HR and Leadership – A Complaint Letter From a 25-Year Old

I received this letter and, for many reasons, it resonated with me. So I wanted to share it with you. It’s a little long but has a valuable message.

Hi Sharlyn. I’m not sure if you will ever get to read this, but I thought I would give it a try nonetheless (maybe I just need to vent a bit). I’m a 25 year old student who finally figured out what she wants to do with her life. I’ve been working since I was 16 years old, after graduating from high school (with honors). I made the most common mistake an 18 year old with bills could do; I worked (as an administrative assistant at a medical office) AND went to school full-time.

At that age, time management was not my biggest attribute and because of this, my grades suffered. I ended up putting school on hold thinking “I will go back next semester”. “Next semester” turned into a year then two…and before long, I found myself working 12 hours a day as an executive assistant to the biggest (for lack of a better word) jerk I have ever met, without a competitive salary and no room for improvement/growth.

I figured that I needed to go back to school and do things differently this time. I’m currently a student majoring in business management with a focus in HR. I’ve left my job and decided to get a part-time job in the HR department at my school (through the work-study program). I think I have an idea of how to go about nurturing a career within HR, but to be honest, I have no clue.

I wanted to ask, how did you go about making your career plan? What did you focus in during your school years? I’ve looked for feedback in the internet and I’ve noticed that older career-minded people tend to ridicule and patronize people in their 20’s because of our “lack of” life/work experience instead of guiding and helping them.

Someone commented on an article about resumes, “Thanks for the article. I also have a good laugh when I see a resume from a fresh graduate in their 20’s which describes them as a ‘natural leader’, with the only evidence as being a senior chorister at church or badge holder in the scouting movement.” To me, it’s quite sad that the older generation laughs at the new one (who are at least trying to better themselves) instead of providing positive and constructive feedback.

I apologize, I did not intend on making this so long, I guess I just wanted to vent. If you do get to read this, I thank you, for taking the time to hear a 25 year old complain.

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I attended a meeting recently where a speaker referenced “Gilligan’s Island” and the sound of crickets in the room was almost deafening. We have to realize these outdated references no longer have an impact. And we have to recognize that younger professionals are in our board rooms.

Young professionals are leaders and they’re making decisions at every level in our organizations.

Members of the “older generation” have a responsibility to share their expertise. If I can stop one person from making the same mistakes I made, then I’ve made a difference. It’s a win for everyone involved.

In response to this reader’s note, I would say:

  • Don’t beat yourself up about starting school after a few years in the working world. I too graduated at 16 and had to learn a few hard lessons along the way.
  • I studied political science and business in school. I love math and accounting. But, that’s not what’s important – find out what you like. Many careers can have different paths to get there. HR is one of them.
  • Even with a great education and work experience, your professional career will have a few speed bumps. Listen to your head and heart about what’s important to guide your decision making.
  • And lastly, don’t let haters cloud your judgment. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between constructive criticism and destructive comments. Find someone you can talk things through and figure out the message.

Young professionals should not have to write complaint letters about “the older generation” to get career advice. What professional advice would you give to the next workforce?

Image courtesy of Deirdre Honner


  1. says

    Sharlyn, I don’t know if this 25-yr old will get the fact that you didn’t answer her question directly: “…find out what you like. Many careers can have different paths to get there. HR is one of them.” But that is exactly the right answer! There is probably more to the story, but its not clear if HR is a burning desire or just the career choice du jour. Most people will go through a number of “careers” during their work life, and the best advice is always to hold to the dream but always be open to opportunity.

    There are two very disturbing things between the lines. Most noticeable here is the walk along a very fine line between a cry for sympathy and a request for help. We all have made mistakes and have regrets, but moving past them on a positive path works… wallowing in the past and whining does not. Probably most importantly, what does age have to do about anything? Yes there are those who would perpetuate the age stereotypes… including this 25-year old complainer. As a member of an “older” generation I try to play the role of mythbuster as often as I can, but when “younger” generations set themselves apart like this it is self defeating most of the time. Again, your advice “… don’t let haters cloud your judgment” is priceless. Complaining about it is a waste of energy.

    I have a blog post in draft for next week on a similar topic. I may edit it to include a link to this. There needs to be more public dialog about the fine line between serious complaints and self-serving whining. All generations need to pay attention!
    Tom Bolt recently posted..The Best of Make HR Happen

  2. Karen Gallagher says

    My advice to ANY newly minted grad, age not withstanding, would be to start at ANY entry level position in HR and work your butt off. Learn other HR jobs by offering assistance to others , volunteer for new assignments, take online free courses (offered by Duke, Stanford Harvard ect) on interpersonal relationship skills, learn how to read a balance sheet and a P & L and learn how the organization makes money. When you have a depth if knowledge and show personal motivation then those aspects will speak for you and age won’t matter.

    Expect to put in the time to be an expert in your field – don’t expect to be an overnight wonder !

  3. says

    As a student, I would strongly encourage the writer to take advantage of every possible assignment in the HR department. Ask for work. HR has a variety of facets – figure out if there is one that you really love – comp, benefits, employment, HRIS, etc. Rule out what you don’t like if that’s easier.

    Take advantage of your career development office and find the internship coordinator. Find out if there are external internships in your field. If not, ask if the HR contacts using career services are open to informational interviews (don’t ask for jobs on these – big no-no). Find out what they do and how they ended up in HR.

    Have a reasonable expectation of where you are going to start. One of the challenges that I see is having recent graduates come to interview, expecting to be running and directing programs in one to two years. That might be realistic in a handful of few places but not where I am or most of the other businesses I see.

    Manage entitlement. While young professionals do have tremendous education and experience, I hear too many comments related to entitlement of promotions, raises, and talent. You are responsible for your career. No one will care about your growth and opportunity as you will.

    And when you are in positions of authority and responsibility, make sure that you help lift of the next level of leaders.
    Deirdre recently posted..Working on this holiday

  4. says

    Reality Part 1:

    @Bolt – not just self-defeating but also expected…as in they expect to be leaders when they enter the work force because that’s what the bumper stickers on their parents’ minivans intimate. I too am one of those mythbusters and for all Sharlyn’s Readers/Doubters simply scour the Twitter chats for all we do. Truthfully, we offer unbiased and unscrubbed advice because we too never received it when entering the workforce.

    As I like to describe myself, I’m an engineer who crossed over to the darkside (that would be HR and recruiting); thankfully my engineering taught me how to be even better at critical/lateral thinking and analysis, skills in very short supply in HR. I immediately saw the barriers once I entered HR Land but I sure didn’t whine about them nor did I profess a deeply ingrained ability to “sense people”; I observed, asked, and analyzed over the course of many years and with open eyes, came upon several incredible mentors.

    Did anyone else notice this sentence in her missive? ” I think I have an idea of how to go about nurturing a career within HR, but to be honest, I have no clue.” I THINK…BUT…I HAVE NO CLUE”?

    Yes Tom, deep within the whine is a call for help but a call for help sure doesn’t come easy for someone who expects others to see the greatness in her and help her with open arms…

    @Honner – spot on about entitlement; it’s all those Blue Ribbons for finishing in 8th Place…

    Reality Part 2: If you want to meet the edge of HR, Recruiting, and Career Counseling, these days you have to head to the Twitter Chats. #HFchat, #InternPro, #JobHuntChat are the Big Three that come to mind – put out a question and then prepare yourself for the deluge of advice so potent you’ll question you’re thinking about older folks not being helpful.

    Career Management advice – if you stand on a the same corner day in, day out and scream aloud about the unfairness of it all, people will tune you out. Seems to me that this is what many Gen’ers do when they don’t get the expected results or guidance.

    Look around and move – maybe you’ve just been standing on the wrong corner…

  5. says

    Thanks everyone for the comments. This is a great discussion.

    I entered the professional world during a time when “pay your dues” was the mantra for success. Time mattered – how long you’ve been with your company, in your position and in the profession.

    In my opinion, I don’t believe “pay your dues” is the mantra anymore. It’s about “staying relevant” and “producing results” – regardless of age.

    Granted, there are lessons we learn over time and for that reason, experience will factor into the equation. But given how fast the business world is moving, it’s possible the lessons I learned 10 years into my career someone else will learn 2 years into theirs.

  6. Thea Bashiru says

    I understand this 25 year olds complaint, even if it wasn’t written in the most professional/mature manner. My advice – stop complaining. Instead of expecting to be lead, be a leader. The most important trait anyone can have is humility. Guess what? The older generation has MORE experience, and Gen Y could learn a thing or two by listening, and not talking about _their_ greatness. HR is competitive and full of politics. Be the best – join #hfchat and #jobhuntchat, become an SHRM member, network and find a mentor, get certified (PHR or SPHR) and be a voracious reader of all things HR. Good luck!

  7. says

    While we can frown at this young professional’s letter for “whining,” we should remain sensitive to her points. To be fair, this was framed as a rant (hence the disgruntled tone), and was probably not written to be much more than that. She writes, “I’ve looked for feedback in the internet and I’ve noticed that older career-minded people tend to ridicule and patronize people in their 20′s,” which is what is begin to happen here.

    That said, everyone has made great suggestions so far. I would emphasize internships and externships–they’re fantastic ways to gain experience while still in school, especially since many of them cater to student schedules. Additionally, internship managers are trained to help the intern gain crucial skills, manage his or her own projects, and network with other professionals–under no circumstances should a supervisor be disparaging. Lastly, a student who excels in an internship may convert to becoming a full-time hire and begin to make those career moves that can lead to future success.

  8. says

    I like this letter. It’s open and honest. And, it’s a step in the right direction.

    To the 25yo author: you’re close. Reaching out to HRB is a great move… next time, tho, pick up the phone instead. A letter to this community will get you great advice; a phone call may just land you a job.

    Also, you’ve got to take a hard look in the mirror: why did you opt to stay with work as opposed to school? Money, probably, but deeper: why didn’t you trust that you’d be able to make up the income? I’m guessing the same internal factor is what drove you to send a plea for help rather than engage via the phone. Step up your self-advocacy!

    Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say what I truly believe about career paths: they’re pure fiction. Live your story!!!
    Jason Seiden recently posted..By: Jason Seiden

  9. says

    Thanks for the comments. Personally, I didn’t view this letter as whining or being unprofessional. I do think the person is frustrated. And with good reason. They’re trying to do all the right things and not getting the results they’re looking for.

    I don’t believe the answer for people wanting to get ahead in their careers is “live on the planet a while longer”. Experience doesn’t just arrive by osmosis. It comes by listening, reading, and trying stuff. That can be done at any age. And some of it works, some doesn’t.

    When I was 25-years old, I wanted people to support me. Not tell me to hang out on the sidelines until I was old enough to play the game.

  10. says

    Thanks for posting this letter and article. I give this person credit as they are not in the minority. They need the help of expertise – mentors – to help them. There are generations being pulled in so many directions. It’s not just about finding a job. It’s about helping them achieve their highest potential. This can only be accomplished by great leadership and mentoring. It’s a must in order to build great companies and organizations. Also, either parties should never be threatened of job loss or whatever because a younger person has a better idea or suggestion for improving a product, process, etc. It’s about people helping people do what they do… only better.

  11. says

    As a twenty-something (27 to be exact), I can relate to the sentiment of the author of this letter. In fact, I’m watching an acquaintance go through a battle of getting her first professional position. I am watching her get passed up by people with much less aptitude, but more “life/work experience.”

    The problem is, when I go to tell people how I became successful, it is the same way that the “older” generation is always characterized. When I left college, I found an hourly job working second shift. I worked hard and proved to my boss that I was capable of handling more responsibility. As the responsibilities grew, my hunger grew, and before I knew it, I found myself with my own office and my own parking spot.

    I didn’t get here because I had lots of management experience, though. I got here because I worked hard and proved myself. The hardest part of any career is getting your foot in the door. When most people do, they don’t realize what opportunities they have, because they don’t create them.

    I was never asked to do the things that led me to my success, I did them on my own.

    Peter McDermott recently posted..Why People are Enticed by Headlines

  12. says

    Sharon, you’re right. It isn’t easy for people starting out. I’m now 36 and right now I don’t feel as though I’m scrambling for my next job. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a rite of passage, but in time it does get better! I actually wrote an article recently about my zig zag career path and posted it on our company website ( — sorry for the shameless plug).

    Good luck with your career and making the best of what you have.

  13. says

    I don’t really know what to say here… I really feel for the commenter though. I’m a 23 year old who was very, very lucky in my path. Highschool to Uni to Job to Fantastic Job.

    How I got to be in the right place in the right time to land that job:
    I had my degree, some work experience, and had read so much HR stuff I could talk about it all day (which is very helpful in interviews!) And then I moved to Asia and had an ability to read the local employment law, but understand expat expectations. Mostly it was sheer luck that I had the skills and not the experience, and the employer was happy to provide the experience but just get someone with the skills at a local rate.

    And the whole career plan question – well I had the crisis as a 16 year old choosing final year subjects for high school which was apparently meant to dictate the rest of my life. A very patient career counsellor shared her life story about her many jobs and careers within that time, and it still took me a couple of years to get what she was trying to tell me. Enjoy the journey, because the destination is ever changing.

    Best of luck and please, please ignore all the grumps who want to have a go at our generation – the same shit was said about their generation by their elders and so on and so forth. No generalisations about a generation reflect on your personal abilities or motivations – so go for it!
    Sarah (wshr) recently posted..Guilt Trip Calculator – For the Self Motivator in All of Us

  14. says

    Thanks so much for keeping this conversation going.

    Peter’s comment about life/work experience is interesting. I know plenty of people in their 50s who haven’t done half of what their younger counterparts have done. His comment about hard work is spot on.

    I do agree with Michelle that our career has some “rites of passage” – I’m just not sure they should be time. My thought is they should be accomplishments.

    And, Sarah…I’m so glad you weighed in on this conversation. You’re absolutely right – every generation experiences the same things. We all want to believe our generation is unique…but in some ways, we’re very much the same.

  15. Simone Tai says

    I have returned to study for a post-grad certificate in HR full-time after a long career in another field. I’m the oldest one in the class. Most of my classmates have just graduated or graduated from university in the past 2 years.

    I hear their frustrations and fear about their future careers, especially when they hear things like – “there are no jobs,” “what can you do with a degree in that [i.e., arts]?” They are excited about getting down to work, about getting out there and about making a difference. They are chomping at the bit even more after one semester of filling their brains with exciting concepts.

    The best advice I can give is not just to the younger student, but also to those already working. Stop killing their dreams! There’s no one size fits all – so you never know where a degree in arts or otherwise will take you. If the only degrees that mattered were the ones directly related to a profession, then we’d all become doctors, lawyers or engineers. There will be jobs – even if you have to start at a low-level-road-to-nowhere job. Jobs give experience; jobs can teach: it’s up to the person to take it all in and apply it to take them to where they want to go. I know that’s easier said than done. (I’m a career changer – I’ve worked, I’ve been out of work, I’ve looked for work — none of it is easy, and it’s easy to get down about it all.)

    As an older manager who worked with 20-somethings, I think the advice that the older manager has experience that can help you avoid making the same mistakes is great. Managers want their team members to succeed – it would be unfair to the team not to share those things that can set them up for success. The role of the team member is to soak it in and figure out how to apply the expertise that’s been shared. So, my advice to young career starters is to be patient, be positive, stay open minded, and never stop learning.

    As a current student, I’m impressed by my classmates – especially the ones who have been working since 16 or who continue to work while going to school. By now, many of them have had so much responsibility and work experience, they have a lot to offer their adult, full-time careers right out of school. But yes, there is still a lot to learn about a new field. So despite all that work experience and education, the new grad needs to pay their dues and stay open minded to learn from their co-workers in their newly chosen field or company.

    For those who are working while going to school, I applaud you. I always did that in my first post-secondary studies, but I am not doing that now. I wanted to focus on my studies, and for me, it was the right choice. But I see that those who work and go to school have to be highly motivated to do both well, and their gaining of skills will help in their careers. But again, new careers have a whole new set of lessons and skills to pick up, so be patient, stay positive.

    As Sharlyn says, it’s not about time, it’s about accomplishments. Sometimes, accomplishments take time. So keep working at them, and the time will come for you to take the right next steps.

  16. says

    There is no answer but in your question. Success has nothing to do with age since so many young individuals have been very successful due to passion and determination. There are many reasons that your answer is within your own question since you are looking and reaching out to confirm your career drive. Be prepared t o listen to yourself and have the endurance to succeed. Some many young individuals have failed by listening to others that have not succeed in their own right.