Managing Expectations: Working with a Younger Generation of Staff
How to Work with Generation Y
Lawrence Horwich explains what interests Gen-Y employees and how to create an environment within your firm to engage their interests. Find out more. Â
As the managing member of a mid-size accounting firm in downtown Chicago, a challenging task I regularly face is engaging our staff members who make up a group known as â€śGeneration Yâ€ť (commonly defined as young men and women born in or after 1982).
I was born in 1960, so I am technically at the very end of the Baby Boomer generation and at the very beginning of Generation X.Â My grandfather on my motherâ€™s side was a first-generation American, who was born in 1899.Â I remember hearing stories of how he lost his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929 and having lived during the Great Depression.Â This changed both my grandfatherâ€™s and grandmotherâ€™s behaviors for the remainder of their lives (both having lived well into their 80s). F or instance, every time I went to a restaurant for breakfast with my grandmother, she would order toast with jelly.Â The toast was usually accompanied by a few individually wrapped servings of jelly. Whatever jelly servings she didnâ€™t use would always end up in her purse to take home.Â After she passed away, my family (when clearing out her belongings) opened the refrigerator drawer and found hundreds of these unused jellies. It wasnâ€™t that she needed them for survival, just that she couldnâ€™t bear the thought of having them go to waste.
My wife and her siblings are first-generation Americans.Â Most of her elder family members were either Holocaust survivors or perished during that time period.Â When her parents came to America (with pennies in their pockets), they felt fortunate to be able to have any job that could provide three meals a day.
While it is understandable that staff under 30 years of age hasnâ€™t experienced this traumatic level of life-changing events, they still donâ€™t seem to be as affected by those things they have experienced.Â After all, they all experienced September 11â€”one of lifeâ€™s most dramatic events.Â A Harris Interactive Poll conducted one year after the attacks indicated that American students remained optimistic about reaching future goals and did not have increased fears of a personal experience with terrorism (see www.harrisinteractive. com).Â Compare this with my generationâ€™s constant fears about nuclear extinction, an AIDS epidemic, or any of a number of other worries.
A recent article in a local newspaper, entitled â€śA Downside to High Teen Self-Esteem,â€ť explains that â€śâ€¦ young people have been praised so much that some flail at their first taste of criticism or failure.Â Others develop a keen sense of privilege, believing theyâ€™ll coast into a golden future regardless of their actual talents, accomplishments or willingness to work.â€ť (By John Keilman, Chicago Tribune, July 4, 2010).Â Is it our fault as parents that we wanted to give our children everything and that they have reached young adulthood without understanding what it means to work for what they want?
The best way I have found to approach a connection with Generation Y staff members is an attempt to understand what makes them tick.Â Iâ€™ve discovered they:
- Embrace technology (a necessity rather than a luxury) place a premium on having fun
- Are optimistic and extremely confident about their future survival
- Adore music
- Want instant (and individual) feedback
- Want to mentor others
To connect to these characteristics, our firm has instituted several programs.Â One such event is our monthly â€śLunch with the Managing Partner,â€ť at which I meet with all non-partner staff in the conference room for a firm- provided lunch, followed up by a short video and discussion about a range of topics generally chosen by me and occasionally suggested by staff.Â At the conclusion of the meeting, I hand out a personal copy of a book of the month to everyone in the office (including the partners) to support the chosen message.
Our most recent book was Fish Tales by Stephen C. Lundin, Ph.D., John Christensen, and Harry Paul (Hyperion Books,Â Â©2002), providing real-life work stories about having fun in the workplace. The day following our meeting, our firm administrator bought a gong and centrally located it in the office to be rung upon some extraordinary event stemming from the actions of a staff member. What is important to understand is that all of the staff benefited from this book, not just the Generation Y people with whom I was attempting to connect.Â Our firm administrator is of the Baby Boomer generation.
Another program we instituted is an attempt to regularly have a staff intern (i.e., a college student during the semester or on summer break). While economically we may not always need this person, the benefits of having our younger staff members placed in supervisory roles are invaluable.Â For instance, this confidence building has enhanced their performance in dealing with clients and in representing the firm (both in public speaking and new-client development).Â Mentoring these interns is a great way for young staff to develop these skills.
Approximately three years ago, we initiated a summer program (from Memorial Day to Labor Day) allowing all staff an opportunity to work flex days.Â Once every two weeks, every staff member can elect to take one of the two Fridays during the cycle as a flex day off.Â To make up for the missing time, they must work an additional seven hours during the nine other work days in the cycle.Â In order to ensure adequate staffing to meet client needs, no more than 50 percent of professional and administrative staff may be off on any one Friday.Â We let the staff work it out amongst themselves as to which half is off at any one time.
Following salaries, benefits and office rent, technology is our firmâ€™s largest expenditure.Â As a mid-size firm, it is often difficult to compete with the resources of a larger organization.Â However, technology advancements have allowed our firm to increase efficiencies and technical expertise.Â Our younger staff relies on as much technology as we can give them.Â We developed a web site and hired a marketing executive to assist in design and content.Â In coordination with our younger staff, this marketing executive developed tools for easier searching capabilities.Â Also, our staff suggested we develop a firm Facebook and LinkedIn presence, and we are in the process of creating these pages. We developed an individually designed firm intranet, where we can communicate with each other, as well as store useful administrative and professional forms used in our everyday life.
In addition to our tax and accounting practice being completely paperless, we also have document-management software to store all of our client files.Â Every staff member can log into our servers remotely using an Internet connection. We have in-house webinars (both at individual desks and in collective groups) to meet our continuing professional education (CPE) requirements.Â We have video chat and conference-call capabilities. Technology is an extremely important part of our culture and connects our younger staff to the firm.
Despite all of our programs to connect with the Y-ers, the recent economic downturn seems to have had the greatest effect on their attitudes.Â Prior to this downturn, they had only known a world of prosperity and wealth. They only knew bull markets and historically low unemployment figures.Â For the first time in their lives, they faced the real possibility of losing their jobs or a reduction in their salary and/or their benefits.Â Suddenly, friends with high-paying Wall Street investment banking jobs are calling them looking for jobs. For the first time, this Y generation is facing economic uncertainty, and it scares them.
While it is still too early to determine whether this will have significant long-term effects on their behavior, in the short term it seems to have minimized their feelings that some better opportunity is out there.Â In a nutshell, they seem to better appreciate what they do have rather than what they do not. In the meantime, I will continue to collect the extra jellies from the breakfast table.
Lawrence (Larry) A. Horwich, CPA, CVA, ABV, is the managing member of Horwich Coleman Levin, LLC in Chicago, IL. He is the former Chairman of the Illinois CPA Societyâ€™s Management of an Accounting Practice (MAP) Committee and a current member of their Ethics Committee. Larry can be reached at (312) 341-0100, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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