A new generation of workplace rules

Penelope Trunk's professional life has spanned a wide gamut: beach volleyball pro, chicken slaughterer (long story), Fortune 100 exec.

By Christina Rexrode, Times Staff Writer
Published June 17, 2007

Penelope Trunk's professional life has spanned a wide gamut: beach volleyball pro, chicken slaughterer (long story), Fortune 100 exec.

Now a syndicated career columnist and blogger, Trunk released her first book, Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, last month. It's aimed at Generation X (born in the '60s and '70s, by most definitions) and Generation Y (born in the '80s and '90s) workers, and she cautions in the introduction that her advice wouldn't have worked 15 years ago.

Trunk, 40 and the married mother of two small sons, will be in Tampa on Monday at Inkwood Books. But first, she spoke by phone with the St. Petersburg Times.

Generation Y is becoming established in the workplace. What makes them different?

They're the first generation to expect to have fun, meaningful work at the beginning of their career. Time is very important to them. Having a balanced life is very important to them. The baby boomers will say, "Hey, we want that, too, we invented that, " but the baby boomers invented that when they were 50, when they already had their careers and had raised their kids.

How did this happen?

There are two big reasons. Generation X was raised as latchkey kids, and they are appalled by it. So Generation X is very family oriented. While baby boomers invented terms like "yuppies" and "latchkey kids, " Generation X is inventing terms like "shared care" and "stay-at-home dad."

The other reason is that Generation Y grew up seeing their parents laid off by companies their parents were depending on and had given their lives to, and so Generation Y doesn't think for one second that a company is going to take care of them.

Are employers going to adapt to these attitudes?

Yeah, employers are adapting already. They're doing things we would have thought unthinkable even five years ago. Ernst & Young is recruiting on Facebook. Merrill Lynch is letting parents come to interviews. Deloitte has a person on staff whose job is to figure out how to recruit and retain young people.

Generation X and Generation Y will absolutely not work like the baby boomers worked; they are not willing to sell their lives for high salaries.

How else are employers adapting?

People under 32 are changing jobs every two years, and the smart companies know that you can't spend a year getting them up to speed so that they're useful to you. "Spend two years making copies and then you can climb up the ladder" - there are no deals like that. And that works out well for everyone.

You're not a huge fan of grad school, right?

Well, I went to grad school, so it's not like I think there's no point to it. The problem is, grad school should be "You've tried everything else and then you go to grad school, " as opposed to "You're not sure what to do, so you go to grad school."

Sometimes I get mail from people with two Ph.D.s, and I tell them, "Take one off your resume, it looks terrible." That doesn't scream "highly educated and intelligent person, "but "somebody who's scared to go out into the world."

Tell us your views about sexual harassment in the workplace. (Chapter 9 of Brazen Careerist is titled "Sex Discrimination is Everywhere, So Don't Try to Run.")

The laws are very, very specific about sexual harassment, and most harassment isn't severe enough to hold up in court. So (in most cases) the woman goes in and reports sexual harassment, and the HR department swoops in and takes care of the company, and there the woman has bared her whole soul and no one's taking care of her. Retaliation (e.g., the woman can lose her job) is really, really common, and really, really easy to do. Very few women have the financial ability to sacrifice their career in the name of ending sexual harassment.

Women can write till the cows come home that this (idea) is bad for feminism, but it's the law that's bad for feminism. I get people telling me I'm putting back feminism 500 years, but this is not news in the legal community.

So women should never report harassment?

Don't report the sexual harassment unless you're in physical danger. The other thing is, most women have been sexually harassed. If every woman were reporting every piece of sexual harassment, the business world would just stop.

You've had personal experience with this?

Right, and the men have been completely ridiculous, and if I had reported them, it would have gotten nowhere. Only the women know how pervasive this kind of thing is, because men only say these things when other men aren't around. A lot of the men, I don't even think they're malicious. It's just like locker room talk in the office. If you were to ask them, "Do you think women should be treated equally?" they would say yes.

Some of your advice seems a bit, uh, harsh. Like, No. 4 on your list of interviewing tips is "Go to the gym."

When I write about the gym, people get all over me, but it is a known fact that if you're thinner, you get more interviews, you get better work, you're happier. People write it off, they talk to me like it's some L.A. phenomenon, and that I'm against fat people. I'm not, but fat people know that you have trouble in the world being fat. I'm not announcing anything new here.

What's the worst question you've heard from a job candidate?

When I was at a Fortune 100 company, I interviewed this guy who asked me about movement in the stock price, and I was thinking, "Shut up , you're going to be writing marketing copy for the Web site." A more appropriate question might be, "How does the company's mission affect where the marketing copy writers will be going?" I think people try so hard to come up with questions that will make them look interesting that they end up sounding like psychopaths.

Excerpts: How to be brazen

- NEVER SEND A 'YOU'RE-A-SCREW-UP' E-MAIL: If you need to tell someone they did a bad job, do it in person so you can gauge their reaction. ... People will leave this type of e-mail in their inbox for weeks and weeks and reread it every time they want to resurrect their hate for you.

- NEVER SEND AN 'I'M-A-SCREW-UP' E-MAIL: If you must apologize for botching a project, do it in person so there is no e-mail record of your mistake for people to forward around the office.

- GRAD SCHOOL WILL NOT SAVE YOU: For some people, graduate school is not so much a way to fulfill a dream as a way to put off finding one. The adult world requires us to set our own goals, and this is something school does not teach.

- IF YOU'RE A MESS AT HOME, IT SHOWS AT WORK: Are you getting drunk every night? Are your finances a mess? You might have a fantasy that you are hiding bad behavior from co-workers, but stress shows up in nonverbal, unexpected ways that make people uncomfortable with you. ... So instead of trying to hide your personal life, redirect that energy toward improving your personal life.

Source: Brazen Careerist