Generation Gaps


By Kathryn Tyler January 1, 2008

HR Magazine, January 2008 Millennials may be out of touch with the basics of workplace behavior.

Newly hired millennial employees at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Va., were creating an impression, and it wasn't good. Some were showing up for work in "flip-flops and revealing clothing," says Lori Ann Roth, Ph.D., director of training and development. "The gentlemen were wearing jeans with boxers showing; the ladies were wearing lowcut jeans with thongs showing and spaghetti strap low-cut tank tops." As a result, Roth continues, "we received many requests [from managers] for a class we call Professionalism at Work. One of the issues covered in the class includes dressing as an office professional and not as a student."

GMU took a proactive approach to integrating millennials into its workforce, an approach that other HR professionals could adapt, if necessary, for the younger employees in their organizations. The millennial generation, also known as Generation Y and the Net Generation, consists of 80 million people in the United States between ages 8 and 29. They have been exposed to more technological advances than any previous generation. Most do not remember life without pagers, cell phones, computers or personal electronic entertainment.

As millennials flow into the workforce, they present HR professionals with unforeseen training needs. Unlike new hires of previous generations, who may have benefited from training in diversity or technical matters, experts say, millennials need other types of training-- in professional behavior, for example, or in basic writing, confidentiality issues, critical thinking, or how to give and receive constructive criticism.

The Syllabus

Millennials generally account for the majority in a group of new hires, so training in the ways of the workplace during new-hire orientation can be useful for such groups. Among the topics:

  • Dressing professionally. Some managers say guidance on appropriate work attire is the training need that surprises them the most. "I did a talk for a donation center recently," says Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University. "The manager said she was interviewing for a receptionist position. Two young ladies showed up for the interview, and she sent them both home because they were showing too much cleavage." Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before (Free Press, 2006), says: "You need to explain [how inappropriate attire] hurts your business and the way co-workers relate to each other. It's distracting to other people when they're looking at your navel all day."
  • Professional etiquette and good customer service. Raise millennials' awareness of how different behaviors are perceived, says Arlene Arnsparger, coauthor of 4genR8tns: Succeeding with Colleagues, Cohorts and Customers (Claire Raines Associates, 2007). Millennials are good at multi-tasking, she says. "It doesn't occur to them that it could be offensive. If you're wearing your ear buds hooked to your iPod while talking to me, as a customer, I assume you're ignoring me." Arnsparger recommends providing millennials with training in cell phone and technology etiquette.

    When and where, for example, is it appropriate to make and receive cell phone calls? Are there times when it is permissible to wear an iPod while working? Is it OK to surf the Internet while talking on the phone? How much time should millennials allow for a response after sending a colleague an e-mail or an instant message (IM)? Issues have arisen when millennials have expected an instant reply to a message. Arnsparger advises telling millennials clearly "what is expected of them and what they can expect from others." For example, GMU's Professionalism at Work course covers e-mail and instant-messaging etiquette in the business world. "We give the class participants five different examples of an e-mail, and they choose which is appropriate," Roth says.

    Lisa J. Oliver, vice president for training and quality assurance at PRC, a customer relationship branding company with 14,000 employees, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., recommends coaching millennials on customerservice skills such as "how to build rapport, effective word choices and loyalty statements. For example, 'We appreciate your business. ... Thank you for calling. Please call again.' "
  • Written communication. Many millennials are so accustomed to using shorthand for text messaging--B/C for "because" or BTW for "by the way"--that they may not remember how to spell words correctly. In business, Twenge says, "you can't spell 'you are' 'u r.' Some people might be insulted when you tell them this, but for many it needs to be spelled out. I've gotten e-mail from students with spellings like that. Preface it by saying, 'You may already know this, but IM shorthand doesn't give a good first impression, even in e-mail.' "Young people may be surprised to learn that for a lot of older people--even people in their 30s--the impression you give when you use shorthand is illiteracy. I'm not impressed with a student when he uses that spelling. When I hire for my research lab, the one [applicant] who spells correctly is rare and often the person who gets hired."

    Oliver agrees. Hence, PRC also offers employees a course titled Business Communication and Writing.

    In teaching millennials to write well, Twenge says, touch on the subject of brevity. For a generation accustomed to text-messaging, training for brevity may seem unnecessary, she says. "But I've noticed a lot of millennials' e-mails give irrelevant and personal information. They don't get to the point until the second page. For instance, if a report to a client is late, apologizing for it being late is good. Saying there were unanticipated delays is OK. Saying the delay was because you had to go to the doctor … isn't."
  • Confidentiality. Members of previous generations understood unspoken taboos against discussing salaries and performance appraisal scores in public, but millennials blog their innermost secrets on MySpace and post videos of themselves doing anything on YouTube. "Millennials tend to blur the public and private," says Twenge. As a result, they may not realize others' needs for privacy. Companies with a lot of proprietary information need to be especially cautious and clear about boundaries--and about the consequences for failing to adhere to them.

    Millennials may have "a more casual attitude in using the Internet for sending confidential information with little awareness of legal ramifications or sensitive issues," says Linda Harber, associate vice president for human resources and payroll at GMU.
  • Accepting and giving criticism. Millennials "did not learn how to take criticism well," Twenge says. "In education in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a trend not to correct children's mistakes to preserve their self-esteem. This generation got a lot of praise and not much criticism. Managers have commented to me, somewhat shocked, about young employees bursting into tears in their offices because they aren't getting enough praise.

    "Praise is a good thing, and you don't want criticism to be too harsh. But young people have to learn how to deal with criticism."Moreover, millennials need to learn how to give constructive criticism without becoming caustic. "We know from our studies [that] narcissism is up,"Twenge says. "We know people who are narcissistic are significantly more aggressive than those who aren't. If there's any hint of insult or rejection, [millennials] become aggressive: 'Don't disrespect me.' Physical aggression is on the wane, but verbal and written aggression, such as cyberbullying, is up." Twenge recommends asking millennial new hires to write papers on an industry-related topic and then conducting peer writing workshops. "Have everybody in the room critique on the writing content," she says. "They learn about not taking criticism personally and how to improve from it, as well as how to give criticism" and write well.
  • Critical-thinking skills. "We're starting to see a lack of confidence and skill in problem-solving and critical-thinking skills," says Robert W. Wendover, director of the Center for Generational Studies, a research and training company in Aurora, Colo. Millennials "are dependent on menu-driven thinking and prompts," he says, and "this leaves them lost" in an environment without menus. "On the job, the person becomes dependent on what other people, computers or machinery tell them to do." Wendover says some of his lawenforcement clients are afraid of young recruits' inability to think for themselves. "It scares the daylights out of veteran officers. They call it 'spectatorship.' As one cop said, 'They watch "Rescue 911" and "Cops," and they think, "This is just like the one I saw the other night." ' Only it's actually happening, and they don't know what to do."

Delivering the Training

Techno-savvy millennials seem like a natural fit to train via e-learning methods such as podcasts or Internet streaming video. However, experts warn, this decreases the HR professional's ability to demonstrate desired behaviors. Harber says, "We have chosen to use face-to-face training because we can model behaviors and have our participants practice, review and practice again. We ask many questions and give our participants opportunities to voice their thoughts."

Janice Smith, HR development specialist for Ernst & Young, a professional financial services organization with 114,000 employees worldwide, agrees: "It's best to deliver [millennial] training in person to take full advantage of the interactive dialogue."

Moreover, in-person training allows HR professionals to control the learning environment. Otherwise, a millennial may be listening to the training podcast while trolling the Internet and IM-ing a friend. "The danger of doing it online is the message isn't received. If it's not a real person, they will be doing something else," Twenge warns.

Experts recommend:

  • Dynamic classroom training that uses technology. Twenge says if the training is done in person, "you can't just stand there and talk. It has to be interactive," using TV or movie clips to drive discussion. Wendover agrees. "Continually engage them," he says, by walking around, giving a web presentation and asking tough questions. Marne Reed, HR director of, an online printer based in Livingston, Mont., says the company has made its training more exciting and fast-paced to appeal to millennials.

    "We use Vision Classroom software that allows trainers to broadcast their computer screens to the entire classroom. Trainees can easily follow the demonstration," Reed says. PRC also uses a blend of instructor-led and computer- based training. Oliver recommends "a variety of interactive exercises, such as role plays, having the participants perform 'teachbacks'-- team exercises that have them develop product advertisements--and scavenger hunts on the intranet. Group activities and hands-on practice are effective with millennials." Roth adds, "Gen Y enjoys follow-up Internet links for reference, in contrast to handouts or names of book titles."
  • Peer teaching. Millennials enjoy learning with groups. They are collaborative. They like experiential learning, Arnsparger says. Oliver says, "The teaching method should provide self-paced and selfdiscovery learning opportunities since millennials like to learn new things at their own pace."

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a Generation X freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich. She may be contacted via her web site at

Web Extras

SHRM articles
The Tethered Generation (HR Magazine)

The Ideal Workplace for Generation Y (SHRM Online Diversity Focus Area) 

SHRM toolkit:

Training and Development

Web survey report:
Are They Really Ready to Work?

Web site:
The Pew/Internet and American Life Project


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