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Time for new grads, employers alike to fight off first-job blues

College seniors can be excused for looking anxiously at their calendars this time of year. The days are ticking away toward spring graduation, meaning the real world of adult responsibility awaits. But as excited as young adults are about their first foray into the professional world, the unknowns spark a barrage of scary questions: What if the job isn’t what I’m expecting? What if the opportunity for advancement doesn’t materialize? What if I can’t meet expenses on my entry-level paycheck? 

Employers, too, may be anxious as they scramble to fill entry-level positions with the latest crop of new graduates. They face their own daunting questions: What if the new grad’s inexperience is more of a problem than we expected? What if the new employee doesn’t adjust well to our culture? What if we invest in training a young employee who doesn’t stay long enough to warrant the expense?

First-job blues are nothing new. Even when new talent is eager to work hard, learn fast, and become productive and when employers are welcoming, helpful, and patient, both sides have always run the risk of experiencing the sting of disappointment. But is it possible first-job blues are getting more common? Or at least more noticeable?

Yelp controversy
An extreme example of first-job blues hit the Internet in February when a 25-year-old employee of Eat24, Yelp’s food-delivery unit, posted an open letter to the Yelp CEO complaining that she couldn’t afford rent in San Francisco, mass transit to get to work, or even groceries on her salary, which she said was $8.15 an hour after taxes. (Minimum wage in San Francisco is currently $12.25 an hour before taxes.)

The employee, Talia Jane, soon lost her job. A Yelp representative confirmed the firing, but didn’t say it was a result of her Internet post. Yelp’s CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, later tweeted that he read her post and wanted “to acknowledge her point that the cost of living in SF is far too high.”

Jane’s post sparked sympathy and criticism. Sympathizers pointed out that while many tech industry employees garner large paychecks, others find themselves in low-wage jobs working for employers that supply perks such as free snacks but don’t always supply generous paychecks. In her post, Jane brought up the flavored coconut waters that she said workers didn’t drink “because they taste like the bitter remorse of accepting a job that can’t pay a living wage.”

Critics of Jane’s lament said she should have thought twice before relocating to an expensive city for a low-wage job. They said instead of posting a lengthy, sarcastic letter to the CEO, she should have gotten a second job and lined up a roommate so she could make expenses until she could work her way up to a better-paying position.

NLRA issue?
Many employers face the dilemma of disgruntled employees sounding off on the Internet, and they have to be careful when considering discipline. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) ensures that employees have the right to form, join, or assist labor organizations, bargain collectively, and “engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

Jeff Sloan, an attorney with Renne Sloan Holtzman Sakai LLP in San Francisco, says Jane’s post may fall within the range of what the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could find to be protected concerted activity. “The NLRB has erected a high bar that employers need to surmount in order to terminate a worker for speech-related conduct in the workplace,” he says. To prevail at the NLRB, Sloan says, Jane also would need to show that her post was concerted, that is for “mutual aid and protection.”

“Stretching the meaning of the word ‘concerted,’ the NLRB has long said that individual activity can under some circumstances qualify for NLRA protection: It does not require two or more individuals acting in unison,” Sloan says, adding that her letter didn’t suggest that she was “seeking to initiate or induce or prepare for group action or to bring a truly group complaint to the attention of management.”

But, Sloan says, an attorney or union “could make a decent case for the proposition that her Open Letter courageously spoke out about the low pay and working conditions that she and her coworkers received and that it could reasonably be viewed to stimulate the support of similarly situated low-paid workers at Yelp/Eat 24.”

So what should employers do when first-job blues escalate into viral tirades? “They should have a higher sensitivity to the risks associated with terminating employees for speech-related conduct,” Sloan says. “And they should remember that there’s often a high price to pay when employees feel mistreated and are not compensated or rewarded for their good work.”

Setting realistic expectations
Despite the attention she’s received, Jane isn’t alone in her disillusionment. Bill Bergman, an instructor at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business, wrote an article in February for BizEd, a magazine for business education professionals, in which he noted that on the first workday of 2016 he received seven emails from former students “moaning about how much they hated their jobs, and how determined they were to make a change in the New Year.”

Bergman thinks business schools should do better in preparing students for the off-campus world, but employers also have a role to play. He wants to remind employers that today’s young adults have been raised to expect success. He says they’ve been taught to believe that if they do what’s necessary to get into the right college and, once there, if they pick the right major and “do all the right things, all will be well.”

“By the time they enter the workforce at age 22, they have such high expectations,” Bergman says, and employers need to be sensitive to that by being realistic about what new employees should expect.

“I think some of the big companies do a really good job to mentor kids,” Bergman says, adding that he thinks a good approach is to pair up new grads with other young employees who have been working a few years so they have someone they relate to as an outlet for their frustrations.

But Bergman says a trend he’s seen in recent years is contributing to the disappointment many new grads experience in their first jobs. He says some employers are tracking students as early as sophomore year, hiring them as interns, and then offering them jobs early in their senior years. But as great as it sounds, having that job lined up well ahead of graduation can lead to more dissatisfaction later on, he says, since the students skip the process of learning what various employers have to offer.

“The happiest young adults I see are the ones who take their time in the job process,” Bergman says.