Rory Carlton is getting used to hearing younger staffers ask, “Why are we doing this?”
It’s a question Carlton would never have asked his boss when he started working nearly 40 years ago. When he was given an assignment, he just completed it. But Carlton, like other business owners in their 40s and older, is learning how to manage employees in their 20s and 30s who don’t look at the world or the workplace as he does.
He’s learned that staffers aren’t asking questions to be difficult or argumentative — they’re curious.
“I find today’s younger employees have a hunger to learn and progress, and they want to understand the bigger picture — the ‘why?’ behind what they are doing, rather than just the ‘what?’ of the assignment they are given,” says Carlton, owner of Arketi Group, a marketing strategy company based in Atlanta. “It’s not a confrontation, it’s a collaboration.”
Small business owners can sometimes be perplexed or annoyed by younger staffers, whom they see as demanding or entitled in asking for time off or to know when they’ll get a promotion. But owners who take time to understand, train and mentor staffers say younger workers bring perspectives that can help a company, and that lumping an entire age group into a stereotype is detrimental to everyone.
“This group of individuals does get a bad rap,” says AdreAnne Tesene, owner of Two Bostons, four pet goods store in the Chicago area. “It’s up to us as owners and managers to just let them know what’s expected.”
Most of Tesne’s 36 employees are in their 20s and 30s. She looks at them individually to determine what each needs from her in terms of mentoring and coaching. Still, she finds some challenges. After several employees skipped two monthly staff meetings at which attendance is mandatory, they were surprised to find themselves dismissed.
She holds herself responsible. “If I bring someone into our team who doesn’t want to improve, that’s my fault. It’s not a generational thing,” she says.
Owners should try to understand their younger staffers, says Kate Zabriskie, owner of Business Training Works, which offers management and other business instruction. For example, she notes, younger employees are apt to ask, when can I expect a promotion? That may be less a sense of entitlement and more based on their experience progressing through school, sports and other extracurricular activities. They may also be seeking feedback.
“They’re new to the workplace. They want to know they’re getting it right,” says Zabriskie, who urges owners not to be authoritarian or dismissive.
Younger staffers may also seek more help and information than an owner expects. The right thing approach is to answer patiently, Zabriskie says. The wrong way is thinking, “I paid my dues, nobody helped me.”
Of course, older owners who complain are repeating history. Bosses with a work ethic honed during the Great Depression groused about baby boomers. And boomers did the same with Gen X workers.
“Some of what you see from employees in their 20s and early 30s is just young people being young,” says Brian Carter, owner of an eponymous digital and social media marketing firm in Charleston, South Carolina.
Carter has learned that younger staffers want to be emotionally and professionally fulfilled.
“They will stick with a manager or boss who cares about them personally and helps them grow and develop. If they don’t make a connection with you, or you don’t make the effort to connect with them, you can lose them,” he says. Carter regularly takes time to ask his five staffers how they are, including what they’re doing outside of work.
He’s also learned that younger staffers will be more vocal than older ones about wanting the boss to be accountable for mistakes.
“When I take responsibility for any miscommunications, and compliment them on any and all effort and progress, they are a lot happier and happy to do good work,” he says.
Rick Gibbs gets a lot of questions from clients about how to manage younger employees. The answer, says Gibbs, a consultant with the human resources provider Insperity, is to look at these staffers without judgment and resentment, and lead rather than try to control them.
“They’re a resource, not a problem,” Gibbs says. “You may be missing out on different points of view, ways of doing things that may help your company make money.”
Andy Pittman’s solution is to listen, negotiate and appreciate.
“They definitely have a different perspective on life than boomers. They like beer at work on Friday afternoon. They collaborate with each other in a group format a lot. It’s a more relaxed attitude,” says Pittman, CEO of ShelfGenie, a home improvement franchise chain based in Atlanta and owner of two franchises in North Carolina.
Pittman does “see a little bit more of the entitlement attitude” among younger employees, but he also sees hard workers. So he’s willing to negotiate on things like time off; some of his staffers would rather have more paid vacation than raises.
“If we can do the work we need to do, I’ll give them more time off,” he says.
Carlton finds younger staffers are interested in finding different ways to do things. One employee figured out an alternative method of accomplishing a task and wanted to keep using it. Carlton had to explain that the task wasn’t done often enough to justify the expense of the different approach. He said “no” in a way that acknowledged the staffer’s efforts but also explained the financial realities.
“We’re teaching them to be business people. It’s important for them to know how the money is made,” he says.