There has been a lot of buzz recently about Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that his one rule for hiring is that a person has to be someone he would be happy to work for. There is a lot in that statement. It speaks to aligned values and also to the likelihood, that as some anonymous soul tweeted, they did not want to hire jerks.

Dear Students, It Pays to Behave! REALLY

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As a dean and senior administrator at a variety of colleges I have seen all kinds of student behavior. As a student in the 60’s I can claim maybe some questionable decisions of my own. There is science that most parents would agree with which suggests that the adolescent brain is still developing into our 20s. Specifically risk taking and the need for peer acceptance can lead to problematic behaviors. Some behavior can get one classified as a jerk pretty fast.

At some point however, we have an expectation that some of the truly stupid things done by the young will stop and they will emerge as fully formed sensible adults. The question may be, however, when that takes place. And if it is later rather than sooner should we let students know up front that the consequences of youthful idiocy can be very expensive. It can derail dreams.

A piece in Diverse Magazine recently noted that the courts were backing schools on the requirement of student professionalism. At a time when employers are grousing that they cannot find college graduates with the skills to enter the workplace, one of the issues is that students don’t know how to behave. We unfortunately have media representations of bad behavior at work ranging from Vince Vaughn’s The Internship, and the awful images of The Wolf of Wall St. to Michael Lewis’s description of Wall St as a frat house in his classic Liar’s Poker. We might infer that it is Wall St where bad behavior takes place. However, the Diverse piece is focused mainly on medical school students and The Internship was set in a tech firm. I have seen students with all sorts of ambitions who were rude, arrogant and simply out of control. They seem to assume that since they are in college they are entitled or it is a rite of passage. Or maybe they just don’t know how to act.

One pre-med I knew was terribly rude consistently to the secretary of the Pre-Med Director. This would be the person who would orchestrate the med school application process for all students. She would oversee the writing of the letters of recommendation. She was pretty important to the future of all the pre-med students. So this guy blew it and never knew why. His rudeness was noted in his file and shared with the relevant faculty who would be expected to write for him.

In a conversation recently with a group of friends who have all taught at various schools we found common ground in experiences of student behavior that was unprofessional. It could be the email addressed to “Hey, Prof.” or the texting in class, or even talking on a cell phone during a lecture. The same students may want letters of reference from us at some point. That could be problematic.

But some bad behaviors go further. Sexual harassment, bullying, racist acts are all too common on campuses. Some of these are being increasingly addressed as being unhealthy for the community. New laws and regulations are being put forth. These make the consequences often even more serious as students may at the worst confront legal action and its consequences (maybe jail), a note in the file or permanent record, and at the least have to cope with stress and expense as accusations are managed.

Dear Students, It Pays to Behave! REALLY

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In the same week as the Zuckerberg quote came out yet another story emerged about a hazing incident that could cost a student 4 fingers.

What students fail to realize is that these behaviors are also professional disaster. When cited in a college file, acts reflecting poor judgment and lack of integrity can tank a potential law or criminal justice career. There is the risk of less than glowing references. Social media exposure of stupid behavior has consequences in job offers rescinded – or never extended. Students may actually never know why they did not get into the grad school they sought or the job they had their eye on. Careless, thoughtless behavior then exposed on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter can kill a career before it starts. It pays to behave.

There has been a debate about the value of humanities majors. Those are the ones where people learn about humanity….literature, the arts, philosophy, history, sociology. The contrast is to professional skill development. When did being humane stop being a professional skill?

People ultimately don’t like working with other people who are not nice, or who are arrogant, rude or thoughtless. While it may work for a while those behaviors can and do come back to bite.

“College is the dress rehearsal for the rest of your life” is a theme I come back to often and this is one more case where that is true. Yes, we learn how to manage time better or take responsibility for bureaucratic requirements, but we also have a chance to learn how to be as human beings. Employers look for people they can spend 8 to 14 hours a day with and can trust. Bad judgment can mean bad decisions for a business. We see that happening all the time too. The SONY executive whose emails lost her her job would be one among many. They go viral and damage a brand as well as harm a person’s entire life. It pays to behave.

Some movies show the class clown triumphing over the captain of the football team when a reunion rolls around. But in real life those who are leaders on campus are often leaders later in life. Drew Faust, president of Harvard was both president of her class and the student body when she was an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis (D-GA) was a college student when he was a leader of the 1963 March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their reputations from their undergraduate days have followed them. It is no accident that classmates of heralded figures are interviewed by the media when someone achieves high honors. These classmates or professors generally say glowing things about how responsible, thoughtful and sensitive to others these people were in college.

Anything else is not going to be helpful and may, in fact, be very, very costly. It pays to behave. Really.

Marcia Cantarella

Marcia Cantarella, Ph.D.


Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, has held positions at Hunter College, Princeton University, New York University, and Metropolitan College of New York. During her 22 year career as a dean and vice president of student affairs she has enhanced the academic experiences of and outcomes for generations of students.


Dear Students, It Pays to Behave! REALLY

Click here to purchase book