Engaging Gen Y's in a Tough Economy

By Laura Schildkraut | Leadership, Human Resources, Recruiting, Best Practices | No Comments

Many Gen Y's were raised with soccer on Monday, piano on Tuesday, language immersion on Wednesday, art on Thursday, and community service on Friday.  They are multi-taskers extraordinaire who expect every moment to be well spent with enriching experiences.

Clients have told me that one of the challenges they face with some Gen Y employees is a reluctance to do the same type of project multiple times.  One client lamented, "These employees have just moved beyond the training phase to where they're really adding value, and they tell me they want to do something new because 'they've done that already.'"  In fact, this generation tends to (consciously or subconsciously) view their early post-college work experience as another enrichment opportunity.

Even in the best of times, Gen Y's were impatient in a work place that didn't offer frequent new skills, new projects and new promotions.  Clearly, these are not the best of times. In better times, Gen Y's would leave an organization that didn't provide daily growth opportunities.  Now they are more inclined to just "check out."
So, what's an organization to do when they have trained these talented, new employees but are faced with an economy that has caused them to narrow the list of projects to which they could expose these employees?  How do they keep their Gen Y from "checking out" and how do they avoid a retention challenge as the economy slowly improves?

Below are three (free or inexpensive) suggestions that any company, large or small, could implement to continue to engage their Gen Y's, provide critical learning opportunities, and confirm organizational values that are important for this complicated generation.

Give Back and Grow

Through constant Internet access and enrichment opportunities, this generation is very well aware of world troubles from economic challenges to environment ones.  They passionately want to help.  They want to "do good" in addition to "doing well."  A conversation with the head of an MBA program confirmed that in the past few years more of their program's students wanted to work for not-for-profits than ever before.  So, leverage this passion by encouraging a group of Gen Y's to run a "do good" program in addition to their current set of responsibilities. 

But put some parameters on the program - the work they choose needs to have a positive impact on the company (direct or indirect) and provide a significant learning opportunity for the team.  Parameters should also be created around the amount of time that can be spent on these projects.  Here are two examples:

An internal program could be creating a campaign to reduce the use of paper in one group or across the organization.  The team would need to research a baseline, determine the area that could have the most impact, create a plan, communicate the plan, get the staff on board, track the results, and then document and communicate the environmental impact, and potentially, the economic savings. 

An external program could be selecting a "strategic" not-for-profit, determining a need, coordinating a team, meeting that not-for-profit's needs, and communicating the efforts back to their employer.  By strategic, I mean a not-for-profit that has some connection to the organization either in expertise or where having undertaken this project could create goodwill with potential customers/clients.  I suggest this not to detract from the good deed with an ulterior motive, but to provide a chance for young talent to think about how to leverage their efforts to positively impact not only the not-for-profit, but also their employer.

Both these internal and external projects provide young talent with an opportunity to drive something they care about, create a significant improvement and thereby a positive impact for their organization, and strengthen their project management and communication skills which their current projects/tasks may not provide.  By requiring that they "make a case" for their project, they get experience in creating a proposal, pitching a project, and having to think strategically about their organization.  Encouraging/enabling them to undertake such a project will also create a higher respect for their organization.  These successful projects will give them bragging rights and positions the organization well among these employees' peer groups.  That will help when hiring picks up and the search for candidates becomes more competitive again.

Search for Value

Gen Y's do not want to just work for a paycheck. So many Gen Y's get frustrated with their jobs because they don't see how their efforts positively impact the business.  They don't feel their work really matters.  Well, every organization has things it could do better.  Every project portfolio likely has projects that have stalled, have fallen off the list, or require a fresh set of eyes.  Point a team of ambitious Gen Y's at one of those projects or, depending upon the staff size, create an "Impact Competition" where Gen Y (and perhaps other) teams are formed to propose and conduct projects that will improve something about the organization.  The project with the highest impact wins.   As with the projects discussed above, criteria in terms of type of project, quality attention to existing responsibilities, and time spent on these new projects must be clear.  The results of these types of projects are the improvements they bring; an opportunity to get not only the Gen Y's, but also others in the organization energized; new skills (see list above;) new connections across the organization; and more loyalty from young talent.

Reciprocal Mentorship Programs

The traditional autocratic supervisory/management style with an underlying approach of "You'll do what I tell you to do" is rarely effective with a generation that has been raised to believe their opinions count and encouraged to weigh in on family decisions since they were young.  They work most effectively with a more supportive, coaching style.  A strong manager can provide a lot of this.  But organizations should never underestimate the power of a well-placed, caring mentor, generally someone other than the employee's manager.  

In the traditional sense, a mentorship is a "supportive relationship sustained over a period of time between a novice and an expert.  A relationship where one wiser and more experienced person assists another person to grow, learn and develop his/her vision for the future."  Gen Y's are generally very respectful of their elders and those with more experience.  Yet a critical trait of this generation is their expectation of respect in return.  Given that these creative, digital natives have valuable expertise to share, wouldn't a "reciprocal" mentorship arrangement be more effective for everyone involved?

A reciprocal mentorship assumes that each participant is both novice and expert. Both come to the table willing to teach and willing to learn.  Established staff can help Gen Y's learn important skills, fit within the culture of the organization, and navigate different departments and career paths.  Gen Y's can help established staff members undertake a new approach to problem solving, learn new technologies, and become fluent in the latest acronyms. These programs can be as simple as a thoughtful, pro-active paring and some stated ground rules or as rich as providing facilitated monthly enrichment sessions and semi-annual catered gatherings.
The results will be a fresh perspective for established staff and increased job satisfaction, a stronger connection to the organization, and more organizational loyalty for Gen Y employees.  Everyone wins!

Any or all of these approaches will help organizations get stronger engagement from their Gen Y employees.  Done effectively, with passion and fun, they could get stronger engagement across the organization as well.


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