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New on the job: Three Rules of Working.

It’s the middle of June.  Most graduation ceremonies are done and the grads are looking for jobs.  Some are high school grads, some are college or tech school grads.  It doesn’t matter which you are.  The “new job” experience is pretty much the same.  Exciting and difficult.  And these days, it’s exciting and difficult just to get a job in the first place.

Being new on a job is hard in many ways.  But the worst part is that you don’t know the people, the “rules,” the purpose of much of the work or the real expectations of your own work (which are all too often different from what you are told when you’re hired.)  You feel like you’ve just been dumped into a pool of cold, dark water and you don’t know how to swim.

The “new job” experience reminds me of an amusement some of my family (of origin) members enjoyed at my expense.  They asked me to sit down with their precocious child and play a video game.  I never play video games.  Computer games, yes.  Particularly adventure games and first-person shooters.  But this was a child’s game.  No one even told me what the name of the game was.  I didn’t know how it was played, what I could do, how the controls worked, what was the purpose, or how to perform any of the activities.  So, my loving family stood around and laughed at my inability to perform up to the level of a 5-year-old.  Luckily for them, the weapons I had my hands on were only virtual ones.

New jobs, even in the same company where you’ve worked for years, are unexplored territory.  There are new rules, new purposes, new expectations and new cultures at every level and in every section or department of an organization.  So, whether you’re new to the organization or just new to the job, you’ve got learning to do.  Or maybe some relearning to do.

To help you out, I’ve compiled some general rules that seem to apply to every job, profession and business:

1. Rule number one is always this: Your job is what your boss tells you it is.  Do what he tells you to do unless it’s harmful or unlawful. It doesn’t matter what your job description says.  It doesn’t matter what you were promised when you were interviewed.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve been trained to do.  It doesn’t matter what the last person in your job did. It doesn’t matter if it’s fair.  It doesn’t matter if it’s legal to require it of employees. Let me repeat: Your job is what your boss tells you it is.

Why does it work that way?  Because the boss controls whether or not you keep your job, whether or not you get the good assignments, whether or not you get a raise, whether or not you get a promotion (or demotion), and whether or not you get a good recommendation when you leave.  He controls who you can talk to above him in rank — just try jumping over his head and find out how fast you get fired.  He hears about it if you complain to others behind his back.  He does your performance appraisals and he can lie about you no matter how good you are.  Or he can rave about your wonderful abilities. Whatever he puts on your record can follow you throughout your entire career.

If your boss likes you, he might mentor you.  He might help you rise in the company.  He might make your work life heavenly.  If he doesn’t like you, he can make your work life hell.

Do what your boss says and be nice to him.  As far as the organization goes, his powers are god-like.  The organization always backs the boss.  Even if he’s wrong.

And remember what I said upfront about doing what he says unless it’s harmful or unlawful?  Even if it is harmful or unlawful, you may be fired if you don’t do it.  Don’t do it anyway.  You don’t want to work for a boss like that.  You don’t need any particular job badly enough.

2. You need friends on the job. And it is highly likely you will find friends on the job.  Job-friends will help you discover the organizational rules, expectations and culture.  They will help you find other like-minded friends and colleagues.  They will help you learn to fit in to the organization, the department and the groups of employees that will help you survive and succeed.  They will help to protect you and help you protect yourself against your on-the-job enemies (and frenemies.)

Without a social support network on the job, your chances of survival and reasonable comfort level are very low.  If you are shy or even a bit reclusive, get over it.  I don’t care how you manage that.  Get psychotherapy if necessary.  A social network (both on the job and off) — albeit a small one — can make a huge difference.

However, for those of you who are not merely new to the job, but also new to the working world, here’s a word of caution.  Making friends on the job takes more care and discretion than in your normal social life.  You can’t afford to make friends with bad reputations: you will be judged by the organization with the same suspicions that they have for your friends.  You can’t afford to have friends who are difficult to get along with.  You have to see and work with those people every day and can’t have personal disagreements with them.  You can’t afford to make friends easily with the first people who reach out to you — often they are busybodies, gossips or jealous rivals who want to undermine you.  Be friendly and play nicely with everyone. Then, take time to choose on-the-job friends with greater deliberation.

3. Have a good satisfying life outside of work. Do you want to live long enough to retire?  Get a life.  Work/life balance is a popular concept these days.  I don’t know if it is possible to have real 50/50 balance, but even if it is, I encourage you to skew the balance toward life outside of work.

In fact, for a healthy life, both physically and psychologically, work should probably hold no more than a one-third section of your life.  Two-thirds or more of your life should be about yourself, your loved-ones and your interests.  My favorite quote is “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.'”*

We all have a limited amount of time.  If we follow the philosophers who encourage us to make the most of every day, that means we want to live the best we can in each twenty-four hours.  Since we have to spend eight of those hours sleeping, that means we need a great home/social life and a work life that is as minimized and fulfilling as possible.

How to achieve that is well beyond the scope of a single article.  For that matter, it’s beyond the scope of a single book.

Those are the condensed “rules” of working.  There are numerous others, but if you understand and practice those three, they’ll serve you well.  And you’ll end up with enough time to learn and practice your own set of rules.

Working can be an unhappy drudge or a satisfying, fulfilling experience.  An amazing amount of how it turns out is in your power.  Think about these “rules” and see what you come up with to make your work and your life go your way.

*(The original quote said “more time on my business,” but I like the subsequent revision better.)