[Management Issues] Gen Y

Features - Business Strategy

Who we are and how you can best lead us.

March 26, 2013
Kayla Miller

Editor’s note: The following article explores the challenges and rewards of working with Generation Y, and was written by Kayla Miller, human resources supervisor, Wayne’s Environmental Services, Birmingham, Ala., and a member of Gen Y.

We are in a new world when it comes to generations in the workplace. There is now the potential for as many as four generations to exist in the workplace simultaneously. Gen Y is entering the workforce while our eldest generation, the Veterans, are working longer than any generation before them. While this may seem trivial, it is important to remember that each generation is different. To date, none has been as different from previous generations as Gen Y. Because of this, employers must ask themselves how they can address the needs of Gen Y in order to effectively manage an increasingly diverse workforce. Writing as a member of Gen Y, I can attest to the fact that, while members of Gen Y can differ from previous generations on ideas about the workplace and how it should fit into our lives, managing us is not as overwhelming as it might seem. This doesn’t change the fact that we need jobs and are willing to work. It just changes the way employers must manage us in order to retain us and maximize our potential.

What is Gen Y? Y is often labeled using several derogatory terms: lazy, selfish and unreliable. The most important thing to remember when comparing generations is that a person is not defined by their generation. Rather, they are defined by their experiences, both personally and culturally. For example, Gen Y can be defined as individuals born between 1977 and 1995, but it is also important to look at the worldwide events that happened during their formative years. Most of this generation experienced September 11, 2001 as a child or teenager. This event was a traumatic event for all Americans, but Gen Y saw the event from a different perspective, through the innocence of youth. It changed our entire world at a time when we barely understood what life was about.

One of the most common complaints about Gen Y is our desire for constant approval and affirmation. To better understand this, we need to look at our childhoods. For me, this brings up memories of playing softball as a child. Of course, I like to believe I was the best softball player in the league, but I was never called up to the big leagues. What caused me to believe I was the best? Is it because for every season I played, no matter how awful our team’s record was, I received a trophy? Receiving a trophy for every success and failure taught us there were no losers in this world, only winners.

Flash forward about 10 years later to my first “real” job, what did I do when I received 4 out of 5 on a minor section of my first annual review? I felt like a complete failure. The next part of this story is critical to Generation Y. I had an incredible supervisor who took the time to sit down and explain my score. Instead of leaving me confused and upset, she explained why the decision had been made, which made it easier for me to accept it, move forward, and become a better person and employee. This was a building block that strengthened my relationship with my supervisor, turning her into a mentor as well as my supervisor.

My reaction may seem odd, but my perception of my performance did not match reality. For me to truly understand and grow from this experience, it had to be explained to me. This is one of the most common experiences I have gone through, both personally and professionally, and I hope others can learn from it. As such, let’s step through some additional tips for leading Gen Y, including trends and characteristics that define this radically different generation.

Tip #1:
Give us a chance to define ourselves. Before you continue reading this article, do a quick Internet search for the characteristics of your generation. Read through them and take a look at yourself. Do you exude all of the characteristics of your generation? Of course not! Each of us are individuals and should be treated as such. In my own workplace, the Gen Y employee population makes up more than 50% of our company, and very few of them exhibit all of the perceived characteristics of Gen Y. Take the time to give your current and future Gen Y employees opportunities to prove the stereotype wrong.

Tip #2: We like to work in teams. If there is one thing we learned in school, it is that teamwork is very important. In fact, my teachers and professors thought it was so important that I usually had multiple group projects assigned in each class. Because of this focus, teamwork is something we excel at. Do you have a decision to make? Put a team together and make sure to include some Gen Y employees. Do you have a technician who has an idea? Work with us on putting a team together to develop and present our ideas. A mix of multiple generations can inspire well-rounded ideas anchored with knowledge, wisdom, vibrance and passion.

Tip #3: We like feedback. Gen Y provides management with an opportunity to make annual reviews much less complicated. As long as it is thoroughly explained, Gen Y is a generation that accepts constructive criticism well. Because we prefer constant feedback, mostly in the form of emails, it is as simple as sending a short email a few times a month to let us know how we are doing and how we can improve. If you prefer face-to-face contact, try administering feedback in the form of short, informal conversations. Afterwards, email yourself about the conversation. Then, conducting reviews is as easy as reviewing feedback emails sent throughout the year.

Tip #4:
What makes us job hoppers? For most employers, this is one of the most concerning aspects of Gen Y. We all know it takes a tremendous amount of money to hire and train an employee. As such, employers would like to retain an employee for as long as possible. Gen Y employees grew up observing their own parents, who are most likely Baby Boomers, spending their lives at jobs that did not make them happy. This inspired in us a desire to do something we find important and worthwhile. Work cannot be fun all of the time, so how can an employer retain employees? One way to achieve this is to help your Gen Y employees believe in your company and that they can have an impact. For example, let’s pretend you are pushing to increase your customer base. You might try explaining to employees how the effects of their job ripple through the entire company. Explain to them how pest control services are about more than killing bugs; they are about protecting people from diseases and making homes clean and safe for children. Gen Y employees want to know that their job is more than a paycheck. They want to see a measurable impact on society. If an employer can help their employees to understand the indirect contributions they make then those employees can find value in their job and in the company.

Tip #5:
A job is about more than making money…and life is about more than work. Most employers don’t realize Gen Y is the least expensive generation to hire. There is currently a lack of jobs due to the economy, which means members of Gen Y may be willing to take less money, especially if it is somewhere we want to work. Gen Y is also delaying adulthood to the age of 26, which means that we are getting married and having children later in life. This can translate into healthcare savings for a company. However, Gen Y also tends to believe life isn’t just about work. To Gen Y, work is necessary, but only to the degree that it provides us with money to enjoy life outside of work. Work is no longer our entire purpose and existence. With this comes the demand that employers be more flexible with our time. Does this mean they get to work whenever they want? Not necessarily, but be prepared for requests for schedule flexibility.

Tip #6: We are outcome driven. When I turned 16, my wonderful parents bought me a car. They paid for the car, the insurance and the gas. While I am grateful they did, it is an example of how Gen Y was taught to be outcome driven. We asked for something and we got it. Unfortunately, this has propagated into our adult lives, so that when we start a job with the expectation of being promoted, we expect overnight results. This differing world view can be a benefit. We tend to look at the big picture instead of focusing on the smaller steps required along the way. However, we do need help developing the ability to identify and follow the smaller steps. Employers will also have to help members of Gen Y maintain realistic expectations of the workplace, particularly when it comes to advancement.

Tip #7: We like to ask “but why?” The most important piece of advice I can give for leading Gen Y is to not be afraid to answer questions and to allow your employees to challenge the status quo. In fact, take it a step further and provide the “why” before we have a chance to ask. If you are going to ban social media, tell us why. If we can’t have tattoos showing (by the way, 40% of Gen Y have tattoos), explain why. If we want to know why we didn’t get a promotion or pay raise, tell us why and explain what we can do better. Simply explaining why will alleviate problems and build relationships between management and employees.

Reap the Rewards of Y.
A member of Gen Y can be your best employee or your biggest problem. The key to leading us is to get to know us as you would any other employee. Help us find our strengths and lead us in our development. Give us the opportunity to learn and grow and you can reap the rewards of a hardworking, talented Gen Y employee.


The author is human resources supervisor, Wayne’s Environmental Services, Birmingham, Ala., and can be contacted at kmiller@giemedia.com.