“What words come to mind when I say “Gen Y”? Aaron Kesher asked the many SHRM 2011 attendees packed into the room. “Entitled!” shouted one person. “Job hoppers,” chimed in another. Soon, many in the room (many of them non-Gen Yers, with some Gen Y members sprinkled in) were shouting things like “smart,” “resume builders,” “technically savvy,” “stereotype,” “comfortable with change,” and “creative.”
Obviously, we all have specific words and phrases and ideas that match how we perceive Gen Y to think and behave in the workplace. Gen Y, made up of those born between 1980 and 2000, has their own notions of themselves, too. In Aaron Kesher’s “Why Y? Plugging Into a Generational Powerhouse” session at SHRM 2011, Kesher encouraged all of us in the room to rethink our notions of what we think Gen Y is all about, to consider the strengths they bring to today’s dynamic workplace, and to use this knowledge and understanding to more successfully recruit and retain Gen Y workers.
“Do not doubt that this generation will change the face of the American workplace as their parents did,” Kesher said. “In the next five to 10 years, Kesher said, the number of Gen Yers in the workforce will increase dramatically.”
As the number of Gen Y workers is only getting larger, it’s about time we as a collective workplace learn more about Gen Y so that we can understand them, appreciate their unique strengths, and more successfully integrate them with other generations in the workplace.
What is work from a Gen Y Perspective?
- Work ethic: Job loyalty, for a long time, was shown by how long you stuck around and paid your dues — and older generations still think in line with this. Gen Y, on the other hand, says, “I show you love by how hard I work, not how long I stick around.”
- Tech savvy: It’s not so much that Gen Yers are tech savvy, Kesher pointed out – they’re tech dependent.They’re the generation that’s come of age with the explosion of technology, so it’s natural that they would be comfortable with it.
- Communication and teamwork: Gen Y is not necessarily entitled; they just feel comfortable asking for what they want. When it comes to communication, you can often count on Gen Yers to spread out the message fast and often. We need to realize, Kesher said, that throughout Gen Y’s public education, the majority of the work was done in groups, and that their role wasn’t usually as the leader of a group – instead, many were “equal” team members. Therefore, many Gen Y members function fairly well as a group and as “team players,” but some struggle in standing out as individual, assertive leaders.
- Money: Employers, listen up: Gen Y is talking to each other about the money they are (or aren’t) making at your organization. They are comparing how competitive your salary is with your competitors — and they’re not afraid to share their findings. One audience member mentioned recently hearing Gen Yers discussing openly the job offers and bonuses they were getting — and she was shocked. After all, discussing how much money you make is one of the last great American taboos — yet Gen Y seems more comfortable with discussing this sort of information.
- Recognition: Gen Y is a generation of the “there are no losers – everyone’s a winner” mentality. “But they didn’t make that up (boomer parents),” Kesher pointed out, to a round of laughter. Gen Yers don’t care how it gets done – they just want to get it done. And they want to be told they did a good job once they do it; recognition is very important.
- Diversity: “Why do only white people work here?” might be something a Gen Y worker thinks while viewing a company site or sitting in the lobby while waiting to be interviewed and noticing the lack of diverse employees. Gen Y doesn’t embrace diversity – they expect it — and if your company says you believe in diversity, but then a Gen Y worker shows up and all workers look the same – they will think you’re not living up to your diversity message. This generation has grown up with a greater awareness of and comfort with diversity of all kinds. From home lives, to school experiences, to messages absorbed from pop culture, they often don’t see what all the fuss is. This can manifest as difficulty in understanding why others struggle with issues around differences. A question of whether gay marriage should be legalized, for example, is a non-issue for many Gen Y individuals — and this shift ties into a larger cultural shift in general.
- Work versus life: “I love my job, but I love my life more” — that’s something you may hear a lot of Gen Yers say. One of the critical issues that will need to be ironed out at work in the future, Kesher said, will revolve around workplace flexibility. We’re increasingly seeing workplace flexibility issues evolving in the workplace, and Gen Y workers in particular (though they’re not alone) want to know how they can maintain their relationship with work while still having the flexibility to live the life they envision. As mentioned above, Gen Y has no problem with work, or with the idea of working hard — it’s just that their job will never be the whole of their identity. They raised with the imperative to “follow your dreams!”, and their job and life may intersect in new ways than we’ve seen in past generations. “Gen Y,” Kesher stressed, “doesn’t want a job – they want a life that hopefully includes a job.”
- Being green: This is the generation that’s leading the green movement – so give them the power to build, make changes, and become leaders in your organization’s (existing or non-existing) green movement.
Why worry about Gen Y?
Ensuring that the different generations working together under one roof actually work well together is a big concern for many employers. After all, if knowledge isn’t able to be sufficiently shared from generation to generation, older generations will eventually retire — taking with them decades of experience. In addition, workers who work well together are likely to be happier, more productive, and better brand ambassadors for your company.
To effectively work with Gen Y workers, Kesher said, you don’t need to change who you are – just your approach. In a great reverse example of this, an audience member told the story of her (as a Gen Y worker) learning to compromise with a Silent Generation worker. The older worker, she said, took a long time to respond to emails, but whenever she had a printed piece for him to look at, he worked much more quickly. After figuring this out, she started printing out her emails to him and putting them on his desk – and now his turnaround time on feedback to her is much faster. It’s small steps like this that can make a big difference between two generations that don’t always see eye to eye — or medium to medium.
By learning the “why” behind this generation’s interests, ideas, and behaviors, you will understand how Gen Y workers function best in the workplace, and you will be better prepared to recruit and retain them. Here are some ideas to get you started, courtesy of Kesher:
6 ways to more successfully recruit Gen Y:
- Have fun. Use the media to get your company message out there. Gen Y is all over social networks, and as mentioned above, they are very comfortable with technology, so get in front of them on various mediums — and get creative in your efforts. Speak their language; what have you learned about the things that matter to them that you as an employer are able to provide? Connect work to their lives; how do the two successfully intersect in your work environment? Are you able to offer workers a great work/life balance and opportunities for them to enrich their lives outside of the office walls? Show them.
- Challenge them. Gen Y workers are attracted to a challenge, so by providing your employees with interesting work that asks them to get outside their comfort zone and take risks, and lets them make mistakes and fail, you are likely to get these workers’ attention.
- Give them opportunities. Do you give your employees multiple paths to explore when taking on a project, or find ways for their work to have an impact on the organization as a whole? Demonstrate to job seekers that you encourage employees to do work that is meaningful and and makes a difference outside of your organization. Do you give employees opportunities to further their training, brush up on their skills, or learn new disciplines outside of their current role to help them grow both inside and out of work?
- Support their lifestyle. Recognize the importance their life outside of work has to them, and understand that they have often strong, close connections with their families (Kesher gave the example of parents calling to ask why their son or daughter got a bad review example, or dropping off a resume for their child — it happens more than you might think). Offer flexibility in your benefits, and realize that for many Gen Y workers, the line between work and personal life has blurred. Work happens at home, and vice versa — does your organization support a flexible workplace?
- Embody diversity. Show it, don’t just talk about it! Demonstrate to potential employees how diversity integrates with your organization’s mission – but be authentic. Job seekers can see right through empty words; be true to your values by actually being a diverse workplace.
- Reinforce your mission. Show job seekers the “why” – why is the work your organization does important to the rest of world? What is the larger context of the projects you take on, or of your core business? Reinforce your mission constantly, and help workers find connections to others in the organization through social media, your website, or in-person interactions.
… And 5 ways to retain them:
- Make them feel at home the first day. This does not mean simply showing them the employee handbook, their cubicle, bathroom code, and then leaving them alone. Plan on a longer orientation duration than in the past. Establish personal connections with employees — and continue building those relationships throughout your employees’ tenure.
- Give them feedback. They want more rather than less, and they want it sooner rather than later. Recognize everything employees are doing, and give them honest and open feedback. Waiting five years to get to the next step in an organization isn’t realistic anymore, Kesher pointed out — so provide them with the tools they need for success and career advancement. Give employees more chances for lateral development by helping them learn new skills, get new certifications, and expand their knowledge base.
- Allow them to fail! Define clear expectations for tasks and projects, give them incremental goals along the way, and find ways to connect the work they’re doing to their personal values and goals. Let them stretch their boundaries, make mistakes, and learn from them — and most of all, listen to your employees. They want to give you input, so make it easier on them by asking for it where you can, and being available as a resource and mentor.
- Again, listen. Pay attention to them (they’re going to talk to you a lot), be aware of their personal goals, and lead horizontally. They’re living in a world of connectedness and entitled communication; hierarchy isn’t as built into their mindset as it is in generations past. Try to be their leader without looking down on them.
- Connect with them. Get to know them and what they’re all about (and hey, maybe even their helicopter parents, too). If you want respect from Gen Y workers, you have to give it. Many Gen Y workers feel misunderstood by their peers or their leaders; by working to connect with them and encouraging other employees to do the same, you will begin to chip away at the negative Gen Y stereotypes that are actually hindering generational progress in the workplace.
Moving forward, together
During the session, a Gen Y professional raised her hand and pointed out that as an HR professional, she’s noticed a lot of overly negative critiques of Gen Y workers. She wondered why we couldn’t focus on the positive traits of Gen Y to hook into as a great resource — a great point, and one that Kesher drove home in his presentation.
After all, every time we think another generation doesn’t have something we have, Kesher said, we’re stereotyping. Every generation has boundaries and a work ethic — they may just happen to be different than ours.
But isn’t the fact that such a multitude of perspectives, ideas, backgrounds and behaviors exist what makes the workplace so great?