Respecting Gen X and Gen Y in the Workplace

There’s a frustration growing among employees in their 20s and 30s who find they must deal with bosses and peers who don’t respect them. Perhaps no one asks their opinion or confers with them on work-related issues. In some cases, they see the disdain in people’s eyes or hear condescending tones. What are the specific generational issues? Several recent studies have contributed to our growing understanding of what is or what might be going on. Here are some things for leaders to think about.

  1. Avoid using a parenting stance. In teams of mixed ages you will almost always find someone who is parent, grandparent or aunt/uncle of a Gen X or Yer. The problem is that having a family relationship with someone of this age can impact how you view all people in this age group. Without consciously doing so, a leader or peer can begin to use a parenting or “elder” tone to speak to a younger team member. Specific communication changes may be: Talking slower or with exaggerated care to ensure the listener is tracking along ok. Or peppering your conversation with qualifiers like, “You probably weren’t born yet when that happened.” or “That was how it used to be done – you probably haven’t seen it before.”, or similar phrases that make the receiver feel inadequate, uninformed or just plain stupid. Another bad habit is to point out the obvious “You’ll need to order more paper” or interfere in non-work related matters, “The cafeteria sells more than french fries, you should try eating something nutritious at lunch.”
  2. Change things to accommodate younger team members. If a job requires keyboarding skills, you don’t have to insist they type using the traditional method. Many two-fingered typists are fast and accurate. You can loosen the rules of traditional grammar and spelling for internal messaging/text messages that don’t go to customers. You can revisit your dress code policy to ensure it’s keeping up with the times (if you talk about culottes it isn’t.) Be especially careful of banning access to the Internet, since studies show its use – even for personal reasons – boosts morale and productivity, and workers between 16-24 especially need to stay connected online.
  3. Don’t fuss about the ever-present handheld. The dividing line between work and personal time is blurring, especially with the advent of inexpensive portable devices. People can text and phone from anywhere  – and they are. Let’s be fair, we’ve been sending work home with people for years, and now we can see that it works both ways. If your employee needs to check on a sick child, arrange time for a car repair, and confirm a dinner appointment – they are going to do it from work. Unless there is a safety issue, don’t make a fuss. You’ll only send them underground (or to the washroom many times a day.) To keep people focused, talk about their responsibilities in terms of outcomes and deadlines. If they clearly know what they need to accomplish, and when it needs to be done, you can relax. Pay attention to their work and don’t be distracted by anything else. 
  4. Value and reward non-leader positions. Many Gen Xs are now holding mortgages and raising their families. They have a lot of responsibility at home and they are getting tired of waiting for the baby boomers to vacate some of the better-paying jobs. In fact, we’ve flattened organizations, removed layers and asked people to be more self-managed. All great for efficiency, cost and very appealing to young generations. Ensure your reward system has kept pace with changing structures. Does your organization still pay more to team leaders than to the self-managed technical specialist beneath them? Less than half of younger employees are interested in a management role (we haven’t made it look appealing, apparently). If you want to keep them, and keep them motivated, you need to value all their ways of contributing.
  5. Answer the why questions without hesitation or rancor. Research finds that Gen Y workers especially like to ask why, and they are curious for two reasons. They want to understand context (the big picture) and how they fit in to the overall structure and the world as a whole. Their easy access to all parts of the globe has given them a sense of connection to others, even if it is virtual rather than face-to-face. Spend time explaining the big picture and help to give meaning to what they are doing. The second reason they ask why is to see if they agree with your reason. Many Gen X and Gen Y children were involved in decision-making in their families at a young age. They would like to be involved at work. As a manager this type of questioning can feel like a challenge to your authority – and it is. Those of us raised in a democracy expect that authority is earned not bestowed. Be prepared to explain, and even defend, your directions.
  6. Try a new way of mentoring. The best ways to mentor and train your younger team members isn’t with storytelling about how you would do it, or the barriers you’ve overcome. A lot has changed and frankly Gen X and Gen Y are doing everything they can to take a different career path then the generations before. There are two ways to share your wisdom and make your learning point. In times of crisis or overwhelm, roll up your sleeves and get to work –beside them as a peer. This is respectful and also transfers knowledge. Other than that, keep your door open. Be available to answer specific questions as they come up. And don’t roll your eyes. As the saying goes:  The only stupid question is the one that is not asked.
  7. 7.      Finally, don’t lay it back onto your young team members if they show courage and initiative enough to say they’d like more respect. It’s too easy to say “You need to speak up more,.” or “Don’t take it personally.” Team facilitators know that many people who speak up in groups are shut down, often in subtle ways with body language signals. If a leader undermines a person’s viewpoint often, they get tired of offering it. Your team’s group norms, even your whole culture, may be inherently negative toward youth and inexperience. Today would be a good day to ask your Gen X and Gen Y staff for specific ways that they would like to be respected.

Copyright 2010 by Epiphany at Work

Permission is granted to reprint or redistribute with attribution to Jill Malleck at

Jill Malleck is an Organizational Development consultant and Integral Coach who works with leaders and their teams to accelerate positive change, ease transitions and make change stick. [email protected] or (519)894-1198

2 thoughts on “Respecting Gen X and Gen Y in the Workplace

  1. Jill – loved this posting. Many of the X and Y generation need leaders that read articles like this. I have asked many peers of mine through LinkedIn to forward this article on to such a leader and I’ve sent it on to about 100 I know too.

    Thank you for putting this kind of information out there. Those of us coming up appreciate it!!

    Paul Nazareth

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