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Starting Out

5 Career Mistakes Millennials Make — and How to Avoid Them

Overcome the negative stereotypes about Generation Y — such as being narcissistic slackers — and get ahead in the workplace.

From having a sense of entitlement on the job to not putting in enough hours at work, young professionals have managed to pick up a bad reputation when it comes to job performance. In fact, a report released by the Pew Research Center in 2010 stated that of today's four generational groups — the Silent Generation, baby-boomers and Generations X and Y — millennials were the only one not to cite work ethic as one of their defining characteristics.

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As an older member of this generation, I'd be remiss if I said I wasn't a tad bit embarrassed by the negative connotation that comes with being a member of Gen-Y — especially at the office. Who wants to be perceived as a slacker from the outset? I suspect I'm not the only millennial who feels this way.

Fortunately, twentysomethings preparing to enter or just getting started in the workforce can stand out by proving the negative stereotypes wrong and avoiding these five common career mistakes that younger workers make.

1. Not Being Proactive

Younger workers typically don't take the initiative, says Dani Ticktin Koplik, founder of dtkResources, a boutique career coaching and consulting firm. They expect the path to success to be laid out clearly, and they wait for tasks to be assigned to them. But "there isn't a syllabus that gets handed out the first day of a new job," Koplik says. And a lack of assertiveness can be a major roadblock at work that can keep you from gaining additional responsibilities and promotions.

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Developing self-management and self-leadership skills is critical at this stage. You can show some initiative by identifying areas at your company that have room for improvement and figuring out how you can make an impact. This may include assisting with the company's social media efforts or helping streamline the management of interns. Once you've assessed how to implement these needed changes, schedule some time to chat with your manager about a strategy.

In general, having a regular check-in with your manager is a good way to informally start the conversation about where you can step up within your own team. For example, I meet with my manager weekly to discuss assignments in progress and upcoming projects. If I have some down time in-between assignments and learn during one of our chats that a teammate is slammed with a heavier workload or there are smaller-scale tasks that have been put on the back burner until someone has time to pitch in, I'll volunteer to help.

2. Hiding Behind Technology

Many millennials were raised on technology (i.e., the Internet, video games and smart phones), and while communicating electronically may seem like second nature, it shouldn't be a replacement for face-to-face or phone conversations at work, says Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting from College to Career.

You need to learn how to effectively communicate beyond sending an e-mail, she says. For example, if you're confused about a task that your manager has assigned to you or you have a quick question for a colleague regarding an upcoming project, simply walk over to her desk or pick up the phone and ask. Not doing so can make it difficult to establish necessary personal connections.

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Full disclosure: All these years after starting my first real job, I'm definitely still guilty of sending e-mails to colleagues who sit just a few desks away, when I could easily walk over for a quick conversation. But I'm working on it — I try to only resort to e-mail for something I need to have documented for later reference, such as scheduling deadlines, or for including multiple people on a note. Otherwise, I try to do more in person.

3. Not Being a Team Player

It's no secret that Gen Y has been dubbed a generation of narcissists — and all the selfies posted Web-wide would seem to corroborate this allegation. But even if it might sometimes work out for you on Facebook, letting a self-centered mentality infiltrate the workplace isn't going to cut it, especially for entry-level workers, says Aaron McDaniel, author of the "The Young Professional's Guide" book series. Focusing solely on how to make yourself look good in front of the boss rather than making an effort to collaborate with teammates will eventually backfire, he warns.

Be sure to enter a new job with the mindset that your work should be about the greater good of the company. "When you align your goals with those of the team and your boss, that tends to inspire others," McDaniel says. "And when that time of year comes around when raises, bonuses and promotions are being given, the people who make it about the team are often the ones who reap the benefits."

4. Assuming You'll Get a Promotion

Showing up and doing the bare minimum will hardly get you noticed by upper management when it comes to moving up the corporate ladder. "You've got to work your behind off," says Amanda Abella, a career coach focused on Gen Y. Employers dish out top rewards, such as pay raises, bonuses and promotions, to workers who've proven their value.

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So go above and beyond what's listed in your job description, she says. That might include bringing in a new client that helps your employer generate significant revenue or volunteering to be the team lead on a project that gets industry recognition. "Don't just nail your goals. Hit them out of the ballpark," Abella recommends.

5. Losing Momentum

After several months to a year on the job with no major accolades, some younger workers may find themselves feeling disenfranchised or as if what they do doesn't really matter, McDaniel says. This is a critical mistake. When you think no one is paying attention, "putting in a 'B' effort becomes the norm," he says. But "people — especially, higher-ups — are always watching."

If you find yourself in a professional rut, schedule a one-on-one session with a mentor or trusted colleague to discuss a strategy for getting back on track. "Always take pride in your job, and recognize that what you do is important no matter what level you're on. And keep in mind that the people who are watching are most likely the ones who can give you your next big opportunity," McDaniel says.

This advice is especially applicable in today's job market, which is still undergoing a slow recovery and even tougher for recent grads with little work experience. For a few years at my first job, annual bonuses weren't given, and the pay raises rewarded were not reflective of the level of effort from employees. This was largely due to the downturn in the media industry, which warranted companywide cutbacks. I could've easily decided to stop putting in my best effort as a result, but I didn't; I worked harder. Eventually, those long hours logged at the office turned into more responsibility being sent my way. That allowed me to build up my skill set and eventually move on to a better job opportunity.