When the Changing Professional Culture Is Challenging

katie smith at duke universityKatie Smith, Assistant Director, Duke University Career Center,
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ksmith258/
Twitter: @ksmith258

Checking the morning e-mail flood, there’s one from Alanthebanisher@email.com*, the alias of a student that I met with recently. He asked how to network appropriately with an alumna who had just sent out a job opportunity.

His question is typical. His e-mail address, not so much. It made me smile, but gave me pause. Is it professionally appropriate?

I have a “bad” resume example that I use when teaching students about resumes, and the group usually giggles over the hotcar2@email.com address. We can agree that it’s not a very professional address, and we all know it’s a pretty tame example.
If this student was looking for an opportunity as a programmer at a small, funky tech company, the gaming reference might be appreciated and I might have let it go. However, since he’s looking into a more conservative field, I decide to bring the e-mail address to his attention, reminding him that some people may not see it as professional. It turns out that the student is surprised I can see his e-mail alias at all—he thought he was communicating through his school-sanctioned account, which is linked to his personal account.

What’s “professional” seems to be an increasingly challenging question for students to navigate. When it comes to communication, traditional advice has retained traction; employers and alumni visiting Duke’s campus consistently share anecdotes about the importance of writing skills, professional e-mail communication, and appropriate uses of social media to represent oneself and one’s company.

We think we know how to advise on writing professional application materials, until a student asks which “Game of Thrones” character she should feature in her short essay, or when another student asks for feedback on the poem he wrote in place of a cover letter—two examples of students responding to company prompts.
A recent job description that came through my e-mail recommended, for example, that students submit: “A resume (if you have one), your year in school, a list of relevant coursework, your favorite movie, a city/country you’ve never been to but want to see, your favorite programming language, and your favorite breakfast. Get into it, I love breakfast.”

It is fun, yes, but it’s confusing. Should a non-breakfast-eating student be honest about his preference? How will that be perceived? What would a student who doesn’t watch “Game of Thrones” say?

As advisers providing feedback on these type of questions, conversations regarding organizational culture and authenticity are often invoked. Students walk a fine line between demonstrating personality and maintaining professionalism.

Gone are the days when we can turn students around at the door of an open career fair because they aren’t dressed professionally. The employers themselves often tend to show up in branded T-shirts, jeans, and even goofy hamburger-shaped hats, and many are seeking students whose casual dress reflects their own organizational culture.
I’ve seen students conduct successful in-person interviews with the top tech companies in the world…while wearing sweatpants. Traditional advice suggests dressing one step above what you expect your employer to be wearing, but what does one wear to a career fair when one target company is wearing T-shirts, and another is wearing a formal business suit? How does one introduce herself when one company is expecting jokes and magic tricks, and another a traditional elevator pitch?

They’re tricky questions.

Students will benefit by knowing that there is never a single “right” answer, and that they can help themselves each step of the way by preparing and conducting research into culture and expectations prior to contact or communication. Career professionals can, and should, do the same. While not everyone is ready to ditch professionalism as it was once known, we do need to be prepared to help students navigate new environments effectively. Having an understanding and appreciation for burgeoning creative, casual, and open cultures will help us all prepare students for the jobs of the future.

*E-mail address has been changed to protect student privacy.