Professional Expectations and Workplace Norms
If you are new to the world of work, this guide is designed to help you better understand what is expected of you on the job. For those with more experience, some of the tips below may seem obvious, but others could be useful when brushing up on workplace norms.
Making the transition from student to employee can be difficult. At Bennington, you’re involved in a student-centered experience. Staff and faculty of the College are here to support your education and development. Inquiries and explorations revolve around your interests and curiosities, and you design your individualized academic Plan accordingly. A community of peers who are in similar student-centered processes surrounds you. Although you must actively participate in order to get the most out of the experience, the general orientation is “How can the College support your academic, civic, social, personal and professional development?”
As an employee, this orientation changes dramatically. Employers expect that your focus will be on what you can offer the organization to support their best interests and meet their prioritized needs. This shift is often one that can trip up a student, so it’s important to understand what this organization-centered orientation expects from you in order for you to best succeed in the workplace.
Tips For Starting on the Right Foot
Below clarifies foundational employer expectations and outlines key approaches to better ensure FWT success:
Punctuality. Make sure you know what time you are expected to be at work. Do a trial run (factoring in rush hour) before your commute, giving yourself extra time to get to work. There is no good excuse for being late, even (and especially) on your first day. Once you get into the swing of a routine and become more comfortable with the office culture, don’t let up on being on time.
Professional attire. If you’re not sure how to dress, it’s best to be on the conservative side to start. Dress appropriately for the type of position you have and follow the lead of your supervisor and co-workers. Ask what is expected if you are unsure.
Clarity of expectations. If your supervisor does not make performance expectations clear, it’s your job to clarify what your employer expects of you, both as a member of the organization, and specific to a project or task. Discuss with your supervisor the plan for the type of work you’ll be doing for the next 7 weeks. Set a regular weekly check-in time with your supervisor—this will be a time to discuss work assignments and get non-immediate questions answered. Clarify your schedule: remember, even if others at the organization do not seem to be holding a schedule, your supervisor may be counting on you to be there when others are not. When given a task or project, be sure to recap what you understand the desired outcomes and deadlines to be, as well as any instructions for how to work on the project.
Initiative—be proactive. First, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s much better to ask about something rather than to not ask and get it wrong. It’s also a great way to learn. For non-pressing issues, make notes during the week as questions arise, so you can remember to discuss them at your weekly meeting. For more immediate questions, ask right away. Next, don’t be afraid to say, “I’m new here.” If you don’t know the answer to something, tell the person asking that you’re new to the job but will find out the answer and get back to them. Then do it! Also, be sure to get to know your supervisor and co-workers. The informal conversations you have at work can improve your relationships. Finally, take the initiative and offer to take on challenging work when opportunities arise. If you finish an assignment early, think about what other things you could do that might be helpful. Let your supervisor know when you finish a project and ask them what they’d like you to do next. If your employer needs time to figure that out, offer some of the ideas you came up with for ways to help in the meantime. Don’t sit around waiting for your next assignment. Go out and find it.
Contribution of thought—capital. You were hired because your supervisor felt you had the capacity to contribute. When analyzing data, encountering a problem, and/or seeing how a system might be improved, respectfully share your thinking, even if not directly asked. If you take yourself seriously, others will too.
Dependability. Show your supervisor that you are responsible enough to take on challenging work. Complete even routine work to the best of your ability, even if you don’t enjoy the task. Always come to work on time and call if you will be late. If your schedule is irregular, write it down, so you won’t forget when you are required to work. Ask well in advance for any time off you may need. If you are sick and can’t go to work, call to inform your supervisor. Stay late to finish an assignment that is under deadline. Demonstrate that you can be counted on to get the job done, and done well.
Positive attitude. This is one of the most important factors in creating a good working relationship with your supervisor and co-workers. Avoid complaining and negativity, especially where your position duties are concerned. If you are around negative people at work, don’t let them affect your attitude. Avoid workplace drama.
Focus. Remain focused on your work responsibilities. During work hours refrain from taking personal calls, texting, or getting on social media sites. Take notes at meetings. Although it’s fine to chat with office workers, keep non-work conversations to a minimum.
Professional communication. Whether written or oral, employers are counting on you to act professionally at all times. Keep emails formal—use proper grammar and spelling. Always strive to communicate clearly. Communicate proactively whenever possible. If conflict arises between you and a colleague, try to address it in a professional manner. If it doesn’t resolve, ask your supervisor for advice/assistance. If conflict surfaces with your supervisor, call the FWT Office for help with brainstorming ways to address the concerns. (See Handling Job Problems for more on professional communication.)
Tips for Wrapping Up Your FWT
Prepare work for your end-of-FWT transition. Review both finished and ongoing projects with your supervisor and co-workers. Organize your work so someone else can pick up where you left off.
Notify key people of your departure. If you have been working with students, clients, or customers, make sure they know in advance when and why you are leaving. This is particularly important if you are working with children or people who are unfamiliar with internships. Check in with your supervisor on how to best inform people of your pending departure.
Make an appointment with your supervisor for a closing interview. At this time you will want to review the status of your project(s) and provide supporting electronic and hardcopy files. It’s also a perfect opportunity to gain feedback on your performance. Also, be sure to remind your supervisor when their FWT evaluation is due to the FWT Office (see FWT Important Dates).
Show appreciation. Be sure to thank your supervisor and co-workers. Even if it was a difficult experience, it's important to be gracious and to show your gratitude for them hosting you.
The Importance of Keeping Commitments
We strongly encourage students to be sure to keep commitments with an organization. It's better to be certain you want the position before accepting than to accept and back out. Just as it would put you in a tough spot if an employer backed out on a position you were counting on, the same is true for an organization planning on your help. Even if you know them personally, backing out of a position does not reflect well on you or Bennington students.
Remember, while a position may not be a fit for you, it may be a great opportunity for future students or even recent graduates. We know from past experience that how a supervisor remembers one Bennington student does influence their decision to work with another in the future.
If an emergency comes up and you absolutely need to break your commitment with an organization before FWT, contact the FWT Office first to discuss the situation. When backing out of a work commitment, it’s essential that you personally speak with the supervisor and follow up with a letter of regret. This letter—professional in tone, and free of spelling and grammatical errors—is an important way to professionally wrap up the situation and to apologize for any inconvenience.
Clear, proactive, and professional communication is an important skill to learn over FWTs, and it will be expected of you from the moment you contact potential employers. Whether you are responding to a posted position or drumming up your own site through your network, remember potential employers are evaluating you.
There is a saying that “How you do anything is how you do everything.” This best sums up why future employers evaluate you from your very first contact with them. If your phone call, voicemail, written inquiry, or interview is sloppy or unclear, presumptuous or hurried, self-centered or unprepared, employers take note.
Similarly, if you’re polished and professional in your communications, employers are impressed. Pay attention to details. Be concise but thorough. Do your homework on the organization and the industry first. Have an FWT staff member review your résumé and cover letter before sending it. If you’re someone who gets nervous making calls or has a tendency to talk a bit too much, give yourself a script or talking points to work off of and/or practice with a friend first to build your confidence and approach. You get one shot to make a first impression. If it's a good one, you’ll likely have at least seven weeks to continue to prove that first impression was accurate!
Unlike at college where faculty and administrators solicit your thoughts and perspectives, on the job you may often need to take initiative to share your ideas. Learning how to be skillful in this process will likely require a learning curve. It's work to find a balance between not coming off as arrogant or entitled by sharing your insights when they aren’t welcomed, and not being pegged as shy or uninvolved by too frequently reserving your feedback, not asking questions, and/or not requesting more to do once you finish a task.
You’ll need to become adept at reading the organizational culture, the leadership style of your supervisor, and the expectations of your colleagues. This will be different in every position you hold, so there are no easy answers. A good rule of thumb is to proactively ask for clarity whenever you need it, to recap your understanding in order to check for accuracy, and to ask if it would be appropriate to share thoughts or perspectives on an assignment or work issue if you feel you have something valuable to add. If you’re feeling confident that you’ve mastered an assignment, double-check with your supervisor anyway to insure you are indeed on track. If you need help, ask for it sooner rather than later. You have an active and ongoing role to play in keeping the lines of communication open and clear with your employer.