Hidden Work Rules They Don’t Teach You in School

I’ve been doing the full-time work thing for almost five years now.  During university I also did four co-op work terms, which had me slugging it 9 to 5 every other semester starting in my second year.  I thought I had it all figured out when I graduated.  But there are certain things that you don’t necessarily learn until you’ve been on the job for a while, and I’m here to share, enlighten, or maybe just offer a friendly reminder of the hidden rules I’ve picked up.  Whether you’re an accountant, a teaching assistant, a marketing manager or a sweater-folder at the Gap, here are a few tips and tricks that are sure to get you moving up – fast.  See you at the top, ladies! Do every job well. On the first day at my first co-op job, my very first task was – I kid you not – getting an extra hot grande soy latte from the Starbucks across the street for the Executive Director.   I wrote down the order, went to Starbucks, fetched the coffee and brought it back.  The ED was pleased.  My next task was to make photocopies of a rather large document and collate the pages into a coiled book.  I made sure I had all the pages and that they were in order, and then used the in-house hole puncher to finish off the coiled book.  The ED took that to a Very Important Meeting.  Pretty soon I was being asked to write content for the web, create posters and flyers, and get on the phone with high-level people I didn’t think I would ever get to talk to, being the lowly co-op student.  Don’t be impatient for seniority.  The way to get promoted from assistant is to be a fantastic assistant.

Cover your tracks with emails. People are busy.  People are doing a million things at once.  I find that unless things are written down, it’s almost like they never happened.  After meetings or phone calls, I always write emails to those I’m working with to confirm action items and follow-up info.  Not only is this appreciated at the executive level, but it’s also a way for me to recap what I’m responsible for and make sure that I’m on the right track, too.

Keep a “Yay Me!” file. It doesn’t have to be called that, but you should keep a running list of all your accomplishments and successes.  Use this when it comes time for your performance review, or when you’re updating your resume.  When you’re able to demonstrate your success using tangible examples, good things happen – a promotion, a raise, a better job elsewhere, your boss’ utmost respect.  It’s a win-win all around.

Be honest if you make a mistake. Nobody is perfect, and no one expects you to be either.  If you make a mistake, own it.  Apologize once and then get to work trying to fix it.  Bosses like results and solutions.  You’re allowed to quietly beat yourself up for one day only (because I know all you YWiB-ers are perfectionists and probably stress big-time if you screw up – I’m one of you, too!), then move on.  Making mistakes means you’re trying, and the important thing is to learn from them.

Know when to trade up. I grew up with baby-boomer parents who worked because they had to take care of their families – not necessarily because they got a thrill from the jobs they were doing.  I personally want to like my work.  So when I found myself getting bored and complacent at a job I had done for about three years, I knew it was time to start looking for something else.  Of course, I could have stayed, because I was getting paid well, I knew everybody, it was downtown and I was comfortable.  The thing is, though, you don’t learn anything about who you are or what you’re capable of when you’re comfortable.  It’s only outside of your comfort zone that you really figure out what you can do.  Stretch yourself a little, and know that it’s perfectly fine – expected, even – to want something different.  You don’t have employment ADD – you just want to think more, do more, and be more.  And that’s okay.

And one last itty bitty rule that people seem to forget...it’s always better to be overdressed than under. Dress pants > jeans. Blouses > t-shirts. Heels > flats. If you have to ask yourself “Would this be okay at the office?” it’s probably not.


Are there any other rules you’ve learned while on the job?  Is there anything that you’ve learned the hard way?  Share with us!