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Handling Gen-Z staff? Hire a 'generational consultant'

Companies do well on campuses when representatives discuss their philanthropic efforts - millennials and Gen Zers are attracted to companies with corporate social responsibility.

ON YOUR first day at a new job, do you: a) drink an Ensure and hang up photos of your grandchildren while sitting quietly at your desk awaiting instruction; b) arrive at work before the boss, in order to make a good impression, but have difficulty figuring out how to turn on your computer; c) wear a Sonic Youth T-shirt under your suit, kicking yourself for working for "the man"; d) send a picture of your new participation trophies to the group text; or e) FaceTime in from your couch while recording the meeting to upload to TikTok later?

Answer honestly: Your response will help your workplace determine which generation you're from, what sort of worker you might be and how to get you in the door at the company.

For the first time, five distinct generations of employees - traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation Xers, millennials and Generation Zers - coexist in the workplace, all gathering around the same water cooler or washing their dishes (or leaving them for someone else to wash) in the same communal office sink.

In 2018, more than 4 per cent of Americans age 85 or older were still working; the millennial generation makes up about half of the American work force. The culture clash rooted in the vast age differences among colleagues - who in some industries, like retail or service, can be competing for the same jobs - is amplified by young people arriving with a digital skill set that their managers often need but might not have.

Across industries, hiring managers and recruiters have had to fine-tune their strategies to attract a new hiring pool: both because of the sheer number of potential workers and because no one else can figure out how to embed a GIF.

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Enter the generational consultants, the astrologers of the workplace: making broad assessments of a person - and millions like them - based on when they were born and advising hiring managers and human resources accordingly.

A primer: Growing up after - or through - the Great Depression and World War II made traditionalists comfortable with sacrifice, hard work, rules and authority; baby boomers were likely to privilege their careers above all else, competing for the big title and the corner office, leaving their personal lives at the door. Next came the 65 million people in Generation X, latchkey kids who came of age during the 24-hour news cycle and were disenchanted because of it.

Boomers raised millennials, who were coddled by open communication, collaboration and casualness; they love team meetings, regular feedback and calling parents by their first names. Xers are raising tech-savvy Zers, who are pragmatic, driven and competitive digital natives - they're on Snapchat, not Facebook.

Imagine putting all these people together on a project. The multigenerational workplace has turned this sort of consulting into a growing - and lucrative - industry. David and Jonah Stillman, a father/son, Gen X/Gen Z team, operate a consulting business, Gen Guru, that tries to explain the differences - and expectations - that the younger work force brings.

Jonah says he would never fill out an online application if he could help it: he'd prefer to submit a video, or ideally e-mail the hiring manager, upload his résumé to the company's Dropbox or Google Drive, then grab coffee with someone who might be on his team, or even the CEO, to ensure that he can connect with the people in charge.

Once he got an offer, orientation and skill building wouldn't have to happen in person - he could watch a YouTube video, or better yet, he could just jump headfirst into the process and learn on the job, being encouraged to work through the problem himself instead of being told a specific way to do it.

On his first day, he'd like to be welcomed into his office as an individual, so perhaps there'd be a customised sign waiting for him on his desk - if he even has a desk, because, as a member of the "phigital" generation, he doesn't discern between physical and digital spaces, and assumes he'll have the ability to work remotely. He'd expect to have access to his higher-ups for the occasional brain pick, and perhaps even set up a two-way mentorship, because he has things he can teach, too.

Jonah's not insane: He's just 20, and while he has never applied for a job, this is how he would like it to go if he did. And if companies want to hire people like him - the 68 million Generation Zers who have or will one day enter the work force - they may have no other choice.

These young people are direct conduits to current trends and technologies, able to explain, say, how to download the Gmail app or what, exactly, a "hot girl summer" is. This "techno-viral" fluency goes beyond understanding pop culture, though: Brands use this to attract both a young work force and a young consumer base.

Lindsey Pollak, author of The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace, thinks generational identity is not dissimilar to Myers-Briggs results or a personality assessment based on birth order: a way to understand how individuals see the world based on the events or circumstances that have shaped them. In the workplace, that can include things like how many years a baby boomer worked before e-mail existed or how many years (or months) millennials expect to work before receiving a promotion.

Pollak said of a consulting project she had with a bank: Its young tellers were having difficulty with the general phone line, struggling with the variety of questions they could receive from callers. Some of them didn't know they were allowed to put a customer on hold. Managers couldn't figure out why - until Pollak pointed out that many Gen Zers didn't grow up with landlines and had never answered a phone call not intended for them. They were experiencing a type of culture shock.

"Everybody doesn't have the same common knowledge," she said. "It's important to think about the experiences that people have or don't have before you judge them to be incompetent or lazy."

When the Virgin hotel chain began planning to open a new hotel in New York, Clio Knowles, the vice-president of People (its rebranded human resources division), knew that she wanted to hire a number of Gen Zers - particularly college students - to be the backbone of the work force: The jobs, which included positions like working the front desk and bartending, were fun, public-facing and easily made part time.

The Stillmans suggested Ms Knowles's team embrace personalisation, a deeply valued trait among Gen Zers, in the company's offer and onboarding process. David wanted Virgin to follow in the footsteps of Iowa State University, which informs applicants of their acceptance via a homey but hokey comedy video, in which the president of the college and CNN anchors announce the news with dropped-down banners and fake chyrons bearing the students' names, celebrating their acceptance. Ms Knowles loved it.

David also emphasised that he believes this generation has a different approach to the traditional professional ladder of high school, college or trade school, then finding a job. He suggested the company start offering field trips and career days with high school students, in order to catch kids who weren't considering college at all.

His polling data showed young people would also find the company appealing if they could be open about their "side hustles", or additional streams of income generated outside a 9-to-5 job. (Think driving for Uber, walking dogs or selling clothes on eBay.)

The Stillmans had just completed a national poll of 1,000 fully employed Gen Zers and found that more than 50 per cent had side jobs.

Ms Knowles' team already embraced employees' hobbies - hiring their bands to perform at the hotel, or having a concierge with art skills design a piece of merchandise, but David suggested that they create a programme that allowed employees to teach their peers skills that they'd picked up in their side hustles.

Years earlier, Virgin had contracted with David to advise them about the platform, when the company found that millennials weren't engaging with the service as much as they had hoped. David understood the problem immediately: The results of a recent survey he had created showed that millennials prefer to communicate in symbols rather than words, to give a thumbs-up rather than say "I like this." He told Knowles exactly what the service was missing: emojis. The company has used them ever since.

Companies use these insights to seem less square, taking cues to foster culturally diverse and collaborative environments (millennials expect a diverse workplace), promoting unlimited vacation policies and flexible work schedules (Gen Zers love a work-life balance) and keeping their social media channels up-to-date (both generations love Instagram).

Aram Lulla, a manager at the recruiting firm Lucas Group, has found that if millennials are proud of their workplace, they'll start to organically promote it in their networks, so he encourages clients to use their social media channels to demonstrate what it's like to work at the organisation itself, through videos and photos.

Ally Van Deuren, a consultant who focuses on college recruitment, finds that companies do well on campuses when representatives discuss their philanthropic efforts - millennials and Gen Zers are attracted to companies with corporate social responsibility.

Ms Knowles - a Gen Xer, but whom David describes as "generationally fluid" - is steadfast in the company's need to find new ways to attract talent. "You can't just keep doing the same things that worked for one generation," she said.

Millennials are collaborative, so they have open corporate work spaces to accommodate that. Gen Zers like to try out various jobs within the same company, so they created a programme in which that's possible. People hate filling out forms, so they axed the application and created a quiz to make it less stuffy.

Rather than starting with the traditional suit-and-a-handshake interview process, Ms Knowles and her team enacted "speed-date interviewing," in which applicants meet three different interviewers for three minutes each, as a way to discern who moves on to the next round. "We really tried to build our programmes and our approach to meet those millennial expectations or desires," she said. And they'll do the same with Gen Zers.

This sort of generational programming, though, seems more targeted to what the young work force supposedly wants, but not necessarily what it needs - fixes to some of the deeper, structural issues that millennials and Generation Zers encounter when they join the economy.

While the nationwide effective average minimum wage is US$11.80, the average American millennial has a net worth of less than US$8,000, and 17 per cent of Gen Zers live below the poverty line.

In 2018, people between the ages of 19 and 29 had more than US$1 trillion in debt, most of it from student loans. The influence that the young work force has on recruiting and retention efforts will only increase over time, but the feel-good benefits that have arisen in response - corporate philanthropy, personalised welcome kits, managerial feedback - still ignore the brutal realities of capitalism. What emoji can you use to signify housing instability? NYTIMES

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