How to avoid culture shock

A little research into a new firm will help you fit into their corporate ways
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The Independent Online

Once a year in universities up and down the country a strange courtship ritual can be observed. Stiff city types shed their usual dull plumage, put on their brightest ties, and creak off to universities bearing love gifts of canapés and Cava. Students put away their trainers, slick down their hair and coo sweet nothings about "leadership qualities".

After the wooing comes bartering over substantial dowries, and then finally the lucky few are inducted into the corporate family. But once the honeymoon period is over and they finally move in together, do the two actually get on? Or do each other's irritating habits start to grate?

"Hair can be a real problem," says Jeremy Lowe, manager in corporate recovery at KPMG. "Graduates' haircuts tend to be a bit funky - certainly a bit too funky for the workplace. Some of the men come in with footballer haircuts, with highlights and all swept into the centre. For an industry like ours, that's just not appropriate."

Clothes can also be a source of discord: "The advent of business casual has caused lots of confusion," says Ruth Stokes, head of graduate recruitment at KPMG. "Many new recruits take rather too much notice of the 'casual' part. But it's the 'business' you need to concentrate on. I've had people turn up to an interview in jeans, or with earrings, nose piercings and lip piercings, and that's just not acceptable." (Although it is apparently acceptable for girls to have both highlights and earrings, but not boys. Is this not sexist? "Well..." Lowe huffs. "I suppose you could call it that. But honestly.")

And after slovenliness comes the other student sin: alcohol. "At social occasions, like client dos and team building events, some of the graduates get a bit carried away," says Lowe. "I think that sometimes they are still carrying the student attitude to free booze."

And then there are more everyday errors: for example the graduate who turned up late every day for her first month because she simply didn't realise what time they started, until a colleague kindly took her aside and pointed out her mistake.

But it's not all roses for the students either, who can feel a little unloved. "At university you were encouraged to feel like you were good at what you were doing," says James Stevens, a history graduate from Cambridge University, now working in the civil service. "If you were at a good university in your final year, you felt you were, at least in the world of degrees, reasonably high up. In the real world you're not. And what you did at university counts for very little outside it."

And while university fosters individuality, corporate production lines want their trainees produced to the same specifications. "You're just a cog in a machine, and as such you are simply required to do a job to a satisfactory standard," says Sarah, a trainee accountant working in a large city firm. "All you have to do is to get over hurdles: and as long as you clear them, no one cares how high you might have jumped. Whereas when you were at university you felt valued: the correlation between what you put in to your work and the praise and satisfaction you got out was obvious and direct. But that isn't the case in the workplace."

The work itself is different too: in quality as well as quantity. "At university you could sit in your ivory towers and muse about these big questions and issues," Sarah adds. "I miss indulging my brain in intellectual activity. I crave culture now because I don't have it on a daily basis."

And while no students seemed to find the nine to five difficult, they did miss the long holidays. "That certainly is somewhat difficult to adapt to," says Stevens. "At university you have very short terms of just eight or 10 weeks. You knew you were there for a finite period of time, so it was bearable: after those two months were up you could just escape from anyone who was annoying you. Whereas at work you don't get the long holiday break, so you can't leave. And I'm on a final salary pension, so I've got 45 years ahead of me."

So how can you ensure that the marriage doesn't crumble or fester? Life coach Ellen Bower thinks the solution is to remember where you are. "A big mistake is to be too insular. New graduates can often forget that what they do affects more people than just them. But in a company situation everything you do has an effect on other people. So if you do turn up late or you don't think that that meeting is important enough to go to, just remember that in a company that has an effect on all the people around you."

"Basically, the common mistake is not taking time to fit in with the culture of the firm," says Stokes. "Lots of people who have been recruited as high-calibre graduates come in feeling that they should be useful immediately and they want to do things their way rather than waiting to see how the firm wants things done." But this is easily remedied. "Just take a step back," she says. "Watch and learn. Accept what you don't know, and take time to get to know the unwritten rules of the firm - the culture of the firm."

Being suited to your business partner in the first place makes all the difference in the world. So take a little time to check your prospective partner's credentials - see whether they hold the same values as you, and whether you will be able to get on with them and fit in easily.

The character of organisations is not always what you'd expect. A graduate who went to the BBC found himself being hauled up by his bootstraps for being too informal, while James describes the civil service as "a very easy-going environment. There is the sense that you are supposed to treat the management with deference but I don't particularly subscribe to it. And I must say I don't think they care all that much: they're all very friendly. We all call each other by our first names."

So the situation is far from bleak. "Mostly the students we get are a pretty good bunch," says Lowe, at KPMG. "I really can't think of many problems that we have with them."

Over in the let-it-all-hang-loose world of Whitehall, James agrees: "To be perfectly honest, I haven't found the change that difficult. And my hair is as ridiculous as it ever was at university. They haven't objected to it at all."

Smart thinking

* Pick a firm you can get on with. Don't get carried away by brochure blandishments - speak to people who are already at the firm, find out what it's really like.

* Try to fit in with your new firm's ways - if everyone uses first names, don't go around sirring and ma'aming.

* Similarly, follow their dress codes. Which means no Beckham tresses in corporate finance; save them for the creative agencies.

* And don't get too anxious: it always takes time to fit in somewhere new - remember primary school? At least at work no one's going to steal your crisps.

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