Gen Z in the Workplace: Difficult or Different?

A recent survey reported that 3 in 4 managers find Gen Z difficult to work with. But experts say there may be plenty of blame to pass around in this generational impasse.

It seems like only yesterday that managers were struggling with young and entitled millennials at the office. Leadership and the young generation eventually adjusted to each other. But just when the workplace appears to have found some balance, here comes Gen Z.

While generational impasses are nothing new in the workplace, experts say that some unsettling new statistics may portend serious trouble. According to one survey, for example, one in eight managers report firing Gen Z employees within the first week. Overall, three in four managers say they find the new generation difficult to work with.

According to ResumeBuilder, the top three reasons Gen Z is difficult to work with are lack of technological skills, effort, and motivation. That’s alarming, because in a down economy with decreased productivity levels, many firm leaders were hoping that the younger generation would become a beacon of hope for progress and growth. Long-term, simple demographics make the generation gap troubling: by the end of the decade, Gen Z (people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s) will make up one-third of the workforce. “Expecting Gen Z to fully bend to the wishes or customs of earlier generations is going to be counterproductive to having an effective multigenerational workforce,” says Amelia Haynes, a researcher at the Korn Ferry Institute.

But experts say there may be plenty of shortcomings—and opportunity for change—to go around in this case. Older managers, under more pressure in a tough economy, report high levels of personal burnout, which can affect their capacity for empathy. Plus, in the remote-work environment that still exists at many organizations, some managers may never have actually met their younger colleagues in person.

A key difference between Gen Z and other generations is their desire for personal and professional fulfillment from their companies. “Gen Z tends to be very purpose driven. They’re looking for something bigger to contribute to,” says Haynes. The context in which Gen Z experiences the world cannot be overlooked when assessing their role in the workplace. In their youth, the members of the post-9/11 generation routinely witnessed social and economic unrest, including, most recently, a global pandemic. Their perspective on “normal” working conditions, after experiencing the disruptions of COVID-19 at the beginning of their careers, is far different from that of older generations.

Still, managers worry that Gen Z has poor communication skills and is too easily offended. Some millennial and Gen X managers are irritated by Gen Z’s assertiveness, which contrasts with their own early experiences in the workforce. “A millennial or Gen X candidate who had trouble finding a job might think, ‘You should be grateful,’” says Craig Rowley, a Korn Ferry senior client partner specializing in retailers.

To some degree, experts suspect time and experience will reduce the generation gap, as they have in the past. But for now, experts say, management should try to be as open-minded as possible and create opportunities for young talent to give and receive feedback. Smart firms may want to consider additional management training in this area. “Companies need to start listening,” says Radhika Papandreou, managing partner in Korn Ferry’s Travel, Hospitality and Leisure practice. But the onus is not entirely on management. Experts say Gen Z workers should not hesitate to communicate and ask for help. Collaboration is necessary to foster an environment of shared beliefs about an ideal workplace. “Blindly applying one set of norms across the board and asking people to adjust is not the right answer,” adds Haynes.

For his part, Rowley advises experienced managers to remain empathetic and reflect on their early careers, “Remember what you were like when you were 20, and what you wanted to know.”


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