Co-op Best Practices > Business Conduct for the Co-op Student

Business Conduct for the Co-op Student

posted on October 1, 1999

You may be facing your first work term with a combination of excitement and fear. We hope the following suggestions will lessen your concerns about how to develop effective work habits, communication techniques and working relationships. You may wish to consult your co-operative education coordinator for additional suggestions.

Presenting Yourself

Dress Standards
First impressions count. Appearing professional in your dress and grooming can help you gain acceptance from colleagues and clients. Some organizations encourage professional business attire, but even organizations that allow casual business attire may frown upon jeans and shorts, so it is best to seek clarification.

"Students can inquire about the dress standards after accepting their position, if we neglect to mention it."Tara Wiseman, Recruiting Specialist, General Accident Group, Scarborough

"Overdress on the first day. Look around and dress like the person whose position you aspire to." Sabynthe Jones-Caldwell, Human Resources Coordinator, Pet Valu Canada Inc., Markham

Effective Work Habits
Earn your supervisor's respect by establishing effective, professional work habits. Don’t assume that you are eligible for overtime, flexible hours and other benefits. You may be evaluated on the following work habits:

  • Attendance
  • Punctuality
  • Enthusiasm for Work
  • Initiative
  • Dependability

Establishing Collegial Relationships

Meeting and Greeting
Making the effort to introduce yourself to your new colleagues can help you take the lead in establishing effective working relationships. It is polite to rise as you meet a person for the first time, and offering a firm handshake can help you make a confident impression. Until someone invites you to address them by their first name, it is recommended that you use a formal title like ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ Confirm the positive first impression you made by continuing to greet your colleagues warmly and respectfully each day.

Team Work
Offering your assistance and support to colleagues is a great way to build relationships. When participating on team projects, do your best to help achieve consensus on goals, keep team-mates informed of your progress and follow through on your commitments. When writing reports or making presentations, acknowledge any colleagues who have assisted you.

Social Functions
You may be invited to attend social functions organized by your employer. These provide a casual atmosphere for enhancing your relationships with colleagues. You can be less formal on these occasions than in the workplace, as long as you remain professional.

"Show respect for all employees regardless of their rank." Mary C. Kutarna, Manager, Human Resources, Toronto Public Library.

Ethics - or "Do the Right Thing"
When struggling to make ethical decisions, ask yourself which choice would allow you to act with honesty, fairness and respect. Here are some situations you might encounter on the job, and suggestions on handling them ethically:

Maintain Confidentiality
Some employers, especially those in health and social services, require you to sign an oath of confidentiality in order to protect the rights of their clients. Even if your employer does not require a signed declaration, however, it is a good practice not to discuss your organization’s business, clients and competitors, outside the workplace.

Honour Your Commitments

  • Not only is it ethical to honour your commitment to your employer to begin and end your work term on specific dates, but most co-op programs also have an official policy requiring you to do so.
  • Keep any promises you make to customers, and if you run into difficulties consult your supervisor to determine whether alternative services can be provided to satisfy the customer.

Take the Moral High Ground

  • Even if your colleagues engage in unethical or offensive practises, it is wrong for you to be involved. Furthermore, you may be judged more harshly than a permanent employee.
  • Avoid making offensive jokes or using offensive language.
  • Avoid getting involved in gossip and office politics.
  • Remain honest.

Stick to Business

  • If you are allowed to make personal calls, use this privilege sparingly. Be sure to repay the company for any long distance calls you make.
  • Use the company’s letterhead for approved business only.
  • Don’t take office supplies home for your own use.
  • Don’t send personal information (especially off-colour jokes) via the company’s e-mail or Internet.

Declare Conflicts of Interest
If you are in a position to bring profit to a friend or relative through your work, declare a conflict of interest and refrain from participating.

Effective Communication
Communicating effectively is key to maintaining positive relationships and providing high-quality customer service.

Consulting With Your Supervisor
Communicating openly with your supervisor throughout your work term will ensure you both have the same expectations for your performance. Meet with your supervisor at the beginning of your work term to discuss your assignments. Schedule regular meetings with your supervisor so you can report on your progress, seek clarification on further goals and discuss any pertinent issues. Between meetings, communicate via memos or e-mail messages so your supervisor can respond at his or her convenience.

Communicating In Person
The following suggestions may be useful in communicating effectively with individual colleagues, clients and customers:

  • Remain patient, courteous and calm.
  • Use direct eye contact.
  • Listen carefully and take notes.
  • Ensure you understand by asking questions and paraphrasing answers.

 E-mail and Internet Communication

  • Observe your employer’s policies regarding e-mail and Internet use. Even if no policies exist, you should use the company’s e-mail and Internet strictly for business and not for personal use.
  • Always include a topic in the subject header.
  • Keep e-mail messages short, concise and clear.
  • Check your spelling and grammar before sending.
  • Review the message to ensure it carries the meaning and tone you intended.
  • Determine whether you need to respond to the sender only or all participants.
  • Before sending attachments, check whether your recipients have the necessary software.
  • Include your title, company name and telephone number in the signature at the end of each e-mail.
  • Always use a salutation and a closing statement.

"Target your audience, thereby respecting others’ time. Salutations are very appropriate and a nice touch." Mary C. Kutarna, Toronto Public Library

Telephone Communication

When making calls:

  • It is courteous (and good customer service) to return messages promptly.
  • Identify yourself and state the reason for your call.
  • Speak clearly and concisely.
  • Indicate whether there is a need for action by either party.
  • Summarize the next steps.
  • Close with thanks, if applicable.

"Never eat while speaking on the telephone. Leave detailed messages on voice mail, as lots of business gets done this way." Sabynthe Jones-Caldwell, Pet Valu Canada Inc.

"Answer the telephone with your name and title, not 'hello.' Remember that all conversations will reflect back on you, the department and the company. Understand who your customers are, both internal and external, and that good customer service is essential." Tara Wiseman, General Accident Group.

When answering calls:

  • Identify your name and company.
  • It is usually preferable to take a message than to put someone on hold, but if you must do so, thank the caller for waiting; if they are waiting for someone else, check back frequently to verify whether they wish to continue holding.
  • Before passing on a message, check the spelling of the caller’s name and company name and take his or her telephone number. Wait for the caller to say goodbye before hanging up.
  • Request permission before putting a call on the speaker telephone.
  • Learn how to transfer calls when you begin your new job.

"Smile before you pick up the telephone. Always identify yourself. Always be courteous." Carlo De Pellegrin, Partner, Williams & Partners, Markham.

Resolving Problems and Conflict
While on your work term, you may find yourself facing the occasional problem or conflict. Make sure you inform your supervisor of any problems as early as possible, and feel free to ask for advice on resolving the issues.

Potential Problems

  • What if I find my work is not challenging enough? Let your supervisor know that you are willing to complete your assignments but that you would welcome additional assignments that are more challenging. Be proactive; suggest some projects you’d like to tackle.
  • What if my supervisor refuses to give me more challenging work? Try to get some more feedback. Perhaps your supervisor needs you to complete an undemanding yet important project before you tackle new ones, or perhaps your supervisor thinks you need training in a certain area first. If you still feel your talents are being underused after obtaining feedback, ask your co-operative education coordinator for guidance.

Responding to Criticism
Accepting criticism graciously can be difficult. Your supervisor may suggest changes to improve the quality of a written assignment, or she may suggest a change in work habits. Try not to take this as a personal insult; in most cases, your supervisor is genuinely concerned about your development. Clarify your supervisor’s expectations and determine how to meet them. If you have made errors or mistakes, it is best to take responsibility for them and then work to correct them. If, however, you believe the criticism is unwarranted, you may discuss your concerns with your co-operative education coordinator.

Avoid being drawn into an argument with a colleague or customer. The following steps can help you resolve conflict:

  • Even if you feel angry, you will appear professional and dignified if you remain poised and calm.
  • Pause to think (and breathe!) before you respond.
  • Choose your words carefully and speak slowly. Try to discuss only relevant details.
  • Avoid making accusations.
  • Listen completely before responding.
  • Restate the problem to be sure you are both on the same track.
  • Focus on finding a fair and equitable solution.
  • If you have made any errors, acknowledging them with a sincere apology can help heal the rift.
  • Consult your supervisor.

"Think before you speak. Sleep on it before you jump to conclusions. There are two sides to every story, and some situations just aren't avoidable, so instead of expecting a perfect world, deal with each situation on a case by case basis. Most of all, use the resources available to you, including your manager or business partner." Anne Costello, Marketing Manager, Bell Mobility, Mississauga

"Approach your co-worker to open discussion. Discuss the situation as equals, without challenging or accusing one another. If you are unable to resolve the conflict, present both sides to your supervisor." Tara Wiseman, General Accident Group