A fellow commenter on ROK requested I write an article for younger guys heading into the corporate world. My gut says to tell you “Don’t do it!”, but I realize not everyone is an entrepreneur. There is still safety, security and money to be made in corporate America, but you have to play the game and conform to corporate culture. With rare exceptions, innovation, creativity and thinking outside the box are stifled, not rewarded.

I’ve worked for corporations from utilities to manufacturing since 1981. It has paid the bills well. If you can handle politics and diplomacy, you’ll probably do fine. If you are careless, arrogant or even highly principled expect trouble. Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the years.

One “Awww-shit!” wipes out all your “Attaboys”

The great job you did yesterday doesn’t matter if you screw up royally. You are only as good as you are for the day and no one is indispensable. Working in a corporation is like putting your finger in a bucket of water. Pull it out. See if it leaves a hole.

You are there primarily to generate profit or to support the people who do. They are not your family; you are a “human resource.” Don’t forget that. If you get sick or injured they will forget about you like a broken toy and replace you. You are also there to make your superiors look good. What you do reflects on the people that hired you, so be punctual, conscientious and knowledgeable. On the other hand, don’t do such a good job that you are perceived as a threat by your boss.

Don’t get your honey where you get your money

She’s laughing at your email, but HR won’t be…

Live by it. There are attractive women in most corporate facilities. If you are remotely attractive, they will flirt with you. You will want to flirt back if you are a normal male. If you aren’t careful, things may escalate and you will find yourself in a relationship that will probably end up in the toilet within six months. Then you have to look at each other every day. It will be uncomfortable.

I have seen work place love affairs end careers; in one case even a senior executive’s. Be polite to the ladies, be nice, but remain aloof and stay out of office romances. This warning also applies to keeping HR off your back for sexual harassment charges. I don’t care how horny you are or how hot the girls are, leave your love life at the door. It will save you a lot of trouble.

Beware of CLM: Career Limiting Mouth

I had a chronic disease as a young man: Career Limiting Mouth. When someone came up with a stupid idea, I couldn’t shut up. I’d point it out and it didn’t matter that I was right. What mattered was that I alienated people. That will be reflected in your performance reviews, no matter how good a job you do otherwise.

You have two ears and one mouth. Use them accordingly; listen twice as much as you talk.  You will learn a lot from the folks who know what they’re doing. You will also learn a lot about those folks who are doing things they shouldn’t. Simply do what your supervisor tells you no matter how stupid it seems (unless it’s illegal or dangerous).  Just be sure to document it.  If it blows up, go back to your supervisor, explain what happened and ask, “Now what do you want me to do?”


Write everything down

Keep a notebook or journal. If you must keep an e-log, then back it up to your personal flash drive. The same with emails. Whatever you’re told to do or see going on that is questionable, document it! Include times, dates, names and places.

Journal entries reign supreme, because you’re not relying on memory. If you’re Machiavellian this can be a handy tool for future “leverage.” It is also a very useful self-defense weapon, especially if you become a whistle blower.

If you want a peaceful mediocre existence in a big corporation to get your “thirty” in and retire, don’t be a whistle blower. If you have principles, balls and don’t mind getting fired for doing what’s right, then be sure to write everything down. Trust me on this.

Your skill set is very important

Industrial automation skills are always in demand

Some trades and disciplines are quite rare and valuable. Try to find a niche. For example, there are a lot of IT folks on the market so competition for jobs is fierce. But if you can write code and administer networks, you can easily learn to work with Distributed Control Systems (DCS), Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) and Human Machine Interfaces (HMI).

Automation skills are always in high demand in heavy industry and manufacturing. My niche is instrumentation and control systems. There are numerous jobs and never enough techs to fill them. Field service work pays good money and you get to travel as much as (or more than) you want. Plus you’ll have more autonomy than the standard corporate drone.

If you’d like to cruise along doing minimal work, find a job at a utility. They pay you to be on hot standby a lot, because when things are running and nothing’s broken, you can’t touch anything. You will work outages and maintenance shutdowns periodically which can be hectic. But you’ll get plenty of overtime and the money’s good. With big utilities, once you’re in the door, the bar is so “high” if you pick up your feet you won’t trip over it.

If you are in a skilled craft, your supervisor may ask you to do a “government project” from time to time. For instance, I recently had a request to make a crossover cable so a supervisor could transfer data on a couple of his home computers. Don’t balk, just do it. You’re getting paid and it goes a long way when you need a favor in the future.

Do yourself a favor: Conform!

I wonder why he can’t find a good job…

If you must get tattoos, keep them where you can cover them in normal attire (including short sleeves). If you show up for an interview with full sleeve and neck tattoos, a steel pimple in your eyebrow and ear gauges, the hiring manager probably won’t be impressed.

It’s all about conformity in corporate America. If you “stand out” you won’t get in the door. If you’re already in and to go non-conformist think of yourself as that nail sticking up out of the back deck. You will get pounded down. If you won’t stay down, you’ll get pulled and replaced. Hygiene and appearance are very important.  Always be neat, clean and well dressed even if you’re in a craft.

Be nice to everyone you meet from the janitor to the CEO. Having a reputation as a nice guy is an asset. Always remember that the toes you step on today may be attached to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow.

Read Next: 5 Things The Corporate World Taught Me