5 Unwritten Rules to Know to Succeed at Your First Job

Landing that first job after college graduation isn’t easy, and keeping it could be a challenge as well. The author of “The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right” shares some important advice.

A man grimaces as he pulls a too-tight dress shirt collar away from his neck.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

May and June are the months when American colleges and universities hold their commencement ceremonies. After that comes the beginning of the next stage in life as an adult, a first real job.

“Many will succeed, and fit in,” says HR manager “Delia” from a Fortune 500 company who asked that I not identify her employer. “But over the past several years there has been a rise in problems with recent graduates. Their schools did a poor job of teaching them the difference between school and work. Many of these new grads fail to grasp the culture – the silent, unstated laws – of their new workplaces, and when they fail, and are terminated, they rationalize it by believing they are the victim of illegal discrimination or other unlawful treatment by the employer.”

Of course, who hasn’t seen ads on television and the internet that say, “Fired? You were probably the victim of wrongful termination, so call us!”

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“But in reality,” says employment law attorney Eric Kingsley of Los Angeles, “at most, only1% to 2% of people who call our office we would accept as clients. The majority are calling because they are unhappy. You can be fired for all sorts of reasons, which do not have to be reasonable, but not for the wrong, illegal reasons. Wrongful does not mean unjust – it means that you meet some sort of criteria or there is a public policy society wants to enforce.”

Understanding the Rules of Job Success

If you know someone who is a recent college graduate and about to begin a first job, I have the perfect gift for them. It is a key to success within the pages of a down-to-earth, commonsense book that opens eyes to the reality of just how different work is from school. It’s The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right (opens in new tab) by Wall Street Journal bestselling author Gorick Ng.

Ng is a career adviser at Harvard College and has a work history that gave him tremendous insight into what spells success on the job – and what will clearly lead to failure, “a failure that will often repeat itself unless you understand what you did not grasp about your role in an organization,” he says.

“The problem is, managers are frequently too busy or too shy to tell you what they expect and what they’re really thinking,” Ng observes.

He believes that the road to failure on the job begins by not demonstrating the “three Cs” of Competence, Commitment and Compatibility, and he described what this negative behavior looks like.

5 Things No New Employee Should Do

Here are five things employees should NOT do if they want to be successful in their new careers:

1. Sit there and wait for your manager to tell you what to do, and do no more than that.

Consequences: You are seen as someone who is not competent, and needs to be micromanaged at every step.

2. Don’t do what you say you will do fully, accurately and promptly.

Consequences: You will be seen as unreliable and not committed. If people can’t trust you to do the little things in a timely manner, they will not trust you with more important responsibilities. Keep people waiting long enough and you will be looking for a new job.

3. Believe that your good work will speak for itself without getting others’ buy-in ahead of time.

Consequences: By not keeping others informed and consulted, you are rolling the dice on whether your ideas will be approved when they come up for discussion. Build allies around the room, in the team and across the organization so that no one is blindsided. The best way to get an idea accepted is to obtain approval before the meeting — and not in the middle of the meeting.

4. Fail to understand how promotions are determined.

Consequences: You may feel unfairly treated at best, and at worst, the victim of discrimination or some other form of illegal workplace behavior.

As the criteria needed to get promoted is often unspoken and unwritten, it is crucial to understand how promotions are decided in your workplace. Are they based upon:

  • Seniority?
  • Decided every few years in an “up or out” environment? That means you need to be promoted within a certain timeframe or else look for another job. To get promoted you typically need to be in one of the top percentiles in performance and potential relative to peers at your level.
  • Granted only when there is a vacancy?
  • Not granted at all and only given when there is a new need within the organization?

5. Don’t understand what it means to be “professional.”

Consequences: Each work environment has its own definition of what is professional and acceptable. Overshoot this invisible zone of professionalism and you may be perceived as uptight. Undershoot it and you may be perceived as immature.

Observe your colleagues and pick up cues from them as to what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and which ones are not. In one environment, if you aren’t, say, using exclamation marks and emojis in your emails or instant messages, you aren’t seen as enthusiastic or bubbly enough. In a different environment, doing the same could peg you as unprofessional and immature.

Final Words

Concluding our interview, Ng points out:

“School is about keeping up. Work is about stepping up. In the workplace it is not enough to just meet deadlines. You must go above and beyond expectations.”

As I look back on my employment history, having Ng’s book would have helped me in so many ways.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."