Obvious things — showing up late, violating company policies, badmouthing your boss, or stealing the coffee from the break room — will certainly lead to losing your job. These are professional standards you should observe, whatever you do. There’s far more to being an engineer than not getting fired; you have to thrive on a team, and that means not becoming the kind of engineer no one wants to work with.
In some cases, there are simple rookie mistakes you have to avoid. But beyond that, you need to focus on developing your professional style, your communication skills, and fitting into a team. Your knowledge and talent won’t save your job if your coworkers don’t like having you around.
1. Adopt a Professional Appearance
At the interview, take note of how your co-workers dress and present themselves. You should adopt the same standards. If you show up looking like you’ve just rolled out of bed after a hard weekend partying, with untidy or dirty clothes, messy hair, and – if you’re a guy – unshaven, you’re not going to make a good impression on anyone. Don’t wear offensive T-shirts, and if you have tattoos, find out the company policy on covering them up.
And – there’s no nice way to say this – shower. You’re not in college anymore.
2. Follow Safety Procedures
The absolute quickest way to get fired is to screw up and endanger people. As soon as you can, make sure you have a copy of any relevant safety materials, and then read them. Carefully. Whatever you’re doing, follow the safety procedures to the letter, and get someone to double-check what you’re doing if you’re unsure.
3. Ask for Help
Any time you’re unsure what you’re supposed to do, ask. Your boss or co-workers may not be aware of your limitations, especially when it comes to routine tasks they’ve done for years. Don’t be embarrassed to say, “how do I do that?” or “I’m having a problem with this.” Showing that you have a desire to learn can be a very positive thing. Doing things wrong because you made false assumptions can be costly, time-wasting, and potentially dangerous.
4. Respect Others’ Priorities
That said, you need to show that you can be trusted to work on your own and try to solve your own problems. If you’re constantly asking people to help you with things you really should be capable of, they’ll start to see you as a drain, especially if it means they can’t do their own work. If you’re unsure how to do something, find out as much as you can, and then say, “okay, so I do it like this, right?” That minimizes the impact on everyone else and shows you have initiative. As one of my old bosses used to say: “don’t come to me with your problems, come to me with your solutions.”
5. Keep Your Boss Informed
Inevitably, projects will slip. It doesn’t matter why. It could be rain, poor materials, design issues, commercial problems, or a dumb mistake. When you realize you’re running late, don’t hide it. Talk to your boss right away and tell them what’s happened and how severe the problem is. The sooner they know what’s going on, the sooner they can figure out what to do about it. That’s their job. But if they don’t find out until it’s too late, then you’ll be the one they blame.
6. Respect Others’ Ideas
You may be the smartest engineer in the company, but if you’re constantly pushing your own suggestions, you’ll rapidly alienate everyone. If you’ve proposed an idea and others aren’t biting, then back off. There may be commercial or practical aspects you haven’t considered, and there may be excellent reasons why your proposal was rejected. Instead of trying to force your ideas on the team, sit back and try to understand why the decision went against you and what you can learn from that.
7. Be Diplomatic in Your Criticisms
Engineers can often see the world in black and white: there are right ways and wrong ways to do things. If you disagree with the way a co-worker has done something, or the way a project is going, don’t be rude about it, even if you think you’re just “speaking the truth” or “trying to make things better.” Work with people and take a positive approach: instead of saying what you don’t like about things, suggest ways that they could be improved and offer to help.
8. Brainstorm Effectively and Positively
Robert Dilts noted that Walt Disney’s creative process had three phases: Dreamer, Realist, and Critic.
- Dreamer is the mode where ideas are put on the table without any regard to how well they might work or how expensive they might be.
- Realist is the mode that asks, “What would be required to implement this particular idea?” (Budget, people resources, time, etc. Again, no judgement…just lay out the requirements.)
- Critic is the mode that says, “This can’t work because…” or “This one is better because…”
Too many engineers immediately jump to Critic mode in a way that shuts down idea generation and brainstorming. This can infuriate people in an R&D setting and can shorten your career. Engineers need to let the Dreamer and Realist phases unfold adequately before jumping in with naysaying.
9. Don’t Freak Out About Losing Your Job
Some engineers become overbearing when they sense meeting the deadline or delivering high quality is at risk. They storm around the workplace, yell at colleagues for mistakes, etc. This raises the tension in the team, damages relationships, and can also damage business results. People don’t perform their best in oppressive environments. It’s not just managers who can have this effect: any member of the team can be disruptive.
So relax. Be conscientious, consider how others see you, and develop your communication skills. The best defence you have against being fired is to show that you’re a valuable, positive member of the team.
Many thanks to Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, for extensive assistance in writing this article.
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