In spite of improvements in the economy, the American job market remains tighter than ever. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15 million Americans remain unemployed as of May, 2010. Among teens and young adults the unemployment rate is much higher, nearly three times greater than the rest of the workforce. There are also signs that the unemployment rate may surge by the end of the year. Faced with such grim statistics, the focus for many of us has been finding and nailing that all-important job interview, but anyone with experience in the job market knows that the real challenge begins after getting hired.
That’s right, the need to market yourself to an employer doesn’t end once you’ve filled out the W-2 form. Businesses are watching their workers more closely than ever before, and being a good employee these days isn’t just about striving for a raise or a promotion — it’s about protecting your job security and your future. So what can you do to secure your position and ensure your success once you get hired? Become a great employee! Below are the top five qualities many companies are looking for in their employees along with ways you can improve your job performance.
#5 Wear Appropriate Attire
Appearance matters and the interview isn’t the only time you need to look good for an employer. Don’t just follow your company’s dress code policy; make an effort to look your best every day on the job.
One of the easiest ways to improve job performance begins before work — personal appearance and hygiene can speak volumes about one’s character, and employers know it. Most job seekers are aware that it’s important to dress professionally for an interview, but landing a job does not give you license to stop showering or to start wearing sweatpants to work. Your employer is expecting you to act as professionally on the job as you did during the hiring process, and looking like you just rolled out of bed on your first day will have him or her wondering if hiring you was a mistake.
Dress conservatively and always be well groomed, even if your company has an informal dress code.
Cathy Ward, a business owner since the 1990s, maintains a relaxed dress code at her ecommerce wedding accessories company, but says even businesses with a casual atmosphere still expect a certain degree of professionalism in their employees’ attire.
“Yes, we are a laidback place to work,” Ward says. “That doesn’t mean you can come in dressed like you’re out on a Friday night excursion. That shows us you don’t care about your job and that you can’t make appropriate decisions about important matters.”
You may not need to wear a suit to work, but you do need to carefully follow your employer’s dress code. Being a good employee means never testing your company’s limits and trying to see what you can “get away with.” Your clothing should always be clean, free from wrinkles, and conservative.
A slovenly appearance can cost you your job.
Many businesses factor attire and appearance into employee reviews, and those outfits you threw together from clothes heaped in the laundry basket can cost you a raise, a promotion, or even your future with the company.
#4 Be on Time
This is one of the simplest and easiest requirements of any job, yet it remains one of the biggest headaches faced by employers. Arrive at work at least five minutes early each day and be ready to start working the moment you punch in.
Don’t want to get out of bed in the morning? Before you hit the snooze button you may want to ask yourself if your future is worth that extra five minutes of sleep. Punctuality remains one of the great unresolved problems of many employers, and the crackdown has already begun.
Over the past decade some of the biggest companies in America have started implementing strict or even zero tolerance attendance policies aimed at problem employees, many of which are monitored electronically. Your boss may not notice that you’ve been sneaking in a few minutes late each day, but the company’s computer does, and your tardiness can put your position in jeopardy.
Your attendance affects everyone around you and your company’s bottom line.
A zero tolerance policy may seem a bit harsh, but being late to work has a real economic impact on businesses struggling to remain profitable in a tight economy. Your attendance affects not just your own work but the performance of your coworkers and your company’s ability to do business. Those few minutes every day add up, and the time and productivity lost from all those late starts represents a major expense. Your employer is fully aware that if you aren’t willing to be punctual every day, they can find someone else who is.
“Businesses waste a tremendous amount of time covering for late or no-show employees,” Ward says. “It also puts incredible strain on the people who do show up on time to do their jobs. It isn’t fair to your employer, its clients, or your coworkers, and it shows that you don’t care. If you don’t, you don’t deserve the job.”
Finish all personal activities before you punch in.
Remember that being physically present at your place of business is not the same thing as being on time. Punching in then hanging up your coat, eating breakfast, or chatting with your coworkers for ten minutes is actually worse than simply showing up ten minutes late. If you want to make a pot of coffee or talk about last night’s episode of Dancing with the Stars, fine, but arrive early and get everything taken care of before you’re scheduled to start your day. Once you’re on the clock you should be ready to immediately begin working.
If you can’t avoid being late, notify your employer and prevent it from happening again.
Sometimes fate can conspire to make even a great employee late. A traffic accident, a blown tire, a meteor crashing from the sky; there’s always the risk that some unforeseen occurrence will prevent us from being on time. When this happens it’s your responsibility to contact your employer as soon as possible and to take steps to avoid future delays.
Unexpected hassles are an unfortunate part of commuting, but they aren’t your employer’s problem. Don’t make excuses; just give yourself ample time to get to work each day. That tiny bit of lost sleep is a small price to pay for your success.
#3 Keep a Positive Attitude
Maintaining a positive attitude at work is the key to a successful career in any field or industry. Negative attitudes are self-sustaining and will only make you feel worse about your job while robbing you of opportunities to improve it.
Many people treat their personal attitude like a private matter, but it isn’t — it’s a very public expression of who you are and how you feel about the job. Showing up to work every day with a chip on your shoulder doesn’t just carry over into your performance and hurt your career, it harms everyone around you. Your bad mood will darken your coworkers’ moods, and their annoyance will blow back onto you — creating a feedback loop of stressful negativity and conflict that accomplishes nothing.
A lesson from Sunday school: Treat your coworkers the same way you want them to treat you.
Avoiding cycles of negativity and having a great attitude means making a mental commitment to keeping positive about your work and being supportive of your coworkers. Do you have to like everyone you work with? No, but you are obligated to give them the same deference and respect you want them to give you. This simple “Sunday school” concept is at the heart of professionalism and is the key ingredient of teamwork and a successful work environment.
Your attitude is communicated through more than words alone.
Also keep in mind that much if not most of our communication is non-verbal and that everything you do conveys your mood. Your facial expressions, appearance, the slouch of your shoulders, the way you walk, and especially your tone of voice (think sarcasm) clearly express how you really feel. Going through the motions of being polite will backfire if your teeth are always clenched or if you’re constantly slamming down the phone. Attitude comes from within, so don’t just settle for being passive aggressive — work on genuinely improving your outlook.
If your job makes you miserable and you can’t improve your attitude, find another job.
But what if your job is so mind-numbing you just can’t feel good about it? Or if your boss truly is unbearable? Or deep down you hate how your company does business? Should you just learn to live with it? Teach them all a lesson by being a problem employee? Absolutely not, explains Bob Bryant, owner of the merchant services company ProcessForLess.com. He adds that if you really can’t stand your job, then it’s time to find another one.
“Attitude is everything,” Bryant says. “If you are only working where you are for the money, consider searching for a position that you enjoy. Spare your employer your bad attitude and poor performance.”
Businesses do not have the time to resolve your interpersonal conflicts or to make life decisions for you.
If you really dislike your job or keep finding yourself in intractable conflicts with your coworkers, the only things within your power to change are your attitude and the job itself. There’s nothing wrong with discovering that a particular work environment isn’t right for you, but if you’re truly unhappy then it’s up to you to improve the situation. Your employer is obligated to pay a fair wage and treat you with respect, not mediate your disagreements or obsess over your mental wellbeing.
Cathy Ward agrees. She explains that while workplace disagreements are inevitable, employees need to be positive, respectful, and resolve conflicts as adults. She adds that businesses simply do not have the time to deal with overly negative employees. “This isn’t daycare,” Ward says. “Behave. Believe it or not, times are tough and most businesses are struggling to stay on top of this recession. Don’t waste our time by forcing us to intercede on petty disagreements.”
Use self-examination to make yourself aware of your own attitude.
But is your attitude really that bad? Seeing yourself as others do can be tricky, and it’s important to be as objective as possible when examining your behavior. Below are some of the trademarks of a great employee — try to answer the following questions as honestly as possible:
– Do you complain or whine that you would rather be doing something else?
– Do you engage in gossip or point out the faults of fellow employees?
– Do you check emotional baggage at the door, or do you discuss personal matters that are inappropriate to the workplace?
– Do you downplay the efforts of your coworkers, or take credit for things you didn’t do?
– Are you polite and considerate in all interactions with employees and supervisors, regardless of whether you agree with them or like them personally?
– Do you treat problems as challenges that can be solved as a team, or as the personal failure of your company, supervisor, or coworkers?
– Are you willing to talk through and amicably resolve workplace conflicts, or do you treat them as fights you need to win?
– Are you open and accepting of modifications to workplace procedure, or do you actively resist every change?
Try this exercise to see yourself the way your employer sees you.
Still not sure if you have the right attitude for your job? Here’s an easy exercise for seeing yourself the way your employer does:
Think of yourself as a one-person business (in a way that’s exactly what you are). Now imagine that your employer is your customer. Your employer has the right to expect the same attitude and behavior from you that you would expect from a business when you are shopping or buying a service. Really look at the “experience of you” that you give your employer every day. Ask yourself if you’ve given them reasons to keep coming back to your business. Would you want to buy something from you?
A great attitude doesn’t mean being happy 100% of the time or somehow getting everyone to like you, but it does mean being honest with yourself and your coworkers. A good employee constantly strives to be upbeat and professional. Keeping that attitude no matter where you find yourself will make your job a better place to work, and your employers will appreciate you for it.
#2 Appreciate the Job
You have to appreciate your job and your employer if you want your employer to appreciate you.
Lately there’s been a tendency in popular culture to depict most companies as greedy, mismanaged behemoths populated with spectacularly incompetent middle managers who are completely out of touch with reality. We’ve all seen news reports about executive bonuses, or watched TV shows like The Office, or read comic strips like Dilbert. Yes, over the past ten years the images of our employers have taken a real beating. But while it’s true there are plenty of immoral businesses and ineffective managers out there, many employees now take it for granted that they know better than their bosses or that it’s acceptable to get one over on their employer.
This perception has led to a sense of entitlement and ingratitude that many problem employees have used to justify a variety of questionable behaviors ranging from poor attendance (see above), to insubordination, to simple laziness, to even outright theft. However, this sense completely ignores the fact that most companies are small and independently owned businesses, not mega-corporations, and that the vast majority of these employers are operating in the most ethically responsible way that they can. As for your clueless boss, chances are he or she worked hard to get to where they are today. They may not always be right, but they do have knowledge of the job born from experience.
Many companies and managers welcome fresh perspectives and ideas from their employees, but that doesn’t mean you get to act like the CEO. You need to appreciate that there’s probably good reasons things are the way they are, and unless you’re omniscient you likely don’t know them all. Even if your ideas are great, you still need to show proper courtesy when you share them.
“Most employees have no idea what it takes to run a company,” says Cathy Ward. “I know that now that I’m a boss. If an employee questions something I do, that’s fine, but they need to do so respectfully. I have reasons for many of my decisions that come from twenty years experience.”
“It’s not easy being a boss,” adds Adam Williams*, a human resources consultant. “It’s even harder these days when so many people automatically assume their boss is stupid. When I coach managers I tell them if they see signs of disrespect from an employee once or twice, they need to confront that person. From there the employee either needs to get on board or drown.”
The fact is that no matter where you work or whom you work for, there’s no such thing as job entitlement. No, your employer is not obligated to act on your ideas, but you are obligated to complete your assignments, even if they seem pointless. By the same token it’s never acceptable to shirk a task, skip work, or steal simply because you feel your employer isn’t perfect. Your job, and the perks that come with it, need to be earned.
Respect is a two-way street. If you want to be an active part of your company and treated as a good employee, great, but you need to first appreciate the job and the huge amount of effort that goes into running any company. Unless you have that appreciation, your employer will never appreciate you.
#1 Work to the Best of Your Ability
Do your absolute best to fully complete any task, duty, or assignment regardless of whether it’s something you enjoy doing or not.
There’s an old saying that goes, “Close enough for government work.” Avoid this mentality (especially if you actually work for the government) and commit yourself to putting forth your best effort to every aspect of your job — never walk way from something that is merely “close enough.” Consistently giving your best is a fundamental unwritten rule of any job, and it’s the most important quality for ensuring your success throughout your career.
Doing your best can lower stress and make work more fun.
Giving your best can also make your job easier and a lot more enjoyable. Bob Bryant points out that when an employee works to the best of his or her ability, they inspire their coworkers to do the same. This not only increases productivity but can make any environment a more pleasant place to work.
“Work doesn’t have to be fun, but it can be,” Bryant says. “When everyone makes that extra effort you can actually see the stress level of the workplace decrease. People start having more fun even as their performance improves.”
Bryant says that just as with attitude the opposite is also true, and workers who fail to focus on their tasks can make everyone else’s jobs more difficult and hurt morale. “If you can’t get behind the people you work with and support them to your fullest capacity,” Bryant says, “you do both them and yourself a disservice.”
Seek help and ask for clarification when you need it.
Bryant adds, “People sometimes mistake doing your best with being perfect. That’s simply not true. If you don’t understand what’s being asked of you or honestly don’t feel you’re capable of handling it on your own, it’s OK to go to someone for help.”
Ward agrees, and notes that, “It always takes longer to fix a mistake than it does to take an extra moment to learn how to do it right the first time. If you don’t know, ask.”
Never leave something unfinished or try to sweep a project under the rug simply because it is unfamiliar or difficult. While you should avoid causing your coworkers too many distractions, there is no shame in reaching out for assistance once in a while, especially if you are new to a position. It shows you care about the job and are committed to seeing it done right.
When you make a mistake, accept responsibility and work to resolve it quickly. Take the initiative to prevent it from happening again.
But until the robots take over, all of us are human and mistakesare unavoidable. When they happen, face the problem head-on and don’t make excuses. Trying to weasel your way out of a mistake you made by fabricating a story or blaming someone else ultimately wastes everyone’s time and is a poor reflection on your character. Identify what caused the problem, do whatever you need to do to correct the issue, and work out a plan to prevent it from happening again. Employers have far more respect for employees who take responsibility for their actions than those who don’t, and your integrity will take you far in the long run.
Grow with your position while consistently striving to improve your performance.
When an employer hires you, he or she is making a bet on your future. Your company is going to invest time and resources into training you because they believe you will be an asset to their business. Doing the bare minimum of work or resisting change stalls that investment. It makes it harder for the company to grow and makes it inestimably more difficult for you to grow with the company.
Working to improve your performance and to consistently raise your personal standards doesn’t just benefit your employer, it benefits you — and not just with raises and promotions. It makes your work more engaging, your days more enjoyable, and prepares you for a great future. You spend a lot of time working, after all, so why not make it the best experience you can?
Committing Yourself to Being a Good Employee Will Help You Succeed in Any Economy
With nearly one in every ten Americans still out of work, embarking on a career is more difficult now than in recent memory. So, if you are currently employed, take a moment to congratulate yourself on making it this far — we all know it wasn’t easy. But next think about the commitment you’ve made to your appearance, your attendance, your attitude and outlook, and whether you’re ready to give your best. These are simple ways to improve your job performance that will make you a great employee and will give you the tools to succeed and develop your dream career, no matter what the economic outlook. Good luck and get to work!
*Name changed due to confidential requirements of employment.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Situation, US Department of Labor