EDITOR'S NOTE: USA TODAY ran an article in their August 21st issue that said "the most common jobs held by Gen Y are merchandise displayer and sales representative" in retail according to a study by research firm Millennial Branding. The results showed that nearly half of the merchandise displayers, or floor clerks, and 83 percent of the sales associates held college degrees, despite the fact that "retail sales associate" is listed as the fifth worst paying job in the survey. The conclusion offered by a spokesperson for the research firm was that many of these millennials, ages 19 to 30, are only in retail while they look for other jobs.
The implications of these results are significant to retail loss prevention organizations. Research has shown that young people and temporary employees are often less engaged with the company and therefore less likely to following proper procedures, potentially creating compliance and operational issues. In addition, these associates may be more prone to theft.
Because of this, it behooves retailers to reexamine their training and awareness programs, as well as their management process, to address this age group. For that reason we thought it important to rerun the following article on best practices for managing Generation Y from our September-October 2009 edition.
I've been conducting in-depth interviews with young people in the workplace steadily since 1993. That was shortly before the oldest Gen Yers—those on the cusp of Generation X—started arriving in the workplace as teenagers. Since then, we've followed Gen Yers as they have become the new young workforce and have been developing a comprehensive picture of who they are, how they became that way, and what motivates them.
Demographers often differ on the exact parameters of each generation, so let me make it clear. This article is really about the heart of Generation Y, those born during the Reagan years, who grew up mostly in the 1990s, came of age in the 2000s, and are filling up the youth bubble in today's workforce.
Meet Generation Y
Here's the short story with Generation Y. If you liked Generation X, you are going to love Generation Y. Generation Y is like Generation X on-fast-forward-with-self-esteem-on-steroids. Gen Yers' childhood was defined mostly by the 1990s, and they are reaching their early stage of adulthood amid the profound changes of the 2000s—this era of uncertainty.
Gen Yers don't look at a large, established organization and think, "I wonder where I'll fit in your complex picture." Rather, they look at an employer and think, "I wonder where you will fit in my life story." Every step of the way, Gen Yers want to find a work situation they can fit into the kind of life they are building for themselves.
Because they grew up overly supervised, coached, and constantly rewarded by their parents, Gen Yers will never be content to labor quietly and obediently in a sink-or-swim environment. They are less likely to trust the "system" or the organization to take care of them over time and thus less likely to make immediate sacrifices in exchange for promises of long-term rewards. In fact, the Gen Yer's career path will be a long series of short-term and transactional employment relationships: "What do you want from me? What do you have to offer in return now and for the foreseeable future? I'll stay here as long as it's working out for both of us."
They have very high expectations, first for themselves, but also for their employers. And they have the highest expectations for their immediate bosses.
Precisely because Gen Yers seem to both disregard authority figures and at the same time demand a great deal of them, leaders and managers often find Gen Yers maddening and difficult to manage. Every day, leaders and managers in organizations of all shapes and sizes in just about every industry all over the Western world tell me stories about working with GenYers that suggest this might be the most high-maintenance generation in history.
Bringing out the Best in Generation Y
Based on nearly fifteen years of research, I am absolutely convinced that most of the so-called experts on Generation Y have it all wrong. So many "experts" have written articles and books arguing that, since Gen Yers have grown up with self-esteem parenting, teaching, and counseling, the right way to manage them is to praise them and reward them with trophies just for showing up. These "experts" tell managers to create "thank-you" programs, "praise" programs, and "reward" programs. They recommend turning recruiting into one long sales pitch, transforming the workplace into a veritable playground, rearranging training so it revolves around interactive computer gaming, encouraging young workers to find a "best friend" at work, and teaching managers to soft-pedal their authority. In my view, this approach is out of touch with reality.
I tell employers that what Gen Yers need is not always the same as what they want. The problem is that giving them what they need successfully is much harder than simply handing them what they want. The high-maintenance Generation Y workforce calls for strong leadership, not weak. Managers should never undermine their authority, should never pretend that the job is going to be more fun than it is, never suggest that a task is within the discretion of a Gen Yer if it isn't, never gloss over details, never let problems slide, and should never offer praise and rewards for performance that is not worthy of them. Instead, managers should spell out the rules of their workplace in vivid detail so Gen Yers can play that job like a video game—if you want A, you have to do B. If you want C, you have do D, and so on.
In my book Not Everyone Gets a Trophy and in my workshops, I try to help managers and leaders get past the myths about Gen Yers and tackle the issues that make managing them so challenging. I focus on nine proven best practices for managing Gen Yers through every step of the employment cycle.
Best Practice #1—Get Them on Board Fast with the Right Messages
In order to win today's competition for the most talented young employees, you need to develop a systematic effort to find the right candidates, develop methodical recruiting campaigns anchored in powerful messaging, implement rigorous selection techniques, and then get new staff members in the door on day one excited about the actual experience that awaits them. That is the challenge.
What do you do?
- Diversify your talent sourcing. Make sure you are drawing potential applicants from a wide range of sources.
- Make good use of friend referrals. Ask your very best young employees to help you bring in the friends they think would be the best fit with your organization.
- Find Gen Yers on-line. Tap into on-line talent databases and, most important, make sure your website has user-friendly job information, job application tools, and a simple screening process.
- Tap parents, teachers, and counselors.
- Deliver a killer recruiting message that defines your value proposition in Gen Yers' language. Make sure you answer the questions: "What do we want from you in the first days, weeks, and months?" and "What do we have to offer you in the first days, weeks, and months?"
- Be very selective. The first rule of selection is "It is better to leave a position unfilled than to fill it with the wrong person."
- Once you've attracted them, try to scare them away. Eliminate the Gen Y job candidates who only think they are serious by telling them all the downsides of the job in clear and honest terms.
- Whoever is left after you've tried to scare them away is worth testing. Devise a fast and penetrating test that goes quickly to the heart of the basic tasks and responsibilities the person will be expected to do if hired.
- Conduct behavior-based interviews. Behavioral interviewing simply means asking applicants to tell you a story...and then listening. "Tell me a story about a time you solved a problem at work." Or, "Tell me a story about a conflict you had with another employee at work. How did you solve it?"
- Offer realistic job previews.
- Close the deal fast. If you move too slowly, you will lose a lot of great hiring prospects. The two watchwords of your selection process should be rigorous and fast.
Best Practice #2—Get Them Up to Speed Quickly and Turn Them into Knowledge Workers
Gen Yers want to hit the ground running on day one. But they don't want to be thrust into sink-or-swim situations. They want to hit the ground running with lots of support and guidance every step of the way. It may be exhausting for managers, but if you don't plug into their excitement and enthusiasm on their way in the door, you are in serious danger of turning a good hire bad. Gen Yers almost always walk in the door with a spark of excitement. The question is, "Do you pour water or gasoline on that spark?" Here's how you pour gasoline on the spark.
- Grab hold of them and don't let them go. Create intensity, connection to your mission, a feeling of shared experience and belonging to a group, steady learning, and constant challenge.
- Low tech—Train them one task at a time. Unbundle complex roles and then rebuild them one tiny piece at a time. You can give Gen Yers meaningful work at early stages in their tenure if you commit to teaching and transferring to them one small task or responsibility at a time.
- High tech—Don't fight their desire for the latest and greatest information technology. For Gen Yers, the information technology imperatives are simple:
- Constant connectivity with whomever they want,
- Immediate access to whatever information they want,
- Total customization of their information environment, and
- The ability to learn from and collaborate with experts in real time.
- Turn every employee into a knowledge worker. The more you encourage them to learn and leverage information, ideas, and technique while they work, the better they will do their jobs.
Best Practice #3—Practice In Loco Parentis Management
It's become almost cliché to say that Generation Y is overparented. But they are. You can't fight the overparenting phenomenon, so run with it. Without strong management in the workplace, there is a void where their parents have always been. Step into the void. Do be careful though. The worst thing you can possibly do with Gen Yers is treat them like children, talk down to them, or make them feel disrespected. Gen Yers are used to being treated as valued members of the family, whose thoughts and feelings are important. Remember, Generation Y has gotten more respect from their parents and elders than any other generation in history.
What do you do?
- Care about your Gen Yers. Know who they are at work and what they are doing at any given time. Spend time with them one-on-one on a regular basis helping them succeed.
- Give them structure and boundaries. Within a structure with clear boundaries, they can function with some autonomy. That means clear goals and specific deadlines with measurable benchmarks along the way.
- Help them keep score. Let them know you are keeping track of their day-to-day performance. This tells them that they are important and their work is important. The process motivates them to perform because they want to get credit, score points, earn more of whatever there is to earn.
- Negotiate special rewards in very small increments. Let them know exactly how their rewards are tied to concrete actions within their own direct control.
Best Practice #4—Give Them the Gift of Context
Managers often tell us that their Gen Yers suffer from a fundamental lack of context. This is partly a life-stage issue because younger people have less life experience than older people and thus fewer points of reference to compare circumstances, people, and relationships. Context is all about these points of reference. So lack of context goes with the territory when it comes to young employees.
Giving Gen Yers the gift of context means explaining that no matter who that Gen Yer may be, what he wants to achieve, or how he wants to behave, his role in any situation is determined in large part by factors that have nothing to do with him. There are preexisting, independent factors that would be present even if he were not, and they determine the context of any situation.
- Teach them to work well with others. Help Gen Yers anticipate possible conflicts and help them prepare for those situations. The most likely areas of conflict include the following:
- Balancing demands of multiple bosses,
- Chain-of-command issues,
- Dealing with older more experienced colleagues, and
- Working with those in parallel roles in other departments, vendors, and customers.
- Teach them how to shine in presentations and meetings.
- Teach them how to deal with your boss's boss's boss and other big shots. Explain to them exactly who they should be reaching out to (and not to), for what reasons, when, and how.
Best Practice #5—Get Them to Care about Great Customer Service
Gen Yers think like customers. Why? The marketplace has extended its reach beyond malls and into their homes through the Internet. At the same time, because Gen Yers have had more buying power at a younger age than any other young generation in history, marketers have targeted them more aggressively than any new consumer market in history. Playing the customer or consumer role is usually Gen Yers' primary experience in the public sphere prior to arriving for their first day of work as employees. Many have little or no experience on the other side of the marketplace transaction, as vendors.
- Teach them, when you are at work, everyone but you is your customer.
- Teach Gen Yers six basics of customer service:
1. Make yourself available.
2. Say as little as possible, at first.
3. When you do talk, choose your words very carefully.
4. Provide them with prepared materials, and encourage them to learn their lines and rehearse.
5. Never wing it. Don't guess, don't hope, and don't exaggerate.
6. Request feedback. Ask, "Is that acceptable to you?"
7. Problem-solve. Solve small problems quickly and get help for bigger problems.
- Convince Gen Yers to care about customer care. Remind them that customer service is an extremely valuable skill, has a huge impact on their ability to enjoy work, saves every employee a lot of time and energy, and is (by the way) a valuable opportunity to network with customers.
- Make it clear that financial and other rewards will be tied directly to your measurement of their customer service delivery.
Best Practice #6—Teach Them How to Manage Themselves
Gen Yers are often amazingly advanced in their knowledge and skills at a very young age, yet they often lack maturity when it comes to the old-fashioned basics of productivity, quality, and behavior. What's worse, managers often report that Gen Yers tend to be unaware of gaps in these basic skills and are completely unconcerned about it. In response to this gap in skills, some managers just get frustrated.
If you manage Gen Yers who lack some of the basics of self-management, then help them. Teach them to fill those gaps, one at a time. Teach them how to manage themselves.
- Teach them to make the most of their time. Help them set priorities and act on those priorities from the top down. Help them eliminate time wasters. And help them learn to live by a schedule.
- Teach them how to make and follow a plan. Show them how to break larger long-term goals into intermediate goals. Show them how to break each intermediate goal into a set of small goals, each with its own clear guidelines and parameters, and to-do lists with step-by-step concrete actions.
- Teach them to take notes and use checklists.
- Teach them the values of good workplace citizenship. Whatever values you want them to practice, you have to do the hard work of making the intangible more tangible. What do discretion, courtesy, honesty, and self-sacrifice actually look like in your workplace?
- You can't teach good judgment, but you can teach the habits of critical thinking. Expose them to new experiences. Teach them to be strategic. Teach them to scrutinize their own experiences during and after they actually occur.
- Teach them the art of self-evaluation. Urge them to ask themselves on an ongoing basis the following: Am I getting enough work done fast enough? What can I do to get more work done faster? Am I meeting or exceeding guidelines and specifications for my tasks and responsibilities? What can I do to improve my work? What can I do to be a better workplace citizen?
Best Practice #7—Teach Them How to Be Managed by You
Work ethic, habits, and style are often less developed in younger workers. What most leaders and managers are really looking for, whether they realize it or not, is an employee whose own ethic, habits, and style are a good match with theirs. Often when leaders reject new employees, it's because they perceive a bad match. They act as if these were matters set in stone. You can teach them how to be managed by you.
- Set clear ground rules up front that really matter. You may need to say, "Whenever you are working with me, on any task, for any period of time, these are my ground rules."
- Establish a regular time and place for one-on-ones. Create a constant feedback loop for ongoing short-term goal setting, performance evaluation, coaching, troubleshooting, and regular course correction.
- Create a focused routine for your one-on-ones. Don't ever let these meetings become long or convoluted. Start each meeting by reviewing the agenda and then follow it.
- Customize one-on-ones for every employee. For each employee, you'll have to figure out how often to meet, how much time to spend at each meeting, what format to use, and what topics to cover. And you'll have to make adjustments with each person over time.
- Give them "real" power. Spell out what they must do, what they can do, and what they cannot and may not do.
- Teach them how to get things done in your organization. Make it clear that you are a power source in their working life, and lend them some of your power to help them get things done.
- Create an upward spiral of continuous improvement. Be systematic, honest, and positive. Keep asking them, exactly what concrete actions—exactly what steps—are you going to take next? What can you do to improve? What do you need to revise and adjust?
- Keep track of their performance. Monitor performance closely enough to make fair and accurate evaluations and to provide the guidance necessary to facilitate constant improvement. Ask them to keep track of their own work in writing and report to you on a regular basis.
- Help them help you help them. Turn Gen Yers' requests and demands upside down so they become opportunities for Gen Yers to earn performance-based rewards.
Best Practice #8—Retain the Best of Them, One Day at a Time
Turnover is by far the highest among employees with zero to two years' tenure and next highest among employees with two to five years' tenure. Is this partly a function of youth and the unsettled nature of early career positions? Yes. Is it also a reflection of overall labor trends toward shorter periods of employment? Yes. But there are also generational issues at play here. Gen Yers are coming of age in a labor market that presumes total job mobility. Meanwhile, Gen Yers are more likely than those of earlier generations to see the job as just one piece in their life puzzle.
So is it impossible to retain the best of Generation Y? No. You can retain the best people indefinitely...one day at a time...as long as you are willing to keep making it work for them. You can even turn many of the best into long-term employees and some of the very best into new leaders. You have no choice. They are the future of your organization.
- Instead of trying to eliminate turnover, take control of it. You want the high performers to stay and the low performers to go.
- Make your job the prestige job. How? You have to be extremely demanding, highly competitive, and fiercely merit based.
- Push out the low performers. Stubborn low performers hate the bright light of scrutiny and usually will find a way to escape. You rarely have to fire them if you are willing to shine that bright light.
- Don't let good people get into downward spirals. When an otherwise good employee is struggling, help the employee see what's going wrong and how to make things go better. Instead of suffering the pain of failure, the employee will get a chance to bank one tiny success after another.
- Turn the reasons Gen Yers might leave into reasons they will stay—and work even harder. Help them earn whatever it is they need and want. And that's the key to retention.
- Find out what you can do to keep them. Help them see what needs and wants are realistic, and then help them earn what they need and want.
- Do whatever it takes to hold on to the best and the brightest. Whatever you are doing to be flexible and generous to retain your good employees, be much more flexible and generous to keep your great employees.
- Give the superstars the most time and attention. Surround them with teaching-style managers, advisers, organizational supporters, and maybe even mentors.
Best Practice #9—Build the Next Generation of Leaders
The holy grail of retention is identifying and building new leaders. That is retaining those with the best technical ability who are also willing and able to take on leadership responsibilities and helping them step into those roles successfully.
How many people have both the technical ability and the desire and ability to lead? When you ask a young star to step up and make the transition to a leadership role...at any level...you owe it to that new leader and her team to make sure that she is fully prepared to take on additional responsibilities and authority. Teach new leaders how to do the people work, and then support and guide them in this new role every step of the way.
- Explain that this new role carries with it real authority that should not be taken lightly. It is not license, of course, to act like a jerk.
- Spell out for the new leader exactly what her new leadership responsibilities look like. Focus on the basics, like spelling out expectations for every employee who works for them, following up regularly, tracking performance closely in writing, and holding people accountable.
- Formally deputize new leaders. Articulate the nature of this person's new authority and explain to the team that the new leader is expected to follow the management basics and hold team members accountable.
- Check in daily (or every other day) with new leaders. Take every opportunity you can to help them refine and improve their management techniques.
How to Identify Future Leaders
Who will move along the career path and grow into your long-term employees and your high-level leaders?
Don't look for those Gen Yers who are comfortable slapping people down. Don't look for those who love the power. Don't look for the biggest egos or the loudest, most confident voices. Don't be lured by charisma, passion, enthusiasm, and energy.
Look for Gen Yers who love the responsibility and the service. Look for those who consistently practice the basics of management with discipline. Look for those who spend the most time patiently teaching. Look for those who want to lift people up and make them better. They will likely be your future leaders.
Editor's Note: Click below to view a video of Bruce Tulgan discussing the challenges of managing Generation Y below.