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Leaders, This Is How To Work With Gen Z Employees

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

Many leaders and organizations are still fussing about their millennial employees who don’t react or care about the same things that Boomers and Gen Xers do. But it’s time to adjust to Gen Z, the age group that Elizabeth Segran describes so compellingly in her new book, The Rocket Years: How Your 20s Launch the Rest of Your Life.  Segran, a staff writer at Fast Company, provides evocative anecdotes and data-driven insights into the realities of turmoil and choices for people in their 20s and 30s, including how they think about work and workplaces.

This book provides a service both to human resources and other leaders who are trying to figure out how to motivate younger employees to do their best work. If leaders want the benefit of 20-somethings’ drive and creativity — and also want to maintain staffing levels and develop bench strength — they need to think about how to shift organizational realities to be attractive to these younger employees, and to help them thrive in unfamiliar workplace environment without suppressing their personalities. The following five recommendations from Segran can help demystify the process.

Get used to the fact that their expectations are off-kilter. Unlike prior generations who expected work to pay the bills, fund leisure and lifestyle — and only occasionally provide a calling – Gen Z has practically been raised by parents and teachers to follow its career passions. They may find those passions eventually, but research shows that job satisfaction tends to improve as we age, rather than being there as careers begin. Anticipate that Gen Zers will often feel restless, confused and out-of-sorts, particularly if their entry level work does not satisfy their desire for meaning and purpose. And, as Segran cautions, “when they do find something that seems like a perfect fit and then something goes wrong with the culture, they’re just devastated.” They may be particularly uncomfortable with conditions they didn’t experience in school, like observing the ways that power can be misused, or how corporate actions don’t match public statements.

Help them adjust to the realities of early jobs. Because they may be put off by workplace realities as they search for the perfect role, many Gen Zers will do significant job-hopping as they try to learn what works for them. They’re likely to start and re-start their careers multiple times in their first decade of work, and their workdays, therefore, will often include tasks and experiences they may find distasteful, either because there’s more grunt work than they anticipated, they don’t like what they thought they would or they’re gobsmacked by the amount of political maneuvering and the arcane, unwritten rules that are common in many workplaces. So ground them by explaining what they can expect and describe how the development of their skills, relationships and maturity will lead to more satisfaction and success. Listen to what they want from their jobs and what they find off-putting to identify ways to help them feel appreciated and like they’re a vital part of the action. Be explicit about how your organization works, and where the best opportunities for growth and independence are likely to be.

Segran says that just knowing that it’s a long process and that it will involve trying out different things can be very reassuring. A lot of young people in their first couple of jobs may think, “Knowing that you have a long time horizon to find your dream job and that this is probably just going to be one step in a journey makes dealing with some of those less pleasant parts of your job a lot easier because you’re thinking, ‘Okay, I’m in job number three. I have a really robust resume, but at this job what I’m really trying to do is I’m really trying to learn how to manage a team,’ or, ‘I’m really trying to manage this particular type of project or event.’”

To retain the ones you want, demonstrate your values and authenticity. This generation did not grow up with respect for hierarchy, and corporate roles and titles aren’t enough to earn the admiration of 20-somethings; they want their managers to be respect-worthy as individuals. Segran says that this generation was raised to think of managers as people that they can learn from, so it’s crucial for managers to articulate how they find personal meaning and value in their work. As children, these Gen Zers’ parents invested in them as if each one has a unique mission in the world. Managers who are willing to act as mentors and find what motivates each individual — and then connect that motivation to the manager’s and the organization’s values — have the best chance of cementing relationships and inspiring productivity and growth; when these young people are inspired they’ll work incredibly hard to deliver on your agreed-upon goals.

Look for ways to empower them as individuals. Gen Z is used to having a lot of freedom to operate according to their own preferences. You’ll get the most payback if you create the conditions under which they can take ownership of what they do and the way they decide to do it. Offer them opportunities that are geared toward a kind of personal expression and the chance to change the world; this will help them feel that it’s worth investing even in the parts of the job that they may not care for so much. Segran suggests things like “making sure that your employees feel free to take the day off to vote and making that part of your mission, or giving employees the opportunity to volunteer or take some time off to do pro bono work. You don’t necessarily need to have a [political or activist] position as a company. You can empower your employees to be activist in whatever way seems best to them, and your activist position is simply to empower them.”

Ensure that your organization is walking your talk. As consumers, 20-somethings were raised with brands that have been public about their missions, whether those involve ethical supply chains, social giving, or Black Lives Matter, so they have a fine-tuned radar for companies that aren’t being authentic. This can be a tough balance because this generation also expects their employers to be activist. Segran recommends that the way to develop greater authenticity is “to be talking to your employees a lot, to be creating open forums, to understand what your employees really support and believe in. And when you do choose a position [on a social issue], it needs to be one that is very aligned with not only your employee base, but what you’re doing as a company,” in areas where you’re already connected and have expertise. 

And don’t be heartbroken if they leave you. Part of the tendency to rocket around means a need for speed and change, and for these young people, that often translates into serial job-hopping. It’s certainly disappointing to lose someone you’ve invested in. But if you follow these five pointers, not only will you get as much return as possible from your Gen Z employees, but you’ll also establish a much greater likelihood that they’ll boomerang back to you at a later stage of their satisfying and successful careers.

Onward and upward —


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