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Communication sweetens relationships with students

Early last Thursday, I was sitting in the drive-thru line at Starbucks, checking Twitter. I noticed a slightly desperate-sounding tweet from @kellimarks, a friend who owns a bakery in Little Rock. She had three weddings to prepare for and several other cakes to bake and no help.

I had an appointment with the oral surgeon that day, so I really needed something to take my mind off that wonderful event. I ran home, changed into my Sweet Love Bakes T-shirt (the approved uniform), and headed to the bakery.

The workstation at Sweet Love BakesKelli had just had a horrible experience with a new employee – a young person who didn’t appear to understand the importance of hard work and punctuality. As we stirred up cake batter and washed dishes, Kelli and I talked about “this generation” and its members’ seeming inability to get the work thing down.

Later that day, I realized that it probably wasn’t just “this generation.” There have always been those individuals who’ve had trouble performing up to expectations, and they can be 18 or 40. There are also those bosses who fail to express their expectations clearly. Communication issues can certainly add to problems with even great workers.

Many of us in higher education rely on student workers to get our jobs done. They gain valuable experience about the real working world, and we get cost-effective completion of some of our daily tasks. The relationship can be mutually beneficial, but only if both sides communicate what they need up front.

This past week, I’ve thought much about the relationships we develop with our student workers. They can be so rewarding, but they need ground rules. Here are the basics I came up with, but there are so many more:

  1. Define expectations up front. Outline The mixer from heaven at Sweet Lovewhich tasks are most important to have done, and then add a few nice-to-haves. I also try to figure out what my student workers like to do, and then have them do a good bit of that. That means that my current worker takes photos a lot – something he likes and is very good at. He also posts those photos to Facebook, a task that I consider a nice-to-have since it saves me time after events and lets us appear on top of things.
  2. Communicate deadlines. If I want you to complete a task, I better give you an idea of when I need it done. This has been a shortcoming of mine in the past. I tend to think that the way I work – finish a task when I’m given it as soon as possible – is the way of the world. It’s not. Many people will procrastinate if they don’t have a hard deadline. The object is to ensure they know what I need (see point No. 1).
  3. Be flexible. Student workers are students first. School is their first job, and I pledge that in my office they’ll get as much respect for that job as they do for mine. If my student worker needs to study, or cut his hours, or complete an assignment for his campus newspaper, he has my blessings. If our student workers cannot graduate, then all the practical learning we can give them is of no benefit.

In the end, our relationships with our student workers – and other co-workers – depends on our effective communication and listening. Showing our respect by communicating better in the workplace can benefit everyone.

How do you establish relationships with your student workers? Tell us more.


  1. By being supportive outside of the office (attending their events, games, etc) and by trying to help them maintain a balance between their professional responsibilities & their academic obligations. With class schedules sometimes being really intense, I try to do as much leg work as possible so they can spend time in the office (or out on campus) actually completing tasks rather than figuring out instruction which can sometimes come from more than one person.

  2. Good ideas, Kim. I agree. For my student worker, that means reading his pieces in the student newspaper and giving positive comments :) Oh, and talking about vinyl records and bikes. And Woody Allen.

  3. Ah, student workers. We used to have funding for those. Good times, they were… *waxes nostalgic*

    But, to your point about communicating deadlines and how people interpret deadlines and timelines differently, I suggest an experiment: Ask yourself (or your student workers, or other staff members) to define these three words/phrases:

    Right away

    Next, ask them to prioritize these words in order of immediacy. Is “Immediately” more immediate than “ASAP” or “right away”?

    Our problems with communicating deadlines and timelines lie within the vagueness of our words.

    So if you need something by 5 p.m. Friday, say so. Don’t say “ASAP.” Because that may mean something different to your student worker, co-worker, etc.

  4. I’ve been almost entirely fortunate in my relatively short career dealing with the student workers. I think part of it is the fact that they’re not that much younger than me and I usually don’t end up with too many slackers due to the nature of whatever I’m doing. But I’ve noticed working with other student workers not assigned to me, that it can be challenging to get them engaged in something that’s not needed at this very moment.

    So true though with deadlines. I learned that the hard way last year for a virtual tour project and it’s incumbent upon me to have my ducks arranged appropriately so they can just fit in rather than being expected to drive the car. It’s not something we’ll always get.

    Good topic and great feedback!

  5. Great post!

    Coming from a Student Affairs & Leadership background, I have way too much to say on this, so I’ll try to keep it short.

    1) Understand that they’ll make mistakes; reach out to them if they’ve been calling in sick or missing deadlines, and see if there’s something going on in their life. Sometimes it’s just nice to know that somebody at the university cares (bonus points if you can refer them to a specific support service!) Approaching these situations as a learning opportunity can often help them feel less alienated for bailing on responsibilities.. and can help them learn to manage issues better in the future.

    2) As much as possible, give them a sense of ownership over their work. Hands down, they always perform better when they have a project that’s their “baby”. Even if it’s a tiny, tiny one.

    3) Take some time for face-time and build the team for extra cohesion. I run a bi-monthly in-service for skill-building with my team, but I also make time for them when they swing by my office to say hi. We also occasionally organize a few social events throughout the year (ie a quick coffee meetup, a year-end celebration, etc).

    4) Ask them what their goals are, and keep them in mind when giving assignments. It’s a win-win situation: they feel like they’re building experiences towards their goals, and you’re getting stuff done.

  6. I love these ideas! Especially the “own their own project” one. That can also help them fill out their portfolios when the time comes.