Christine Fanthome shows how students can gain essential employment skills.

The Student Experience Report 2006 states that 41% of higher education students have a paid job in addition to their academic studies. Many sixth formers and younger school pupils undertake Saturday work, and for all students termly breaks offer opportunities to take on paid employment. In addition to the financial rewards, there are many clear benefits to gaining workplace experience.

Not only can students practise and expand their skills, identify their strengths and preferences and learn about a specific environment, but crucially, they can gain hands-on experience of workplace culture. That is, they can acquire familiarity with the protocol and network of unwritten rules that ensure the smooth running of the workplace. An understanding of this can boost self-confidence, enhance employability and contribute to long-term economic wellbeing. Moreover, since workplace protocol is present in every working environment, learning to identify the relevant boundaries and work productively within them is an essential lifelong skill.

Getting started

A good starting point is a group discussion when employment experiences are still fresh after vacations or placements. The first task is to identify the invisible guidelines underpinning workplace culture; the second to discuss strategies for dealing with dilemmas or difficult situations; and the third to reflect on the nature of the achievements and skills that result from effective integration in the workplace.

Unwritten rules may cover:

  • Appearance – what to wear; level of formality/informality of dress; specific requirements, for example health and safety regulations as to footwear, hard hats/covering hair, jewellery.
  • Attitude and behaviour – giving an impression of professionalism and diligence.
  • Punctuality and timing – arrival and departure; timing and duration of lunch; tea breaks.
  • Personal telephone calls/emails – noting what is considered appropriate and adhering to it.
  • Talking – dealing with group dynamics and making a valid contribution while not talking too much.
  • Movement – being in the appropriate place at all times.
  • Addressing others and asking for help – establishing an appropriate level of formality with peers and bosses; knowing who to ask for help.
  • Lunch and breaks – identifying the customs. Checking whether it is acceptable to eat at the desk or join others and whether an invitation is needed.
  • Work – establishing if the work is negotiable or not, and with whom to discuss work issues.

Employers need and want new, enthusiastic staff, temporary or others, but their own jobs are more important than ‘babysitting’ new personnel. Also, employers are generally older and therefore live different lifestyles than younger students. They are therefore less tolerant or interested in staff coming in late through oversleeping or arriving with hangovers. (Michael, employer)

I felt a bit uncomfortable and out of place on the first day. Some people were smart…but they were all comfortable, whereas my shoes really hurt…The next day I went in in some normal trousers and a top and some comfortable trainers and it was much better. (Nicky, student working in a buying office which involved a lot of walking)

Learning conventions

Workplace culture may give rise to problems, particularly for students who do not have previous experience of a similar environment and who do not realise that others may feel strongly about upholding certain practices and conventions. Identifying the invisible guidelines can highlight possible areas of conflict and encourage students to consider how their own actions impact on others and the established workplace culture.

Common problems include:

  • becoming involved in workplace politics which then make some working relationships awkward
  • being inadvertently over-familiar or too insular
  • not seeking enough guidance or asking too often
  • talking too much or too little in group discussions
  • feeling isolated and undervalued, especially if expecting to being praised for good work
  • not being clear about what is expected and worrying about the consequences.

Staff were very busy and therefore not so attentive to me, but I didn’t expect them to be.  It lowered my confidence at times but I saw this as a valuable exercise in overcoming some of my over-sensitive tendencies which I know are not compatible within this environment. (Judi, student)

The people there were really, really nice. And at the end of my two weeks I was upset to leave them. Most of them were quite young. Everyone was friendly to each other and everyone got on. They did work as part of a team. (Jessica, student)

Countering problems

The key to avoiding all these pitfalls is to encourage students to reflect upon potential dilemmas, have the courage to self-assess performance and have a strategy for dealing with the common problems. Students might be advised that it is generally prudent to keep one’s own council while evaluating the situation and not to feel the need to rush to become part of the team. It is also sensible to err on the side of formality if in doubt.

Coping with workplace protocol calls for a high level of expertise, particularly in terms of time management, analytical, social and communication skills.  Students should be reminded that those who persevere and take time and trouble to observe and adapt to their new environment should be justly proud of their accomplishments.

Further information

The National Council for Work Experience
The Student Experience Report 2006

Dr Christine Fanthome is a freelance consultant, writer and lecturer. She is the author of Work Placements – A Survival Guide for Students (2004, Palgrave).

First published in Learning for Life, December 2006