Managing Gen Z is like working with people from a ‘different country’

October 10, 2022, 4:25 PM UTC
Mature businesswoman assists younger worker with project.
Younger workers aren't entitled or lazy, but managers need to understand how to tailor their approach.
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As more members of Gen Z enter the workforce, it can feel like battle lines are being drawn between younger employees and more established workers.

Managers routinely call this generation “entitled,” complaining that they can’t complete simple tasks. Meanwhile, Gen Z is frustrated that employers are often merely paying lip service to issues like mental health support, pay equity, corporate responsibility, and diversity. 

Gen Z may be facing similar hurdles to the ones millennials did when they started to enter the workforce (it feels like every new generation is called “lazy” by older workers), but they’re also facing even bigger challenges amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rapidly evolving work culture, says Lindsey Pollak, a leading career and workplace expert.

“Everyone has been through a different pandemic, and a different experience,” Pollak tells Fortune. “With Gen Z, I think we have to acknowledge that they were enduring a pandemic at a very specific point in their lives and in their careers. And that means probably more well-being support; that means often being more explicit about expectations.”

Gen Z attitudes that may come across as lazy or entitled to a more seasoned worker are actually just different values and different approaches. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of taking the time to teach Gen Z employees about things that might have been considered “common sense” for other generations, says Pollak, who recently published Recalculating: Navigate Your Career Through the Changing World of Work. Tasks like making small talk with a client or writing a professional email is a no-brainer for those who have been employed for years. But many in this youngest generation didn’t grow up doing those things, or have been out of practice during the pandemic. 

“It’s like each generation is from a different country. You don’t speak the same language and you don’t have the same customs,” Pollak says. You may know how to do your job here in the U.S., but if your boss sent you to Dubai, you would probably have to change a few things because it’s a different culture. You’re smart, but there are some differences that would require adjustments and learning along the way.

In some respects, this is what Gen Z is undertaking right now. 

Set expectations and have in-depth conversations

In practical terms, that means those who work with and manage Gen Z employees likely need to be patient and detailed in their requests. “You have to remember to ask or educate people about the things that you expect them to be able to do at work,” Pollak says. “It’s just understanding that the ‘common sense’ for a skill set might be different and not judging that, but acknowledging it’s just growing up in a different environment.”

Pollak says she recently worked with a financial firm where management was complaining that Gen Z workers abused the company’s paid time off (PTO) policy. But when Pollak reviewed the rules, they simply said employees were entitled to take an appropriate amount of time off.

That’s a big red flag in Pollak’s eyes. “Your definition of appropriate might be different than my definition of appropriate,” she explains. “You have to level-set what expectations are. Unwritten rules are unfair.” And you can’t make assumptions that everyone understands implicit codes of conduct. 

When it comes to conversations around working from home, managers aren’t going to get anywhere by telling a Gen Z employee that they can’t do so because they’re less productive. They know they can get their work done because everyone did it for two years, Pollak says. 

Instead, the conversation needs to be a bit more in-depth. Maybe it’s phrased as: We’d like workers to come into the office because the team is going to have a meeting and the brainstorm could be more effective with everyone in person. Or perhaps it’s about going to get to know your coworkers personally.

“We have to be more explicit about the benefits of an in-person or hybrid workplace,” Pollak says. That’s likely good advice for communicating with older workers around return-to-work plans as well. 

“Gen Z are not fundamentally different human beings. They have grown up in a different country and culture. So don’t look at Gen Zers as different people, look at the culture in which they have grown up,” Pollak says. 

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