The Color of Money: Giving graduates their ABCs

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WASHINGTON — I’ve been thinking about the advice I would give this year’s graduates.

You might expect me to tell them about the importance of saving or the need to take advantage of any workplace retirement plan. I could also urge them to pay off their credit cards every month, and try to stay as debt-free as possible.

But this year, I want to talk about advice that’s not just about money. I call it the ABCs of workplace success:

Avoid gossip, be on time and challenge yourself to be content.

Avoid office gossip. Often graduates are told to network, but people end up networking by gossiping with co-workers or even higher-ups.

“Gossip is a social process,” two Georgia Tech researchers wrote in a 2012 paper examining the email from employees at Enron Corp. “Some people are actively involved in generating gossip messages (‘gossip source’), while others are silent readers of the messages (‘gossip sink’), and there are some who play both roles.”

The researchers found that about 15 percent of the emails contained gossip. Negative gossip was almost three times more prevalent than positive gossip.

Whether you are a gossip source or sink, steer clear of it. Make it a rule that when people you work with begin to gossip, find a way to excuse yourself from the conversation. And to minimize being the subject of gossip, keep your personal business private.

“Beware of the miserable crowd,” says E. Kim Rhim, executive director of The Training Source, a Maryland-based nonprofit workforce development program. “Every workplace has at least one negative individual or group that pounces on new employees to spread their misery. Make your own decisions about the workplace as you learn its culture and your job.”

Be on time. I’ll confess, I struggle with this. Part of my problem is that I overschedule myself. But punctuality is a show of respect, and you don’t want to develop a bad habit of being late to work or to meetings.

It may seem obvious to say that people should be on time. Yet according to a CareerBuilder survey released earlier this year, nearly one-quarter of employees say they are late to work at least once a month on average, with 15 percent confessing they are late at least once a week. The survey was based on a poll of 3,008 full-time, private-sector workers and 2,201 hiring managers and human resource professionals.

Some of the managers recalled creative excuses including a cat stuck in a toilet, someone who thought Halloween was a work holiday, and a guy who fell asleep in the car when he got to his job. Then there was the employee who was late because a zebra was running down a highway holding up traffic. The story turned out to be true.

Running late habitually can cost you your job. Thirty-five percent of employers in the CareerBuilder survey said they had fired an employee for tardiness.

Challenge yourself to be content. When I speak to groups, I show them a commercial of a couple coming out of their house. There’s a new car with balloons and a huge bow in the driveway. But as the wife hugs her husband for his gift, a supposedly more luxurious car is being driven down their street. They both look longingly at the car passing by. One of the balloons pops — a metaphor for how unhappy they are now that they think their new car isn’t good enough.

As new graduates begin working alongside people who have been working for a while, they may feel like they aren’t earning enough to get what they want. They may look around and see what their colleagues have and become discontented.

One of my favorite songs right now is “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. It might seem crazy what I’m about to say, but “happiness is the truth” and the way to live rich.

Starting out, don’t try to compete by rushing to accumulate stuff. And the way to do this is to be content with what you have.

Michelle Singletary can be reached c/​o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20071 or at

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