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Gen Z: Managing the Newest Generation in the Workforce

People who study generations say that what happens to us during our formative years — roughly when we’re in high school — has a profound impact on our values, expectations and world view. I was in high school in the late '70s and early '80s, and that’s probably why I think the best bands ever are Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Queen.

Obviously, we can’t say that all people born during a certain time period are all alike. What we can say is that they all experienced the same thing at about the same time and it probably had a similar impact on them.

For example, Gen Z (born 1996–2012) grew up with smartphones, social media and the internet, which encouraged them to rely on technology for the answers to just about everything. Consequently, they tend not to have the same “common sense” that other generations have.

For example, when she was 16, I asked my granddaughter to meet me at an event and gave her the address. She texted me and asked if the event was at a church because that’s where Google maps told her to go. The event was happening next door to the church and, when she arrived, I showed her how to look at the numbers on the building to determine whether you’re in the right place and, if you’re not, how to get there.

Another example: A friend told me she instructed her young assistant to light some candles. The assistant asked where the candle lighter was. My friend said she didn’t have a candle lighter and handed her assistant a book of matches. The assistant asked, “What do I do with these?” Evidently, the assistant’s watchful parents ensured she never played with a book of matches and accidentally set things on fire like many of us did when we were young.

Even if you disagree with generalizations about generations, one indisputable fact is that Gen Z is comprised of young people. And, when people are young, they tend not to have the knowledge and experience they need to meet the expectations of their older managers, who somehow forgot they didn’t know everything when they started working either. When managers express frustration at Gen Z’s lack of know-how, Gen Z often ghosts them (ask a young person what that means).

After years of listening to these older managers complain about their younger employees, I joined forces with independent educational consultant Kat Clowes (who has helped hundreds of Gen Zers navigate the college admissions process) to write the book "Managing Generation Z: How to Recruit, Onboard, Develop, and Retain the Newest Generation in the Workplace" (available at Russo’s Books and Amazon). Fortunately, managers don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to managing this generation; they just need to update it a bit. Here are a few suggestions:

Recruiting: If you want to find members of Gen Z or want them to find you, social media is the way to do it. You’re probably already using your company’s website, job boards (like Monster.com), and LinkedIn, which is good, but you’ll also need to become adept at using Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat if you haven’t already.

Interviewing and Onboarding: Traditional interview questions based on job experience will need to be modified because only 19 percent of Gen Zers gain any work experience during high school (compared to 48 percent of Boomers). A survey by jobvite.com revealed that of the one in four employees who quit their job within the first 90 days, 43 percent said it was because the day-to-day role wasn’t what they expected. To prevent this from occurring at your workplace, it’s imperative that you provide a realistic preview of what the job entails during the interviewing process.

Onboarding is the process of helping new employees feel connected to your workplace and is critical to their success and longevity. In addition to ensuring they feel welcomed on their first day, connect them with someone (supervisor, mentor, buddy) who spends time each week for their first few weeks helping them get settled in and removing any obstacles to their success.

Developing: You’re going to need to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it for three primary reasons:

  1. You’re probably the first employer they’ve ever had.
  2. They are “digital natives,” meaning most of them didn’t learn how to do things the “old-school” way.
  3. They will most likely try to figure things out for themselves through Google or YouTube, which can be a good thing and a bad thing.

In addition to the job descriptions, standard operating procedures, job aids, and SMART goals that you’re probably already using, a tool to help you in the development process is the experiential learning cycle. According to this model, we learn by having an experience, reflecting on what went well and what didn’t go well, generalizing what we learned from the experience, and then determining how to apply what we learned the next time. We usually need to go through this cycle three or four times before we really learn how to do something well.

You’re also going to need to give much more feedback than probably what comes naturally to you. The Center for Generational Kinetics says that 66 percent of Gen Z employees said they want feedback from their managers every few weeks if not more. The feedback doesn’t need to take a lot of time, it just needs to be specific and helpful (saying something like, “the graphics you used in the presentation were really good” vs. “good job,” or “the graphics you used in the presentation need to be more up-to-date” vs. “bad job”).

Retaining: The best thing you can do to prevent Gen Z from leaving is to train their supervisors. Supervisors have more influence on productivity, product quality, morale, absenteeism and labor relations than any other group in the company. The way supervisors communicate and interact with employees makes a huge difference in the results (or lack thereof) they get from them. Unfortunately, many people are promoted into supervisory positions because they’re good at their jobs and aren’t given any training on how to be good supervisors.

While generalizations can be helpful, one of the most important aspects of managing people is getting to know them as individuals and providing them with what they need to perform. Doing that enhances the likelihood that you’ll get a good performance from employees in every generation.

Robin Paggi is a training and development specialist with Worklogic HR.