The long hard slog to the top

Putting in long hours and knowing the right people can help to further your career prospects, says Helen Jones
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GRADUATES who expect an interesting and challenging career but who don't want to put in long hours may be in for a nasty shock, according to recent research from the department of organizational psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London.

"I feel that the majority of graduates are basically naive. There is a big gap between their expectations and the realities of working life. They just aren't ready for the office jungle. Reality is going to bite in a big way," says Dr Jane Sturges who carried out the research.

Dr Sturges surveyed 200 graduates who have recently joined British Airways, BT, Lloyds TSB and Nestle and found that although they are committed to the companies for which they work, they don't want to work around the clock. "The preliminary findings from our research show that even before starting work graduates are determined not to sacrifice their lives for their careers."

Dr Sturges says that the majority of those surveyed think that they are more likely to be recognised for working hard than for working long hours.

"Unfortunately a macho culture prevails in British companies," she says. "Nobody wants to be seen to leave first and so people sit around being unproductive. The Germans make jokes about it and say that the British must be terrible at their jobs because they all stay in the office so late."

Dr Sturges says that if graduates are to progress quickly up the career ladder then they must be prepared to work hard and put in long hours. They must also learn other strategies for survival.

Ambitious newcomers to a company should make sure they become highly visible as quickly as possible and that doesn't mean wearing an outlandish tie. Only 26 per cent of those surveyed by Birkbeck College said that they definitely make their accomplishments known to their bosses, and only six per cent said that they would definitely try to work with a known high flyer.

However, Dr Sturges explains that research shows that graduates who do well are those who get to know the most right people and who try to get involved in important projects from the start. However, she warns that a balance must be struck "you also must not be seen as too pushy," she says.

Sarah, a 23 year old graduate trainee with a blue chip company says "I know that I should be impressing people but I it can be very difficult to do it without looking as if you are showing off. I also don't want to piss off the others on the training scheme."

Dr Sturges also says that graduates should realise that all jobs involve some boring elements but she warns that they must not allow themselves to get stuck with boring jobs all the time.

Office politics are another minefield she says. "It's not like anything you experience at university. You have to identify the different power struggles going on around you and learn how to cope with them."

One of the most difficult situations to handle is a boss that takes credit for all your hard work or ideas, as James another graduate trainee explains. "I'm working for someone who I don't really respect. I'm not learning from him because he's not good at his job. Not only does he take the credit for my good work he also blames me when things go wrong."

These situations are difficult and sometimes the only answer is to knuckle under and just get on with it. Fortunately for James his trainee scheme means that he will soon work in another area of the business with a different boss.

Some companies operate mentoring schemes where graduate trainees are teamed with members of staff who have already been through the scheme and they are often a good source of informal information on the way that things work within a company.

But she adds that graduates shouldn't expect to have their hands held once they join an organisation. "Employers increasingly expect graduates to manage their own careers. They have to help themselves and be prepared to spend their own time doing work-related reading for example, as well as having a plan for the short and long term on how they are going to achieve it."

It is not just graduates who have to face reality, employers have to manage this new generation of workers carefully. "It's going to be a challenge for employers to meet graduates' high expectations or risk them being demotivated and leaving," she says.