Attracting and Retaining Gen Z Workers

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman highlights how purpose plays a critical role for the world’s next generation of employees.

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

Every year, another cohort of talented Gen Zers enters the workforce. In some cases, these young professionals are met with a slew of biases around their motivation and work ethic—many of them perpetuated by TikTok trends such as  “lazy girl jobs” and “quiet quitting.” While these trends didn’t originate to promote a poor work ethic, they support a stereotype that young workers don’t want to do much of anything.

For many leaders, the question isn’t whether Gen Z wants to work—but rather, what motivates them to bring their best selves to their jobs?

According to Great Place to Work® (GPTW)—the research consultancy behind Fortune Magazine’s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list—Gen-Z workers benefit enormously from the things most employees have wanted all along: trust, engagement with leadership, and a sense of meaning. The organizations that do these things best find that their youngest workers are inclined to go above and beyond in their roles, no matter what their peers are saying or doing on social media.

For companies eager to attract Gen Z talent, communicating a sense of meaning is critical. Sixteen members of the Forbes Communications Council recently shared strategies their companies use to attract young talent into their workplaces. Almost all of these have to do with purpose—authentically communicating values and articulating the “why” behind the work in a way Gen Z can understand and relate to.

But here’s the catch: while communicating values may spark Gen Z’s interest in an organization, it doesn't necessarily keep them there, or even get them in the door. As digital natives—capable of leveraging the vast world of the internet for all kinds of research—Gen Zers are known for looking closely at a company's actions in order to determine whether or not it’s actually following through on what it says. They want transparency, not purpose washing.

“Every brand wants to get on the purpose train but so many of them are simply saying nice things but not doing anything,” Michael Pankowski, a junior at Harvard and founder of the Gen Z consulting firm Crimson Connection, told Ad Age. “If you want Gen Z’s trust as a brand, we need to see that you’re legitimately backing your words with actions.”

What kinds of action is Gen Z looking for?

While this generation is forwardly passionate about social and environmental issues, saving lives or solving climate change aren’t the only things they are looking at. According to GPTW, when employees across all generations and industries report that their work has “special meaning,” they are more than two times as likely to stay in their job. Many younger workers feel this sense of meaning when they are mentored by senior leaders or empowered to take on important projects that visibly matter to the future of the company. In this sense, purpose and meaning are perpetuated by the organizational culture itself—a company’s norms, values, and ways of doing things.

Senior executives who can self-reflect and improve upon their own culture may actually be most appealing to Gen Z. After all, the current TikTok trends didn’t originate to promote “laziness”—they originated as pushback against the culture of competitive “busyness” most workplaces tend to engender. Gen Z has initiated a conversation around work-life balance, inclusion, and fair compensation—diverse ways for a company to show a commitment to more than the bottom line.

For organizations that want to benefit from the best of what Gen Z has to offer—things like their technological know-how, fresh perspectives, impassioned ideas, and thirst for innovation—a more nuanced conversation around purpose and meaning is needed. No matter what industry a company is in, there are ample opportunities to promote a sense of purpose through the culture of how people interact with and respect one another. This includes making sure biases don’t get in the way of supporting Gen Z (or any generation for that matter) in expressing the full range of their talents and creativity. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.