Supervising Gen Y Employees

The newest members of the workforce may seem entitled, but here's how to understand and effectively manage them.
July 18, 2011

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The disapproving phrase “kids these days” is probably as old as language itself. The Greatest Generation was critical of boomers, boomers struggled to understand Gen X, and now everyone is perplexed by Gen Y (or Millenials), born roughly from 1980 to 2000. Here’s a sampling of comments about the newest members of the workforce:

  • “They need instant gratification. They have been paid to clean their rooms, for good report cards and for household chores, and they generally don’t want to do anything without reward.”
  • “They are dedicated like boomers, but they won't die on the sword for their jobs. They witnessed their parents doing that, only to be laid off.”
  • “I enjoy them. They don’t have definite views about how the world should be ordered. They are open to some disorder. The challenges are their fierce independence and occasional lack of respect for those who have more experience.”
  • “What I notice is a sense of entitlement. A lot have grown up thinking they are above average and special, while I think, ‘In this economy, be happy you have a job.’”

Are these generalizations true? Well, sort of, according to researcher Bruce Tulgan, who wrote the book on the topic (Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y, Jossey-Bass, 2009). Tulgan has been interviewing young people in the workforce since 1993.

“Accidents of history shape each generation,” said Tulgan in a recent phone interview. Among those shaping Gen Y are rapid globalization, immediate information access, quick invention and quicker obsolescence. For them, the world is a small and interconnected place where instantaneous response is a given. Gen Ys had deeply involved parents. As a result, they are confident and independent. They grew up in a more diverse world and are comfortable with difference. “They customize everything—their bodies, their networks and their relationships,” Tulgan said.

Sounds like a tough crew to supervise, but Tulgan has gleaned many ideas from his workforce interviews. He emphasized four during our discussion:

Show them you care

Gen Ys’ upbringing prepared them to expect involved leaders. “Gen Y employees see managers as authority figures engaged in helping them,” explained Tulgan. “You must be deeply engaged and have a relationship, so you can give feedback.” Though Gen Ys are often stereotyped as being fragile, said Tulgan, they are actually quite tough, provided “they feel supported rather than blindsided by feedback on performance.” Tulgan pointed out that the Marine Corps succeeds in working with Gen Ys by providing constant evaluation. “The more closely you operate like a coach or teacher, the better. Pair them with a mentor.” The payoff is quick resolution of problems and high performance.

Give them structure and boundaries

Gen Ys ask for flexibility of schedule, dress code and location. The combination of informality and expectations may come across to baby-boomer bosses as entitlement. Yet, said Tulgan, Gen Ys are accustomed to schedules and rules, having been enrolled in numerous structured activities from an early age. Tulgan advised that you decide exactly what’s important, spell it out clearly and teach them what matters to you. “Let them know where they can be creative and where they must follow your standard operating procedures.”

Help them keep score

Gen Ys were tested heavily throughout school. They expect rapid, direct feedback. In addition, said Tulgan, “The model of success has changed. They know they can’t afford vague, distant promises from you. They want to know exactly how they are doing now so they can make quick course corrections. Give them one task at a time. Keep score from the beginning.” If you can’t figure out a way to keep score and measure their work, ask them to come up with a system (subject to your approval). Keep track through regular conversations. Have them self-monitor using project plans, checklists and activity logs.

Negotiate rewards in very small increments

Gen Ys have been taught to think of themselves as customers—what Tulgan called “short-term transactional logic.” Gen Ys have also seen that no employment is safe. Therefore, it is smart for them to extract what they can as quickly as possible. Set solid basic standards about what’s essential and nonnegotiable. Then, to the degree possible, negotiate small immediate rewards for specific extra accomplishments. (As in, “Get this done today, and go home an hour early tomorrow.”) This gives Gen Ys the feedback they want about performance, as well as rewards that are meaningful to them. And it gives you the productivity you need.

Bruce Tulgan’s website,, has a host of free resources that will help you learn more about managing Gen Ys.

Vincent Hyman is a St. Paul, Minnesota–based writer and editor.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FedEx.

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