Perhaps even more challenging than landing that first job out of college is learning the unspoken rules in the workplace–what to wear, how to network with others, even the do’s and don’ts of talking with the boss.
An independent study course in Colorado State’s College of Business helps graduating seniors better understand what employers expect from employees–before they make a mistake that could cost them a promotion or their job.
"Workplace blunders can break careers," said Jackie Jankovich, a management professor who teaches the course and has studied protocol in companies for eight years. "For entry-level employees, understanding how the company works and the values it places on behavior and personal appearance is extremely important to success." Jankovich and management professor James Francis started the course three years ago and continue to teach it on their own time to address student concerns as they prepare to enter the workplace.
"The students learn all they need to know about business in their academic career," Francis said. "Understanding and following protocol can put them head and shoulders above other employees." Taught each Thursday night during the spring semester, this informal group covers a variety of common questions including telephone and e-mail protocol and talking with managers and fellow employees in a social setting. One class is devoted solely to dining etiquette, while another outlines all aspects of appropriate business attire.
Students learn how to look for clues of protocol in the workplace. Are there cubicles or enclosed offices? Are all managers situated on the top floors of the company’s headquarters or scattered throughout the building? Do employees wear casual corporate attire or dress in conservative blue suits? As part of the course, students interview two companies on how protocol is communicated to employees. This exercise gives the students a valued perspective that can help them deal with protocol issues throughout their careers, said Jankovich.
Jankovich and Francis also share stories of employees who did not follow protocol and were prevented from climbing the corporate ladder or fired because of it.
The class dovetails with a major study Jankovich recently completed that looked into how two major Northern Front Range companies–a consumer products manufacturer employing 6,000 people and a financial services firm with 250 workers– communicated protocol to employees.
The study showed that protocol was recognized in both companies but was communicated to workers only to the extent necessary. The financial services company communicated protocol to workers more directly because it worked more closely with customers.
The study also concluded that companies communicate protocol in three ways: directly, indirectly and through role modeling. Direct communication and role models are more effective than indirect communication, which sometimes can be misinterpreted.
"Companies may set the tone for what’s expected, but don’t see themselves as responsible for conveying those expectations to new employees," Jankovich added. "The rules in a business setting can be really gray. We try to help the students read between the lines."