Etiquette Lessons: 5 Pointers on Being the Youngest Person at the Office
Once upon a time (approximately two years ago) I was a complete novice when it came to office attire and protocol. I firmly believed that any top tucked into any skirt covered by any cardigan was business casual and thus office-appropriate. I thought I could waltz into any job or internship and the powers that be would immediately spot how bright, dedicated, and competent I was. I was devastatingly naive and ill-informed.
Thankfully, I had a guru of sorts. She taught me the value of a "work top" (hereafter referred to as a "wop"). She coached me through the finer points of email etiquette. I wore her J.Crew wardrobe for the entire first month of my first job. She is currently rocking the world of finance as a Consulting Associate (which, I have learned, is actually not the same thing as an Associate Consultant) and is far too busy and important to write this kind of column, so, instead, you get my spin on her advice. What follows is an utterly incomplete list of ways in which to make your coworkers treat you like a human and not like a useless teenage intern.
1. Look the part
This causes me pain to write, as I'm a proud native of Southern California and grew up in a culture in which cutoffs are almost always appropriate. But when you are 22 and everyone else in your office is 30, you have to look like an adult. So dress like you're from Connecticut. Skirts should hit no more than two inches above your knee. Cleavage should never be visible. Shoulders should only be visible in the summer, and even then a blazer should never be too far away. Everything should fit: there is literally nothing more irritating than pulling your skirt up or tugging it down constantly, unless it's watching someone do it.
That said, take the time to find work clothes you don't hate. There are ways to make even the most corporate-lawyer-esque outfits acceptable to your personal sense of style. Much as I truly detest the expression "look good, feel good", there's something to be said for the kernel of truth within it. When you actually like what you're wearing at work, rather than feeling like you're dressing up in someone else's clothes, it shows. Being comfortable in your skin (and your own outfit) is the first step towards making other people comfortable around you.
2. Speak Up
In many situations, at many jobs, no one is going to ask you what you think. We (20-25 year olds) are the most junior. We are easy to ignore. It is up to us to volunteer what we think, to take on projects, to prove that we can do things besides data entry. No one will hand it to you. There is no prize for being the most unassuming.
That said, no one wants to be "that guy/girl". You know exactly who I'm talking about — the overeager one. The know-it-all. Use those social IQ points you've amassed in your 20-something years on this planet to avoid that at all costs.
3. Ask Questions (but make 'em smart ones)
It's hard for me to say this aloud (or in writing) but the sad truth is this: I don't know everything. And neither do you. Thus, at the start of any job, we're bound to have questions. Ask away, just make sure they aren't the kind of questions that you can answer yourself with a quick Google search.
Asking questions extends past those that are completely work-related. It helps the elders in the office see you as a human if you ask them about themselves — where they went to school, what jobs they've had previously, how their kids are doing. They love talking about themselves just as much as we do, and if you can defy the "self-absorbed young'un" stereotype it'll only stack the odds further in favor of you being treated as a competent member of the team, rather than the toddler that can't do anything without help.
4. Be Polite
I wish that this was assumed. I wish that everyone, regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, or level of attractiveness knew that this was the rule that underlies all other rules. But, they don't.
Being polite is (scarily) an underused ability. It goes hand-in-hand with "be respectful". It doesn't matter if you are smarter than your boss (you might very well be). What matters is that he or she is your boss, and, as such, you owe them a certain level of common decency, respect, and politeness. Squashing the tendency to roll your eyes or make sarcastic comments is unbelievably tough, but it goes better in the long-run (or so I'm told).
5. Do Your Homework
The best part about work is that, unlike school, we don't take assignments home with us. But that doesn't mean we get to show up at the office uninformed. The most golden of the golden rules for being the baby in any office is to always, always be prepared. If you work in marketing and are fielding a ton of calls about a particular event or brand or whatever, know what those callers are talking about! If you work for a state government on the day when the ACA is rolled out (oh wait, that's me!) understand what the big policy means for individuals. Knowing your stuff will impress your boss, enable you to do your job effectively, and ensure that you can actually go home knowing that you helped somebody.