When you think of interns, new graduates or early-career hires, what comes to mind?

Some readers will have positive associations like “hard-working,” “creative” and “inexpensive” (or at least cheaper than hiring experienced hires). Many more, however, will have negative associations — of employees who:

    • Smile and nod, disappear, and return with work that looks nothing like what was asked of them.
    • Take days or weeks to reply to emails when everyone else takes minutes or hours.
    • Opens emails with “Hey” and sends emojis to clients and senior leaders.

For many managers, these negative associations can be enough to turn them off from hiring at the entry level. But is it possible to capture the benefits of early-career hires without so many of the costs?

It is, but it requires a shift in mindset — on the part of both employer and employee.

Imagine you were told for the last 16 or more years of your life that you will receive good grades as long as you work hard, follow instructions and hand your assignments in on time. Then, imagine entering your first internship, apprenticeship, co-op or full-time job with the same mindset — and suddenly being told that you need to “step it up” or aren’t a “culture fit.”

This is experience is common among the 4 million young people who transition from school to work each year in the U.S. They played the game of school and passed — only to step into a different game with a completely different set of rules:

What School Teaches What the Workplace Expects
If you are doing your homework or taking a test, you will draw exclusively from what you were taught in class. If you are doing your work, you should draw from every resource available, including “Googling” and asking around for the answer.
If you’ve finished your homework, you’ve finished your work for the day. If you’ve finished your work, you should look for ways to help your manager and team achieve their goals.
If you have questions, raise your hand and ask. If you have questions, you should do what you can to answer them yourself before bundling questions together and bringing them to a co-worker, making your way up the chain of command one rung at a time.
If you answer a question incorrectly on a test because the question was poorly worded, it is the instructor’s fault (and you can argue to have your test regraded). If you do the wrong work because expectations were unclear, it’s both your manager’s fault for not being clear — and your fault for not asking for clarification.
If you can perform well by cramming for exams, go ahead and cram. If you don’t show regular progress and offer status updates, you will create stress for others.
If you encounter a problem, tell your instructor. If you encounter a problem, brainstorm some potential solutions; then, approach your manager with options.
You are graded on whether you submit your work on time and how well it conforms to the grading rubric. You are graded on your work quality, engagement and ability get along with your co-workers: your competence, commitment and compatibility.

Lacking the vocabulary to diagnose the problem, many leaders resort to the same two phrases: “New grads lack ‘soft skills’” or, “Young people aren’t ‘career-ready.’” What these leaders really mean is that new graduates haven’t been exposed to the unspoken rules of the workplace — of how to show up, take ownership, manage up, communicate professionally and navigate ambiguity.

The result? Slow ramp-up time, low productivity, low engagement and high turnover. This problem can be exacerbated among first-generation college students and professionals who may not have had exposure to the business world growing up.

There is a solution, and it begins with making the unspoken spoken:

When Onboarding New Employees …

Ask yourself, “What baseline knowledge am I expecting people to have (that they may not have unless I teach it)?” For example, do you expect all employees to know the history of your firm?

When Assigning Work …

Managers should ask themselves, “What process and outcome am I expecting employees to pursue (that they may not pursue unless I explain it)?” For example, do they expect to be copied on all emails sent to someone outside of their team?

When Managing Performance …

Supervisors should ask themselves, “What performance standard am I expecting people to meet (that they may not meet unless I define it)?” For example, do they expect people to reply to emails within 24 hours and, if they can’t, to let them know?

It may feel like micromanaging or stating the obvious, but for early-career hires, defining otherwise informally communicated expectations gives them a fair shot at success — especially in the era of remote work, when misunderstandings are easier to come by than ever. College students are also more diverse than ever, raising the odds that new hires won’t have prior exposure to those unspoken workplace rules.

It’s possible to decrease ramp-up time, increase productivity and improve retention. All it takes is a conversation.