In the New Year, another cohort of young women will graduate from college and plunge into the icy waters of the job market hoping for the beginnings of their dream careers. As a millennial, I have joined the ranks and made my first forays into the workplace.
In my short career, I have been discouraged—though not surprised—by the way young people are often underestimated in media and in the workplace. The Atlantic calls the millennial mind “coddled.” Forbes just published a guide on “How to Engage Your Millennial Employees,” as if we’re a certain breed of fish that need to be retained with a special net. Even the most polished résumés and traditional wear-to-work ensembles often do not protect millennials from professional stereotypes. Colleagues and bosses may write young people off as lazy, unreliable, or entitled before we are truly given an opportunity to prove otherwise. This devaluation of our abilities and work ethic could have a negative impact on a company’s culture.
According to a 2014 White House report on millennial trends, “Millennials, the cohort of Americans born between 1980 and the mid-2000s, are the largest generation in the U.S., representing one-third of the total U.S. population in 2013.” We could easily blame a generational gap, but the responsibility to break millennial stereotypes falls on us.
The White House data lists that the challenges we have to work through include the lingering effects of a recession, a struggling labor market, marrying, and having families later.
But we also have a unique set of talents that we bring to the workforce, including technological fluency, a desire for close community, and increased creativity at work. These qualities, not laziness or unreliability, ought to define millennials in the workplace. If we hold ourselves to a high standard, then there would be no room for older or more experienced colleagues to take advantage of or doubt our growing abilities. Over the course of my internship and job experiences, I have learned a few proactive ways to break from the chains of millennial stereotyping.
01. What Not to Wear
Proper appearance is the third most important part of professionalism, according to a 2014 study by Center for Professional Excellence at York College. Depending on your line of work, this “proper appearance” may be clearly outlined for you. With that said, many companies simply expect business casual attire from their employees. A CNN article on business wear advises consulting your handbook or even asking coworkers about what is appropriate.
What about no pantyhose? In the vast majority of work environments, no problem. However, that is not an excuse for jeans and a T-shirt. Even when casual, you should always look polished and presentable. Especially when on a budget, consider creating a “capsule wardrobe,” a personal collection of basic pieces that can be easily mixed and matched to create different looks. Perhaps the most important rule when it comes to clothing? Tailored and refined is the way to go; save low-cut blouses and shorter skirts for going out with friends. When in doubt, keep your look and makeup simple and natural, saving the bold eyeliner for the weekend.
02. Don’t Sacrifice Quality for Efficiency
When starting a new job, it is only natural to be a little earnest, as we want to show our new employers that they were right to hire us. With that said, we need to learn the difference between completing every task at double speed and working well with efficiency. Cutting corners to save time often results in sacrificing the final product, whether that may mean a few incorrect numbers on a spreadsheet or a few customers who did not receive adequate service. Either way, it reflects poorly not only on you as an employee but also on the organization as a whole. Take the time to work efficiently, whether that means recognizing and coping with burnout, taking breaks, or asking about a treadmill desk to keep you on your toes.
03. Look Up
Verily lifestyle intern and fellow millennial Teresa Blackman shares, “I asked my dad if he stereotyped younger employees. He admitted that he did a little because they were on their phones too much.” Older generations who didn’t grow up with screen time may have some legitimate reasons for this stereotype, and we should learn from them. Our way is not necessarily the right or best way. In the York College study, communication is the most important aspect of professionalism. Because cell phones can either help or hurt this, it’s important that we learn to use technology well in the workplace. Let’s stop “phubbing” in its tracks. Keep personal screen time to before and after work or during your lunch break. And unless it’s part of the job description, stay off social media. It’s good for your workflow and your mental well-being.
04. Gratitude Goes a Long Way
One of the most common complaints I’ve heard regarding millennials in the workplace is that we are entitled and expect everything to be handed to us. According to the York College study, more than half of the survey respondents reported an increase in entitlement in millennials. We can overcome this stereotype by killing it with kindness. Be sure that your employer knows that you sincerely appreciate every opportunity, and make sure to ask for help, not expect it, from more experienced colleagues. Always take time to show your appreciation, humility, and willingness to learn.
05. Make Friends Carefully
Absolutely join in the workplace culture and make friends, but keep office friendships professional. As the saying goes, you never truly leave high school. Avoid falling into cliques and watercooler gossip—especially when it involves personal opinions toward the organization or other employees. It may seem easy to join in the conversation for the sake of getting in with your colleagues, but in the long run gossiping will likely result in your personal resentment toward the job rather than an authentically productive friendship.
“You might think that everyone does it and it’s no big deal, [but] office gossip is harmful,” Cristin Sturchio of the business research company Cognolink tells Business News Daily. “If you align yourself with gossips, your reputation will suffer because people know who the gossips are in a company, and they are not trusted. Besides, if someone is talking to you about someone else, what do you think they’re saying about you when you’re not around? Be brave, and politely tell the people around you to stop gossiping.” It’s the wise and gracious thing to do.
06. No Job Is Too Small
The ink may be dry on your diploma, but your education is far from over. Treat every task as a challenging learning experience rather than a chore. This mindset will allow you to apply something new from each project to your future career. Your willingness to take on any task will also illustrate to your employer and colleagues that you are happy to go the extra mile for your organization and its goals. Arrogance breeds ignorance. Humility breeds success.
07. Hold Yourself Accountable
Everyone makes mistakes; the difference is in how you choose to recover from them. Some pass off blame or find excuses, but you can show integrity by taking responsibility and moving productively toward fixing the problem. There is no shame in making a mistake, but there certainly is in passing on blame to others. Always hold yourself accountable for your actions and decisions.
In the end, it is important to remember that no matter what box others may put you in, you are the only one with the power to prove them wrong. If colleagues set low expectations for you, confidently exceed them with grace. You have earned your place in the organization; therefore, your employer knows your value. Be confident that you have a unique set of knowledge, skills, and personality to add to your team as a young professional, and break free from the stereotypes.
Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller