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Advice for Your Summer Job

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For many readers still in school, it is almost time to start summer employment.

Some will focus on earning money to pay for next year’s tuition, rent, and other expenses.

Some will take less, or no money, and work or intern with companies in your intended field.

For those of you working to gain some experience and insight into your planned career path, a few thoughts on optimizing your summer. 

You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

In an office environment, you can never be overdressed, unless you are wearing a ball gown or tuxedo. Show the company that you are a professional from your first steps through the door.

Leave the piercings, casual clothes, etal., at home. At least until you have the lay of the land and can see what is acceptable. It is better to be too conservative than too trendy.

If in doubt, ask your supervisor or Human Resources (HR) representative before arriving on day one. They can advise as to what is appropriate.

Personally, what you wear matters little to me within certain limits. But I know one manager who was always annoyed that one male employee did not wear a belt with his suit. Another manager who noticed if your top shirt button was done up. A third who would say something if an employee’s shoes were scuffed. And I have dealt with many clients who have even more interesting takes on what is professional.

Even if only there for a summer, you are a representative of your company. Dress accordingly.

It is not just the wardrobe.

Keep That First Impression Intact

Cigarette smell on clothes, too much perfume or hair spray, eating curry at your desk. There are a thousand things that can set people off when they have to sit in the cubicle or desk right next to you.

Arriving late, leaving early, or taking long lunches. Swearing in the office, sending email jokes, or interrupting the work time of others. These can annoy or offend co-workers.

You are not on campus now. Until you get the full-time position, be on your best behaviour.

You never know what another person might be thinking. Be safe and do not open the door to negative perceptions.

Do not let that good first impression erode over time.

You are Your Company 7 by 24

The stories I can tell about employees’ actions outside the workplace.

Discussing clients on the subway. Leaving office files at the bar after a few drinks. Being overheard speaking of internal corporate matters while lunching in a restaurant. Unexpectedly running into clients or other key third parties (e.g. suppliers, lawyers, accountants, etc.) while on vacation.

All unintended, but all having serious ramifications for the company and employee.

The opportunities for unfortunate interactions are endless.

Always be circumspect when discussing business or being out in the public eye. You never know what someone may overhear or see and have it get back to the company president. One slip up could curtail your future career.

Tell Me the Good News Fast, But the Bad News Faster

A general principle that most managers live by.

As a summer student you will not be expected to fully know what you are doing. You will get stuck, you will make mistakes.

When you do have problems, make sure you talk to your manager or appropriate co-worker immediately. Do not worry about being seen as incompetent. Yes, maybe you are. But, more likely, you just lack the knowledge and experience to work through the issue.

By bringing your problem to light, corrections can be made quickly and the work can get back on track. Not wanting to admit you are stuck delays the work. And delays on your end slow the entire process down and cost the company money.

Or too often, I have seen employees (not just summer students) try to extricate themselves from problems that they created. These employees end up digging themselves into a deeper hole, one that usually creates a lot of work for others to help them escape.

The other advantage with bringing problems to the attention of your boss is that it can be a learning experience for you. And that is one of the reasons you are working in the environment, to gain some knowledge.

When, not if, you run into difficulties, raise your hand for help immediately.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Another general principle, but this time for carpenters, tailors, engineers, and others that require precision.

Summer students tend to fall into two categories.

The quiet ones realize they do not know a lot about the business or company. They never say a word unless directly queried. I seldom can get a sense as to whether they know anything or not. Not a good thing for getting hired full-time.

The other students want to show you how much they know. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, it is not a lot. Instead, I hear a lot of motherhood and apple pie statements. That is, words that anyone can utter as the truth, but really mean nothing in context of the issue at hand. Usually they come directly from a textbook.

No one expects a summer student to have all, or any, answers to complex issues. But that does not mean you cannot contribute.

Listen to the discussion, think about the issues at hand, and form a reasoned opinion.

Then chew on that opinion for a few minutes. Measure your thoughts.

I usually tell staff to think about what they want to say for at least 30 seconds. Does it make sense? Does it actually add to the discussion or is it just something to throw out to try and look involved? Are there counter-arguments? Is something missing?

If you are comfortable that it is a well thought out point, then say it out loud.

You may be wrong. Often simply because you lack experience or access to all the facts. But no one will (or should) think less of you for stating something intelligent.

And you may be right. In which case your value will rise in the eyes of your colleagues.

But as a young employee, measure twice. Or even better, three or four times. Then cut.

Supervisors and Colleagues Can Be a Wealth of Education

Most employees are happy to answer questions about their specific job functions, business issues, career opportunities in the company and industry, and skill sets needed to prosper in the business.

Do not be shy about asking other staff, including management, their opinions.

Talking with experienced members of your desired field will probably teach you more than many of your classes at school.

Plus you may make some valuable contacts as you begin to develop a professional network.

If you are uncomfortable approaching people you do not know, and especially if they are senior in the firm, ask your immediate supervisor or HR representative for an introduction. Your boss and HR staff realize that you are working in part to learn more about the organization and industry. They should be impressed that you are proactively trying to learn more.

And Not Just About Business Specific Items

Many summer students ask other employees about job opportunities and other items related directly to the job, company, or industry.

Not too many ask about how business works, or should work.

Most of you have little to no experience as to how office life operates on a daily basis.

Watch how business is conducted and try to learn about actually working in a company.

It is something you learn little about in school. So through observation and discussions with other employees, learn how be a professional.

For example, consider how meetings are run. Does the senior person make all the decisions and other staff serve simply as “yes-men”? Or is there input from all team members that is considered? Are meetings manageable? Perhaps in number of attendees – 3 might be too small, 30 too cumbersome. Perhaps in frequency and length. One management team I was on met once weekly for between 4 and 6 hours. When you include preparatory time, I spent over 20% of my work week dealing with one single meeting.

How are attendees prepared for meetings? How do they contribute? What techniques are used to make their points? What are their presentations like?

The same sort of advice might apply to email exchanges, team assignments, written submissions and presentations, interaction between staff.

You can learn a lot about how to act professionally in any workforce by observing your colleagues this summer. Ask questions to fill in the gaps.

But remember, companies are a mix of the good, bad, and the ugly. You will interact with competent professionals. And, no doubt, you will deal with idiots. Watch them all. Adopt the good traits. And ensure that the bad habits are etched in your mind so that you do not repeat them yourself.

Co-workers Are Not Your Teachers

Most employees I know are happy to spend time with summer students. It is gratifying to help someone with his or her career decisions and in passing on knowledge.

But do not take advantage of co-workers’ generosity.

In today’s work-world, staff may be in the office for 10 or more hours each day. Many managers I have worked with were in their offices between 7:00 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. They were lucky to leave before 6:30 p.m.

While you may think it fine to talk with them from 10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., to the person you are speaking with it is actually dragging their work day out to 7:00 p.m. They may want to assist you, but they also want to spend time with their spouse, children, friends, etc.

Instead, try to set up lunch appointments to discuss questions you may have. Or, if they take a break for coffee at some point, offer to buy them a drink in exchange for 15 minutes of discussion.

Let them know that you realize their time is valuable and that you do not want to impose. They will appreciate your understanding and, in most cases, be more willing to sit down with you.

Summer employment is a great opportunity to get some valuable experience and on the job education.

Take advantage of your situation and make the most of your time.

And have a little fun as well. It cannot be all hard work.

Good luck.