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New book helps young professionals avoid workplace pitfalls

C.K. Gunsalus
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College of Business

In “The Young Professional's Survival Guide: From Cab Fares to Moral Snares,” C.K. Gunsalus, a professor emerita of business administration, shows young working professionals how to steer clear of all the traps, trouble and temptations that come with transitioning into a working adult.

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10/18/2012 | Phil Ciciora, Business & Law Editor | 217-333-2177; pciciora@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new book from a University of Illinois business professor aims to help those new to the working world avoid the common (and mostly predictable) workplace pitfalls that can often derail promising careers.

In “The Young Professional's Survival Guide: From Cab Fares to Moral Snares,” C.K. Gunsalus, a professor emerita of business administration and a nationally recognized expert on professional ethics, shows young working professionals how to steer clear of all the traps, trouble and temptations that come with transitioning into a working adult – and how to work through them should they become unavoidable.

The book, published by Harvard University Press, employs real-world scenarios for young professionals to learn from in order to avoid being pressured into doing something they could regret later in their careers, as well as guidance in handling disputes fairly and diplomatically, says Gunsalus, who also is the director at Illinois of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the Coordinated Science Laboratory.

“If your boss asks you to do something that doesn’t feel right – like fudge an expense report, or lie to a customer – how would you respond to that?” Gunsalus said. “The book will help young professionals recognize a problem that could become an ethical dilemma when it first presents itself, and teach them the tools for working through that problem. And then, once you figure out what you want to do or what you think is the right thing to do, how to do it.”

Gunsalus, who teaches courses in leadership, ethics and professional responsibility at Illinois, says one of the things she has learned over the years working with students and young professionals is that there is a host of problems that present themselves repeatedly in professional life.

“This book is written for the young professional who is well-meaning and wants to do the right thing,” she said. “The place where that type of person gets into trouble is when they are surprised and they improvise in the moment because they’re caught
off guard. If you haven’t thought things through, you’ll be blind to all of the downstream implications the decisions you make early in your career will ultimately have.”

According to the book, when the neophyte worker is caught off-guard or is under pressure from someone more powerful, that’s when it becomes easy to make a mistake.

“And having made one, it’s easier to rationalize the next one,” Gunsalus said. “So much of this is preparation – knowing that there is an issue, knowing how to recognize an issue, and then knowing what you want to do and how to do it. Because there’s going to be pressure from your boss, the system, your colleagues, and your own ambitions and temptations. But if you’ve thought it through in advance and prepared for it, you can say: ‘Oh, wait a second. This is a moment that could get me into trouble down the road.’ ”

In the business world, short-term thinking and all of its attendant temptations can be amazingly rewarding, Gunsalus says.

“Here’s what I say to people: How many of you are going to spend more of your waking hours at work than you will with your family and friends?” she said. “The people you work with are going to shape who you are, and their reputations are going to rub off on you, whether you like it or not. You have to ask yourself, do you want to associate yourself with people who countenance dishonesty? That’s why you need to choose your mentors for their characters as well as their titles and talents.

“But what comes around goes around – it just takes longer than what feels just most of the time.”

In the social media age, Gunsalus says that it’s extra important to observe boundaries, because Google has the power to make every youthful indiscretion broadcast on the Internet a permanent fixture of one’s online reputation.

“Be very careful about automatically ‘friending’ your boss on Facebook, and don’t post things that you wouldn’t want to be seen splashed on the front page of a newspaper,” she said. “And be extra careful of your privacy boundaries – keep your professional data separate from your personal stuff and don’t make your profile picture something you wouldn’t want everyone to see. Because the things you like today – well, those things may not be the things you like five, 10 or 15 years from now.”

But just because you make a mistake doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a death sentence for your career, Gunsalus says.

“Who among us hasn’t done something we regret?” she said. “So many of the situations that young people get into are because they don’t just flat out say: ‘I really goofed. Could we please start over again?’ A sincere apology goes a long way in most situations. Very few people are so perfect that they haven’t made a mistake and wouldn’t identify with that and give you a second chance. Now, some things you can’t repair, and you just have to learn from it and go on. But that’s rare.”

If Gunsalus had to distill the advice in the book, she says it comes down to the dual mandates of Socrates and the Boy Scouts: “Know thyself” and “Be prepared.”

“And if you think about that a little bit, that means asking yourself: ‘Who am I? What do I stand for? What do I value, and what do I want my reputation to be?’

“So this concept of knowing yourself and knowing what matters to you – you need the tools to accomplish this.”

The book will be released Nov. 20.

Editor's note: To contact C.K. Gunsalus, call 217-333-1416; email gunsalus@illinois.edu.

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