The Communication Divide

In a new column, Korn Ferry’s Chloe Carr offers four tips for effectively communicating with the newest members of the workforce—Generation Z.

Chloe Carr

Associate/Communications Specialist, Korn Ferry Institute

As Generation Z continues to join the workforce, it’s important to pay attention to what we say to our new colleagues—and how we say it.

Younger generations have been reinventing language for as long as we can remember. And with the digital access we have now, it is happening faster and more frequently than ever. Not unexpectedly, the invention of new slang can cause riffs in the workplace with previous generations. But this tension seems to be more pronounced between Gen Z and everyone else.

Today, Gen Z talent (that is, anyone born between 1997 and 2012) is entering the labor pool in large numbers, bringing with them new skills, new perspectives, new values, and yes, new communication styles. More tenured colleagues may be baffled by shorthand that is second nature to their newer counterparts, while Gen Z employees face a challenge all their own: wrapping their brains around corporate lingo.

In the office, terms like “herding cats,” “KPIs,” and “core competency” are as commonplace as accidental reply-alls and pre-meeting small talk. But to talent new to the workforce, this jargon may sound like gibberish. In fact, LinkedIn and Duolingo surveyed over 8,000 professionals across 8 countries and found that 58% feel corporate vernacular is overused amongst their coworkers. On the other hand, Gen Z’s expressions like “smh,” “ofc,” and “IYKYK” may be just as confusing and even seem unprofessional to their managers and colleagues.

Of course, every new generation entering the workforce has had to adapt to prevailing jargon. And every seasoned generation has had to adapt to the evolving culture. But never before have we seen this divide play out for a live audience.

Thanks to social media, professionals of any age can air their grievances without thinking twice. Scroll through any one of the major apps, and you’re bound to watch a Gen Z user poke fun at “bland” corporate speak or a Baby Boomer lament over not understanding their “entitled coworkers.” Read between the lines, though, and you’ll find a dynamic as old as work itself. Yet, with five generations working together for the first time in history, the need to bridge the communication gap has never been more crucial.

Consider this: 60% of workers surveyed by LinkedIn and Duolingo say they have to figure out jargon all on their own, and that the process causes stress and slows down productivity. It is challenging enough to join a new company straight out of college, especially when you’re trying to learn the expectations of a new culture. It is even harder when you cannot understand the terms that your coworkers use in this unknown environment.

However, overcoming this communication divide is possible. It starts with understanding and educating each other, instead of excluding each other with unfamiliar verbiage. But to move the needle on this, we need empathy, adaptability, and collaboration from all workers, regardless of generation or tenure. Here are four ways to bridge the gap.

1. Educate and explain terms that may be unfamiliar or confusing—to either party.

If a manager assigns a task to a Gen Z employee and uses a lot of jargon, they should also provide a clear and concise explanation of what they mean and what they expect. Similarly, if a Gen Z employee uses a slang word or an acronym that their colleague may not understand, they should be ready to offer a definition and provide some context. If still unclear, both colleagues should explain what they understood to make sure that they are on the same page. Both sides can then avoid misunderstandings, frustration, and resentment, and learn from each other's vocabulary. Plus, this transparency and openness can do more than mitigate communication issues; Korn Ferry's experts say that transparency supports trust, engagement, and better organizational outcomes.

2. Use plain speech instead of relying on buzzwords, cliches, or slang.

Using plain language can make communication clearer, more direct, and more authentic, and reduce the risk of alienating or offending anyone. Instead of saying "Let's leverage our core competencies to create a win-win situation for all stakeholders,” a manager could say, "Let's use our strengths to make a good deal for everyone involved.” Likewise, instead of writing "idk, this project is lowkey sus, ngl,” a Gen Z employee could write, "I don't know, this project is kind of suspicious, to be honest.” Clear communication can connect people across all generations, building rapport and trust.

3. Adapt your communication styles to the incoming generation of workers.

Gen Z employees often prefer texting, emailing, or chatting over phone calls or meetings because they find them more efficient and convenient. They may also use emojis, gifs, or memes to express themselves, finding them more fun and engaging. It’s important to remember that Gen Z grew up online, where interactions happen in seconds. Like a stenographer writing shorthand, emojis, gifs, and memes became quick, easy ways for Gen Z kids to get their thoughts across. And thanks to the internet, they had even newer modes of communication; where older generations were met with busy signals, Gen Z employees now leave each other on read. (At least they’re not bringing back the carrier pigeon.) Instead of dismissing these methods as inappropriate, their colleagues should try to understand and appreciate their benefits—like how Gen Z can connect and relate to their coworkers.

4. Learn from your differences and use them to your advantage.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the spread of remote work, and despite an increase in return-to-office policies, it doesn’t look to be stopping anytime soon—it’s estimated 32.6 million Americans will be remote by 2025. While many colleagues had to find creative ways to communicate, Gen Z had a head start; they’re used to developing and maintaining friends virtually. So, as more and more companies shift to hybrid and fully remote structures, their leaders could learn from their younger employees on how to stay connected without being in the same place. Of course, Gen Z employees are not off the hook. As they acclimate to the corporate world, they should be willing to adjust their communication style when necessary. This could mean knowing when to use formal or informal language, when to be concise or detailed, and when to be in serious mode. Seeking feedback and guidance from mentors and managers could help Gen Z better understand the norms and expectations of their workplace.

The communication divide between Gen Z and other generations in the workplace is not insurmountable. Work is not the place for extremely casual language or confusing outdated jargon; it requires both sides to try to understand, respect, and accommodate each other. By working to meet each other halfway, we can communicate and collaborate better, and create a more inclusive, productive work environment that, in the end, benefits everyone.