Twentysomething: 5 ways people get screwed early in a career

This guest post is by Susan Johnston who is 24 years old and blogs at The Urban Muse.

By Susan Johnston - It’s easy to get screwed when you’re fresh out of undergrad and starting a new job. Nobody tells you this, because it doesn’t make a particularly inspiring message for a graduation speech or greeting card. But it’s true. In college, you had professors to encourage intellectual exploration and advisors to make sure you stayed on track for graduation.

Unfortunately, in the workforce your boss is looking out for the bottom line and you don’t automatically get assigned to someone who will look out for your best interests (you have to find your own mentors and even then they could have their own agenda). I graduated a year early, so I was especially eager and open to managerial manipulations. So, class of 2008, here are some situations to look out for.

1. You could get screwed on a project basis.
If you don’t know what you want from your job, then how can you expect anyone else to know what kind of work to give you? It’s not your employer’s job to help you find yourself, so if you don’t have a clear picture of what you want to do, then you are an easy target for tasks that no one else wants to do. Not every manager is good at delegating or figuring out other people’s strengths, so the employees who know what they want and ask for it make their managers’ lives easier. Those who don’t, get stuck with the leftovers.

2. You could get screwed out of money.
In the past, I’ve been promised raises, and I failed to get it in writing because I trusted my bosses. The first time, I was working at a taco stand over the summer and my manager got fired a week later, meaning I missed out on that extra 25 cents an hour (tragic, I know). The second time my boss gave me a verbal raise but never told accounting. I straightened it out a few paychecks later, but I should have emailed him to confirm immediately after our meeting and avoided the confusion later. Another unfortunate salary manipulation is what I call the preemptive raise. Basically, you get a small raise when you’re not expecting it and they know that you won’t try to negotiate. But you should always negotiate so that you establish yourself as someone who knows what they’re worth.

3. You could screw up your image.
People worry about the stigma of job hopping, but sometimes it’s the only way to gain respect. Say you were interning somewhere and got offered a full time job at the company. Your parents would be elated, but I would caution you not to jump in without weighing your options. First of all, you’ll always be remembered as the Intern, so people will continue asking you to fetch coffee and locate office supplies. My first job out of college was as an admin but a new position opened within a few months and I grabbed it. Even a year after I’d moved up, people still treated me like the receptionist because that’s what I was doing when they met me. If your company thinks you’re worthy of a full time job, then trust your abilities and someone else will offer you a position with more money and more respect as well.

4. You could get screwed into working evenings and weekends.
If you don’t have 2.5 kids and a spouse waiting at home, then in many industries, you’ll be expected to put in extra hours (and no, you don’t necessarily get comp time or overtime). It’s not fair, but that’s just how it is. Take it from someone who didn’t have time to date her first year out of college, because she was running around helping at events on Friday and Saturday nights. I suggest you put in the extra time when you can so that no one can fault you when you have a family commitment or a friend’s birthday party. After all, you have outside obligations, too. Don’t let your eagerness to please prevent you from having a life.

5. You could get screwed by lack of feedback.
Lots of managers are uncomfortable giving feedback (especially negative), so they’ll avoid it if at all possible. For example, I once had a manager say to me “annual reviews are coming up in a month, but since you just started, we’ll wait until next year.” Fourteen months passed before I had a performance review, and I was blindsided by some of the comments I got, because no one brought up issues that had been going on for over a year! You can’t fix it if you don’t know it’s broken, so you should take it upon yourself to check in with your boss periodically and avoid any surprises at your review. You could even ask what you need to do in the next six months to qualify for a raise. They may not give you clear directions, but at least you’ll show that you want to excel in your job.

Susan Johnston’s blog is The Urban Muse.

Posted in Managing up, No image, Office politics
34 comments on “Twentysomething: 5 ways people get screwed early in a career
  1. David Rees says:

    Great post – especially the part about the money although it applies to vacation and title as well. Always remember kids – in business, if they aren’t serious to put it in writing, they are not serious.

    One of my candidates here in Austin – a Sr. Supply Chain Manager with nearly 20 years experience took a job with less vacation than she wanted because her boss told her in good faith that they could “work something out”. 6 months later he was gone – along with her “deal”.

  2. Monica says:

    Numbers 4 and 5 were the ones that got me at my first job. My previous company thought it was normal to call me into work at 1am almost every Saturday night. (They rarely called in my teammates though.)

    My boss was one of those who didn’t want to give negative feedback – on my performance review he wouldn’t explain why he gave me certain scores for different core competencies, even after I asked him for examples.

    This is great advice to any soon-to-be graduate heading to the job market. These were some of the reasons I chose to leave my first job after only working there a little over a year.

  3. Curmudgeon says:

    Susan, you can get screwed anytime in your career, so this is good advice in general. I’m especially sympathetic with number 4 – many years ago I received a lengthy travel assignment because “I was single and it wouldn’t be a hardship on me.” That still rankles. I would advise that under any circumstances at work, you make sure that all duties and assignments are clearly understood by you and your boss.

    However, make no mistake – you will be screwed at some point. How you respond defines your character.

    * * * * * * *

    Thanks, Curmudgeon! Several other people echoed your sentiment that these tips are universal. As someone who’s relatively new to the workforce, I know for sure that these are common problems for recent grads and I didn’t want to generalize these scenarios across all workers. I don’t know if I should be happy or disheartened to hear that these issues continue as your career progresses!

    -Susan

  4. Caitlin says:

    Finally, a Twenty-Something post that doesn’t pontificate about how special Gen Y is but instead provides good, solid advice based on how things actually work in the real world. What a breath of fresh air!

    This is great advice for people starting out and a good reminder for the rest of us. For someone ten years into my career, I found that this had the ring of truth based on my own experiences and yet it was still useful because I hadn’t heard some things expressed in exactly this way.

  5. Matt Bingham says:

    Very Nice post. I especially like #5 – that is so true. The thing that really gets me about that though is that managers are there to provide that information and drive the team. It’s disheartning when a manager doesn’t have the gaul to pull an employee aside and recommend ways to improve on something. #3 is great also. In IT this happens all the time. You start out as an application developer and work your way up to Architect…but the business never lets you lose your development hat. It takes a long time for jobs to totally transition and this advice is spot on – if you want to change you almost have to move, otherwise you will keep getting sucked back into your old jobs.

  6. Adam Kamerer - JoyChaser.com says:

    Great post, with some excellent advice. I’ve wondered about point #3 particularly, as I am about to start an internship that I hope will have a chance of turning into a job afterwards. Your post gives me things to think about.

  7. Matt says:

    Great post, but I’ve got some issues with #4. I think this is the #1 biggest problem with workers (American at least), and it’s a problem handed down to Gen Y from previous generations. It makes me sick how people just can’t say no at work, how they’re too afraid of telling their boss, “hire another person, otherwise this work won’t get done for another week because I don’t have the time to get it done.” Not having the time means that you aren’t working overtime (and not getting compensated for it).

    I see this issue as a cultural sickness that goes around work environments. Even if you’re eager about a job, don’t mind or enjoy, doing extra work, it sucks a person in if you can’t keep expectations under control. Expectations of pulling back, getting time to relax. Put a little extra effort in, more so if you enjoy it, but keep #2 in mind. You’re getting paid for what you do, and if you aren’t, then don’t. Push back, you’re probably not the president or major share holder, so it’s not your company.

    I know too many 40-50 year old friends who thought the extra hours were innocent. I know too many friends in their 20-30s who think the same think, and I’m just watching them lose their lives to work. It’s rarely intention, but it happens for a great number of reasons, so don’t put in extra hours without great consideration for the IMMEDIATE compensation of either extra pay or time off.

    Beyond #4, #1 is especially important, and effects people beyond college grads, and it should probably get a full post or two of its own. The same with #2, and that one reminds me of a conversation here at work comparing one executive woman to another set of executives at a client company we work with. You could tell she knew her worth, and wasn’t putting up with crap (the company has been bought out) compared to the others taking lots of guffing during the trying time. Know what your worth, and show others you know what you’re worth. You’ll get lots of respect for it.

  8. Jerry Matthew says:

    Nice post, honest & straight to the point. It happened to me some 20 years ago but the story is the same: Stand up for yourself because no one else will. If you can’t spot the sucker at work, you’re it.

    While all of us need experience right out of college it doesn’t have to come at the price of a life. This is where generations have different values ( and well they should ) about what comes first. Boomers thought work should come first and guess what – not only did they get screwed at 20 they also got it in the backside at 40, 50 and 60. I think Gen X and Gen Y have it right – family and life come first. Thew work will be there when you get back, whether it’s you or someone else who comes back.

    Work is a relationship. If you let the other party have control you’ll get what they decide to give you. If you stand up for yourself right of the box they have a different view of you.

    More emphasis should be put on lateral feedback rather than that from above. The feedback received from above is second hand and often filtered to meet an objective – usually financial. Peer feedback is more important because it’s more honest, especially when it comes from those you work for outside of your department or corporate heirarchy.

    * * * * *

    Jerry,
    I like your thinking on lateral feedback, and it’s a concept I haven’t really explored. Personally, unless someone specifically asked me “how would you characterize my job performance?” I wouldn’t given constructive criticism to a peer. However, perhaps if I solicited their feedback first it might open up the conversation.
    -Susan

  9. Miriam Salpeter says:

    These are excellent points: get important promises in writing, take responsibility for your career, request feedback…

    It’s also important to realize that the “new guy,” often the youngest or least experienced worker, needs to prove him/herself in the workplace to gain respect. That may mean working long hours or weekends and holidays. It may mean taking on projects that no one else wants to do. Believe me, I know, having worked on Wall Street right out of college :-) (If long hours and demands inconsistent with your plans extend beyond the first year or two, it’s time to consider a new job or career.)

    When you demonstrate that you are a team player, have high standards for yourself and get things done, you will begin to control more of your work destiny.

    Keep your mind on your career as a whole. For example, think about how you will incorporate various accomplishments into your resume as you are working on them. Consider what skills you need to enhance to qualify for a position of interest; volunteer for projects where you will gain experience in those skills.

    Controlling your destiny isn't only about worrying how you are getting screwed over, but how you use challenges to your best advantage.

    Miriam Salpeter

  10. Greg says:

    Bravo! Great post..for ALL ages!

  11. klein says:

    Anyone working those extra hours and forgoing their lives, have it ass backwards! You work to live, not the other way around, unless you are truly SO PASSIONATE about what you do that you would literally do it for free. And, quite frankly, if you’re increasing someone else’s bottom line, why on Earth would you want to sell them your whole life!?!?

  12. Kathy S says:

    I agree, #1 deserves a post on it’s own. That’s exactly what happened to me. It’s not fun.. but at least it’s job security.

  13. Joyce Maroney says:

    I agree that the advice here is ageless. I’m 30 years into my career, and can relate to all of the points above. As a people manager for many of these years, I’d underscore the advice in #1 regarding the need to be clear with your manager about what you’re trying to achieve from a development perspective.

    When I assign projects to people, I want to ensure the best possible outcome. Not all projects are glamorous, nor do all projects offer growth opportunities for those with the skills to get them done. The more you educate your manager about your capabilities and willingness to take on more responsibility, the more likely you are to get those opportunities for growth.

    Last, but not least re: #4. I have two college age children, and so have managed work life balance issues for a long time. It remains the case that the path to achieving more senior roles in an organization means demonstrating that you can handle more challenging work assignments, complete them on time and within budget, and juggle multiple priorities simultaneously. In order to pull that off, depending on the job, you may have to travel and work nights and weekends. As a result, you may have to make tough choices between the ballet recital and running the training program in Hong Kong. Whether that trade off is worth it is very much an individual decision.

  14. jrandom42 says:

    You forgot one: You could get screwed by your co-workers who will use political connections to destroy anything good that you do in order to boost themselves, even if they can’t do the job themselves.

  15. David Rees says:

    I would like to point out that all this talk about “work life balance” and not working you life away is all well and good, but it is ultimately subject to the laws of supply and demand.

    We are moving into an age where there will be more jobs than qualified people to fill them, but that was not always the case. Many people, especially those who were not “professionals” and who worked before the age of “knowledge workers” worked hard and long because being highly productive is a competitive advantage when you are in a line of work with a low barrier to entry and a lot of people want your job.

    For seasoned IT people, the 90s were amazing – everyone wanted you and they wanted to pay you more. After the double whammy of 9/11 and the dot-com bust, many people had to work long hours at significantly reduced pay because the market was awash with legions of desperate, well qualified IT people.

    If you were working in 2002, you were fortunate and there was not a lot of complaining. What there was a lot of was personal growth as many of us who used to come home to multiple recruit calls on our answering machines quickly wised up and ditched the prima-donna attituded and rolled up our sleeves.

    Ok, enough with the “back in my day sonny!” grandstanding; just remember that “work-life balance” is highly subject to your value in the market.

  16. Tiffany Monhollon says:

    Nice post, Susan, and thanks for the shout out! It’s true that knowing what you’re about can help you keep from getting screwed early in your career. One great reason for this is that it gives you the confidence to demand what you’re worth – in projects, in salary, in position.

  17. leslie says:

    I especially agree with #4. However, this can sometimes be used to your advantage when someone who is on maternity or paternity leave can’t take on one of their high profile projects and a manager decides to give it to someone with more time to devote to it. This happened to me years ago and it resulted in learning the skills necessary to start my own business.

  18. Rob says:

    Great advice!!!!!  for an hourly wage employee. . . If you have the accumen to land a real job and have true EARNED true respect from your peers you won’t get “screwed.” If you over value yourself and other’s perceptions of your “accomplishments,” I guess what you would consider getting “screwed” is really the natural consequence of not being respected. Do you really desrve differently? Prove it!

    * * * * *

    Rob,
    Thanks for commenting! Obviously, if you were an hourly employee, then you would be paid accordingly for working overtime. The problem is when new (salaried) employees enter the workforce without understanding how to advocate for themselves. Most likely, their parents and professors did it for them up until this point, and they haven’t learned how to say no they’re asked to work unreasonable hours or how to ask for instructions when their manager is giving them no feedback. Of course, as some commenters have mentioned, there is a fine line between being assertive vs. being aggressive.
    -Susan

    • stace says:

      Or you just do the hours without pay as you are afraid to ask. I took a second job at a pub in London last year and was only paid 1/2 an hour after service stopped although it was impossible to finish cleaning the pub by then. We used to pour ourselves drinks when the boss wasn’t looking to make it up. Similarly, in media, I worked long hours for no extra pay. Just expected to do as it was considered a privilege to work at the company

  19. Norcross says:

    Fantastic writing! I had a boss for some time who, while he was completely and utterly insane, believed in the “immediate feedback” system. Problems / issues were dealt with right then and there. Come review time, things looked great.

    I’ve since incorporated that into my later jobs, and the people I manage.

  20. Shefaly says:

    Good post, although some of these are life hazards, not just hazards of being young and relatively unschooled in how people’s agendas drive them.

    On point 4: This is a good reason for keeping your personal stuff separate from your work stuff, and staying relevant and focused. I do not believe that proffering more information than is strictly needed is essential in the workplace.

    A friend of mine, cohabiting for 15 years and with a son, applied for a senior sales role and as many British people do, listed his date of birth and then his marital status (single). I reviewed his CV and asked him what the relevance of these was to the role. Anybody with some sense of arithmetic can calculate his approximate age anyway. By listing himself single, when he had a child even though this was technically his status, he was opening himself not just to weekend or sudden travel calls, but also to not being able to take employee benefits for his family. Personally, I also consider it a bit insulting to his girlfriend, who of course does not review his CV. He saw sense and does not put these on his CV anymore.

    On point 5: Don’t wait for feedback. Be proactive and ask for it. Be specific so people do not launch into tirades (some will).

    In my early 20s, I initiated a quarterly feedback process – anonymous to me, because our secretary agreed to receive faxes for me – from my “customers’ in the company. I was in a product marketing role and I also closed significant deals. The field sales teams got a chance to assess me on 10 criteria, and I also got qualitative feedback. In turn, we all delivered better performance and my boss appreciated my initiative and asked my colleagues to replicate it.

    And above all, few companies worth their salt need paperwork to award raises or reward people. This I have learnt is a good thing. My 20s were so jam-packed with work that I never kept records and now in the last 5 years, I have painstakingly put together a record of my own achievements. I am finding all this “data” helps write your CV in a relevant way for projects and facing interviews etc because we do forget details of all the things we have done.

  21. Shefaly says:

    Corrigendum:

    I meant “few companies worth their salt WOULD NOT NEED paperwork…” instead of “NEED paperwork”.

  22. Dora says:

    After 20 years experience in the work place I couldn’t agree more. I see people fresh out of University starting their career but don’t know how to focus their interest on a particular line of work even within the company since they don’t know it too well. The bosses usually are not eager to sit and explain options and ways to leverage yourself, maybe because they like it this way. Many promises are broken and without assertiveness many opportunities are missed.

  23. Ross says:

    Frankly, I don’t see any of the five issues raised as being focused on intentionally “screwing” someone over. These are typical issues that nearly every professional has to deal with at some point in their career (often more than once). The negative connotation of the title wording of this blogpost (i.e., screwed, screwing) makes it appear that there’s some evil intent on the part of employers who are trying to maintain or increase profitability. That’s business, honey. Don’t like it, then move on.

    * * * * *

    Ross,
    You’re correct that it’s often not deliberate, but these types of issues can have a hugely negative impact on someone’s career if they don’t stand up for themselves (in other words, not allow themselves to get screwed).
    -Susan

  24. Doug says:

    But what gets me about this post is the focus on being screwed. Work is not a zero sum game. If you are willing to unlearn all the nonsense you learn in school, you find the most important thing is having clearly defined goals. Once you do that, your primary competitor will be yourself.

    Ever see a successful 40 year old who fights over nickels and dimes in his comp package and plans his day around who might “screw” him?

  25. MariaMH says:

    I think these are really good things for everyone to keep in mind. As far as #3 goes, although it is tough to change people’s perception of you always being seen as the receptionist or the intern, when you move to another position, try to get your new boss involved in stopping the requests to do work you did previously. Make sure your job description is well defined and don’t be afraid to ask if you are really supposed to be doing “task X” anymore. People may not even realize they are asking you to do something you used to do and shouldn’t be doing in the current position.

    As for #4, that certainly depends on the position and company, but I am older and married with no children. I have a life outside work and I do not automatically say yes to extra hours. If I need to meet a deadline, then I work out my schedule to get the work done. If someone asks me if I can work over, I tell them I need to check my schedule and get back to them. Just because I don’t have kids doesn’t mean I don’t have other commitments. If I can work it out, then I say yes. Maybe I have just been lucky to have jobs and managers who never automatically assumed because I was single or didn’t have kids that I was going to work ridiculous hours. Or maybe it is the other way around – since I didn’t always work tons of hours, they didn’t automatically assume I was always available.

  26. mari says:

    i agree with #4. my boss verbally promised me a raise without putting it in writing. i held on to that in good faith and because i trusted my boss. months after the discussion about the raise, he changed his mind and blamed other factors which are beyond my control.

  27. mari says:

    ooops, i mean #2.

  28. Mark Braun says:

    My daughter recently got this whole list tossed at her; I agree that most employers now seem to want to pay Dunkin’ Donuts prices for MBAs.

    I DO recommend THE HAGGLER’S HANDBOOK as a short, working bible of tactics to fight these traps. Remember that ANY salary is negotiable and you’d better negotiate to take it all.

    Even at my age (54), I was recently b.s.’d out of a week of (verbally) promised salary and a bonus for picking up a big, big new responsibility. How’d this guy get away with it? No review, no raise, no discussing anything. Luckily, I’d haggled a decent starting salary some years back in anticipation of tricks like this.

  29. Caitlin says:

    Doug, it’s not about planning your life around who might screw you, it’s about avoiding common pitfalls that can leave you in a less favourable position.

    Getting screwed does not imply automatically that a person is screwing you. You can also be screwed by a situation.

    I wouldn’t focus too much on that one word. I thought it was a great post and it seems that many others agree – this is certainly the most positive set of comments I’ve seen on a Twenty-Something post, probably ever.

  30. Rich says:

    Nice post

    I think your #1 ‘screwing’ could be an article or book in and of itself.

    I’ll add to that to tell 20 somethings that it’s ok to get screwed provided you learn from it. Don’t let a bad boss or shafted raise deter you. Generations before you have been getting screwed as long as there have been organizations with more than 2 people in them.

    I think your best advice comes with respect to the ‘intern’ comment. The only way I would suggest someone take a job offer from where they interned is if the job is in a different location from where they previously worked. I have seen very talented people blow away the regular workforce for three months, only to return and be handed the crappy assignments and leave 18 months later wasting time and money.

    Also, there is a good chance that the projects you want to work on will be assigned to someone else by the time you wrap up school and show up at the office. Remember, you have the leverage until your start date.

  31. bluecrayon says:

    The points above were great and so was everyone’s feedback. I’m only 23 and I’ve felt the force of each one.

    I’m a firm believer that sacrifices must be made in order to acheive success. I’ve also found much insight and forsight in discussing making them with my husband and making them OUR decisions. In doing so, you can move forward in your career and it’s the choice of your family.

  32. Simon says:

    If you are an avid home business Entrepreneur who is frugal, or at least aware of attempts being made to separate you from career living by deceptive employers, this is a no brainer. The reason I became so fed up with jobs/careers, was the fact that the rich get richer, and the less fortunate, get poorer!

    With an Internet Marketing business, and becoming your own boss, the playing field is leveled in your favour!

  33. Ginn says:

    I think, career is nothing. Just live your life…

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