How to avoid those pesky Gen Y stereotypes

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By Phyllis Weiss Haserot
This is the fourth of a new series of regular columns by generational expert and internationally known consultant, coach, writer, and speaker Phyllis Weiss Haserot on intergenerational relations and navigating the challenges of the multi-generational workplace for better productivity, retention, succession planning, and business development results.

Employers are struggling with how to capitalize on the assets and potential of Generation Y/Millennials (same generation) while enduring the frustrations of working with some of the members of the youngest generation in the workforce. I continually hear stories from accounting firm partners and human resource directors.

Recently I was interviewed about Gen Y stereotypes and how individuals can avoid them and the potential damage to their careers. There are insights here for both Gen Y workers and those who manage them. If you manage people new to the workplace, share these tips to help them succeed.

Among the common stereotypes, perhaps better termed "perceptions", about Gen Y in the workplace are these:

Stereotype/perception: Gen Yers don't have a good grasp of acceptable workplace behavior. Typical examples are inappropriate dress for a professional work environment, demeanor, not calling in when sick or coming in late, leaving cellphones on a desk unattended which ring and disturb others, etc.

Suggestions to avoid this stereotype: I advise employers to expand their customary orientation programs to include these issues and behaviors and lay out specific expectations. We design these sessions to appeal; to Gen Yers in language and spirit.

The Gen Yer can ask upfront about expectations or ask a parent, older sibling or mentor in order to avoid career threatening behaviors.

Generational DefinitionsHere are some quick definitions. Generations are defined by the similar formative influences – social, cultural, political, economic – that existed as the individuals of particular birth cohorts were growing up. Given that premise, the age breakdowns for each of the four generations currently in the workplace are approximately:

Traditionalists born 1925-1942
Baby Boomers born 1943-1962
Generation X born 1963-1978
Generation Y/Millennials born 1979-1998 (under age 30 today)

Stereotype/perception: Aptly nicknamed "Generation Why", they ask a continuing stream of questions, often at inconvenient times for the recipient of the question who may be running off to a meeting, making a deadline, or working intensely on a project. Sometimes the questions may be perceived as challenging a decision or authority.

Suggestions to avoid this stereotype: Asking questions is a good thing. But be sure not to appear to be challenging a manager. Before asking the question, inquire if it is a convenient time.

I have counseled managers and partners to set aside time for a regularly scheduled group session for questions to be raised and answered. Gen Yers like doing things in groups. They can get their questions out and feel listened to.

Stereotype/perception: Gen Yers are said to be demanding of quick and frequent promotions and are thought to possess a poor work ethic – often by the same person. They don't like to do the same thing over again many times, thinking they have mastered the skill or job very quickly and deserve to be promoted to something more challenging – like partner in two months. As to the work ethic perception, many Yers like to leave early and arrive on the late side in the morning. Actually, many Gen Yers are willing to work hard, but they want to work when and where they want to. They don't buy into the facetime concept.

Suggestions to avoid this stereotype: As young employees, have reasonable expectations. If you are not challenged enough, ask for new projects where you can learn new skills. Or initiate. Suggest something to benefit the organization and volunteer to develop it.

Stereotype/perception: Naturally drawn to the use of electronic media, Gen Yers have developed little discretion about appropriate communication media and styles to fit particular situations at work. Regular use of texting or it's abbreviations for professional communications, bluntness, lack of care in spelling and punctuation creates a poor impression to older managers, partners and clients, customers and others outside the peer group.

Suggestions to avoid this stereotype: This is another subject for expanded orientation by management.

Suggested action on the Gen Yers part: Look for a mentor or coach in the organization to learn what is considered appropriate when and why. Quick and efficient is not always the better method to get desired results. Shift your focus to the other person's/receiver's point of view.

Stereotype/perception: Gen Yers are spoiled and over-protected by their "helicopter parents." Only a relatively small percentage of parents actually exhibit extreme helicopter/hovering behavior such as showing up at job interviews, insisting on negotiating job offers, or calling to complain to the employer about less than positive performance evaluations. However, that behavior is so inappropriate that it has gotten a lot of media attention.

Suggestions to avoid this stereotype: Recognize that while asking parents for advice is often wise, that should take place behind the scenes. An employer wants to see that young employees can make their own decisions, take responsibility, and are accountable. Keep your parents out of the workplace except when invited (and some employers are inviting parents these days), and don't talk with parents by phone several times a day at work.

Having dealt with some of the typical negative perceptions, I want to emphasize the positive stereotypes or characteristics attributed to Generation Y: that they are eager to learn, ambitious, optimistic, tech savvy, altruistic, idealistic, family-oriented, seeking authenticity, appreciative of diversity and flexibility. Like their Boomer parents, with whom they tend to have good, close relationships, they want to change the world for the better.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2008. All rights reserved.
Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm she founded over 20 years ago. A special focus is on the profitability of improving inter-generational relations and transitioning planning for baby boomer senior partners. Haserot is the author of "The Rainmaking Machine" and "The Marketer's Handbook of Tips & Checklists" (both Thomson/West 2008).

See all of the articles in this series.

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