked to work on assignments? Are you being asked for your opinion? Are you feeling disrespected by colleagues? Are you being put on desirable project teams? If you're feeling left out or unimportant, you should figure out who is being asked for those things, Owens says. "Use all of the clues surrounding you." If the only perceivable difference is your attire, consider reworking your wardrobe.

Women in particular need to dress the part. "In terms of clothing, hair and makeup, you need to appear one to two levels more conservatively than either you (a.) like or (b.) think you need to," says Glickman. That means the obvious, like no cleavage or short hemlines, and the less obvious, like heavy eye makeup, chipped nail polish, flip flops and knowing the difference between "dressing up" for the bar and the office.

Speaking up in Meetings

While saying too much as an office newbie can be damaging, not anything at all is a rookie mistake. Silence can be read as disinterest, unpreparedness or a lack of knowledge. You'll find it's hard to get ahead if you keep your head down instead of taking advantage of opportunities to productively contribute to office discussion and planning.

Meetings are where you can shine. Take time to prepare so your comments are relevant and contribute to the discussion. "When you are older and more experienced, you might make more off-the-cuff remarks," says Owens. "When you are new and the lowest on the totem pole, you might need to prepare. The opportunity to speak out might not come, but if you are prepared, you are ready if it does."

Arriving on time, which means five minutes early, and having a thorough understanding of the client and your company's history with them, for instance, or organized notes on the project you're assigned to goes a long way in the eyes of more senior colleagues. "Do the research so when you are walking into a meeting, you know something about that person," says Williams. "It is amazing to me how few people really do that."

Women in particular have a tendency to keep quiet in meetings. "Women tend to undermine themselves," Glickman says. "If you have a good idea, speak up, and don't always qualify it." That means eliminating phrases like "You may not agree," "This may sound stupid," or "Someone's probably come up with this already" from your go-to lexicon. Replace them with "Have we considered trying," or "I'd like to suggest we do," which are much more self-assured statements.

This self-assuredness goes a long way when it comes to moving upward into new and challenging roles, rather than remaining complacent with a fear of being unqualified for growth. "Starting from a junior age you should assume you should rise to a challenge, and that you can learn the ropes," Glickman says. "Go for opportunities you want, and be in the driver's seat for what you want to do."

Write to Kelly Eggers at kelly.eggers@dowjones.com



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