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It’s graduation season and a fresh batch of my fellow Millennials are ready to trade their caps and gowns for business casual. However hard they’ve worked, though, many twenty somethings can attest that a diploma doesn’t guarantee success in a down economy. We’ve learned the hard way that there are some things that college simply didn’t prepare us for.

But as Lindsay Verstegen, a Senior Recruiter at Groupon, tells me, “The hand that teaches is not always the hand that’s being held so nicely. Sometimes, it’s the hand that burns.”

Whether you’ve landed a full-time job in your chosen industry, a part-time job as an office assistant, or even an unpaid internship making coffee for the summer, here’s what Gen Y really needs to know about taking the first steps down the career path.

Six Do’s and Don’ts

I recently caught up with two Gen Y peers who have found success through hard work (and a bit of luck): the aforementioned Verstegen, and Heather Huhman, Founder and President of Come Recommended. Together, we identified a few rules of thumb for Millennials joining the workforce.

1. Don’t lose your cool with recruiters.

Gen Y is needy. We crave more communication and “touch” from prospective employers than previous generations--and we’re very vocal when we’re not getting it (usually to our detriment). We fail to realize that recruiters have a lot on their plates and generally can’t satisfy our expectation of rapid, personalized attention during the recruitment process.

Huhman advises there’s a fine line between follow-up and harassment. “My rule of thumb is to follow up three times, every seven to ten days, and then stop.” Always via email, “Never ever via phone.” Recruiters hate getting unexpected calls from applicants.

2. Do engage prospective employers.

Social media platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter offer fantastic opportunities for you to build relationships with a prospective employer. Jump in anywhere. Search for industry forums or targeted Twitter chats, talk with people, ask questions--even if their company isn’t hiring. You may have more to talk about when you finally do land an interview, something many Gen Yers struggle with.

Whether in an interview, personal communications or an online forum, the key is to talk about yourself, not just the company or industry. What does Verstegen want to hear? “Talk to me about what you are looking for, and let’s talk about what this specific piece of the big puzzle is, what you could do here.”

3. Don’t be a baby at work.

Many recent grads are lucky to land even an entry-level position. But after being told by parents and teachers how awesome we are for the last twenty-whatever years, we’ve come to resent menial work. And if we’re bored, Gen Yers tend to jump ship quickly in search of something better. My advice? Don’t be a baby.

“Don’t give up on a position just because you don’t love everything about it,” says Huhman. “Every job has some menial tasks that need to be performed.” Huhman recommends that you should always look for ways to do more. Talk to your supervisor about any opportunity to take on new projects, and offer to help your colleagues. You should never simply go in, do your job, and go home.

4. Do be agile.

So maybe it’s not your life dream to be an office assistant. But you’re just setting out on your career path. If you can keep things in perspective, it’ll add up to something.

“One thing we’ve always valued at Groupon is a sense of humility, an understanding that you just pull up your bootstraps and do it--and that’s made us very agile,” Verstegen says.

If you can do your job well, show some humility (it’s hard for us, I know) and demonstrate just how agile you can be, you’ll find it easier to build valuable relationships with your coworkers and impress your supervisors. And you’ll likely find your career trajectory much more to your liking.

5. Learn what it means to be professional.

Gen Yers want to be themselves at work. We celebrate our individuality, and are a little more resistant to adjust to fit our surroundings than our parents or grandparents. But Huhman warns that Millennials need to be aware of how that can impact their work experience.

This is especially true in how you interact with your supervisor. Huhman says, “If your boss doesn’t text, it’s not appropriate to be texting her.” If your company has traditional values where business casual is defined as slacks and a button-down, you’re not doing yourself any favors by going against the grain. You’ll land yourself a pink slip in no time.

6. Do find a mentor.

If you think mentorships are old school and not worth your time, think again. Having a mentor (or several) is a great way to gain the much-needed perspective of someone who’s been there, done that, and has something to show for it. A mentor can provide guardrails for your career path, and let you know when to hit the gas or slam on the brakes.

A lot of leaders aren't asked to be mentors anymore, and unfortunately many companies no longer have formal mentoring programs. However, Verstegen says, “Leaders want their stories heard, and want to share their experiences.” It’s up to you to find them. But don’t limit your search for a mentor to your company or industry. “My mentor runs her own business--which is certainly not something I aspire to,” says Verstegen, “but she treats people in a way that I respect.”

A Career of Stepping Stones

While you might think that what’s happening right now is the most important thing ever, the truth is you’ve only taken a small step forward in your career when you start your first job. And in a lot of ways, your first job is a learning experiment of sorts. Challenge yourself, and learn as much as you can from the people with whom you’re working. With a combination of perspective, humility, and agility, you’ll be on your way to the next stepping stone (and then another, and another, etc.).


About the Author: Kyle Lagunas is the HR Analyst at Software Advice, an online resource for reviews of talent management systems and applicant tracking software. Kyle reports on trends and best practices in HR and recruiting software—offering fresh insights into the ho-hum of people processes. For further reading, you can find this article in full on his HR blog.