The Hill Life: Mistakes of Youth

May 2, 2012

Belle –

Perhaps you could do a post on most common mistakes of young employees?


Getting a job is difficult, but after you get the job, starting out on the right foot is critical.  Because how things start is a good indicator of how they will finish.

I think there are two mistakes that I would caution new employees against.  The first is easy to fix, the second not so much.

We are a less formal society than we used to be.  Phone etiquette, e-mail decorum, basic social graces, etc. are important in a professional environment.  Sometimes when I call Hill offices, I am horrified by the way that staffers answer the phone.  Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I hate when the only greeting I receive is, “Congressman Smith’s office.”  

I also hate when I get an initial e-mail without a greeting or a signature.  When you reply, you can be a less formal, but the first e-mail should always start with “Hello, (name)” and “Sincerely, (name).”  However, there are plenty of guides on office etiquette to remedy this situation.  Here are some basic e-mail etiquette rules, if you’re curious.

The other mistake that I see a lot of young employees making, especially on the Hill, is that there is not enough separation between their work lives and their personal lives.  And while it’s great to have a congenial relationship with your co-workers, ending up in a situation where you spend most of your time with your co-workers can be a bad thing.  It can muddy the waters of your professional relationship, it can cause animosities from one life to cross into the other and it doesn’t allow you much room to breathe when things go sideways.

It’s important to have a life outside of work, and too many young employees on the Hill and elsewhere let their lives revolve around their work and their co-workers.  I made this mistake when I was younger, and it’s not one I would make again.  If it hadn’t been for Miss M, who was my only non-Hill friend for a long time, there were times I might have gone crazy.

So readers, what do you think they biggest mistakes young employees make?  Maybe we can help some of our younger visitors avoid the pitfalls we fell into early in our careers.


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  1. Cass says:

    One of the toughest things for me as a young employee was owning up to my mistakes. When you mess up, tell somebody. Don't think you can fix it on your own and don't think your boss won't find out. It's so much better to be upfront about everything.

  2. M says:

    Cass makes a good point.

    I think another is expecting to be at the top of the chain too soon. I work for a lobbying group and most of the staff here are young and in their first full-time position and are quick to criticize management and organizational decisions before understanding everything. You've got to start somewhere, and usually it's not the top.

  3. LS says:

    I'm definitely guilty of hanging out with co-workers too much, but I work for a huge company so I don't actually “work” with any of my friends. I wouldn't mind expanding my circle though. Belle and readers, do you have any suggestions how to meet people outside of work? Suggestions from family and friends usually include joining a sports league (like kickball), but I train pretty seriously on my own so I don't need more exercise or the drinking binges I associate with those teams.

  4. H says:

    At the beginning of a new job, no question is too dumb, you need to learn the ropes to do your job right. So don't be afraid to ask questions about your responsibilities, a substantive area you don't understand, or how the office works. And always, if you don't understand a task, ask for clarification before you get started. But don't ask questions already you know the answer to in an attempt to CYA. It's either an obvious maneuver or it makes people think you not as smart as you truly are. Most importantly, it wastes your supervisor's time and it'll get you a reputation for not having confidence/good judgment and ownership of your own work. Don't get a reputation for being a time suck for pointless questions, trust yourself on those.

  5. AK says:

    LS: My suggestion for meeting new people outside of work is to look for places where you might find people with similar interests. Look on LivingSocial or Groupon and see if there is a deal for a class you would like to take, maybe to learn something new or to brush up on your current interests, like a cooking class, yoga, or some kind of creative class. I bought a Groupon for a knitting class here in DC a few months ago and not only did I learn a new skill and find a new hobby, but I made friends with people in my class who enjoyed a lot of the same things I did. I would also suggest seeing if your college or university has an alumni group in DC that hosts events occasionally. Something like that might allow you to meet a group of people who have similar interests or backgrounds as you do.

  6. S says:

    Show up on time, even if your supervisors don't.

    LS – consider checking out the DC Triathlon Club, the DC Capital Striders, a Lululemon run club, the Washington Area Bicyclists' Association, or whatever other group dovetails with your training!

  7. VA says:

    Similar to M's point – when you're the newest employee, don't act like tasks are “beneath you.” If your boss asks you to make copies and put together packets for an important meeting, do it without sighing or grumbling, even if “making copies” isn't in your job description. Build a reputation as someone who can be relied on and is willing to pitch in.

  8. A says:

    One thing I read recently in a magazine (I think it was women's health) was that keeping your voice even in tone and rythm, and slowing down when you talk can make you sound much more confident and in control. Personally, I know I have a nervous laugh to cut out before I stop sounding like a little bimbo employee!

  9. Shannon says:

    Agree with punctuality. It's frustrating when workers have an attitude of “My boss doesn't show up on time/dress professionally/answer emails/etc, so why should I?” It's actually more important to be professional if your boss is not – you don't want your reputation to be lumped in with hers.

    Remind yourself often that all honest work has dignity. Instead of grumbling about your repetitive tasks, find a way to perform them more efficiently. That shows initative AND frees you up to learn new things. And, besides, we've all done that boring collating project, we're aware it stinks, we don't need to hear you whine about it.

    Don't get a big head about where you work. What matters is the content of your character and the quality of your work, not the name on your letterhead. Corollary: Don't try to use your business card to impress people in bars. We all know what your title really means, since we all had that job a decade ago.

    Always carry a small pad of paper and a pen around the office with you. You'll find that your coworkers will ask you a question, or request a task, and by the time you've gotten back to your desk you'll forget what it was. Jotting things down is a lifesaver.

    The answer is never, “I don't know.” The answer is, “I don't know, but I can find out.”

    Oh, and if you must wear cheap clothes, remember dark colors like charcoal, navy and black look more expensive than light colors.

  10. Gen says:

    LS- Volunteering is another great way to get outside of your work circle. If you're already athletic, maybe coaching a Girls on the Run team ( or playing with homeless children with the Homeless Children's Playtime Project. ( Especially for those who work on the Hill, volunteering is great to have an identity outside of being a “Staffer.” I'm glad that I can call myself a “coach” “mentor” and “volunteer.”

  11. Aunt_Pete says:

    Stay in control of your emotions. IMO there is no excuse ever for raising your voice, throwing a fit, crying, etc in the office. Save it. It's not professional and your coworkers will think less of you for it.

  12. VCS says:

    Don't wait to be told what to do- take initiative, ask how you can help. A lot of young professionals underestimate the value that they can provide by taking care of admin tasks for the rest of the team or by following up on a request- “Hey, I know boss asked you to do X- is that something I can help you with?” Even if they can't, I will think better of the person for asking. The people who move up the fastest not only have the required set of hard skills (e.g. strong writer, software knowledge, etc.) but also demonstrate the intangibles- good judgment, team mentality, work ethic, etc. These can greatly compensate for a lack of on-the-job experience.

    And ditto re: the pen and notepad- it says you’re prepared, you think what your boss/supervisor/coworkers have to say is important, and that you want to get the job done right the first time. Just remember to actually use it- I’ve seen assistants never take a single note, even when they are the designated note-taker.

  13. A2 says:

    Don't overshare. Your co-workers don't need to know all the details of your personal life nor do they need to know your innermost beliefs. Not only does using co-workers as personal confidantes look unprofessional, but it's a good way to get yourself burned at some point down the road.

    Also, get ideas from someone you trust about what looks professional and what just doesn't work in an office. Most of my law school friends and I were very fortunate to get a good crash course in this department when we started out, but I've been seeing a lot of new lawyers and paralegals out there in miniskirts, club-only heels, fishnets, yoga pants or very sheer blouses without camisoles. Oh, and you will especially appreciate this – I recently saw a paralegal filing papers in court while wearing Uggs.

  14. Sasha says:

    Volunteering helped me meet people outside of work, and I feel awesome giving back to my community. I have definitely met some amazing people through my volunteer activities. I finally feel connected to something other than work, my social circle, and taking care of my body (all of which are still really important to me). I volunteer about 2-3 times per month, so it's not a huge commitment, but it has been a game changer for me. I am more centered at work, happier with my friends, and even more committed to my exercise goals. Since most of my superiors are involved with some type of philanthropic activity, it's nice to have something constructive to share with them in social situations that doesn't belie the fact that I am still young and occasionally enjoy playing flip cup after WAKA kickball games.

  15. Kim says:

    In the beginning keep your mouth shut and ears open. There's a lot of institutional knowledge that you don't have that's crucial and can help you to avoid blunders. This also applies to offering every great idea that comes to your head – some of them were previously discarded due to reasons you don't yet know.

    Execute about half of a project, and then check in with your boss. You don't want to finish the project and realize that you misinterpreted something. In the same vein, don't spend gobs of time perfecting the project when we just really need the research and conclusion, not perfect sentence crafting.

  16. Kim says:

    One more – do occasionally volunteer a non-glamorous task if it will get you exposure to higher-level supervisors. For example, I planned our office picnic one year, and now my boss 3 levels up remembers me.

  17. Sasha says:

    Regarding professional “lessons” I learned along the way:

    1. Learn to accept criticism gracefully and use it to improve your work – The first time you receive a bad performance review (for reasons both warranted and unwarranted), it is natural to feel angry and hurt. Just remember, we are rarely perfect and even the best employee can miss the mark from time to time. A bad review feels personal, so address those emotions first, but move on as quickly as you can. Now that you know the areas you need to improve, don't waste any time getting better at your job. Always ask for a follow-up review to ensure that you that you are on the right track. If you employer doesn't offer a follow-up review after a bad review, insist that you have a chance to re-evaluate your performance in the near future.

    2. Deadlines mean different things to different people – If your supervisor needs to review your work before it can be submitted, make sure you ask for two deadlines. The first is the deadline for submitting your materials to your supervisor, and the second is the “drop-dead” or “hard” deadline when your work must be finalized. A former boss was never clear about how much time she needed to review my work, and I was too inexperienced to know otherwise. Assume that your boss will want to see your work, and plan accordingly. If your boss isn't good about assigning deadlines, ask for one and put it in writing either by sending her an email or adding it to her calendar. If your boss would consider this overkill, at the very least make sure it's on your calendar. You asked for the deadline, now don't be late! Get the materials to your boss on time or ahead of time. Get her revisions and make sure the final product is ready to go well ahead of the drop-dead date. Never, ever, assume that the final deadline is the only deadline you need to consider.

    3. The grass is always greener – I accepted an internal promotion for two seemingly valid reasons: the extra cash and to move up on the proverbial professional ladder. I didn't stop and consider what I liked about my job at the lower pay-grade. I had a great boss, enjoyed the respect of my co-workers, and was given additional responsibilities after proving the quality of my work and asking for additional tasks. I continued to be compensated at an entry-level salary, so I applied for and accepted a higher paying job in another department that included a change in title from “assistant” to “manager”. In hindsight, I should have stayed at my original position and negotiated a higher salary commensurate with the additional responsibilities I had earned. If your work is exceptional and you are doing more than your original job description, you have likely earned the commensurate compensation. If you like your boss and get along well with your coworkers, ask for what you want before you abandon such a rare and enjoyable working environment.

  18. Airlie says:

    LS-I started volunteering to meet new people. I'm a member of the Junior League of Northern Virginia and I love it. There is also a chapter in D.C. if that's eaiser for you.

  19. NoVAAtty says:

    I agree with the “keep your mouth shut and ears open.” I find many young employees are so eager to “impress” everyone with their knowledge they talk over their supervisor, other lawyers, assistants,etc. Listen more, talk less and you will learn a lot, and no one will think you aren't smart.

  20. LS says:

    Thanks for suggestions everyone! Volunteering is a great idea. A cooking class would be fun too.

  21. Sara says:

    Always have at least a blazer handy – you never know when you will have to be the face of your company at the last minute.

    Also, when you're shaking hands (I don't care if it's with the owner, your boss, your equal, or your intern), please, no wimpy handshakes. People remember a solid handshake, not a snotty Kleenex.

  22. Shannon says:

    Regarding keeping your mouth shut…I always remember being told, “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. We're supposed to listen twice as much as we talk.”

    And for negative reviews, none of us are perfect at everything. Millenials, the time of getting trophies for just showing up is over. I always remind myself, “Negative feedback is an opportunity to grow.” I've been told I suck at technology, time management (less goofing off and more never saying no/managing expectations), and one or two other things. I took that advice to heart and worked on it, which actually earned the respect of my supervisors. Never underestimate the value of owning your screwups and working to fix them – it makes you look like a champ.

    Lastly, it is enormously helpful to conclude a conversation with your boss by saying, “OK, my understanding is that I'm supposed to do ABC followed by XYZ. Could you please confirm?” It's better to ask and look a bit foolish than to do a project completely wrong and have to start over.

  23. Ann says:

    Complaining, even to your friends in the office, is a really bad idea. It makes you seem entitled, negative, and difficult to please. And even if your complaint is legitimate, expressing your concern with the wrong tone only makes it less likely to get fixed because who wants to help someone they don't like? A reliably good attitude is a major professional asset.

    Another great way to meet friends is to join a church or other religious community. There are plenty in DC that are full of young people.

  24. CSB says:

    I ditto keeping your emotions in check. I recently read Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office, and I SO WISH I read it right when I was starting out in my career. I gave it to my graduating intern and recommend it to all of you here – it will help you avoid mistakes so many women make in their careers.

  25. m says:

    I work in an environment where feedback is constant and expected at all levels. In a recent discussion with some women above me in seniority and pay grade, it was widely agreed upon that those who own their mistakes and make tangible efforts to work on their development areas (we don't call them shortcomings or screw-ups) are those who earn the most respect. EVERYONE has things they need to work on. Work with your leader to proactively determine what those areas are and what is most appropriate for your level. (For example, it's more important for junior staff to get the hard skills right and less need to demonstrate the ability to think strategically.)

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