Welcome, class, to the School of Hard Knocks and our elective course on company culture. My name is Richard K. Rein (you might want to note that you may call me Rich), and I will be teaching this course based not only on my 25-plus years as the owner of U.S. 1 newspaper, but also on my previous experience as an independent contractor (a freelance writer) and previous to that as an employee of several large companies (Time Inc. and Gannett).
The course is aimed at those entering the workforce for the first time, and at those returning. There will be no final, no midterm, and no term paper due. You will receive no grade. You will only be judged by how well you put the lessons into place in your unique work situation. The course consists of the following units:
What It Means to Be an Employee. It means, first and foremost in a state such as New Jersey, that you are an employee “at will” — at the will of the employer, who may choose to terminate you when and if he or she pleases. Most large employers, wary of litigation if unfair employment practices are perceived, will chronicle their hiring and firing decisions with reams of paperwork. Small businesses may operate entirely differently, and an employee may be let go just because, well, just because.
The employer does not have to “put things in writing” in order to make them official, and the employer can change his or her mind at will. “It’s not my job” is not a valid reason for not obeying an employer’s order. One of my ad salespeople raised the question with the state Department of Labor after I asked her to deliver papers one day (to a shopping center when prospective ad clients operated businesses). She delivered the papers.
Learn the Rules. Whether they are written or unwritten, formal or informal, every company has some rules. And for reasons you may not at first appreciate, some people or groups of people may be subject to different rules than other people.
Figure out which rules apply to you. This may include policies about when to arrive and when to leave; handling personal business while you are on the job; how long to take for lunch; whether or not to drink at lunch; what can be “expensed” to the company and what cannot; answering your personal cell phone at your desk; what’s appropriate in company E-mail; and the dress code. When in doubt dress as the boss does, or maybe even a little better than that.
Bring a company perspective, not a personal perspective, to your job. Your computer is missing a piece of software that will enable you to do your job better, and your brother has just that software sitting unopened at home. Why not bring it in and take care of the problem? There may be many reasons why not, including the fact that your problem may be faced by some of your co-workers, who would benefit from a company-wide upgrade, as opposed to your personal fix.
A corollary: If you work at a networked computer, and you save things to your personal desktop, you have not really saved them at all, from the company’s perspective. Figure out how the company backs up its critical data and make sure that your work is part of that back-up process.
Be Your Own Brand. At first this may seem antithetical to the lesson above, but it’s actually complementary. Bosses love employees who, rather than say “that’s not my job,” instead say “that sounds like a problem that needs to be addressed — I can help with that.”
If the missing piece of software, referring to the example above, turns out to be critical to the company and you are adept at using it, most bosses would appreciate knowing that. One of the other instructors at our School of Hard Knocks, Doug Kerwin, noted that he was hired for a $10 an hour “nothing” job and transformed it into a $100,000 opportunity.
Avoid tethering yourself to another person. It’s a great temptation to align yourself with another person at about the same job level and make your job intertwined with theirs, with communication going back and forth between the two of you and the boss being left out of the loop. This is a mistake, and the company is not likely to reward you for that kind of teamwork.
Learn to Read. Since most corporate communication is delivered at the fifth grade reading level — not unlike the content of a newspaper — you probably can read. The question is whether or not you will take the time to read, and to read carefully. The Sarnoff scientists who developed the new standard for high definition television soon realized that to effectively communicate with their far flung team they had to repeat things not once or twice but more like 100 times.
Remember the lesson from above: The boss doesn’t have to put anything in writing. So when he or she does, pay careful attention. Read it all the way to the end. If it’s an E-mail consider printing it out, and underlining the important points.
Be Mindful of Company Politics. Just as in Washington, D.C., the politics played out at the water cooler or the nearest bar may not always be pretty. But politics also are a way of reconciling differences, and greasing the skids for movement of otherwise intractable objects.
Participate in both the formal company events and also a reasonable share of the informal ones. But don’t follow the behavior of the whiners and the losers. Take your cues from the company’s successful workers and the boss himself. Play the part and you may someday be asked to take the role.