Archive | In the Workplace

Image by Moresheth, Flickr

Image by Moresheth, Flickr

Just joining in? Catch up with Entry #1 and Entry #2.

Office Relationships

No, I don’t mean THOSE kinds of relationships (though they’re not entirely excluded). All work environments have a set of relationship dynamics in play, and up until this summer, I had never had to deal with office dynamics, or what some might call ‘office politics’. As an unpaid student intern, I was preparing for the worst. If they treated me like I didn’t know anything, I could hardly blame them – I’m not even studying anything even remotely related to mental health.

However, by and large I am treated as an equal. Although the paid employees delegate tasks to me, they usually ask for my feedback and take it into consideration. My boss always wants me to come to meetings to participate and offer my thoughts, even though I am only here for one more month. Once, I couldn’t make a meeting, and she rescheduled it just so that I could attend.

Of course, in a teeny tiny organization like the one I work for, things like that are easy to do. When you work for a large corporation, it’s inevitable that some things will slip through the cracks. I’m lucky, to be sure, but I’m still a firm believer that everyone else can be this lucky too, unless your boss is truly evil. If you want to be treated more like an equal and gain more experience, ask. Just make sure that you have the time for the new responsibilities. Why wouldn’t your boss let you sit in on a meeting if you’ve already finished all of your other work for the day? And if you show that you’re eager to learn, it’s harder for a superior to treat you like you’re “just a student” who doesn’t know anything.

That doesn’t mean I don’t deal with my fair share of confusion, though. Some offices are full of lively relationships, where people are friends outside of work and go for lunch together and gossip at each others’ desks. These days you even hear about progressive companies instituting things like company retreats and putting recreational activities inside their offices and whatnot. Others are cold and clinical – people do their work and go home, only interacting for business purposes. Mine isn’t quite like that, but I would hardly call it overly friendly.

Everyone gets along quite well at the office. We collaborate on projects, and even when staff members disagree they always keep the discussion respectful and informed. We make small talk about our weekends and the weather. But that’s about where it ends. No one sees each other outside of work hours or shares too much with each other. This is all fine, but what if you want more?

Maybe it’s because I don’t have a packed social calendar, but sometimes I wish that some of us were friends. I really enjoy the company of the younger people in the office – I think they’re smart, funny, and just all around cool people. I would like to spend more time with them and get to know them better. Yet, my few attempts to do so generally fail. I don’t know how to “take things to the next level” without it being awkward. Most people would just say, “Hey, can I add you on Facebook?” But in an environment where no one initiates these kinds of things, it’s hard to feel like you’re not being super obvious and weird.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that I have not yet solved. So this is me asking YOU for advice – how would you make friends at work? How would you take it to the next level?

As usual you can tweet be with your thoughts (or anything else) @chelsearrr and I will see you next month for my last post!

Image by Samuel Mann, Flickr

Image by Samuel Mann, Flickr

Just joining in? Read Entry #1 here.

I’ve been at my internship for nearly two months now! It feels like I just started yesterday, but when I think about everything I’ve accomplished and learned, and the new relationships I’ve formed, I realize just how long it’s been.

The common stereotype of the unpaid intern is someone who gets coffee and does other mindless tasks for their superiors. Sometimes I am asked to do things like that (never coffee though, that would be disastrous), but not too often. Usually I’m assisting with larger projects.

When I am asked to do menial tasks, I follow this tried and true advice:

When assigned a task, such as to make coffee, make the best damn coffee they’ve ever seen.

I don’t know why I keep using coffee as an example when this has literally never come up for me. I suppose the coffee itself is a stereotype! A better example – when I’m asked to enter data into spreadsheets, I do it faster (and more accurately) than anyone has ever done it before. And then I say, “What else can I do?” By getting this sort of thing out of the way, you not only impress people with your dedication, but it allows you to have the time to move on to other projects that might be of more interest to you. You’ll hear this all the time, but it is truly one of the only pieces of advice I can honestly say that everyone should always follow, no matter what the situation.

That said, the major projects that I get to work on are really exciting. My superiors are very dedicated to making sure that I get something out of this internship – real, valuable experience in which I’ve learned a variety of different skills. I could judge this just based on our first interview – I was asked what type of work I would like to be doing, and how it would fit into my academic and professional goals. So don’t feel like all internships are a waste of time because that’s all you’ll do! Chances are it won’t be. If you’re lucky enough to be able to choose where you work, look for employers with an attitude like this, and don’t be afraid to tell them exactly what you want. You’ll be nearly guaranteed an enriching experience.

My major projects:

  • The Blog – I edit the blog that is featured on the organization’s website, featuring a rotating set of different contributors every day. I then promote the blog posts on social media, and I monitor the Facebook and Twitter feed during the day. I do a lot of other miscellaneous online stuff too – this week I got to design an email newsletter, which I’m sure will be a very useful skill for future jobs.
  • The Videos – I mentioned in my last post that I first worked with this non-profit on a video project. In the winter, they began to shoot a series of videos featuring different people talking about their experiences with mental illness. I was the subject of the first video. Now, I am finding subjects for future videos, interviewing them and shooting the videos, and editing them afterwards. All of this is completely new to me, and I think this is the project that I am learning the most from.
  • The Book – During my very first week, all I did for days straight was edit a manuscript for an updated edition of a book that the organization is putting out. This definitely utilized my strengths, but it was quite the project – all of the files were so disorganized and it took a while to make sense of everything. I also felt like I would go blind from staring at a jumble of words on a screen for so many hours on end. However, I think that it’s in good shape now, and I’m excited to move on to the next draft! I learned a lot from the minimal research that I did for the book as well. I hope I’m around long enough to see the finished product.

That’s it for now – I’ll be back next month with updates and more tips for you guys! In the meantime, you can follow me @chelsearrr on Twitter. I’m always ready to talk internships or anything mental health.

Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flickr

Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flickr

@USNewsCareers recently hosted a Twitter chat for current and prospective interns to get their questions answered and receive tips from the industry (#internchat). We were happy to be part of the chat (@StudentsDotOrg) and were joined by countless other professionals and interns. Below is a summary of our favourite and most useful tips from the chat:

Tip #1: Use free resources provided to you when searching for an internship

With technology these days, the world is literally at your fingertips. You have access to endless job postings – so use them. However, the consensus in the chat was to not limit your search to job search engines. As a student, you’re given free access to your school’s career centre and advisors. Take advantage of them. You also have an extensive network between students in your classes, your family, your professors, and connections you’ve made on social media sites such as LinkedIn. Ask around. Attend conferences and events hosted by your school; you never know what connections you’ll make.

Tip #2: If you don’t get an internship, there are other things you can do instead

Any experience is good experience when you’re talking about your resume. @CareerCounMatt gives a couple of examples: volunteering, taking courses, or starting independent projects can all give you worthwhile experience that provides added value to your resume and to future employers. Just because internship hiring season may be over doesn’t mean you should stop networking. Many companies will give informational interviews during the summer; you could end up on a short list for the next year if you make a great impression.

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Tip #3: Develop your people skills

When we were asked what companies look for when hiring employees, not one person responded with “good grades”. Answers all centred around people skills: communication, leadership, teamwork, being proactive. There have been many discussions about how skills can be taught, but personalities can’t. Companies generally look for employees who will fit in well with their culture, and who are enthusiastic about helping take the company to the next level.

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Tip #4: Use your internship to grow yourself – not just your resume

Although the goal of every intern is to find a full-time career, remember that your internship can provide a lot more value to your own development. Determine what you want to learn/develop during your internship and find out if that can be offered. Does the company offer training or a mentorship program? Are they giving you meaningful work or sending you on coffee runs?

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Tip #5: Prove yourself before asking for more

Some interns go into their internship with guns blazing, demanding responsibility for more and more tasks to show that they are the Ideal Intern. Be wary about taking this approach – it could easily backfire. The consensus is that once you are able to prove you can handle the workload already assigned to you (handle = complete on time or early, error-free and above standard), you can ask your manager for more responsibility. Make sure to always finish what you’re assigned before looking for more. One great idea is to figure out what your manager finds the most difficult to deal with, and find ways to improve the situation. Discuss with your manager/mentor any particular interests or passions you have, and how you can apply them to your position.

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Tip #6: Unpaid internships are not pointless

Many new regulations have come into play regarding the legality of some unpaid internships. If you end up in an unpaid internship, remember that even though you are not being paid, the internship is still worth your time in experience. You’ll have months to learn, and perhaps your company will send you to events or conferences where you can develop new skills.

Tip #7: Always ask questions

During your internship or volunteer experience, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s a horrible feeling to complete a day’s worth of work only to find out you did it wrong. Asking questions will also let your manager know that you’re a thinker, not just a doer, and it’ll show them you’re interested in what you’re working on.

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Tip #8: Sorry, but you do not know more than your managers

The one thing your managers have over you is experience. They know their company, and they generally know what works and what doesn’t. This is your chance to learn from them – not to compete with them. If you’re looking to turn your internship into full-time employment, the best thing you can do is listen. Show your interest and respect, and if you do have a new suggestion or idea, make sure you don’t propose it in a way that challenges their authority. No one likes a know-it-all!

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Tip #9: Take your internship seriously

You’re not in school. You’re not hanging out with friends. Even if your internship is as short as 2-3 months, consider it to be your full-time job. Make a good impression, show up on time (early!), dress professionally, and don’t complain about the work being too hard or boring. If you receive constructive criticism, don’t mope over it. Apologize, correct any errors, and remember the advice for next time. There was a reason the company hired you over all the other applicants – show your worth.

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Tip #10: Watch your social media usage

Never forget that social media is public content. Even though you think you’ve picked a clever pseudonym for your online self, it is very likely your employers will be able to find you. Never talk badly about your company on social media. Remember the impression you’re trying to make! Find out the office culture and policy towards social media. If you love social media, ask if you’d be able to create an @ intern account to document your experience and office happenings. Some companies may be excited by this – and some may not be. Learn to be ok with whatever response you receive.

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Tip #11: Be irreplaceable

As mentioned, every intern’s goal is to turn an internship into a full-time offer. The best way to do this is to leave lasting impressions throughout your time there. Be irreplaceable. Show your worth. Make connections with other interns, managers, and coworkers. Make sure your manager is aware of your goals; you never know if they’ll be able to put in a good word for you. At the very least, ask for recommendations or referrals near the end of your program – these could provide you with the leverage you need to gain your next employment.

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US News Careers also posted a recap of the chat. You can find it here.

Image by COD Newsroom, Flickr

Image by COD Newsroom, Flickr

My name is Chelsea – I’m a fifth year student at the University of Toronto, and I just got an internship! Yay, right? Well, I sure am excited about it, but there are others who aren’t so thrilled (and they make some good points).

I should specify that this internship is unpaid. There’s a lot of debate over whether or not unpaid internships should be legal, but I will say that in my case I believe it is justified. This is because I’m interning for a tiny non-profit that raises money for mental health research and creates awareness. They only have 3 employees. They likely can’t afford to pay me.

I’m going to be posting about my experience throughout the summer, because so many students end up in internships or want one, but it’s difficult to know what it will be like until you’re there. My particular situation may be a little unusual but I hope that it can still shed some light on what you can expect (or at the very least, entertain you)!

First, the basics:

How I Got The Job

  • I was contacted by the executive director to be filmed for a video project they were doing. She reached out to me because she read an article I published in our student paper (you can read it here). Although you should never do something just because you feel like it will “look good”, sometimes your extracurriculars really can get you noticed!
  • I did not apply for anything. In fact, the position wasn’t even advertised. I asked about potential opportunities. They asked for my resume, I had a meeting with them, and that was it! Even if you don’t see an open position, it never hurts to ask!
  • Although I haven’t yet graduated or study in the mental health field, I demonstrated good leadership skills and good ideas. Every time I interacted with them I was enthusiastic, and I wasn’t just putting it on – I really am passionate about the cause and the work they do.

Why I Wanted The Job

  • I am NOT expecting it to lead to a paying job. If it does, that would be the best thing that could ever happen to me, but it would be unrealistic to expect that. No matter where you’re interning, even if it’s for a massive company, don’t do it just because you want a job there. Do it because you enjoy the work and want the experience!
  • I had opportunities to take a full time paying job this summer (even if it was just retail). I did this instead because I am passionate about it. I can get a full time job when I graduate! My parents disagree and we’ve had numerous arguments over it, but at the end of the day, I can still support myself, and what matters most is what you want, not what your parents want.
  • Mental health awareness is very important to me because I struggle with mental health issues and so does someone close to me. That’s why I’m willing to go to the lengths that I do in order to work here. I work 7 days a week most weeks. Typically, my schedule is that I work Monday-Thursday at my internship, and then I’ll work Thursday night, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at my (paying) part-time job. I have to do this in order to be able to support myself.

I hope that this is helpful, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of my experiences with you this summer! I’ll be back next month with entry #2. If there’s anything you’d like me to cover, let me know! If you have any questions or want to talk, you can tweet me.

Follow Chelsea on Twitter, Tumblr, and WordPress.

Image by Phil Whitehouse, Flickr

Image by Phil Whitehouse, Flickr

Office politics are unavoidable. Where there are people, there will be conflict. Optimistic, inexperienced young people entering the workforce can be vulnerable to workplace tensions. Many working students simply want to prove themselves and work hard. That may not be enough to succeed at work. If students do not heed their workplace’s political landscape, they can unintentionally offend co-workers in their endeavor to impress their superiors, risking conflict and possibly their reference and/or paycheque.

Temporary summer employment presents a special case of office politics. Perhaps vying for employment the next summer, or after graduation, or in trying to show their work ethic to improve their reference, summer interns can irritate permanent staff by working at a different standard than expected.

I’ve heard several stories from friends and family about how, during summer employment, they were told by permanent staff members to work slower, or less efficiently, so as not to raise standards.

I recently learned my lesson in office politics during a summer job. I found a summer job with a real estate management agency as an office assistant. I signed a contract stipulating I would work downtown at their newly acquired property from May until August. The real estate company recently bought an old apartment building, and I was to help the existing resident manager revamp the building’s office.

An introductory meeting at the company’s head office provided welcoming words and a briefing about duties, when fellow summer student workers and I eagerly showed up for our first day. Head office was in an impressive marble and glass building. The meeting was held in a sunny corner conference room with friendly vice presidents to greet us, and several fruit plates. We (the summer students) were given individual portfolios containing information about the company, and contact information for the resident building managers we would be working with. According to my portfolio, my resident manager’s name was Valerie. The next week, on my first day of work, I arrived at Valerie’s building and buzzed her apartment from the directory. I wore a blazer, collared shirt, and dress pants. A grumpy woman, around fifty years old, emerged from a ground-floor apartment wearing cutoff sweats, a holey t-shirt, and a look of confusion. She opened the door halfway.

“Who are you?”

“Hi, I’m Helen. Are you Valerie, the building manager?”


“I was sent by Realty Management Inc.” She stared, unresponsive. “I’m working here for the summer.” Further confusion. “I’m a summer student, they hired me to help with the office until August.” Still no response. “Is that the building’s office?” I pointed to a closed, unmarked door off the lobby.

Valerie turned, seeming to see the office door for the first time. “Er – yes.” She let me in the front door and led me to the office, withdrawing a bulging, rusty set of keys. While she jangled the ring looking for the right key, I pondered the power of a fruit plate, and how official it could make a meeting seem.

Despite the legitimate impression last week’s meeting gave, the certainty of the HQ administrators, and the neatly organized folders, Valerie had no idea I was arriving, or even that I was assigned to work in her building for four months.

The office door swung open, revealing a dark, dank room with dust coating every surface. Ah. The disused, cluttered office accounted for the miscommunication. It seemed that Valerie hadn’t been using the office, and instead had been conducting business out of her ground floor apartment. The phone, desk, and computer lay dusty and unused.

“So, you will work here all summer?” Valerie asked, lowering herself into the desk chair, stirring up dust.

“Yes, until August. I’m here for anything you need in the office. Filing, organizing, helping with the computer.” I sat down opposite the desk in a metal chair similar to those kept in church basements. She simply stared at me from across the desk, creating an silence far too awkward for such a small, dark room. I smiled, trying to ease the tension. “So, anything I can help with, just let me know.”

She continued staring, unmoved. “I don’t need any help.”

I don’t remember how I responded, but I know I could not conceal my overt shock at her blunt insensitivity. Within five minutes on my first day, I was plunged into workplace politics – the real estate company wanted me to help modify Valerie’s office, but Valerie didn’t want to change her managerial style (or lack thereof), and she certainly did not want a new style taught to her by a random student. Valerie likely thought that with the new company buying her building, I could have been sent to work with, learn from, and eventually replace her.

It seemed I had signed away my summer to work with someone who didn’t want my assistance and who disliked me on principle, even if my intention was only to work hard and do a good job. The former building owner had allowed a “hands-off” managerial style, while the new company wanted an involved, hands-on manager. Judging by the dusty state of the apartment building’s office, Valerie was dedicated to the former “hands-off” managerial style. Many times, when I pried too far into office logistics, or tried to improve efficiency, she would shut me down. Due to our disparate motivations, throughout the summer, the awkwardness between us never fully dissipated, and there were several incidents where she purposefully prevented me from doing my job, likely to retain her own job security. However, I never pushed back hard enough to spark conflict when she isolated me from administrative business. As a senior employee, she was more trusted and valuable.

If a conflict arose between us, as a temporary employee I was more disposable.

Fortunately, with some extreme patience and unrelenting cheerfulness, Valerie eventually warmed up to me. We parted with a hug.

During summer employment, students have to adapt to workplace politics quickly in order to succeed – to do a good job and exit with their deserved compensation without stepping on too many toes during their brief time working. As passers-through, their obligation is not to point out the faults of their co-workers, even if they are less than friendly. The goal of a summer student employee should be to depart with experience, a solid, good quality reference, or even just a full paycheque for their work. Thanks to Valerie’s rudeness, I learned my lesson: professional enthusiasm is best applied in combination with political awareness – check office politics to secure your paycheque.