We all slip up sometimes at work, but we can slip easiest and fall fastest in our 20s because we’re still getting to grips with the intricacies of the slippery career ladder and, while we have great energy, we have limited experience. Here, 15 errors you can avoid.
1 You say too much
This is almost as bad as listening too little, says Haydee Antezana, head of Professional Impressions, a consultancy in Jo’burg. ‘A new PA once said to me, before leading me into her boss’s office, “Excuse him, he’s not feeling great today – he’s just been served with his divorce papers.” This is way too much info.’
Also remember that, while your friends may admire your wit, clients and colleagues may find you less than charming if they don’t share your thinking or humour.
2 You stick with a job you shouldn’t
Specialist researcher Claire Gatonby of Research House, in Durban, says one of the biggest mistakes is to stay in a dead-end job because you’re afraid that leaving early will look bad on your CV. ‘It’s better to admit incompatibility and move rather than hang around when there’s no future,’ she says.
3 You leave on bad terms
‘Never burn bridges. The world’s too small,’ says Gatonby. ‘Plus, you’re almost guaranteed that your new employer will know your old employer.’ Since starting her own company, Gatonby has been getting business from former employers and associates.
4 You have the wrong idea of what your salary should be
‘The market pays for particular skills and experience, and until you have the minimum levels of both, you won’t be paid a fat salary,’ says Norcott. She recently heard of a young trainee manager who, after two months, told his manager he was ready for a more senior position. ‘The manager was horrified,’ she says. ‘He felt the trainee hadn’t even found his feet yet.’
5 You’re not willing to do the menial tasks
If you tend to think you know it all, says image and fashion stylist Lynne McMaster of Dress By Lynne in Durban, ‘people won’t be receptive to you or supportive of you, or bother to give you feedback’. Every job has its menial and repetitive aspects, says Norcott. ‘If you’re asked to make coffee for the boss or unpack stock when you’re starting out, don’t take offence.’ Your willingness will be noted and will affect your promotion beyond more basic duties.
6 You can’t say ‘No’
On the other hand, you need to say no to requests that are genuinely unreasonable. ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,’ says McMaster. Always explain your reasons – calmly and politely, but firmly.
7 You’re intimidated by seniors
Accept that your boss has more knowledge and experience than you and draw from it, says McMaster. ‘Remember, she once started her career just like you. My first boss used to tell me, “Every boss has faults – use the good and leave the bad behind”.’
8 You’re impatient to climb the ladder
Many of us tend to be impatient for success, says McMaster. ‘Rather be over-ready for a promotion, so when you get it you’re able to do the job comfortably. Climb too fast and you can fall quickly, with no support from below.’
9 You leave too soon after being trained
Norcott had a young graduate who, after a gruelling six-week training period, informed her boss she was going overseas in three days’ time. ‘This had obviously been organised for quite a while,’ says Norcott. Behaviour like this, she warns, has a way of coming back to bite you.
10 You abuse company resources
Some employees spend hours on personal calls and emails, only to complain that they’re working too hard. ‘I don’t think it’s limited to younger people,’ says Norcott, ‘but they tend to be indiscreet about it, and about what they say. I’ve heard of a few who’ve lost their jobs for slating their boss in an email to friends.’
You can also get fired for things like using the company phone to make personal calls, or printing off wads of personal things on the office printer. Many businesses will treat this as a form of stealing, so beware.
11 You don’t network enough
Networking is vital for getting ahead, says Antezana. And it’s not hard. At functions, don’t crouch in a corner SMSing your buddies. Find the function organiser and ask him or her to introduce you to guests. ‘And don’t spend more than 10 minutes per person,’ says Antezana. ‘You need to make contacts, not contracts.’
12 You don’t have a long-term plan
Lots of us have short-term goals, such as getting a job a promotion, says industrial psychologist and corporate-change specialist Robyn Sandy, MD of Interchange International SA. ‘That’s fine, provided these goals are part of a bigger plan – on their own they mean little and can set you back. Long-term goals bring ongoing success.’
Create a vision of where you want to be and measure your progress towards it annually.
13 You don’t prepare thoroughly
It’s tempting to skimp on ‘homework’, says Antezana. ‘But it’s vital to be able to ask relevant questions and give great feedback at meetings and presentations.’
If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t wing it. ‘Ask for time to formulate a confident answer, for example by saying, “May I get back to you on that point?”’
14 You can’t handle criticism
You can be easily shaken when you’re starting out on your career path. ‘You need not only to accept constructive criticism but also to invite it – it’s how you learn,’ says Antezana. Even if it’s not constructive, keep cool. ‘Ask for justification, such as, “Can you give me an example of when I acted that way?”’
15 You don’t admit mistakes
Defensiveness signals immaturity and insecurity – and so does grovelling. Don’t make excuses or blame others. ‘You’re a team player, and no-one likes a telltale,’ Antezana says. Take responsibility and apologise sincerely, but don’t go on and on. ‘Try to provide a solution to rectify the situation. And learn from it, of course.’