When New College Grads Become Employees

The transition between college and the work world can be tough. College students often struggle to understand the norms of the working world, and sometimes even fail in their first jobs. The difference is often ascribed solely to age or generational differences, such as the supposed entitlement of the Millennial generation.

Students in their first job face a profoundly different culture at work than they do at school.

However, as a recent Harvard Business Review article noted, the transition is really about the difference between student and working world cultures more than it is about age groups or generational cohorts. College and workplaces are fundamentally different in three areas, and both business strategy and leadership development can benefit from understanding those areas.

  1. The speed and reliability of feedback

In college, feedback comes from professors on assignments. It generally happens fast – within a week or sooner. It’s very reliable as well. Every assignment is graded and most students receive comments that contextualize the grading as well.

Workplaces, by contrast, vary tremendously in the speed and reliability of feedback. New college grads may receive no feedback at all early in their employment. Many companies don’t have a specific plan for feedback until the annual performance review. At the outside, then, new employees may not receive structured feedback on their work for months. Other companies may give structured feedback or intermittent feedback sooner, in one-on-one meetings or chats. But many organizations don’t do this.

Others rely on the tone and type of interactions and assignments to convey feedback on performance. But recent college graduates, of course, may find it difficult to fully interpret feedback given this way. Is being passed over for a team assignment a sign of managerial displeasure or a sign of the employee’s inexperience? New hires may legitimately wonder.

It’s a good idea for recent grads to be assigned mentors who have had a similar transition.

  1. Relationships

Relationships at college can be primarily with peers who are about the same age, or with professors who have a benign relationship with the student.

At work, however, students need to start getting along well with people of all age groups and all types. They can no longer choose a friendship group to be surrounded with solely, as they could in school.

Relationships also need to be strategic at work. There is no avoiding a difficult coworker or boss; new grads have to develop a strategy to get along with them.

  1. Responsibility

Although students need to be responsible when they’re in school, their responsibility is primarily to themselves. If they earn good grades or get a significant internship, it can help their career, but the responsibility is primarily self-directed.

In the workplace, by contrast, recent grads are responsible for the production of whatever good or service they are responsible for contributing to. They may have team responsibilities, and they definitely have responsibilities to their supervisor.

As a result, actions in the work world can have more consequences than they do in college. If you miss an assignment at work or don’t do it well, you can be seen as a poor performer and even lose your job and any hope of a good recommendation. In college, you can often ask for a make-up assignment or be able to learn any material you missed later.

Employees who have been students recently can find the work world much more pressurized as a result. They can find it very frightening.

The Solutions

Fortunately, there are solutions to these cultural transitions.

First, remind your staff that a recent grad will be on a learning curve.

Second, assigning mentors who have been through a similar transition is an excellent idea. They can informally impart the standards and culture of your company in an empathetic way.

Third, try to give structured feedback as soon as possible if that’s possible in your company culture. If not, strive to make unstructured feedback clear.

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