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Viewpoint: Generation Z Workers Have High Standards for Leaders Amid Affirmative Action Reversal

A group of people sitting around a table with laptops.

​As universities update their admission applications to remove questions supporting affirmative action, members of Generation Z want more inclusion, diversity and human-centeredness.

In light of the Supreme Court ruling that effectively eliminated the use of affirmative action in college admissions, company leaders must work harder to win the trust of Generation Z in ways that were not required previously.

"I feel this shift will cause a subtle distrust of leadership among Gen Z, until proven otherwise, as now there is even less consequence for inconsiderate, or even insensitive, behavior in the workplace," said Devon Prentis, a sophomore at Texas State University.

Prentis said Generation Z's desire to be led by inclusive leaders has not diminished since the reversal of affirmative action.

"It does change my post-graduation career decisions in that I will now especially be on the lookout for mentions of equity [in job descriptions]," Prentis said. "At the same time, it hasn't changed my mindset too much. I still intend to go after any opportunities I can, and I understand that I do not need to stay in a place that does not respect me. I can always strive for more."

Members of Generation Z expect their workplace leaders to see and treat them as whole humans—not just workers. This outspoken group expects the companies they work for to commit in action and words to societal issues globally.

"Gen Z, as the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in the U.S., expects leadership to go beyond token gestures of diversity," said Mimi Gonzalez, equity and organizational development consultant and founder of Mimi Gonzalez Consulting. "They seek leaders committed to dismantling systemic inequities and fostering an inclusive culture beyond the performative."

Their Experiences Shape Expectations of Leadership

According to a study by, 83 percent of Generation Z employees said commitment to diversity and inclusion is important when deciding where to work. Catherine L. Wheeler, chief people and culture strategist and founder of Pivot One-Eighty, a workplace culture consultancy in Irving, Texas, is unsurprised by these findings.

"What is often underestimated about this new group of professionals is that they have no loyalty to, or even deep understanding of, the old rules of organizations that amplified homogenous leadership," Wheeler said. "The professional world that Gen Z has always existed in, from YouTube to Disney+, has made space for diverse ways of existing, working and leading. Gen Zers are making a conscious choice to be a part of organizations who prioritize, appreciate and respect leaders who model the same openness and curiosity as they do."

What Generation Z Looks for in Leadership

Adaptability: "Gen Z has grown up in a world that changes rapidly, be it technology, social issues or the job market," Gonzalez said. "They value leaders who are nimble and can adapt to new situations quickly but are also empathetic in the process."

Human-centered leadership: While empathy is an essential characteristic that Generation Z members look for in their leaders, they want to take it further. According to a survey of nearly 6,900 young people by the Springtide Research Institute, 82 percent of participants said they prefer to work for leaders who care about them and relate to issues beyond work.

"When I think about proper leadership, I think about someone or an organization that has true authenticity and empathy," Prentis said. "Not just maintaining a facade for the sake of the business, but because they truly care about people, team members' values and being humane."

Understanding that diversity matters: Twenty-five percent of people in Generation Z are Hispanic, 14 percent are African-American, and 6 percent are Asian, according to studies by the Pew Research Center. Generation Z members care about diversity; their backgrounds and identities are part of who they are and how they see themselves, and they expect others to honor those identifiers, too. Their views on gender and race are part of their humanity and directly impact their experiences.

"I want a leader who cares about the human needs of all employees, such as their life problems, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and how this impacts employees' work," Prentis said.

For Organizations and Leaders: What’s Next?

Go beyond mentorship: Many organized and informal instances of workplace mentorship leave those who volunteer as mentors without guidance or accountability. Most young professionals want to work for leaders who provide guidance, but mentorship is not enough, according to the Springtide Research Institute study. "Gen Zs desire leaders who show authentic interest and investment in their professional growth," Wheeler said. "For leaders, this is an expectation of consistent one-on-ones, collaborating on career advancement opportunities and plans to achieve them, as well as honest and fair feedback."

Prioritize sponsorship: Active sponsors champion young workers and speak up for their professional development and career advancement, even when those employees are not in the room. "Leaders who are successful with Gen Zs will be ones who demonstrate advocacy and sponsorship as a core competency," Wheeler said. "In the workplace, modeling advocacy and sponsorship will be experienced as a promotion of ideas, elevating concerns, and championing skills and expertise."

Be accountable to environmental, sustainable and social responsibility: The status quo is no longer acceptable for this cohort. "Gen Z often looks for alignment between their values and their work," Gonzalez said. "Leaders who prioritize anti-oppression in the workplace, social impact and ethical practices will likely retain Gen Z employees and attract new employees."

This younger generation's passion, drive, and deep connection to values and humanity can be both exciting and challenging. For organizations ready to take on the challenge in earnest and grow and build human-centered workplaces, the best Generation Z talent will follow, Wheeler said.

"Gen Zs stay committed to organizations that prioritize communal and missional impact," she added. "Leaders who galvanize their Gen Z workforce around big ideas and impact will be able to tell the story of best retention strategies for Gen Z in the years to come."

Kim Crowder is CEO and founder of Kim Crowder Consulting, a global courageous, responsible, intentional leadership and communications consultancy, partnering with organizations to revitalize leadership to nurture teams, reduce churn and seamlessly manage change.


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