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3 Things Being a Supervisor Has Taught Me About Being an Employee

This is part one of a two-part series on employment, geared in particular toward college students and people entering the workforce but applicable in most contexts.

One of the responsibilities of my library position is supervising department’s student assistants. I’m not their only or highest-level supervisor, but I’m expected to teach them how to work with the particular materials I give them, assign them work (coordinated with coworkers, but my position generates most of their work), and catch and correct their errors. Doing this for the last 6 months has given me a whole new perspective on being an employee and taught me three things in particular:

1) Be someone I can count on.

My favorite workers are the ones I can count on. I can count on them to show up when they say they’ll show up, I can count on them to do the work right, and I can count on them to ask for help if they need it.

I particularly value their showing up on time or letting us know when they won’t be in/they’ll be late. Knowing whether or not I’ll have an assistant around is key to planning my own workload.

If you’re going to be late, call. How late you can be without worrying people depends on your own boss and your office. In my department, it’s ok for us to be late as long as we work the proper number of hours, and assistants are given some leeway for balancing labs that go late. We only need to call if we’re going to be a half-hour or more late. In other departments, such as circulation, the job requires physically being in the location during your shift–and you need to call if you’re going to be more than 5 minutes late.

Be someone your boss can count on to get things done. The less time they spend worrying about whether you’ll be in and who’ll cover for you if you’re not, the better.

2) Don’t tell me you can’t learn how to do something.

A lovely young lady who is no longer working with us (she left of her own accord, amicably on both sides) actually told me that when I was showing her a mistake. I wasn’t sure how to say it at the time, but I wish I had warned her against saying something like that in the workforce. I ended up showing her how to do it again and telling her to ask me next time if she wasn’t sure. I probably should have asked her how I could help her learn in a way that stuck, but I didn’t start reflecting on it until after she left.

Tell me that you forgot and you’ll try harder, tell me that’s something’s not clear to you, tell me you need to be retrained, tell me how you’ll learn–just don’t tell me you can’t learn. We can overcome anything but not being able to learn how to do it.

Even if you’re feeling discouraged, down on yourself, need some reassurance–don’t say you can’t learn how to do something. That really stuck with me and I found myself often checking her work a second time, even though most of the time she did fine. Remember that your self-criticism may make your friends feel supportive, but in a work context it can linger as a true negative assessment.

3) The little things do make a difference

Finally, I’ve learned how much of a difference little things make. The assistants handle the materials before and after I do, and it makes a real difference to my work process if the materials show up thoroughly organized instead of sorted into basic groups. If you have a choice between handing off the basic information/product your boss needs and making it organized and easier to use, going the extra mile will be appreciated (especially if not everyone does).

This doesn’t mean encroaching on your boss’s job, but doing things you know will make their lives a bit easier.

What can you share?

Employees, have you discovered things that make you more valuable to have around? Supervisors, are there other traits of appreciated employees that you’d like to share?


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June 10, 2009 at 6:08 am

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Alice June 8, 2009 at 9:55 am

Find out what’s important to your boss, and do it. For example, I worked for several years in a flower shop. I was on my own for most of the day, and could let my work bench get as messy as I liked/needed. But my boss liked things tidy, so 15 minutes before I expected him I would tidy up, sweep, pile the mail neatly, etc. He really liked that.

Craig June 8, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Another thing I would add is wanting to learn more. Being an employee you should want to learn more, or have more responsibility. Boss likes that.

Craig’s last blog post: The Ways to Combat Whooping Interest Rates

mrsmicah June 8, 2009 at 9:33 pm

@Alice great example. I’ve worked for a number of people and they all have little things that make them happy. I gave the assistant we’re keeping for the summer some positive feedback on a few little things he did once and he’s kept them up. It’s much appreciated.
@Craig true. Even if you’re good at your job, not having ambition and willingness to learn means that you’re probably not going to excel. Fortunately, I like to learn new stuff. 🙂 Good thing too, since I was told in the interview that this position would be somewhat dynamic over the next year, as the library transforms.

Kristy @ Master Your Card June 9, 2009 at 12:23 am

Don’t be a whiner/complainer. There’s a difference between addressing department problems and just complaining about everything that’s going wrong. I’ve been on both sides of the coin and I’ve recently been reevaluating the way I phrase things.

At work we have an open door policy, so when we see an issue we address it. But, I feel like I’m the only one that sees issues and addresses them, which makes me feel like I’m complaining. That stuff comes back around on review time if you’ve constantly focused on the negative. Now I really make a concerted effort to also focus on the positive and how we can keep that working smoothly.

Kristy @ Master Your Card’s last blog post: Weekly Round Up

Jane June 9, 2009 at 11:00 am

I also work in libraries & use to supervise student workers. The points you make are very true. I also practice: (1) never ask someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. This really goes far with student workers. If they know or have seen you do something they do they realize that their work is valued too. They aren’t just a warm body. (2) The end result is what matters. On certain tasks in the library setting is does matter how things are done. However with some tasks it doesn’t matter in what way or order something is done. I feel this gives the student worker accountability for a job. Telling them: this is the end result I want, I don’t care how you get there as long as I get the correct end product. It shows that you trust them & their skills to produce the result you want.

Thanks for all of your great posts!

Pamela June 10, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Great post. There are great examples in the comments, too.

I’ve worked as the manager of a company for over a year now. Here are few bits of advice I would give (in addition to what’s already been given):

1) Don’t point out the mistakes of others in public (in a group, during a staff meeting, etc.). Criticize in private, praise in public.

2) You are not always going to like your boss’s management style. This is something you need to learn to deal with. You don’t have to like it, but you do need to cope with it and do what your boss tells/expects you to do.

3) On a similar note, there will always be co-workers who do the absolute minimum required to get by, who don’t do their jobs well, or who are difficult to get along with. This is part of life and it’s another thing you just have to learn to deal with. You can only control you, though, so do the best job that you can.

Pamela’s last blog post: Enough hair for five dogs

Bonnie October 5, 2011 at 1:33 am

thanks 4 the tip and giving a head start&showing a green light on where to begin as a person whose interested in starting a caree on being a supervisor. ps

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