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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2010
How to "Ace" Your Freshman Year in the Workplace With C's: Culture, Competence, and Consequences
Paul Hettich, PhD, DePaul University (IL)

When you start to feel comfortable and confident as juniors and seniors often do, having declared the best academic major in school, established solid friendships, mastered multiple-choice tests, and "psyched-out” the tough teachers, it is time to think about becoming a freshman again.

Graduates seeking a career with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and fortunate enough to obtain a full-time job or better part-time employment (either a truly challenging position or a mind-numbing white collar assembly-line job) will enter a new organizational culture with new responsibilities, new relationships, and new challenges at a critical and long-anticipated life transition often characterized by high expectations, uncertainties, and self-doubt. You will be a humble freshman again but one now armed with a college education. Do not expect miracles from that degree during your first few years in the workplace but do expect life to be different from college. As you read, count the times expect or expectation appears; understanding how these terms apply may be critical to your success.

There are several important issues involved in the college-to-workplace transition, especially in an economic climate when bright, motivated graduates enter a poor job market carrying high loan debt and equally high hopes. Space does not permit me to address career planning, psychosocial and cognitive development, or managing finances. Instead, I will focus on three important but often ignored practical topics: culture (the customs, practices, and expectations of your new organization), competence (skills and qualities your employer expects you to use), and consequences (promotion, discipline, or termination which are based on your behaviors). If you have held full-time or several significant part-time jobs, you may know what I am talking about; if you have not, be ready to adjust your expectations and attitudes about the workplace even if you are a revered campus leader with a magna cum laude GPA. Organizations differ vastly, so many of my remarks are generalizations that may or may not apply to your particular situation as a student or a new employee.

In short, the behaviors that get new hires disciplined are those they should have avoided during college. Th e situations may differ and some differences are critical. For example, recall from Table 1 that in college you focus on your personal development. If as a student you lack commitment, fail to follow instructions, fail to take initiative, miss deadlines, communicate ineffectively, and are late for class or work, the consequences of your actions usually affect you alone. Th e same behaviors when exhibited in the workplace, however, can have negative consequences for your supervisor, coworkers, department, and possibly the whole organization—as well as your family who may depend on you. No wonder these behaviors are causes for discipline! If your first job is mind-numbing, you might respond as you did in college to that mind-numbing course. If you reacted in a negative

Culture
One of the best insights I can share was articulated by Holton and Naquin (2001) who maintain that college and work are essentially different.

The knowledge you acquired in college will be critical to your success, but the process of succeeding in school is very different from the process of succeeding at work. Certain aspects of your education may have prepared you to be a professional, but evidence from the workplace indicates that this is not enough for professional success (p. 7).

Several processes they refer to are embedded in your new organization’s culture and practices. Study the 16 general comparisons contained in Table 1 that summarizes results from a survey Holton (1998) conducted on college graduates. For example, students have been conditioned to expect frequent and specific feedback, but in most companies formal reviews are conducted only two or three times annually unless you fail in an assignment. In college you can choose to do "B” or "C” level work in some courses, but your supervisor will expect "A” level work continuously (and don’t look for "make-up” or "extra credit” assignments). In college you expect detailed syllabi; in your job expect less structure and more uncertainty. Your course grades are based primarily on individual effort, but teamwork is very common in the workplace. You can sit passively through most courses and earn "C” or better grades; in the workplace your supervisor and coworkers expect you to be an active participant and problem-solver (After all, you are a college graduate as are most of them). Perhaps most important, in college you focus on your development (intellectual, personal, moral, and social); in the workplace you concentrate on productivity and making your boss look good.

How do these comparisons apply to your current job? Will you be able to adapt quickly to specific practices that challenge you? Adaptability is a quality employers seek in new hires. I have encountered some graduates who adapted well and others, having entered with limited experience and unrealistic expectations, who described their experience as "a slap in the face” or "hitting a brick wall.” Be ready to quickly extinguish many habits and expectations to which you were conditioned since grammar school and rapidly substitute new behaviors.

Competence
The most revered measure of success in college is grades. Grades are an important criterion to over half of the companies participating in the annual NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) survey, and a GPA of 3.0 is the typical cut-off (NACE, 2009). Do not be surprised, however, if recruiters (sometimes called Talent Sourcers) show more interest in your ability to identify your specific competencies and apply them to their organization’s needs. Anticipate interviewers’ questions such as: "What would you do in the following situation?” Table 2 lists in descending order of importance the top 10 skills and qualities employers seek (NACE, 2009). Although you may not think of these everyday behaviors as transferable skills, you should be developing them directly or indirectly in your coursework, co-curricular activities, jobs, and interactions with others. Because syllabi and assignments in most schools seldom articulate competencies, your challenge is to identify particular situations in which such qualities are cultivated and subsequently translate them to resumes and job requirements. Fortunately, a strong correspondence exists between the NACE list and the benchmarks recommended for undergraduate psychology programs (Dunn, McCarthy, Baker, Halonen, & Hill, 2007). I encourage you to read the Dunn et al. article and compare the five student-related benchmarks to the NACE skills.

Ironically, although communications is regularly listed as the most important skill set in the NACE survey, employers report that new hires enter the workplace deficient in face-to-face communication, writing, teamwork, presentation, and overall interpersonal skills. Other deficiencies include the absence of a work ethic, time management, multi-tasking, realistic expectations, loyalty, maturity, and business etiquette (NACE, 2009). Review Table 2 and critically examine your coursework, job, and nonacademic experiences in which these qualities and competencies can be strengthened or are absent. Also, log on to the NACE student website at www.jobweb.com/studentarticles. aspx?id=2121 and explore these and other job-related issues. To rephrase a popular political slogan: It’s the skills, stupid (not just your GPA)!

Consequences
As a workplace freshman you are excited about your new challenges and relationships, but the bottom line will be the consequences of your actions (i.e., what you should do to avoid costly mistakes and earn promotion). Among the questions contained in his annual survey of employer hiring practices, Gardner (2007) inquired about factors that lead to the disciplining, fi ring, and promotion of college graduates. Table 3 presents the top 10 reasons why new employees are disciplined, ranked in order by mean score and listing the corresponding percentage at the high end of the scale. All 10 behaviors are an integral part of the overall college experience (e.g., work ethic/commitment; avoiding unethical behavior; inappropriate use of technology) or coursework and nonacademic activities.

In short, the behaviors that get new hires disciplined are those they should have avoided during college. The situations may differ and some differences are critical. For example, recall from Table 1 that in college you focus on your personal development. If as a student you lack commitment, fail to follow instructions, fail to take initiative, miss deadlines, communicate ineffectively, and are late for class or work, the consequences of your actions usually affect you alone. The same behaviors when exhibited in the workplace, however, can have negative consequences for your supervisor, coworkers, department, and possibly the whole organization—as well as your family who may depend on you. No wonder these behaviors are causes for discipline! If your first job is mind-numbing, you might respond as you did in college to that mind-numbing course. If you reacted in a negative manner think twice before you respond similarly in the workplace. Your job and a bad start to your career may be at stake.

Note that six of the causes for discipline (Table 3) are the same reasons new hires are terminated. Are there counterparts to these behaviors in college? Depending on the situation(s), perseverance of the behaviors, and other factors, such acts may contribute to low grades, academic probation, and even expulsion. Students who strive to develop the positive habits opposite those negative behaviors will be rewarded in many ways.

On the positive side, Table 4 presents a cluster of qualities Gardner compiled from employer responses that lead new hires to promotions and new assignments. If you log on to www.ceri.msu.edu, link to Publications, and locate the Gardner (2007) study (see references), additional information is available, including specific definitions for many terms contained in Table 4. Th at list should not surprise you because these characteristics contribute to your success in the classroom, your job, co-curricular activities, and your relationships. Finally, search for the overlap between Table 3 and Table 4 behaviors and their positive or negative counterparts on the Table 2 skills list. Informally compare these tables to the expectations your teachers and your employer have of you. What do you conclude?

Concluding Comments
How many times did the words expect and expectation occur in this article? Like your next boss, I’ll let you find the answer. I have met several employers who consistently report that for most new graduates, their unrealistic expectations pose a major problem.

You can succeed during your freshman year in the workplace with C’s. Your corporate culture will differ from your college environment in numerous ways that you must become aware of and adapt to quickly. Competencies and skills replace GPA as the measure of your success; several of these you acquire during college and are very similar to the ones employers are seeking in their candidates. Finally, many consequences of positive and negative behaviors exhibited in college and workplace are identical, so continue to accentuate the positive habits, attitudes, and competencies; eliminate the negatives; and enjoy the journey into the next chapter in your life.

References
Dunn, D. S., McCarthy, M. A., Baker, S., Halonen, J. S., & Hill, G. W., IV. (2007). Quality benchmarks in undergraduate programs. American Psychologist, 62, 650-670.

Gardner, P. (2007). Moving up or moving out of the company? Factors that influence the promoting or firing of new college hires (Research Brief 1-2007). Retrieved from Michigan State University Collegiate Employment Research Institute website: www.ceri.msu.edu

Hettich, P. I., & Helkowski, C. (2005). Connect college to career: A student’s guide to work and life transitions. Belmont, CA: Thomson/ Wadsworth Publishers.

Holton, E. F., III. (1998). Preparing students for life beyond the classroom. In J. N. Gardner, G. Van der Veer, & Associates The senior year experience: Facilitating integration, reflection, closure, and transition (pp. 95-115). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Holton, E. F., III, & Naquin, S. S. (2001). How to succeed in your first job: Tips for new college graduates. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). (2009). Job outlook 2009—How you fi t into the tight job market. Retrieved from www.jobweb.com/studentarticles.aspx?id=2121

Additional Resources
Arnett, J. J., & Tanner, J.L. (Eds.). (2006). Emerging adults in America: Coming of age in the 21st century. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Carducci, B. J. (2000). The successfully shy worker. In Shyness: A bold new approach (pp. 308-337). New York, NY: Quill/Harper Collins.

Fisher, S. Y., & Shelly, S. (2005). The complete idiot’s guide to personal finance in your 20’s and 30’s (3rd Ed). New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Furman, E. (2005). Boomerang nation. How to survive living with your parents…the second time around. New York, NY: Fireside.

Landrum, R. E. (2009). Finding jobs with a psychology bachelor’s degree: Expert advice for launching your career. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Levit, A. (2009). They don’t teach corporate in college: A Twentysomething’s guide to the business world (2nd Ed.). Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.

Peterson, C., Park, N., Hall, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2009). Zest and work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 13, 161-172. doi: 10,1002/job.584

Robbins, A., & Wilner, A. (2001). Quarterlife crisis: The unique challenges of life in your twenties. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Smith, W. S. (2008). Decoding generational differences: Fact, fiction …or should we just get back to work? Retrieved from Deloitte Development LLC website: http://www.deloitte.com/view/en_US/us/article/5abf899a961fb110Vgn

Wilner, A., & Stocker, C. (2005). Quarterlifer’s companion: How to get on the right career path, control your finances, and find the support network you need to thrive. Retrieved from http://www. quarterlifecrisis.com/about_qlc.shtml


Paul Hettich, PhD, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University (IL), was an Army personnel psychologist, program evaluator in an education R&D lab, and a corporate applied scientist—positions that created a "real world” foundation for his career in college teaching and administration. He was inspired to write about college-to-workplace readiness issues by graduates and employers who revealed a major disconnect between university and workplace expectations, cultures, and practices.

Copyright 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



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Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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