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New Graduates: These Are The Unspoken Rules Of The Workplace No One Tells You

Entering the workforce for the first time can be a shock to the system. Here’s what you need to know.

New Graduates: These Are The Unspoken Rules Of The Workplace No One Tells You
[Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty]

Graduation is an exciting (and scary) time; you’re leaving a world where you know all the rules and entering into a world where what’s expected of you often isn’t so clear cut. The rules that truly matter in the workplace are often not written anywhere–they’re simply things that those who have been in it for a while consider to be obvious.

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Many learn these unspoken rules through trial and error, and some do it by observing others’ mistakes. But if you’re a recent graduate, there’s no reason why you can’t get a head start on day one of your entry-level job.

Rule No. 1: You Are There To Do Your Job

This might seem very obvious, but according to Lauren Berger, founder and CEO of InternQueen.com, graduates’ desire to go “above and beyond” can sometimes result in them being spread too thin and compromising the work that they were hired to do in the first place.


Related: The Skills It Takes To Get Hired At Google, Facebook, Amazon And More 


Berger tells Fast Company, “You might be good at everything, but when you’re hired for the job, you have to focus on the task at hand.” She recalls a conversation she had with a talented graduate who recently landed a sales job. He eagerly took on extra responsibilities, only to be told by his boss some time later that he was on the verge of being let go. 

He wasn’t meeting expectations when it came to his primary responsibilities. “Sometimes as a young employee, you have to hold back,” Berger asserts. 

Rule No. 2: It’s Up To You To Figure Things Out

When you’re in college, you’re given a syllabus of readings, assignments, and exam dates. You know exactly what you are supposed to do by which date, and you have a person who tells you what you need to learn, and who points you in the right direction when you’re completely lost.

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This is not the case in the workplace, says Porter Braswell, CEO and cofounder of Jopwell, a recruitment platform that serves Black, Latino/Hispanic and Native American professionals. Braswell, who started his post-collegiate career as an analyst for Goldman Sachs, tells Fast Company that one of the things he wishes he’d done earlier on was to figure out what skill sets he needed to learn, and build relationships with those who can teach him those skills. “Learning doesn’t happen like it does in the classroom,” Braswell says. “Nobody is going to sit down and teach you.”

Rule No. 3: Feedback Will Not Come Automatically

Braswell also points out that school is structured in a way where immediate feedback is built into the grading system. But in the workplace, he says, “You’re not getting graded on every single task that you do. You might not know where you stand every single week.” This uncertainty, Braswell says, can come to a shock to many.

In many cases, it’s up to you to ask for feedback, but it’s also important that you pick the right circumstances and ask the right questions. Asking your manager “how I’m doing,” for example, might not elicit the most helpful response. It’s better to be specific and give your manager the opportunity to tell you what you’ve done well and what you could improve.

Rule No. 4: Attention To Detail Is Extremely Important

For Berger, who started her career as an assistant at an entertainment and sports agency, one of her biggest struggles was thinking about everything on a micro level. “The hardest thing for me was being able to think in a detailed-oriented manner. My brain just wasn’t set up to think like that.” She gives the example of booking a lunch meeting for her boss, and failing to consider the possibility that there might be seven different locations for the restaurant, or to check for parking spots.

As a junior employee, it’s highly likely that you’ll be tasked with administrative duties at some point, which might seem mundane but also equally easy to mess up. At times, the cost of these mistakes might be small, but there will be times where not paying attention to detail can hurt the company, and perhaps even put your job in jeopardy.

Rule No. 5: Understanding How You Fit In The Bigger Picture Goes A Long Way

When graduates are hired into an organization, they’re not always exposed to how their specific role helps the company as a whole. Braswell says, “When you come in as a new person, you’re very focused and you become specialized in what you do, and because you’re learning it for the first time, it’s hard to see a bigger picture.” Had he understood this earlier in his career, Braswell believed that he could have been more creative and effective in his job.

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Related: Gen Z Is Starting To Graduate College This Year, With Lots Of Debt And Optimism


Understanding how your role fits into the bigger picture will also help you find more meaning in your work, because you know why what you do matters, even if it seems like a very tiny slice of the pie. Not only will you be better served to come up with solutions and initiatives that move the company forward (without compromising your main responsibilities), you’re more likely to be satisfied and engaged in your job. Given the amount of time you’ll spend at work in your lifetime, a happy work life is a crucial ingredient to a happy life.

Rule No. 6: Companies Are Not Obliged To Consider Your Needs And Interests

This one is perhaps the hardest to swallow, but other than what they’re required to do by law and what’s stated on your employment agreement, in most instances, companies don’t owe you anything. As an employee, your job is to bring value to the company, and at times, that might mean putting their needs ahead of yours.

Frida Polli, CEO and cofounder of predictive hiring startup Pymetrics, tells Fast Company that one of the biggest shocks she experienced as a new graduate was “going from an environment like school where you are the consumer and everyone is catering to you, to a place where you are a worker and people expect that you cater to them. It’s an important transition to learn how to manage well, because it’s a big change in how one is treated.”

Rule No. 7: No One Will Care About Your Career As Much As You

At the end of the day, organizations exist to make money or serve a specific mission, not to think about how they can best serve an employee’s career. Sometimes, that could mean figuring out how you want to grow, and designing that framework yourself if there is none in your job or your company.

Maria Ocampo, manager at talent management platform CornerstoneOnDemand, says that she sees a lot of graduates paralyzed and lost without a specific structure and instructions to succeed. “For the first time in your life, you don’t have a framework that somebody put together for you to grow.” 

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As a graduate, it’s important to decide early on what success in the workplace looks like for you, and understand that no one will be as invested in the results as much as you will. It’s very rare that you’ll have someone looking over your shoulder every day to check on your career progress.

Both Berger and Braswell also stress the importance of asking questions during the interview process and talking to other employees to find out what it’s really like to work at the company before you start. If not, you might miss out on discovering “the unspoken truth about what it takes to succeed” at that company, Braswell says.

For Berger, it’s about really understanding your role, what that entails, and whether they align with your priorities in life. She sees a lot of graduates land jobs with certain expectations, only to be disappointed by the reality.

About the author

Anisa is the Editorial Assistant for Fast Company's Leadership section. She covers everything from personal development, entrepreneurship and the future of work.

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