Generation Z is the newest cohort to join the workforce. Born after the mid-1990s, it has achieved a certain notoriety, associated with flakiness, arrogance and a sense of entitlement. For businesses involved in training and managing this group of young workers, there can be some unique challenges. But there are ways to overcome these difficulties. More positively too, Generation Z is recognized for its digital acumen and strong ethical awareness, important attributes that can prove highly beneficial to business.​

ANALYSIS

Generation Z is coming of age. Many members are now in their 20s, often experiencing full-time work for the first time. New recruits are expected to need a degree of nurturing and coaching as they acclimatise to employment but companies seem to feel that this group is different from any that came before it. 

On the bright side, this is a generation that expects to work hard. Around 77 per cent believe they will have to put in longer hours than their parents, according to a poll for recruitment agency Robert Half. A willingness to interact online also shines through, creating opportunities to recruit, train and retain staff at lower cost. And many are highly skilled technically, from using spreadsheets to handling data.

But there are also notable gaps that managers need to address, says Bruce Tulgan, founder of management research and training consultancy Rainmaker Thinking and author of Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent. Based on interactions with 400 organisations, from Walmart to the US army, Rainmaker Thinking has found a growing gap between the soft skills managers expect and what they get from new recruits on arrival. “The new cohort is lacking some of the old-fashioned people skills, such as the ability to work in teams, take criticism or act professionally and reliably,” argues Tulgan.

Blame the parents

So what has contributed to this shift in values and how can firms make the most of Generation Z?

Experts have identified several driving forces behind the shift. The first is a change in parenting styles. “Since the late 1990s parenting has been all about building up self-esteem, fostering creative thinking and non-conformity,” says Tulgan. “The approach was to convey the sense that everything was a matter of personal style, with no right or wrong way of working or studying.” 

In the classroom too, Generation Z has been treated more like customers than pupils, he adds, with an increased focus on keeping them engaged and ensuring that they feel valued. Not that every teacher agrees with this approach. Many MBA professors report that their students feel a sense of entitlement without having to make much effort in the classroom. 

“It used to be the case that students would respect their faculty professors. Now they seem to feel that unless they have uncovered a fact for themselves, it’s not important. In other words, our job is to facilitate their discovery of material, rather than teach them,” says one Stanford University professor. 

“And if they receive low marks, their instinct is to complain, rather than figure out why they did badly,” he adds. 

 

 ANALYSIS

Age of entitlement

Instant gratification

Observers of this generation attribute this response in the classroom to the ubiquity of handheld devices and the spread of social media. “This is a generation that has grown up with faster feedback in their social lives than ever before,” says Ashley Whipman, director of Robert Half UK. “They also get instant updates on how they are appreciated – whether through ‘likes’ for Facebook posts, or followers on lnstagram and Twitter. “The combination can mean that they expect constant feedback, while reacting poorly to criticism.”

Tulgan believes that companies can adapt to this in several ways. “Some companies have tried to avoid this problem by screening for candidates who have more old-fashioned values,” he says. An example of this approach, he says, has been Chick-fil-A, an American fast food chain focused on chicken sandwiches. Founded by Southern Baptist Truett Cathy, the company has a preference for young workers who have participated in organisations that focus on fostering traditional interpersonal skills, such as the Boy Scouts of America or churches. This is then complemented by mentoring and training on the job. 

Spell it out 

But such young people are a finite resource. To derive the best from the rest, Tulgan advocates an unambiguous style of communication, focused on clearly stating objective standards against which performance will be judged.

“The latest generation need the rigorous standards that weren’t always obvious when they were in school or at home,” he argues. “These objective standards need to be spelled out at the start and also reinforced regularly. The feedback should contain a combination of positive and neutral remarks, along with the negatives. They require unambiguous guidance that they did A, and did B very well, but didn’t do C.” 

Learning to cope

This approach has been adopted with particular success at Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Deloitte and in the US Marine Corps. “It could be described as in loco parentis management,” Tulgan says. “Some managers say ‘my staff should have learnt all of this before I started paying them.’ But you have to operate with the workforce you have, not the one you would like.”

Recruitment specialists suggest that businesses should also consider adjusting their communication style to get the best from Generation Z. “Just as on social media platforms it is possible to provide feedback to others, this generation is keen on having their voice heard and shaping the values and priorities of the organisations they work for,” says Whipman. “Companies can accommodate this through an open door communication policy, with access to senior managers.” 

The town hall approach can also help, since it gives staff the ability to ask pointed questions to top managers anonymously, without fear that it will harm their career.

Digital natives

Andrea Wareham, director of people at Pret a Manger, is positive about the latest cohort of workers, seeing a host of opportunities for efficiencies and improved recruitment. “The fact that this is a generation of digital natives is a potential boon for companies,” she argues. “We can create efficiencies in everything from the recruitment process to training and community building within the company.”

Starting with advertising for roles, Wareham sees the attachment of Generation Z to social media as an unequivocal positive. “Advertising for positions via social media can be a very effective way of reaching Generation Z, because they spend so much time on these sites,” she says. “We can make recruitment more effective on Facebook or Instagram, targeting an age group, location, or based on people’s interests. Previously it was much harder to tell who was seeing the advert and whether it delivered the right people.”

Virtual world

In addition, the youngest working generation are far more willing to engage in a digital recruitment process – answering questions over Facetime or Skype. Pret a Manger is looking into this as a method of selecting new members of staff. “This would mean companies would no longer have to devote so much physical space to recruitment centres,” Wareham says. “We are watching this trend carefully.”

And Pret a Manager is already seeking to make best use of the techno-enthusiasm of Generation Z to improve training and a sense of community within the firm. 

“We have noticed that Generation Z finds it much easier to form virtual communities than previous generations, who generally required more face-to-face contact in order to build relationships with peers and groups,” Wareham argues.

As a result the firm has been launching online communities linked to training, so that apprentice baristas, for example, can ask each other questions and help each other out instead of having questions always answered by instructors.

Doing the right thing

The upcoming generation is also highly focused on corporate ethics. The Robert Half survey showed that 40 per cent believe it is important for the companies they work for to have a positive impact on society. This provides an incentive for firms to emphasise existing philanthropic efforts or establish new initiatives. 

Wareham believes that Generation Z hires have been particularly enthusiastic about the Pret Foundation Trust, which delivers surplus food to homeless shelters along with donations, as well as facilitating the hiring of homeless people. “Pay is of course an important consideration for this generation,” she says. “Student debt burdens and house prices have both increased, so this group is understandably keen on getting well rewarded financially. However, this is a generation with a keen sense of giving back to society.” Wareham believes this helps explain why the School Leavers Programme run by Pret has such a high retention rate, at around 80 per cent after one year.

Transactional approach

Such a retention rate is no mean feat for a generation accustomed to swift rewards from their work. Tulgan does not subscribe to the popular view that this is a capricious generation. But he believes they have a short-term and transactional mindset. 

“You can’t easily get them to make sacrifices now in return for long-term promises,” he says. “Managers need to explain what they want from day one, month one and year one and in return you will get this, this and this. The expectations and rewards need to be spelled out clearly.”

A number of professional firms find it hard to accept this advice. “It used to be a given that new recruits would work 15 hours a day and essentially do all the grunt work. Now they are reluctant to start at the bottom and work up. They just want to focus on their own professional development,” says one lawyer. 

However, some sceptics doubt that a generational divide even exists. “It is quite natural for older workers to forget how they behaved when they were young and imagine they were more professional or receptive to criticism,” says Bobby Duffy, managing director of the Social Research Institute at Ipsos MORI and a visiting senior research fellow at King’s College London. “To really prove generational change satisfactorily you would need a 40-year study of attitudes, which has not been done,” he adds.

Nonetheless, just a few years in, anecdotal evidence suggests that young workers have distinctive characteristics, and require a very different approach from their predecessors.

“If bosses want the best results, they can’t ignore these generational differences,” says Tulgan. “Some of the parenting and coaching skills that managers may have traditionally left at home should be brought into the office. Overall, my advice is for managers to guide like a teacher or coach. Weak leadership is the enemy.”  

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The upcoming generation is highly focused on corporate ethics – 40 per cent believe it is important for the companies they work for to have a positive impact on society”​

The company has a preference for young workers who have participated in organisations that focus on fostering traditional interpersonal skills, such as the Boy Scouts of America or churches”​

The latest generation need the rigorous standards that weren’t always obvious when they were in school or at home. It could be described as in loco parentis management”​

The new cohort is lacking some of the old-fashioned people skills, such as the ability to work in teams, take criticism or act professionally and reliably”

Age of entitlement

Generation Z is coming of age. Many members are now in their 20s, often experiencing full-time work for the first time. New recruits are expected to need a degree of nurturing and coaching as they acclimatise to employment but companies seem to feel that this group is different from any that came before it. 

On the bright side, this is a generation that expects to work hard. Around 77 per cent believe they will have to put in longer hours than their parents, according to a poll for recruitment agency Robert Half. A willingness to interact online also shines through, creating opportunities to recruit, train and retain staff at lower cost. And many are highly skilled technically, from using spreadsheets to handling data.

But there are also notable gaps that managers need to address, says Bruce Tulgan, founder of management research and training consultancy Rainmaker Thinking and author of Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent. Based on interactions with 400 organisations, from Walmart to the US army, Rainmaker Thinking has found a growing gap between the soft skills managers expect and what they get from new recruits on arrival. “The new cohort is lacking some of the old-fashioned people skills, such as the ability to work in teams, take criticism or act professionally and reliably,” argues Tulgan.

Blame the parents

So what has contributed to this shift in values and how can firms make the most of Generation Z?

Experts have identified several driving forces behind the shift. The first is a change in parenting styles. “Since the late 1990s parenting has been all about building up self-esteem, fostering creative thinking and non-conformity,” says Tulgan. “The approach was to convey the sense that everything was a matter of personal style, with no right or wrong way of working or studying.” 

In the classroom too, Generation Z has been treated more like customers than pupils, he adds, with an increased focus on keeping them engaged and ensuring that they feel valued. Not that every teacher agrees with this approach. Many MBA professors report that their students feel a sense of entitlement without having to make much effort in the classroom. 

“It used to be the case that students would respect their faculty professors. Now they seem to feel that unless they have uncovered a fact for themselves, it’s not important. In other words, our job is to facilitate their discovery of material, rather than teach them,” says one Stanford University professor. 

“And if they receive low marks, their instinct is to complain, rather than figure out why they did badly,” he adds. 

Generation Z is the newest cohort to join the workforce. Born after the mid-1990s, it has achieved a certain notoriety, associated with flakiness, arrogance and a sense of entitlement. For businesses involved in training and managing this group of young workers, there can be some unique challenges. But there are ways to overcome these difficulties. More positively too, Generation Z is recognized for its digital acumen and strong ethical awareness, important attributes that can prove highly beneficial to business.​

The upcoming generation is highly focused on corporate ethics – 40 per cent believe it is important for the companies they work for to have a positive impact on society”​

Instant gratification

Observers of this generation attribute this response in the classroom to the ubiquity of handheld devices and the spread of social media. “This is a generation that has grown up with faster feedback in their social lives than ever before,” says Ashley Whipman, director of Robert Half UK. “They also get instant updates on how they are appreciated – whether through ‘likes’ for Facebook posts, or followers on lnstagram and Twitter. “The combination can mean that they expect constant feedback, while reacting poorly to criticism.”

Tulgan believes that companies can adapt to this in several ways. “Some companies have tried to avoid this problem by screening for candidates who have more old-fashioned values,” he says. An example of this approach, he says, has been Chick-fil-A, an American fast food chain focused on chicken sandwiches. Founded by Southern Baptist Truett Cathy, the company has a preference for young workers who have participated in organisations that focus on fostering traditional interpersonal skills, such as the Boy Scouts of America or churches. This is then complemented by mentoring and training on the job. 

Spell it out 

But such young people are a finite resource. To derive the best from the rest, Tulgan advocates an unambiguous style of communication, focused on clearly stating objective standards against which performance will be judged.

“The latest generation need the rigorous standards that weren’t always obvious when they were in school or at home,” he argues. “These objective standards need to be spelled out at the start and also reinforced regularly. The feedback should contain a combination of positive and neutral remarks, along with the negatives. They require unambiguous guidance that they did A, and did B very well, but didn’t do C.”​

Learning to cope

This approach has been adopted with particular success at Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Deloitte and in the US Marine Corps. “It could be described as in loco parentis management,” Tulgan says. “Some managers say ‘my staff should have learnt all of this before I started paying them.’ But you have to operate with the workforce you have, not the one you would like.”

Recruitment specialists suggest that businesses should also consider adjusting their communication style to get the best from Generation Z. “Just as on social media platforms it is possible to provide feedback to others, this generation is keen on having their voice heard and shaping the values and priorities of the organisations they work for,” says Whipman. “Companies can accommodate this through an open door communication policy, with access to senior managers.” 

The town hall approach can also help, since it gives staff the ability to ask pointed questions to top managers anonymously, without fear that it will harm their career.

Digital natives

Andrea Wareham, director of people at Pret a Manger, is positive about the latest cohort of workers, seeing a host of opportunities for efficiencies and improved recruitment. “The fact that this is a generation of digital natives is a potential boon for companies,” she argues. “We can create efficiencies in everything from the recruitment process to training and community building within the company.”

Starting with advertising for roles, Wareham sees the attachment of Generation Z to social media as an unequivocal positive. “Advertising for positions via social media can be a very effective way of reaching Generation Z, because they spend so much time on these sites,” she says. “We can make recruitment more effective on Facebook or Instagram, targeting an age group, location, or based on people’s interests. Previously it was much harder to tell who was seeing the advert and whether it delivered the right people.”

The new cohort is lacking some of the old-fashioned people skills, such as the ability to work in teams, take criticism or act professionally 
and reliably”​

The latest generation need the rigorous standards that weren’t always obvious when they were in school or at home. It could be described as in loco parentis management”​

Virtual world

In addition, the youngest working generation are far more willing to engage in a digital recruitment process – answering questions over Facetime or Skype. Pret a Manger is looking into this as a method of selecting new members of staff. “This would mean companies would no longer have to devote so much physical space to recruitment centres,” Wareham says. “We are watching this trend carefully.”

And Pret a Manager is already seeking to make best use of the techno-enthusiasm of Generation Z to improve training and a sense of community within the firm. 

“We have noticed that Generation Z finds it much easier to form virtual communities than previous generations, who generally required more face-to-face contact in order to build relationships with peers and groups,” Wareham argues.

As a result the firm has been launching online communities linked to training, so that apprentice baristas, for example, can ask each other questions and help each other out instead of having questions always answered by instructors.

Doing the right thing

The upcoming generation is also highly focused on corporate ethics. The Robert Half survey showed that 40 per cent believe it is important for the companies they work for to have a positive impact on society. This provides an incentive for firms to emphasise existing philanthropic efforts or establish new initiatives. 

Wareham believes that Generation Z hires have been particularly enthusiastic about the Pret Foundation Trust, which delivers surplus food to homeless shelters along with donations, as well as facilitating the hiring of homeless people. “Pay is of course an important consideration for this generation,” she says. “Student debt burdens and house prices have both increased, so this group is understandably keen on getting well rewarded financially. However, this is a generation with a keen sense of giving back to society.” Wareham believes this helps explain why the School Leavers Programme run by Pret has such a high retention rate, at around 80 per cent after one year.

The company has a preference for young workers who have participated in organisations that focus on fostering traditional interpersonal skills, such as the Boy Scouts of America or churches”​

Transactional approach

Such a retention rate is no mean feat for a generation accustomed to swift rewards from their work. Tulgan does not subscribe to the popular view that this is a capricious generation. But he believes they have a short-term and transactional mindset. 

“You can’t easily get them to make sacrifices now in return for long-term promises,” he says. “Managers need to explain what they want from day one, month one and year one and in return you will get this, this and this. The expectations and rewards need to be spelled out clearly.”

A number of professional firms find it hard to accept this advice. “It used to be a given that new recruits would work 15 hours a day and essentially do all the grunt work. Now they are reluctant to start at the bottom and work up. They just want to focus on their own professional development,” says one lawyer. 

However, some sceptics doubt that a generational divide even exists. “It is quite natural for older workers to forget how they behaved when they were young and imagine they were more professional or receptive to criticism,” says Bobby Duffy, managing director of the Social Research Institute at Ipsos MORI and a visiting senior research fellow at King’s College London. “To really prove generational change satisfactorily you would need a 40-year study of attitudes, which has not been done,” he adds.

Nonetheless, just a few years in, anecdotal evidence suggests that young workers have distinctive characteristics, and require a very different approach from their predecessors.

“If bosses want the best results, they can’t ignore these generational differences,” says Tulgan. “Some of the parenting and coaching skills that managers may have traditionally left at home should be brought into the office. Overall, my advice is for managers to guide like a teacher or coach. Weak leadership is the enemy.”  

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Bridgepoint  |  The Point  |  November 2017  |  Issue 32