"I love Your First Year of Work - A Survival Guide. Every college and university should have this book, in numbers, in their libraries, bookstores, and Career Centres.” - Prof Jonathan Jansen, Rector UFS


Shelagh's Blog

What newbies fear most

‘There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Or so the saying goes. This may be true in a life of perfect mindfulness, but for someone entering the workplace for the first time (or starting a new job), fears abound.

When I work with young graduates, interns and jobseekers, I always ask what they most fear, and every time, I hear similar stories.

Lukhanyo was a graduate attendee of a bridging programme. He was very smart, very outspoken. He didn’t strike me as the kind of man who’d quake in the presence of anyone, but his greatest fear was being bullied – being bullied and not able to retaliate, that is. His concern was that he’d get pushed around at work, with no power of redress. “When you’re new, they always think they can put everything on you and make you do all the work. How do you say no when this happens? And what should you do when you are always the one who has to miss lunch or work late because no one cares that you have a life?” Just about everyone else in the group nodded in agreement. They anticipated being in for a hard time and believed that they would have no say in the matter.

Alice’s fear was different. She expected to have an almighty workload and very little moral support, but she was afraid that every good idea she had would be ‘stolen’ by someone ‘higher up’; that she would not be recognised for being innovative and smart.

This one surprised me. Is this a common fear? It seems that it is. Two months after I met Alice, I raised the issue with a group of BCom graduates. A good 50 percent said they would be reluctant to share their ideas for fear of someone else claiming them. The rest thought this thinking was mad; and that an idea shared is an idea more likely to become reality.

Let’s address Lukhanyo’s fear for a moment. Is it realistic? Do your more seasoned staff bully the newcomers? Would you know if they did? And what, in your mind, constitutes ‘bullying’?

Personally, I thought Lukhanyo was a little naïve in thinking he wouldn’t have to work overtime, wouldn’t have to do much of the donkey work. In my experience, the ‘deep end’ approach is not a bad one, as long as it accompanies mentorship, training and support. Were this young man and his fellow students really so afraid of hard work?

The fear behind the fear

It turns out that the work wasn’t the concern at all. After some digging, I discovered it was the working late, the missing lunch that was the real issue. Working late means a later taxi; being too late to buy food on the way home; too late to pick up a daughter or little brother from the crèche; too late to get the supper on before mom gets home.

Missing lunch means being hungry. The vast majority of the participants in that workshop rarely ate before leaving for college or that particular programme. Most of them arrived pretty hungry, but were determined to stay focussed until the refreshment break. Lunch time was a seriously big deal because the next meal might only be seven hours later.

I know that work has to be done, that workplace newbies should be challenged. But I also know that we face specific realities in this country. No. Not only this country. Other countries’ workforces are also vastly populated by people who travel great distances; don’t drive their own cars; don’t have adequate childcare support; don’t have a handy discount supermarket down the road.

This is worth bearing in mind when making what might appear to be perfectly reasonable demands on your employees.

Back to Alice

I like Alice’s thinking because she already knows that she’s an innovator, an ideas person. I would like to reassure all such people that no one else will lay claim to their great thoughts, but I know from personal experience that this isn’t always the case. What I do recommend is that they write their ideas down, preferably in an email. Share the idea, but put your name on it. Not only so you can politely say, “I completely agree! If you recall, that’s what I mentioned in my email last week and I would love to work with you on this,” but so you can connect with others and grow your idea. This approach is far more effective than wailing, ‘Hey! That was my idea!’

Other concerns that I picked up on might seem trivial, but keeping an open mind can go a long way towards understanding, and managing, your new employees’ fears. Consider my suggestions for the following:

“I won’t understand the work.”

To employees: When in doubt, first try to figure it out and, if you can’t, ask the right person to guide you. Don’t allow yourself to live in a state of panicky ignorance.

To employers: Encourage your staff to be honest about their understanding of their work. Ignorance is never bliss in the workplace. Encourage them to seek information/solutions before asking someone to help them, but always provide assistance when asked.

“I don’t have the right clothes.”

To employees: When you go for your interview, observe what others at your level are wearing, and copy them. Rather have three appropriate work outfits that you can wash and wear, rather than loads of clothes that make you look fabulous but aren’t work appropriate.

To employers: Allow a little leeway with new employees; what to wear is not always obvious. Tactfully point out if something is completely wrong or inappropriate for your working environment.

“What if I won’t like the job?”

To employees: Firstly take a look at your expectations; very few people love their jobs from day one and it usually takes a while to get the hang of things, and to fit in. If it’s a people issue, try to resolve that in a non-confrontational way. If you don’t like the actual work, give it a few months. If it turns out that you are actually the wrong person for that job, keep offering 100 percent, while looking for something more suited to you (just not during working hours).

To employers: It can be extremely frustrating having a staff member who openly dislikes his job. As an employer or manager, it is to your benefit to find out what the problem is. Often it is just one aspect of the work that’s causing the unhappiness. If you can help resolve this, you’ll have one very loyal worker.

(2 March 2015)

Sorry, I’m on the phone

When I was writing Your First Year of Work – A Survival Guide I asked employers which new-employee behaviours most bugged them. Cellphone and telephone usage topped the list.

I once joined a company at which there worked a recently appointed assistant by the name of Amy*. Amy’s job was, well, to assist myself and another, which she would do in a so-so fashion, when she wasn’t busy yakking on the phone.

Now Amy wasn’t a naturally devious person and she adhered to the company rule of not making personal calls during working hours. So she got her boyfriend, father, best mate to call her; either on her cellphone or the landline. Brilliant. But what Amy, and the company, forgot to factor in was the hidden cost.

I did a quick sum: if Amy was paid R7,500 per month and spent an estimated 60 minutes of her eight-hour day on personal calls, then she was flushing R937.50 of the company’s money down the toilet. This was money she was being paid, but was not earning.

As this was a small company and everyone reported directly to the CEO, I brought this to the CEO's attention and she suggested – quite reasonably – that I manage the situation. I suggested – equally reasonably – that such challenges might be avoided if she amended the company policy, but I’m not sure if that ever happened.

After another day of observing – and hearing – Amy’s behaviour I stopped practising conflict avoidance and recommended that she keep her personal calls for her lunch break. Her response? ‘I like to eat and read my book at lunch time.’ I then mentioned that she was wasting valuable work time; to which she responded that she was quite capable of talking and working. If this was the case I might have conceded the point, but her work wasn’t of a high standard and she needed all the help she could get to improve matters. She was most unhappy when I pointed this out, and spent the next twenty minutes outside, on her cellphone, telling her boyfriend what a monster I was. (I’m not making this up.)

Another matter I raised was that no one was able to talk to her while she was on the phone. I couldn’t ask for her assistance, and clients and colleagues were getting tired of leaving voice messages.

I was brought up to not interrupt people while they were on the phone – regardless of their age or position – so I found it extremely difficult to walk up to her and instruct her to terminate her call. I needn’t have worried about being rude: when I did attempt to do so, she turned her back and carried on talking. On one occasion I even resorted to emailing her a ‘please come and speak to me when you’ve finished talking to your dad’. Amy was furious; utterly indignant that I’d dare make such demands. What was I thinking?

If you’re now convinced that Amy was in fact the monster and I should have been a whole lot tougher, think on this: Amy truly believed she was entitled to jabber away on the phone – as long as she wasn’t the one running up the phone bill. She firmly believed that to suggest otherwise was unreasonable. And she firmly believed that grass would be softer on the other side, so she left to seek her fortune.

Sadly, unless Amy gets her act together, she won’t find her fortune. She’ll hop from job to job, leaving before she’s accumulated enough skills to move vertically rather than horizontally. She will continue to waste company resources and she will remain under-productive. As long as she refuses to accept that business rules are often not the same as her social rules, she will hold herself back.

When I tell workshop participants this story, I make it about them: what they can learn and how they can become more productive; how they can benefit from playing by the house rules; how being seen to be productive and dedicated will pay off. But managers and employees also have a responsibility to ensure that the rules make sense and are clearly communicated. Oddly enough, in my experience very few young employees feel that being asked to curtail personal calls is unreasonable, while many employers respond with: "I would love to be able to tell them to get off the phone, but I don't have the courage."

*Not her real name.