It's About Employees' 'Work Identity,' Not Generation or Personality Type

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie June 19, 2018
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CHICAGO—Classifying employees by generation, personality type or other broad categories—rather than by where they are in the career cycle—may not be the ideal way to get the best out of them or ensure they're happy and motivated in their jobs, according to an HR expert who spoke Tuesday at the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition.

"We think our job is done when we say, 'Oh, this is a Millennial, and the tools to develop them are these sets of tools,' " said Joey V. Price, CEO of Jumpstart:HR LLC, an HR firm that provides administrative and strategic HR support to U.S.-based small businesses and startups. "That's a problematic way of looking at employee engagement at work."

Instead, companies need to identify where workers are on a continuum that he called their "real identities at work."

"It's less about age, less about personality type … and it's more about, 'Where are you in the life cycle of our organization, and how can we meet you where you are to help move you further along?' " said Price,  who spoke at a concurrent session titled "EmployME Engagement: How to Drive Employee Engagement in a Society That's All About Me."

Five Worker Identities

Price identified five work identities:

1. The exploratory prehire. This, he said, is someone quietly exploring your company and asking if she can see herself there.

"They're creating this identity in their heads about what it's like to work at your company and, quite frankly, what's in it for them."

Fifteen percent of job seekers put more effort into a job if they have a positive hiring experience, he said. So to draw these people in, he said, show them what you can do for them: "What are your benefit offerings? How many days off? Do you give opportunities for education? Stipends for tuition reimbursement? Show a gesture of good will upfront by showing, 'Here's how we're investing in you.' "

2. The novice adopter. This person is already an employee but still deciding if he can see himself staying at your company for the long term. He may not yet fully grasp his role or what's expected of him.

Twenty percent of employee turnover happens in the first 90 days of employment, Price said. To avoid such attrition, he said, the novice adopter needs a supportive mentor or manager to help him be successful. He needs time to learn and grow, and needs to understand what tools and resources are at his disposal.

"Sometimes we hire people and it's like this expressway, where they drive into the organization and we expect a 100-mile-per-hour contribution from them. If we want to see our new hires be successful, we've got to invest in them to make sure that happens."

3. The comfortable contributor. This person has grasped what's expected of her. She's doing her work and being a team player, he said, but nothing's really stimulating her to grow. Or she's learned that leaders' expectations and priorities are so constantly in flux that it doesn't pay to get too invested in any project.

This, he said, is where many workers plateau and grow comfortable—even bored. In fact, 43 percent of employees are bored, Price said.

"It's not a high-capacity position for an employee to be in," he said, adding that it's a manager's job to "sit down with them, and say, 'Why are you here? What are some things we can do to stimulate your passions and interests?' "

4. The courageous influencer. This is a worker, he said, who has a solid reputation, who's embraced the company mission, and who leads and influences people without being a formal manager. The "dark side" to this type of worker, he said, is that they "could lead the mutiny if they're unhappy."

"They have a voice that people who can promote, hire and fire listen to. They are willing to go to bat for other people, and if that means going to bat against the employer … they're going to get it done. If you connect with [a courageous influencer] so deeply that they feel like 'I'm valued here,' … they're going to exude that, and it will have ripple effects in your organization."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

It's important to find ways to help these workers grow, he said, especially given their tendency to job-hop and the anticipated dearth in workplace leadership in coming years: 84 percent of organizations expect a shortfall of leaders in the next five years, he said.

"Say, 'Hey, I see you as a leader. I see you as an influencer. And we're going to do what we can do so that you can see your future here."

5. The authority figure. These are people responsible for creating an employer's brand and vision, and finding the people who can support both. Yet it's a mistake, he said, to assume that these people don't still need mentoring, coaching and new challenges to keep them engaged.

The 'Me' Generation

Laura Biddle, SHRM-CP, is an HR generalist working for Stella Jones, an industrial manufacturing company in Gig Harbor, Wash. She said she attended Price's session to find "a better strategy to engage the workforce."

"I am the 'me' generation," she said, referring to Price's advice that workers need to know what personal satisfaction they can get from a job. "My managers come to me with their problems, so I try to bridge the gap" between managers' and employees' expectations.

Ken Oehler, global culture and engagement practice leader with London-based Aon, said that while not all employees are disengaged or unmotivated, Aon's 2018 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Study did find that while 64 percent of U.S. employees considered themselves engaged, only about 1 in 4 called themselves "highly engaged."

"There's a lot of room for improvement," he said. "Employees are looking for an experience that involves inspiration, removing barriers to getting work done, skill development [and] recognition." 

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