I was sitting in a conference room with clear, glass walls overlooking the corporate campus where I worked during a rare but beautifully sunny day in Pittsburgh. Leaning back in my chair, arms crossed, I listened to my 50-something-year-old coworker — a project manager — explain to our boss that he didn’t know how to look up documents in the company’s record management system.
After the meeting ended, I was instructed to show him how to do it — a 21-year-old engineering intern training a 30-year veteran on a fundamental aspect of his job. I looked over at a coworker and facepalmed. He laughed and nodded in agreement. Nothing more needed to be said.
How that project manager survived thirty years in the company not knowing how to extract documents (that, at some point, he for sure needed to give customers) I have no idea. But fast forward to today, after 10 more years of experience working in Corporate America, I’m not at all surprised.
I’ve learned a great number of lessons about life in the corporate world, one of them being that just because someone is a professional doesn’t make them good at their job.
Here are 7 others.
1. It’s one big social experiment
If you’re the kind of person who loved high school and college, or if you’re someone dying for a second chance to live it, working in Corporate America is the place for you. The office environment is essentially a grown-up version of high school with social circles, gossip, and drama, except this time, how you play the game matters.
You’re not just battling your coworkers for social acceptance; you’re fighting for raises, promotions, and more vacation. Your livelihood depends on how well you interact with others in the office, and it pays (literally) to make “friends” with your superiors.
Happy hour, anyone?
2. Promotions don’t always go to the best-qualified candidates
Shocked? You shouldn’t be.
Time and again, I’ve witnessed very smart, highly qualified candidates turned down for jobs in favor of less qualified individuals, simply because they weren’t as adept at the social aspect of Corporate America.
Two reasons for this:
- You spend a significant portion of your life at work. No one wants to deal with bullshit and people they hate for longer than they need to. So, well-liked people tend to get promoted over harder working but more socially awkward individuals.
- The social aspect of business is just as important as the “work” part. Businesses are run by humans, and humans are social creatures. Your social and communication skills are highly valued and can take you far.
Don’t hate the player or the game. Just start playing it.
3. Sometimes promotions go to people who don’t deserve them at all
Nepotism happens all the time when working in Corporate America. Regardless of how well you perform or how popular you are, sometimes you just get snuffed for the boss’ nephew.
4. You get what you ask for and everything is negotiable
I’ve learned that most people are too afraid to ask for things.
For example, just the other year, I had only been allotted two weeks of vacation. At my previous job, I had three. Not wanting to stir the pot too early, I let it slide for a year. But during my first performance review, I asked my boss for another week.
He was a bit surprised and told me he would talk to HR about it because he didn’t know how else to answer. Apparently, that was the first time anyone had ever asked him for more vacation.
To that, I was surprised, as I would have assumed people asked for that kind of stuff all the time… but they don’t. Most take whatever’s given to them.
The same goes for salary and pay. Too many people simply accept what is offered. If you were to speak up and ask for more (regardless of what it is), you’d learn that pretty much everything is negotiable, but you only get what you ask for.
5. Everyone is expendable
And I mean everyone.
Trust me when I say that, no matter how good you are at your job or how “safe’ you think your position is, you are one executive’s “bad day” away from being let go. This the harsh reality of working in the corporate world.
The worst experience I’ve had in this arena is when I worked on a multi-billion dollar project that went belly-up on a Monday morning after a Friday shareholder meeting. One of the key investors looked at the timeline and remaining budget (it was wildly negative), and they decided they were out.
That investor accounted for 30% of the funding for the project. With that much money off the table, there was no other choice than to shut it all down. More than 10 years of work was thrown away in a matter of hours, and roughly 5,000 workers, including myself, were laid off on the spot.
To those around you, you may very well be a key asset to your company, but to those at the top, you’re nothing more than dollars and cents.
6. Most of the time, HR is not your friend
You might think HR is on your side until you wind up on the other end of a corporate lawsuit. Then, watch how fast they throw you in front of the bus, all in the name of saving the company a little bit of money.
HR is there to protect the business, not you.
(But they will help you while you’re working for them, especially in office misconduct cases, etc. Though, again, their main priority is protecting the business.)
7. The days are long, but the years are short
Many days you’re fighting against the clock, hoping that 5 PM comes around sooner than the day before. However, the calendar years fly by, and before long, it’s been 10 years of annual percentage raises a comfortable benefits package, and a decent 401(k) match.
“How the hell am I still here?” you might ask yourself.
Well, it’s easy to stay in a position you’re familiar with far longer than you should, which — if you’re good with that — might not be a bad thing. But if you’re like me and value growth and new experiences, it’s not what you want at all.
This is why it’s important to keep vigilant and monitor where you are and how long you’ve been there. Change positions or companies when you’ve learned all you can. Never stop growing. Don’t fall victim to comfort.
Don’t let these lessons scare you
I’ve spent most of my professional career in working in Corporate America, but I’ve dabbled in my fair share of entrepreneurship, too. There are tradeoffs in both arenas, and it all boils down to the life you want to live.
If I’m honest, I still love my corporate job — the pay is great, the benefits are fantastic, and I enjoy just being told what to do on some days and not having to think about it. However, I also love my entrepreneurial ventures in writing and coffee.
Let these lessons be of some guidance to you, and know that there’s an awesome life to be lived whether you do it from within the walls of a cubicle or out hustlin’ in the streets.