17 Things New College Grads Get Wrong at Their First Job


New jobs are always full of adjustments, even more so when you are a new college grad leaving the academic world for the first ‘real’ job of your career. For all the things that new grads get right, it only takes a few mistakes to significantly derail the critical stages early in your career. Learn the common mistakes and misunderstandings and share them with other new grads.

Thinking Human Resources is There to Protect Employees

Repeat after me, HR IS NOT MY FRIEND. Human Resources works for the company, not for the employees. There was a time up until the 1970s that Human Resources embraced advocating for employees as a primary role, but not anymore. With union membership on the decline and increasing regulations for worker protections, the role of HR has shifted to protecting the company. HR serves as a ‘compliance cop’ to keep the company out of trouble with the government for sexual harassment, discrimination, wages/overtime, wrongful termination, and other labor laws.

During the hiring and onboarding process, new hires have significant interactions with HR members and will view HR as a resource to help them with their problems. This shapes the pattern for how new grads see HR – as an advocate for the employees within the corporate machine. Their view is reinforced when they observe HR involvement with a workplace conflict that results in changes to leadership behavior or how a policy is implemented.

There are many excellent HR professionals that strive for a positive outcome for everyone involved. But it is important to remember HR exists to protect the company.

According to a 2017 study by the Society for Human Resource Management, 65% of workers think that respectful treatment of employees at all levels is very important but only 38% of respondents were very satisfied with their current company performance. Similarly, 61% rate trust between employees and senior management as very important, but only 33% were very satisfied. Human Resources is the team responsible for managing the messaging and cultivating a positive relationship, the survey indicates most workers want more.

Expecting Their Boss to be Competent

Throughout their college experience, students are led by professors and upperclassmen that have more direct knowledge and experience in the exact subject matter than they do, so it is no surprise that students think that pattern will continue. Even their jobs and internships up until that point were supervised by people that likely performed the same responsibilities previously.

New grads are frequently surprised and think it is ridiculous that their boss doesn’t know their job and couldn’t execute their responsibilities if needed, not knowing that this is the normal situation in business. Managers get paid to manage, not jump in and do the job every time there is a problem.

Make no mistake, the Peter Principle and Peter’s Corollary are real, but these truisms do not mean that every boss is incompetent at their job.

In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

Peter Principle

In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.

Peter’s Corollary

Many excellent leaders are fully capable of running their teams, even though at a certain point it is impossible to be able to execute every function themselves.

Not Knowing How to Handle Ambiguity

In the academic world, students are assigned work with the knowledge that everything they need to succeed is at their disposal. Professors and teaching assistants hold office hours for questions, necessary information is available in reference materials, and other students in class form a built-in support network because they are going through the same challenges. Except for research projects, students operate with the confidence that at least one ‘correct answer’ does in fact exist.

However, the day to day reality in the business world is much different. New company initiatives get rolled out with only a vague message and oftentimes little infrastructure or resources to support. As an employee, you are expected to figure it out and deliver a result. You can ask for help and additional resources, but in many cases nobody has an off-the-shelf solution to your problem and budget limitations restrict spending.

Another common scenario is when current business practices actually create a problem and you are tasked with resolving the issue. There were valid reasons why each part of the process was put in place, but now the negative consequences need to be dealt with – if there was an easy solution it would have already been fixed.

Inaction is almost always the wrong answer. You know you have to do something, so get started. You will never have all the answers nor will you have complete information. Do the legwork to get enough information to get started and then adjust and adapt as you proceed.

Expecting They Will Have the Resources They Need to Succeed

I have never met an employee that says ‘we have all the headcount and budget we need to beat our goals’. Companies are always trying to do more with less, in order to minimize costs and maximize profits. In many cases, senior leadership intentionally sets aspirational goals that seem far out of reach based on current results and the time & resources allocated. Incremental goals foster incremental improvements, stretch goals sometimes yield breakthrough results.

Managers hate hearing employees whine about how they need more budget, more time, more resources – so don’t be one of the complainers. Instead, form your requests as a proposal using the CAR technique. State the Challenge, give your recommended Action, and state the Result you expect to achieve. In simple terms, view the discussion as a transaction that needs to benefit both parties – in exchange for these resources I commit to deliver this result.

Trusting the Company Has a Plan for Their Career Progression

College grads just completed a well-defined degree plan that provides flexibility for concentrations and interests while also providing clear criteria for completion. All students who satisfy the requirements are guaranteed to get their degree. Contrast this with how promotions and transfers are handled at many companies. There can be long periods of stability punctuated by unexpected resignations and dynamic business conditions.

Even if the company does have career paths mapped out and defined, they are frequently misinterpreted by new employees. It is virtually unheard of for a company to provide a roadmap with the commitment ‘after completing these requirements you will receive the promotion’, but that is frequently how employees view career paths because it resembles their degree plan. In the best of cases, companies view career paths as ‘minimum requirements to be eligible for promotion’ with no assurances that meeting those criteria will result in any benefit at all.

Related to this, many employees think that if they get a certification or additional degree they will automatically advance at work. I experienced this most frequently with staff that took night/weekend classes to complete their MBA. When they informed me of their accomplishment I would congratulate them, and then they would look at me expectantly like I was trying to build suspense. They were taken aback when I explained that an MBA degree isn’t valued by the company for their position (the high tech sector put much higher value on subject matter expertise rather than general business acumen).

Employees should have career goals that they discuss with their boss about how to work towards them in the next 1-2 years, but don’t expect your company or your boss to map out your career for you. Even if you are the type of employee who is ambitious and wants to move up by working harder, know that even good bosses can only support your interests if they are aware. Be open with your professional objectives and try to align them with business needs for the best results.

Not Matching Their Work Style to Company Culture

This is a tricky topic because there is so much variation between companies, teams, and even projects. The same characteristics that make someone an excellent outside salesperson will not produce the same result on a media team that requires close cooperation. Employees need to follow guidance from their leadership team to know what is expected and take cues from coworkers to integrate into the existing work culture.

Not Showing Enough Initiative

Some new grads come in so passive or risk-averse that they don’t take action unless prodded and then only after excessive confirmation. There are so many things you don’t know when you first start a job but don’t expect to be shown every little item. Many questions can be answered by looking at examples or finding a reference file on the team drive. Use Google for basic how-to questions in standard systems.

Everyone around you will probably be busy and it may seem like you are intruding on their time. Make yourself useful and take some time to figure out how you can help them. Step up and dive into something important. Don’t bring every little difficulty for your boss to solve, instead approach them with action plans for what you will do to overcome the challenges.

You goal is to make yourself indispensable. Even if you fall a little short you will have made yourself valuable. Learn as much as you can and don’t get complacent. Remember you were hired to solve a problem and provide value to the company. Speak up and contribute, a fresh perspective can breathe new life into pivotal decisions or reveal a new way to tackle an ongoing problem.

Not Collaborating Enough With Coworkers

Some new grads come in overconfident thinking that their education means they know how to do their job, sometimes even better than than the people that currently own the responsibilities. Be trainable. Your first job is to learn how to do your job – including why things are the way they are currently – before you start making changes. Stay humble and let the people on your team show you what they know.

Beware of reinventing the wheel. Every process can be improved, but there’s a time and place for it, and not every improvement is worth the investment or disruption. Improvements should support your department objectives and your goal is to make changes seamless with existing workflows and activities.

When you are new to a job function a lot what looks like miraculous fortune-telling turns out just to be pattern-recognition. Value the experience of coworkers that have been around the block a few times. With time you will also notice the same issues happen again and again, which means you can anticipate them and minimize their impact. It’s hard to accelerate this experience, but you can take lessons learned from other fields and apply them to your current situation.

Believing That Asking Questions Is a Sign of Weakness

Everyone learns at a different pace. It’s OK to not know something and ask questions, but it is not OK to repeat the same mistakes. Make sure to take notes on key points and find out the location of reference material and procedures. A common mistake from new grads is they do things outside their scope without being trained and without asking what they should do. Ignorance is not an excuse and ‘I was just trying to help’ only goes so far when there are serious negative consequences. If you don’t know how to do something, get help. Screwing up something important is worse than looking dumb.

The best employees operate in the middle ground where they are self aware and have confidence in what they know. They ask good, clarifying questions when they get beyond their scope of knowledge and responsibility. They ask for help when they need it and they don’t let problems fester. When you make a mistake, own it and calmly work to get it fixed. Avoiding problems just makes them worse.

Being a Pest Instead of Just Persistent or Not Communicating Enough

Communicating in the right ways and the right amounts can be tricky for new college grads to navigate. Some start their new job and are intent on making a great first impression. In their eagerness, they followup incessantly on every delay even when what they are working on is relatively unimportant. The flip side of this is the new grad that treats work like another assignment at school. They get the request and then never communicate status updates until the due date. Even if they deliver good results on-time, that is not how most businesses operate and there are probably coworkers who are dissatisfied.

Getting Easily Frustrated by Mindless Low-level Tasks

Its the nature of entry-level positions, the mindless, repetitive tasks still have to get done and you are the low person on the totem pole. Complaining about them only shows a lack of maturity. Once you have consistently demonstrated complete proficiency in the tasks, then work to make them easier to complete or automate them and eliminate the work entirely. Bosses will use these activities as proving grounds, once they can trust you 100% on the simple work they will give you opportunities to dive into the higher-level work that is more impactful.

Not Realizing They Are in Competition With Their Coworkers

Many companies will have hiring waves and bring in a cadre of new college grads all at the same time. These coworkers for a valuable professional network because you go through the same onboarding procedures and have similar career arcs, at least at the start. You should absolutely become friends and socialize outside of work as well, just keep in mind that not everyone operates with the same integrity or ethical standards. The conversation about an annoying boss you had at the bar over beers may get back to them. Some people don’t hesitate to be cutthroat if they think it will be to their advantage.

Another common mistake is sitting at your desk openly scrolling through social media on your phone or watching videos on your work computer. Salaried employees have a lot of flexibility when it comes to work, but even if you don’t have an immediate task it is never good for your boss to see you slacking off just because you see coworkers doing it. Your actions affect your neighbors, if you are taking a break then its best to get up from your normal workstation.

When you are not busy, use your time to get ahead with your upcoming projects or see if you can help someone else with their work. Being proactive in asking for more work you will naturally expand your knowledge and capability over time, which can lead to an expanded role and responsibilities.

Lacking Business Etiquette Skills

Email, instant messaging, Slack – all are excellent tools to use to collaborate with coworkers, and also easy ways to annoy them to no end. Learn how to manage your email distribution to the appropriate recipients and don’t use Reply All for everything.

Pro Tip: Leave the distribution fields blank until you have finished composing your email and attaching files, that way you avoid accidentally sending a work in progress before it is ready.

Learn the company culture regarding response times and align your expectations. If the rest of the company treats email as ‘I’ll read messages flagged URGENT sometime today’ you are going to be disappointed if you need a response in the next hour. Find out what is normal for those situations (phone call, text message, in-person visit to their desk?) and adapt. Answer your work phone professionally and always identify yourself. A simple greeting like ‘Accounting, this is Jane’ works for all inside calls and you can use the company name for outside calls.

Everyone knows that ‘the Internet is forever’ – everything sent over the internet or cell phone is stored in a server with backups. Assume the same for your digital items at work. Your work email is not private and is not owned by you. If you don’t want it read aloud by a lawyer in court, don’t put it in an email. Angry emails sent by mistake, the racy pic you sent to a coworker at bar time, or the sarcastic text message sent after an ’emergency’ in the middle of the night – if done on work equipment can be read by your company and will be backed up even if deleted from your local device.

Ignoring Their Employer’s 401(k) Plan

Always save at least the minimum required to get the company matching funds if offered. Many people live the ‘starving student’ lifestyle to earn their degree and there is a natural desire to let loose and live a little once they start earning a regular paycheck. The thing about human nature is that we will let our expenses grow to match our available income. It is much easier to start your retirement savings from the start so that you never see the money in your bank account and never get used to spending it.

When you contribute enough to get your company match it is like getting a guaranteed return on your investment, usually 50% or more depending on your plan. Sure, that money is for retirement but the power of compounded returns is a wonderful thing and starting early gives you a tremendous advantage.

Not Understanding the Human Aspect of Work Decisions

Companies are run by people, so even in the most data-driven environment the people aspects are still important. Many work cultures champion the idea of ‘let the best idea win on its merits’ but the effectiveness of the people advocating for something is always a factor. Personalities matter. The reality is that in every decision business constraints and personal relationship factor into the outcome.

Most employees experience this when it comes to performance recognition. Your boss can deliver unlimited amounts of praise and recognition certificates, but when it comes to promotions and financial compensation there are budgets and limits. Many performance metrics can be measured, but equally important to your KPI performance is how you achieved it – are you an arsehole that nobody wants to work with, or are you a multiplier that increases the performance of everyone around you?

Cultivate a positive working relationship with everyone you encounter, including cleaning staff, food service, interns, and contractors. Treat them with integrity and respect because it is the right way to treat other people and because you never know what position they will be in 5-10 years from now. The person you step on during your climb may end up being your boss.

Companies continue to struggle with balancing the perception of unfair performance evaluation systems with the reality that some form of system is necessary. In the worst examples, highly competitive fields have their office politics devolve into a swamp of backstabbing and manipulation. The course of action is clear – understand how the game is played at your workplace, otherwise you are likely to get played.

Thinking the Company is Responsible for Their Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance is a spectrum. At one end you have a happy-go-lucky lifestyle that bounces from job to job as you need income. In the middle is a perfect balance with equal satisfaction from both your professional and personal life. At the other end, you have workaholics that suffer from burnout and find little satisfaction outside of work.

When it comes to your workplace, put at least 10x more weighting on their actions over their words. Many companies talk a good talk about work-life balance, but consistently demand long hours and expect an unrelenting pace of deliverables. Production environments are notorious for being a grind, there is always another target and the next deadline but frankly every company has its own crunch time with higher demands.

Inexperienced managers think they are helping when they rally support ‘We just need to push through this deadline and then we will have a break’, but then the next wave hits and the next. Employees quickly catch on to the pattern of broken promises and lose confidence in leadership.

As an employee, you need to set a sustainable pace for yourself. Think marathon instead of a sprint, and have a reserve in your tank with another gear for real emergencies. You can and should discuss your workload with your boss, but only you can determine when you need to take a break to recharge or if the job expectations are sustainable in the long-term.

Attaching Too Much Self-Worth to Their Job

It may seem counterintuitive after working the first 22+ years of your life to obtain a college degree, but remember that even your dream job is just a job. You might be let go tomorrow, and if it happens you should be disappointed but don’t let that destroy your self-image. Take pride in your accomplishments, celebrate your achievements, and learn from your mistakes.

Have personal goals and career milestones independent of your job. Remember to create a life outside of work. Once you know who you are and what you are working for, satisfaction comes from within. There will be many ups and downs that are completely outside of your control due to business conditions. Good companies respect their employees and value their contributions, but know that your job will get along just fine without you. If you are unhappy with your work situation, don’t feel guilty about making a change.

Take your vacation days and recharge regularly. Know that it is OK not to agree with every request your company makes of you – you can push back on intrusive demands and not just be a doormat for your boss. Don’t let your job define you. During our working careers, we spend more time at our jobs that we do with our family. Work takes a lot of our energy, and it should – work matters. Our career is a key component of a life well-lived, but just a component.

Dan Sawyer

Founding editor and head writer of ExpertEmployee.com. Dan is a job interview and career expert, with more than 20 years of experience in senior roles at high tech leaders Space Exploration Technologies and Samsung Austin Semiconductor.

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