How to Succeed in Corporate America in Eight Easy Steps – Part 1

Alan Belniakbusiness, General, guidelines1 Comment

many 'first offices' after graduating (as seen on

When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and set out on my first job out of school, I was equal parts excited and scared.  I was excited to change the world and show people how smart I was (oh, hubris – you’re such a devil).  I was scared because I was at least self-aware enough to know that there are social mores and such of office life that I just simply didn’t know.  How was I to learn?


I wish this list were available to me then (and that the Internet was as developed as it is today).  This list is mostly targeted at new hires; smarter readers will see the Randy Pausch head-fake.


This will be a multiple-entry post – one that evolves and grows over time.  For now, let’s start with the eight* things I wish I knew (and I wish others knew) to make office life more successful, efficient, and productive for you.  Plus, if you stick to these rules, you’re less likely to irritate someone and make an unnecessary enemy.  I was guilty of some of these personally, and have done what I can to rectify.  So, learn from my mistakes if anything.  In the end, you’ll be a better office worker having done so.


  • know when to reply all…  and never do it – Well, not never.  But just about.  More often than not, not everyone needs to see your reply.  Further, not everyone cares.  And if someone else replies-all, and you need to answer to the same question, avoid replying-all just because that person did.  Don’t do it – it’s a trap!  Be smart – send the message to those that need to see it.  Use ‘cc’ as an implicit ‘FYI’ if you need to.  Use ‘bcc’ sparingly (a better approach is to forward the message you just sent).  And for Pete’s sake… don’t reply-all to tell people to stop ‘replying-all’.


  • etiquette – Respond to meeting requests, even if it means you can’t go… or even if you can go.  You may see it on your calendar, but the person booking the meeting doesn’t know that, to you, it implicitly means you’re attending (or if you have a conflict).  If you can’t go, delegate it. If you decline, suggest a new time.  If you’re seeking advice of someone else, offer to meet in THEIR office or cube or whatever (ignore rank here). Let others talk (ignore rank here).  Listen.


  • master Outlook (or whatever your system is for email, contacts, and calendar) – Don’t cc yourself – that’s what a ‘sent items’ is for.  Don’t ask someone to send you a message you sent them – that’s what sent items are for.  When you meet someone or get a card, enter them into contacts. Stack them up and do this once a week. Learn how to forward a contact. Learn how to pick a default email address for a person.  Learn how to book a meeting room or conference room, the right way (like, as a resource, versus an invitee).  Use ‘accept/tentative/decline; or ‘yes/maybe/no’ the right ways.  If you can’t attend 1:1 meeting, decline and propose a new time.  Don’t leave people in a lurch.


  • etiquette, part 2 – If you book an hour meeting, you should sadly plan to start five minutes late (unless everyone you’re meeting with reads this, and you can start on time).  Book your meetings to end five minutes early, and stick to that.  Give people some passing time (anyone remember that from high school?  We had four minutes).  Don’t book a meeting for the sake of booking a meeting.  Have a purpose.  An agenda is a bonus.  Describe the meeting in the appointment request (not just the subject).  Read more from Seth here about meetings.


  • keep your calendar current… always – On the heels of learning Outlook, make sure your free/busy/tentative or in-the-office/out-of-the-office status is current. It’s frustrating when someone goes to book a meeting into a seemingly open block of time, and a reply is sent with someone saying ‘Oh, I’m busy then.’  Whether or not you like meetings or think they are useful (the jury is out on that, as well as the purpose for meetings), people rely on calendars to book them.


  • diplomacy – Gone are the days of undergrad when you could speak without a filter.  Know that every word or phrase has two meanings, and be clear on how your words and actions might be interpreted. Resist the reply-all bashing.  Resist the reply-to-one bashing. If you have a beef, settle it up in person (versus over email).  Curb the joking and sarcasm for the right audience (and spend time to really learn who the right audience is).  Avoid explicitly or implicitly calling people out on inaction (unless you have a really strong reason for doing so!)


  • add your name to your voicemail box – Voicemail systems are all different, so I can’t tell you how to fix this.  But I can suggest just Googling the model/make of the phone, and you’re likely to find the user guide.  Adding your name is important.  Say I want to backdoor message you, or send a message to a group of people, and you’re new to the company.  I may be entering extensions quickly, and fat-finger the key pad.  Now all I get is my phone telling me I’m dialing into mailbox 6524.  I have no idea if this is my co-worker Sarah, or Rick from accounting.  If your name was attached to your mailbox, you’d make it easier for people to voice mail you.


  • As a corollary, learn your voice mail system’s commands – Learn how to reply to a message, forward it (with and without comments), mark as unread, and delete it.  Why?  These are probably the commands you’ll need the most when on the road.  And sometimes you might have a stack of messages to process.  Doing so adroitly lets you focus on other things.

In my next post, I’ll wrap up this two-part series.


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