Who’d hire a Gen-Y?

They can be demanding and impatient – but some of the traits that so infuriate many bosses can also make Gen-Ys outstanding employees. It’s a matter of channelling the energy. By Mike Preston.

By Mike Preston

The jury is in on Generation Y, and the verdict isn’t good. Employers say Gen-Ys are short on skills, demanding, impatient and far from loyal – and that’s just for starters.

The deep ambivalence of SME employers towards Gen-Ys, those born between 1977 and 1992 and now aged 15 to 30, is revealed in the latest SME Opinion Leaders poll, a survey of 315 SME owners across the country conducted by SmartCompany in conjunction with Roy Morgan Research and Dun & Bradstreet.

Poor spelling and grammar and a failure to understand what constitutes appropriate corporate behaviour are the biggest bugbears, with almost 70% of surveyed employers reporting dissatisfaction with their Gen-Y employees’ performance in those areas. The communication skills of Gen-Y staff disappointed 48% of SME owners, while 37% complain Gen-Ys lack acceptable technical skills.

But, it seems, Gen-Ys either don’t know or don’t care about their employers’ distinct lack of enthusiasm for what they have to offer. Almost 90% of employers surveyed agree that Gen-Ys are more demanding than other workers when it comes to advancing their careers, and 79% say Gen-Ys are more likely to ask for a pay rise. They are also much more likely to demand better office amenities and more time off to study, as well as more training opportunities and mentoring.

With all these shortfalls, why would anyone hire a Gen-Y? For most employers, there is one obvious answer: they have no choice. Chronic labour shortages across the Australian economy mean that few businesses can afford not to hire anyone that might have a chance of doing a good job, let alone a whole generation.

There is an upside: the SmartCompany Opinion Leaders poll shows Gen-Ys also have key strength that many baby boomer bosses lack – tech savvy. Although 94% of employers say Gen-Y employees are demanding when it comes to getting the latest high-tech gear, a whopping 85% of SME owners report they are happy with their Gen-Y employees’ technology skills, suggesting older business owners are relying on their younger employees to help them keep up with the latest technology trends.

The key issue for employers, then, is not whether to hire a member of Gen-Y, but how to make the most of them.

Avoid Gen-Y brats

“Gen-Y can be brats – don’t let them be,” says Jo Nagle, the chief executive of Sydney based marketing company Let’s Launch. Nagle estimates that Gen-Ys make up close to 90% of the 2000 casual employees Let’s Launch has hired to work on its experiential marketing campaigns – involving everything from handing out product samples to dressing up in strawberry suits.

“They can be brats. Some of them have grown up with indulgent baby boomer parents and they’re very demanding,” she says. “They think it’s their right to have what they want, they’re brash and naive and they can really be like spoilt kids who say ‘I want a pony now, I’ve got four ponies at home but I want another one and I want it now’. You don’t want that at work.”

Nagle says she very consciously tries to identify and avoid the Gen-Y brats at the interview stage by questioning candidates on their attitudes, family background, friends, their wardrobe and even their pets. “I don’t care about their skills or what they’ve studied – it doesn’t matter if they’ve got straight As. It’s all about getting a sense of who they are and if they’re a good person,” she says.

Once they’re on staff, Nagle says it is important to constantly communicate with, train and “indulge” Gen Y staff to build relationships and get them enthused about being at work.

“I have a masseuse come in every month, yoga every fortnight, free flu shots in winter, we have pancake lunches here all the time and we even had an impromptu Luna Park visit last Thursday. We do that because to build relationships with Gen-Y’s you have to walk the walk, it can’t be just words.”

All that might sound like a lot of effort, but Nagle insists it is worth it to harness the energy, creativity and charisma that Gen-Ys bring to her business.

And it can save money. Too. Nagle says Let’s Launch is able to keep wages down, despite the inflated expectations of Gen-Ys when they join the company, because they want to work there.

If a brat does slip through the net, however, she says there is only one solution: get rid of them.

“We had one guy who was classic brat. His job was to recruit the right people and fill the rosters and not only was he not doing that, he was late all the time, he kept insisting everything was going well when it wasn’t and then he’d go just go walkabout when we tried to pin him down. Basically, he was very immature, he didn’t operate in the real world and took everything for granted and we got rid of him as soon as possible.”

Talk to them in their own language

Although he’s only not much older than some of his Gen-Y employees, Simon Trewin says employing more than 40 Gen-Y staff across his Tasmanian-based café and catering company 4lunch has presented some big management challenges.

“I’m only 35, but their expectations are very different to mine,” he says. “As long as they’re interested it’s all good but they get distracted very quickly; they want outcomes now and they want rewards sooner than I would have expected.”

But, Trewin says, Gen-ys short attention span has a positive flipside: they’re very quick on the uptake and take change in their stride.

“We probably move them around different parts of the business a bit more than we need to to keep them engaged, but it also means if I had to go into the kitchen now and ask someone to staff the counter in the shop there would be no problem, and they will usually be keen if we need to shift someone across to a different store,” he says.

Although it isn’t a high-tech business, the IT skills that Gen-Ys demonstrate have also come in handy at 4Lunch.

“They’re brilliant at grasping things. We have a lot of production spreadsheets and they can get on the computer and understand them after only a few hours training; 10 years ago that might have taken a week,” he says.

Gen-Ys’ aptitude with technology can also provide a means of getting them to pay attention to messages that might otherwise go unheeded.

“If I put a memo on the notice board it doesn’t matter how important it is, they just won’t read it; but if I send a group text message to the team they’ll all read it. We did the same when we were looking for new staff: we sent texts to all staff and offered them a movie ticket for every person that applied and although we had far less applications than if we had an ad in the paper, it was a lot cheaper and more of them were qualified and ready to go,” Trewin says.

Keep it fun

In the past 18 months non-fiction book publisher Messenger Media has seen its revenue grow from $50,000 per year to $200,000 per month and put on 11 new staff – nine of which are Gen-Ys.

Gen-Ys are a perfect fit for a business that is growing out of its skin and where job descriptions can change on a daily basis, managing director Lisa Messenger says.

“They have huge amounts of drive and enthusiasm and get very excited about where the company is going, they want to know the vision and they’ll go where you take them.”

Now that the business is reaching something of consolidation stage, however, Lisa Messenger’s challenge is to be able to keep feeding her team’s hunger for the new and the different.

Part of this strategy has been to maintain a “cool” workplace. The Messenger office in Sydney is very bright and light, with big white comfy couches, cushy rugs, lots of books and music and even the odd cat – and a constant procession of fun team activities such as white-water rafting.

“When they have to do the day-to-day drudgery they tend to start saying that work isn’t very fun any more, so we just try to move fast in training and speak to them so if the want more flexibility or responsibility we can give it to them,” Messenger says.

As a business grows, the bounding ambition of Gen-Ys can sometimes see them move into jobs where long hours and responsibility diminish the fun factor, something Messenger has found they don’t always handle well.

“One person left recently because I elevated her to a position that was beyond her. When she started her job involved new-product development, it was all fast and exciting with a lot of international travel and she excelled but then, when her role became more operation and detail focused, it became less fun and she left shortly afterwards.”

Because Gen-Ys are often hired on attitude rather than experience or skill, their departure as a business grows and changes is almost inevitable. Messenger says the important thing is to recognise when they have reached their limits and let them go with goodwill.

“We’re still good friends and she will go out now and learn a lot, pick up new skills and experiences and when the time is right we hope she will come back, so in the her leaving could be great for her and for us.”

In the meantime, Messenger has found another solution to the problem: she has gone with older Gen-Xs for two senior, administratively focused roles. “With Gen-Ys the talk doesn’t always match the reality in terms of skills or experience, so for more senior positions where there is a bit of risk we are looking at people who are older and more experienced.”

Treat them like kids

Margaret Kirby says managing her team of Gen-Ys often feels a bit like being a mother in the workplace, and as managing director of the iGroup, a recruitment company specialising in the advertising, media and design sectors, she has also been something of a midwife into the working world for many more Gen-Ys.

Gen-Ys are high maintenance employees, Kirby says, but they also present opportunities for employers who are prepared to give them the attention and training they require.

“There is a degree of ‘A.D.D-ism’ with them; they often don’t have the skills and get off the track pretty easily, but on the other hand they know how to walk and chew gum when it comes to technology and learning new skills,” she says.

To keep them on track and focused, Kirby says there is no alternative but to provide them with a huge amount of training and constant feedback.

“We are a small business but I don’t let any new employee talk to a client until they have had four weeks of orientation with myself or my general manager, then constant supervision for the next six months. After that, no matter how senior they are, I make sure I sit down with all of my consultants at least once a week,” Kirby says.

It is hard to overtrain Gen-Ys – “they are like sponges”, Kirby says. And the payoff for this huge commitment? A team of highly trained and committed employees who are accustomed to constantly working to improve themselves.

Bitter experience has taught Kirby the alternative – letting the kids run amok – is hardly worth considering.

“One of my first consultants was very bright and took to the job very quickly but we didn’t manage him well. He let details slip, the database fell apart, and he avoided confrontation to the point that he didn’t advise me that we had unhappy customers. He cost us business and reputation, which for small recruiter is huge, and ultimately his division had to close. So it was a painful lesson, but a useful one.”

Margaret Kirby’s top 10 tips for managing Gen-Ys

1. Retention starts with recruitment. Gen-Y candidates are interviewing you just as much as you are them. Be upfront about what differentiates your organisation, how your people have developed and progressed and what future opportunities are available to them.

2. Be flexible. Work/life balance is vital to Gen-Y individuals. Develop a flexible work/life plan that suits both them and the company and acknowledge their interests outside of work.

3. Provide the ‘why’. Put the Gen-Y job in context. Provide them with the big picture and then narrow it down to demonstrate the important part they each play in contributing to it.

4. Provide regular and constructive feedback. The once yearly annual review is not enough for Gen-Ys. They require and seek constant feedback and more involved management.

5. Set clear career paths and determine goals. Set realistic, time-bound goals and make it clear that achievement will equal promotion. Then make a plan with the employee and monitor their progress.

6. Coaching and mentoring appeals to this demographic. Gen-Ys have grown up in the era of self-help gurus and a culture of ongoing personal development. Offering coaching and mentoring will demonstrate that you’re in touch with their needs.

7. Salary, salary, salary. Part of the attraction of a job for Generation Y is the lifestyle it will afford. When setting their salary, make sure you outline financial and professional milestones that they can achieve. Make it clear, however, that more money means longer hours and adjustments to their work/life balance.

8. Develop an organisational culture that is inclusive of everyone. To most Gen-Ys, an inclusive culture is one that rewards individual achievement and promotes on merit rather than tenure. It’s important not only to create a good working environment, but also to encourage flexible working arrangements.

9. Watch your words. As a manager of Gen-Ys, it’s important to lose the “command and control” leadership style and use more emotional intelligence. Gen-Ys are happiest when will feel they are being listened to and respected, and in return, they perform better.

10. Practice what you preach. The more you walk the talk, the greater trust and loyalty you will build with Gen-Y. Be certain to follow your words with action. If you disappoint them, you will quickly lose their respect.


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