13 Workplace Communication Tips Today’s Young People Need to Know
Texting- and social media-obsessed Millennials aren’t always prepared to navigate the business world, which primarily “runs” on email and face-to-face communication. Here, author Ben Carpenter shares 13 dos and don’ts to help them communicate productively in the big leagues.
Hoboken, NJ (April 2014)—If you’re a recent college graduate or young professional, the first thing you probably did when you landed your first real-world gig was text your best friend, post the news on Facebook, or tap out 140 clever characters to tell the Twitter world about your accomplishment. What you probably didn’t do was pick up the phone and call each of your buddies or craft an email announcement to send to all your friends and family.
Ben Carpenter isn’t surprised. Personal and professional experience have shown him that most Millennials communicate primarily via texting and social media. And yet, email and phone calls are the primary methods of communication in the business world. Hence his question for you: Are your written and verbal communication skills going to cut it in the big leagues?
“Because the majority of their communication is through texting or social media, today’s young people may not have the skills they need to be successful at business communication,” says Carpenter, author of the new book The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals About How to Find a Great Job, Do a Great Job, Start a Business, and Live a Happy Life (Wiley, April 2014, ISBN: 978-1-118-91702-2, $25.00). “Despite their best intentions, ‘text speak’ and an overly informal tone can muddle the messages young professionals send.”
Carpenter points out that young people are entering the workforce with great educational backgrounds, but often, those backgrounds didn’t include a lesson in writing work-related emails or conducting a productive phone call…or even a face-to-face meeting!
“In business, relationships are built the old-fashioned way: by picking up the phone and checking on a client, for instance, or by taking your boss to lunch to pick his brain about a new project,” says Carpenter. “Without better communication skills, young people entering the workforce will really struggle to solidify the relationships they’ll need to learn, grow, and succeed.”
Here’s what young people entering the big leagues need to know about communication:
Play monkey see, monkey do.
If your boss consistently calls you into her office whenever she wants to ask a question or assign a task, it’s a good idea to schedule a face-to-face meeting with her whenever you need to discuss something. If a certain client regularly calls you back to answer questions you asked in an email, start picking up the phone yourself instead of composing a note. And if your colleague seems to keep an eye on his inbox 24/7, he’d probably rather you email him instead of knocking on his door.
“Make a note of how your colleagues and clients communicate with you and mirror their behaviors,” Carpenter says. “This is an easy and effective way to minimize frustration and misunderstandings. Remember, part of being a good communicator is knowing how the other person prefers to interact with you.”
Know when to connect without a screen.
Say that a client has placed an unusually complicated order full of special requests and you need to confirm it before sending it to Shipping. Or you hear through the office grapevine that your team leader is unhappy with the pitch you just turned in. In instances like these, says Carpenter, responding via email probably isn’t your best bet.
“If an issue is complicated or sensitive, pick up the phone or talk face to face instead of lobbing emails back and forth,” he instructs. “Whether personally or professionally, we’ve all experienced how easy it can be to misread an email or misunderstand its tone. Speaking with another person in real time has a way of clearing things up and keeping people on the same page.”
Make the rounds.
We all know to network when looking for a job. But when that coveted “You’re hired!” finally arrives, most people cut back on cultivating their professional connections. According to Carpenter, that’s a mistake.
“Introduce yourself to all of the people in your office or department when you start, even if you don’t think you’ll be working with them directly,” he suggests. “As you move forward, it’s fine to use email and internal messaging services, but make sure to have regular conversations with your colleagues, too. Keeping your name and face in front of your coworkers, and especially your higher-ups, will grease the wheels of future communication and can even lead to more and better opportunities down the road. When it’s time for promotions, your boss probably won’t think of the office hermits first!”
Be proactive (especially with your boss).
Don’t assume that because your clients and coworkers aren’t asking questions, they are on the same page as you. Part of being a good communicator is anticipating what others might need or want from you and proactively providing it. Don’t make the people you work with ask for updates, reports, and information. No one likes pulling teeth!
“For instance, keep your boss updated on what you’re working on by sending her your to-do list each morning,” Carpenter instructs. “Don’t make her come to you to find out what you’re working on. By the same token, work out a check-in schedule with your clients to update them on projects and to get feedback. Don’t worry about being too aggressive. If your boss or client thinks you’re sending too much information, they’ll tell you, and you’ll be able to work together to strike the right balance.”
Always, always respond.
Your friends might not mind if you don’t respond to the occasional text, but in a work context, letting emails slide or allowing voicemails to pile up is a major faux pas. The individuals who didn’t receive a response will remember what they perceive as dismissiveness, or even a lack of respect. Over time, this can do major damage to your reputation and cause you to be passed over for the most important career-building tasks.
“Always respond to your boss, coworkers, and clients as soon as possible, even if you have to stay at your desk a few extra minutes at the end of the day,” instructs Carpenter. “Certainly never let 24 hours pass before responding to an email or returning a phone call. Even if you’re still looking into the issue, let the other person know that you got their message, you’re working on it, and you’ll keep them posted. Soon, you’ll become known as someone who is rock-solid and reliable…and maybe even the go-to person in your department.”
Don’t withhold information.
If there is something your boss needs to know, tell her, even if you think she might react badly. If you made a mistake, admit it, even if you’re dreading the consequences. If a client asks a question you don’t feel comfortable answering, ask your boss how to respond, but don’t prevaricate or (worse) ignore the client altogether.
“Waiting, avoiding, or withholding won’t make difficult issues go away; it will only make things worse once the truth does come to light,” Carpenter states. “You’ll come out looking untrustworthy and incapable, labels you do not want attached to your career. Even if you’re in the wrong, others will appreciate and respect your honesty when you’re open and up-front.
“On a similar note, some organizations treat information as currency to bargain, bribe, and ladder-climb with,” he adds. “Avoid playing this game whenever possible. Strive to be as transparent as you can without letting others walk all over you.”
Yes, much of being a good communicator involves being open and proactive. But according to Carpenter, there are some things you should avoid saying, either in person or over email. In addition to blatantly inappropriate words and topics, he says, you should primarily avoid asking unnecessary questions.
“Pay attention so that you don’t miss out on important pieces of information,” he instructs. “Read your emails carefully. Put in a good-faith effort to find an answer or solution yourself before bringing your issue to someone else’s attention. Remember, in business, time is money. People won’t appreciate taking time out of their days to provide you with information you could have easily obtained elsewhere or should already know.”
Be clear and specific.
In the workplace, you don’t have to fit everything into a 140-character limit. So without being excessive, take the time and/or space you need to be clear and specific in your communication. Insufficient or vague information isn’t just unhelpful; it’s downright frustrating!
“Don’t make assumptions or expect people to read between the lines,” suggests Carpenter. “Try to anticipate questions people might have and provide answers up-front. For instance, if you’re composing an email update to send to a client, be sure to fully explain any industry processes or jargon you include. Or if you’re providing feedback to a colleague about a project you’re spearheading, explain in detail what you thought was positive or negative instead of just saying, ‘It’s fine,’ or, ‘It needs more work.’”
Practice your verbal skills.
You’re probably thinking, Ben, I’ve been talking since I was two. I don’t need to practice. But there’s a big difference between talking and effectively communicating. Words can come out of your mouth for minutes at a time without accurately describing what you’re thinking or without engaging the other person’s attention. Remember, promotions and accolades come to those who can build relationships with clients, negotiate, and express themselves well.
“You won’t get very far if you beat around the bush, freeze up in front of others, or have trouble conveying your thoughts in a way that others can understand,” Carpenter notes. “And even if you aren’t aware of it, others will be distracted by poor grammar or unconscious interjections like ‘uh,’ ‘you know,’ or ‘like.’ What’s appropriate with friends often isn’t smiled upon in a professional setting. One of the best ways to determine how to effectively communicate in your organization is simply to listen to others. Then practice, practice, practice!”
Think before you speak or type.
We’ve all seen the news stories: An ill-advised tweet or Facebook update goes viral. Sometimes, it may damage “only” the perpetrator’s reputation. Other times, it directly contributes to the end of a career. Don’t let this happen to you! And even if social media doesn’t enter into your workday, says Carpenter, email or verbal comments can have the same effect.
“On a smaller scale, words that are less catastrophic, but still unwise, can cost you respect and opportunities,” he points out. “If you’re agitated or upset, wait a few seconds before firing off an email. Take a few deep breaths before throwing your two cents into the conversation and think through the ramifications your words might have. Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should.”
Fighting in the office or getting involved in “work drama” is a bad idea, period. It makes people unhappy and unproductive, and is a huge waste of time and energy. Most importantly, it can make others unwilling to work with you. According to Carpenter, there are two things you should avoid in particular while you’re on the clock: complaining about your job and badmouthing your coworkers.
“As a new employee in particular, it may seem as though certain people or cliques are trying to purposefully push your buttons or get you to take sides in a dispute,” he says. “As much as you are able, avoid getting involved. If the break room is turning into a giant gripe-fest about a certain leader, politely excuse yourself. Even if you’ve had it up to here with the mindless busywork you’ve been given and need to vent to someone, wait until you get home and call a friend.”
As a new employee, you’re probably eager to make a good impression on the people with whom you work. And certainly, building relationships at work is a great thing to do. But remember, your boss isn’t your buddy. Your coworkers aren’t your friends. Your conversations with them should differ from the conversations you have with your non-work pals.
“For instance, if your boss asks what you did over the weekend, you can share that you took a day trip to a nearby city with your friends,” Carpenter says. “But you shouldn’t pass on the details of which bars you went to and the hijinks you got into. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing it with Great-Aunt Mildred, don’t share it with your coworkers. Also, I want to reiterate one more time: Don’t get involved in office gossip, which is essentially other people’s oversharing!”
Don’t just admit mistakes.
Show you learned the lesson. As a new employee (and really, as a human being), you’re going to make mistakes despite your best efforts. Your new boss and coworkers accept that. How they respond to your mistakes, though, is largely up to you. First, Carpenter instructs, ’fess up when you mess up. This isn’t anybody’s idea of fun, but it’s important to be honest if you want to retain your coworkers’ goodwill and respect.
“Then, take your confession a step further by demonstrating that you have learned a lesson,” he says. “That might involve telling your boss, ‘I realize I didn’t call our client back before I left for the weekend, and as a result, he called you on Saturday and was very upset. To prevent that from happening again, from now on I’m going to respond to all client questions within two hours and will update clients at the end of every week.’ And, of course, you should make any necessary adjustments to your future behavior. Remember that actions really do speak louder than words. Your organization will value employees who take it upon themselves to learn and grow from their mistakes, instead of trying to sweep them under the rug.”
“When you enter the working world, you’re immersing yourself in a new communication environment,” concludes Carpenter. “Think of it as visiting a foreign country and adopt a ‘When in Rome’ strategy. Remember that in the big leagues, your reputation is just as important as your skills and abilities. Do everything you can to protect it by communicating in an appropriate, efficient, and clear manner.”