What Employers REALLY Want: Grasping the Unspoken Rules of the Workplace

By Steve Parese

Developing employment opportunities for individuals with difficult backgrounds can be extremely challenging, especially in today’s economy. Even when these candidates have strong vocational skills, many have difficulty finding or keeping good jobs. They just can’t get along with their coworkers, won’t listen to their supervisors, seem unwilling to follow common sense expectations. Why is this, and what can we do to help?


Remember Erin Brockovich?

As movie goers, many of us cheered as Julia Roberts, portraying an unconventional legal secretary in “Erin Brockovich,” triumphed over a large utilities company bent on hiding its harmful practices. As career development professionals however, many of us moaned as we recognized the difficulties of working with such “unconventional” employees.


Recall senior partner Ed Massery’s difficulties as he attempted to offer Erin guidance on an unspoken dress code in his law firm:

Massery (nervous): “Look... now that you’re working here, you may want to rethink your wardrobe a little?”

Erin (defensive): “Why is that?”

Massery: “Well, I think that some of the girls are a little uncomfortable... because of what you wear.”

Erin (smiling cynically): “Is that so? Well, it just so happens I think I look nice. And as long as I have one a-- instead of two, I’ll wear what I like... if that’s all right with you? And Ed? You might want to rethink those ties!”


Erin Brockovich doesn’t see her boss’ suggestion as an enforcement of an unspoken professional dress code. She sees it as a personal criticism of her taste in clothes. As such, she feels not only entitled to reject his advice, but to offer a little constructive criticism of her own as well!


Two Items Employers Really Want

As workforce and career development professionals, we shape candidates whom we hope will find success in today’s people-centered job market. When we ask employers what they believe is most important to workplace success, they repeatedly state: “We’d rather have someone with a good attitude and no vocational skills, then someone with skills but a bad attitude.”


But what do employers mean by a good attitude? Two aspects emerge:

1. First, a job seeker with a good attitude has strong soft skills: self-control skills, communication skills, social skills, problem solving skills, etc.

2. Second, s/he seems to intuitively understand the employer’s common sense rules, such as show up everyday on time, don’t argue with your supervisor, use personal time (not company time) for personal business, etc.


And why do unconventional workers (such as Erin Brockovich) have such a hard time meeting these two expectations? Consider two possible answers:

1. First, more conventional job seekers have often had the benefit of a comfortable upbringing and/or good mentors, and have mastered the interpersonal skills needed to get along with others and work through disagreements. By contrast, many non-traditional workers have faced the challenges surviving in more difficult environments, and may have never learned these finer social skills.


2. Second, most experienced employees intuitively understand that we must adopt a different role at work than we do at home. We understand that different games are played by different rules, and we adapt our expectations accordingly. If a supervisor were to suggest that our office attire was a bit too casual, we might feel slightly put off, but most of us would take it as a professional criticism.


On the other hand, entry-level workers in today’s economy lack prior workplace experience, and so have never had an opportunity to develop strong professional identities. They haven’t gained an intuitive understanding of the unspoken professional rules of the workplace, so they rely upon their personal rules instead. To many of these challenging employees, a suggestion to dress more professionally feels VERY personal, and so gets a very personal reaction!


Implications for Career Practitioners

Given these insights into employers’ concerns, one major task of career development professionals is to help unconventional job seekers begin to understand and adjust to the social expectations of the workplace. Findings from the fields of cognitive-behavioral psychology and brain-friendly learning offers some best-practice strategies:

• Provide direct group instruction in professional interpersonal skills such as managing emotions, problem solving, expressing concerns, and dealing with criticism. Utilize brain-friendly learning strategies, including bright visual aids, emotionally relevant vignettes, interactive teamwork, skillful demonstrations, and dramatic role plays.

• Offer individual coaching and counseling when problems occur. Use these opportunities to practice new skills and benignly challenge misperceptions without attacking the person.

• Develop meaningful relationships with challenging individuals based on respect for their survival skills and an appreciation for the difficulties of transitioning from one world to another. Use these relationships to add credibility to interventions, rather than operating from a basis of compliance with authority.


With insightful instruction and skillful coaching, new workers can learn how to meet employers’ often unspoken expectations and have more successful fitting into their new jobs.


Dr. Steve Parese and Ms. Andrea Brown will present on this topic at the NCDA 2011 Career Development Conference in San Antonio, TX, where they will present a Featured Workshop entitled: “What Employers REALLY Want: Grasping the Unspoken Rules of the Workplace.”  (Presentation Series VI, Friday, July 1, at 4:50 - 6:00 pm)




Steve PareseDr. Steve Parese began his career teaching juvenile offenders with special education needs in a variety of therapeutic, community, and correctional settings. Since leaving George Washington University in 1998, he has published a number of journal articles, book chapters, and training programs. He has traveled the world speaking to staff who work with challenging populations such as at-risk youth, ex-offenders, and welfare to work individuals. Steve grew up in the rural Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, but currently lives in the small mountain town of Danbury, North Carolina. Contact him at sbparese@aol.com or for Workforce Development: www.WorkinItOut.com

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1 Comment

Adry Clark on Sunday 04/03/2011 at 01:50PM wrote:

Dr. Parese,

Thank you for this thoughtful article. I'm also very interested in what, I've recently learned, as the "organizational socialization" of new employees. Have you come across any research that links difficulty in adjusting to upbringing and background?


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