I’ve seen it many times. After wrapping up one of my presentations, I’m approached by a Baby Boomer or Gen X manager who says, “My young employees just don’t have any common sense! How can I understand them?”
Other times I hear more extreme responses like, “My Millennial employees are lazy and entitled. I regret hiring anyone under 35.”
I am strongly against generational shaming. But if you’re feeling this way, I want to acknowledge that managing younger employees can be really challenging. It might not be clear to you why ping-pong tables boost productivity or why a 20-year-old thinks they should contribute ideas in a meeting. It’s hard to understand someone you perceive to act irrationally.
But might I also suggest that your younger employees are not being ignorant or rude. Rather, many issues of “common sense” are actually deeply rooted in your generational perspective. I’m not saying all members of a certain generation think the same way, but general workplace conventions often come and go with time.
In an effort to bring these different perspectives to light, I’ll unpack three examples of “common sense” workplace etiquette and provide responses that older managers can use with their younger employees.
ANSWERING A PHONE PROFESSIONALLY
Millennials & Gen Z:
Many young people are intimidated by phone calls. This isn’t because young people are more fearful overall. It’s because they don’t talk on phones as often! People who don’t play golf feel uncomfortable swinging a golf club. People who don’t play guitar will feel uncomfortable performing in public. The same goes for phone calls.
What’s more, young people prefer other means of communication. Texting, email and Zoom are a few communication alternatives.
Baby Boomers & Gen X:
A manager might be dumbfounded to walk by a cubicle and hear, “Hi, it’s John. What’s up?” or a hanging “Hey…” Who answers a phone that way?
But older generations grew up with the payphone and home landline telephone. Before answering machines, somebody had to pick up the phone, which meant children were taught to answer calls, often with their name, a polite greeting and a direct inquiry into the nature of the call.
Nowadays few homes have landlines, and most landline calls are spam anyway. The only phone calls young people receive are from friends, and those calls don’t require a professional greeting.
At some point, your Millennial and Gen Z employees will need to answer a phone and they’ll need to do it professionally. Consider setting aside 30 minutes of a staff meeting to go over phone etiquette, and inviting more junior employees to observe more experienced professionals talking by phone. Again, your younger employees have likely never considered the “right” or “wrong” way to answer a phone.
If these phone issues are happening internally, on calls with you for example, try exploring other communication methods like email, text or Zoom. Who knows, you might start to enjoy a greater variety of communication options.
HAVING A DIFFICULT CONVERSATION FACE-TO-FACE
Millennials & Gen Z:
With the rise in digital communication, young people are having fewer and fewer face-to-face conversations. When they ask someone out on a date, they can send a text to avoid immediate rejection. When they need to report disappointing project results, they might send a faceless email to deflect responsibility.
Some of this behavior might stem from immaturity, of course. But young people have also discovered the benefits of thought-out responses. Email and text provide space to think and process, which is an admirable communication strategy.
Baby Boomers & Gen X:
For many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, a face-to-face conversation was the only option for years. No texts or emails. Even phones were attached to the walls. The best way to have a difficult conversation was to meet in person.
Comfort level also comes with age. You’ve likely had dozens of difficult conversations over your career. You might have fired someone, reshuffled a team or dealt with an insubordinate employee. Your younger employees fresh out of college haven’t had those experiences. Dealing with conflict in-person might be entirely new to them.
Remember, every generation has problems addressing conflict. Passive aggressive notes on the office refrigerator existed long before smartphones.
If you notice young employees avoiding difficult, in-person meetings, then invite them to meet you face-to-face. Even better, start this habit before conflict arises. Invite them to a casual cup of coffee. Host your own office hours when employees can stop by for a chat. Talk about life outside of work and shared interests. When conflict does arise, you’ll have created a relationship based on healthy communication patterns.
ASKING FOR A PROMOTION TOO SOON
Millennial & Gen Z:
Asking for a promotion demonstrates passion and company loyalty. Young people are told to follow their dreams, and this means they’ll want to talk to you about where they see themselves one, two, five years down the road.
In addition, young people would rather work for a company they believe in. This means their request for a promotion isn’t going to be rooted in selfishness and greed. They want to make a contribution and do so quickly.
Baby Boomers & Gen X:
Asking for a promotion after six months or one year might come across as entitled. If you’ve spent decades climbing the company ladder, you might think of an early promotion as an undeserved shortcut.
In the age of GE and IBM, you became a “company man” to secure a high-paying job. This meant years of dedication to your firm. Career paths were highly structured and vertical. Now, career paths (and promotions) are much more ill-defined and unpredictable.
Talk about the “why” behind your company work and the time it takes to get promoted. Help the people on your team understand why you do the work that you do and why you’ve chosen certain methods and timelines to achieve it. Then make sure that you’re asking each person on the team why they are working for this organization and what their goals are.
In the case of the premature promotion, you might explain how your employee’s projects have contributed to the company’s mission. And your employee might smile and say that’s exactly why they love working here in the first place. By talking about the “why,” you’ll discover that their desire for a promotion isn’t about greed or power. Instead, your employee might want the promotion because they love working for you and want to contribute even more.
Understanding Millennials can be challenging. Good thing there are even more resources on this topic. Stream episode 4 of The Work Remix Podcast, “Understanding a Multigenerational Team as a Traditional Startup Leader.”
In The Work Remix, I answer your questions about thriving in the workplace of today and tomorrow. Each episode offers advice, combining classic business practices from the past with modern ways of working so that you can achieve your personal and organizational goals.