The Generation Gap: Managing and setting expectations with young employees

The Generation Gap- Managing and setting expectations with young employees.jpg

Our series on “The Generation Gap” will explore how business leaders can better engage employees across the age spectrum and equip them with the tools for success. 

In growing companies, business owners will often need to hire early-career applicants, typically employees that are fresh out of school with little work experience. While having a young workforce has many advantages—including a lower (read: more affordable) pay scale, fresh ideas and perspectives, and native technology skills—one of the biggest complaints we often hear from business owners and senior managers is that younger employees are difficult to manage. 

Complaints about working with junior employees often fall into one of three major categories: 1) not completing work as requested; 2) not adhering to work culture norms or etiquette (e.g. showing up late, dressing inappropriately to a client meeting); and 3) oversensitivity or entitlement (e.g. not responding well to criticism, wanting more recognition for their work). 

When such scenarios arise, it’s easy to get frustrated and blame the “entitled narcissists” of the Millennial generation, but buying into those stereotypes only perpetuates the problem. (Not to mention that the first crop of Generation Z will be entering the workforce in just a few years—they won’t be hugely different!)  Many managers don’t realize that most of these common complaints can be curbed significantly with the right employee onboarding and training program.

Companies should reevaluate their training processes to ensure that new team members, particularly early-career employees, are not just learning the aspects of their daily role and responsibilities, but also have the opportunity to refine their professionalism and business acumen. By doing so, you can mitigate many of the complaints about managing junior staff. Some key issues to address:

Learning “how” is not enough—you need to include the “why” 

Employees that are only told how to do something, without understanding why they’re doing it and how it fits into the overall strategic plan of the company, can often end up doing sloppy or careless work. Or in the case of some creative businesses, sometimes junior employees end up taking creative liberties that don’t align with business goals.

In one example, a florist expressed frustration at a junior staff member for not building bouquets exactly as instructed. The junior staff member was equally upset, as she had spent time adding extra flowers to the bouquets that she felt went above and beyond what was required. Unfortunately, her additional flourishes brought the project over budget and ended up costing the company money. Had the florist explained budgeting beforehand and taken the time to explain why she wanted the bouquets built to exact specifications, she may have avoided the later confrontation. 

Don’t assume that employees will somehow figure it out on their own, particularly if they’re new to the business or industry. Taking the time to explain why or the “Who cares?” trains younger employees to think about the bigger picture, particularly for tasks that would otherwise seem repetitive or mundane: “This weekly report you’re responsible for ensures that we’re on target to deliver this $2 million dollar project on time, which could potentially lead to another $8 million in future projects with this client.”

Set work culture expectations from day one

Though older generations may cast Millennials off as lazy, the truth is that they are the most educated generation of our time, with 36% of Americans aged 25 to 34 holding a college degree or higher. Unfortunately all that time spent at college and graduate school means that more young adults are coming into the workforce with a lot less time spent at summer jobs or part-time jobs, where they would have learned about typical work etiquette.

On top of that, the media’s glorification of startup culture, with its open-floor workspaces, lax work hours, casual dress, and perhaps a ping pong table or two, has helped cement the idea of what an “ideal” workplace should be like. Put together, it’s no wonder that some young employees feel they can come into the office whenever they want or dress however they like, or at the worst end of the spectrum, lie about attending a funeral and then publicly blog about building a treehouse instead

Whether your business is more traditional or more casual, it’s important to set those expectations with new hires on the first day. Formalize communication of all your benefits (such as payroll and taxes, insurance, PTO/vacation policies, and sick leave), as well as your HR policies (including workplace health and safety, employee code of conduct, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination, and disciplinary policies) in writing. If you lack an HR department to do training and answer questions on these benefits and policies, then consider inviting experts from your company’s PEO or payroll organization to host seminars or “lunch and learns” so that everyone gets on the same page about the policies and no one spreads misinformation. 

For less formal or “unwritten rule” policies, such as dress code, work hours, lunch and break hours, work-from-home policies, or personal devices at work, ensure that you or your training managers communicates these policies clearly with each hire. Again, it helps to include the “why” when you explain the rules. For example, instead of just saying “I expect you to be in the office promptly at 9am every day,” add in the caveat "because our clients also start work at 9am and expect us to be responsive if they call with a question.” This helps to get rid of any ambiguities, and also trains new workers to think about the impact of their own behavior to the organization. 

Set milestones and teach them how to measure their own performance

Millennials care deeply about professional development—87% of them rate “professional growth and development opportunities” as important compared to 69% of non-millennials. Unfortunately that translates into what some managers complain is a nagging need for feedback, particularly positive feedback

While offering consistent feedback at specific intervals is constructive and helps keep the work moving in the right direction, it’s important to not allow junior employees to get distracted by the need for constant feedback. Set expectations early by using the employee onboarding process to be very clear about what success looks like, and at what timeframe. 

During the training, set intervals with milestones that employees can use to parse their progress and track their own performance. We recommend 30-, 60-, and 90-day check-ins, but depending on the nature of the work, the intervals can be spread out accordingly. The milestones should be some measure of work responsibility that they can now “own.” For example: At the end of 30 days, you should be able to fully respond to level 1 customer requests without manager review and know how to escalate level 2 requests to the proper supervisor. At the end of 60 days, you should be able to oversee our online chat help line and manage all incoming Twitter direct messages. 

Use the training process to also draw the line about what level of decision-making the employee is allowed to take within the company, but also be transparent and say why the standards are set the way they are. For example: “We don’t allow entry-level support staff to address level 2 requests until they have learned the technical knowledge on the product to support these types of requests.”

Be realistic and honest with your young employees about their potential career path. There are always eager achievers that can get easily frustrated when they feel they don’t have enough high-level responsibility as a junior employee—don’t be afraid to start an open conversation about the nature of the role. For employees that quickly prove their mettle, also consider finding smaller projects that they can own from start to finish during their downtime. 

Growing young talent into future leaders

Starting junior employees off on the right foot is the best way to help them grow into future leaders at your company. By taking the time to develop a proper onboarding and training program, instead of just throwing them in the deep end, employees start off with a clear purpose and know that the company is invested in their success—and in return, they’ll do what is needed to help the company succeed.