Colleges, HR Experts Wonder: Is Technology Eroding Professionalism?

By Aliah D. Wright Feb 3, 2011
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They text and tweet and make their point in 140 characters or less, and they drive hiring managers crazy.

Some have dubbed them “generation text.” The​​y are the far-too-casual job applicants, interns and new hires fresh from universities who sometimes lack the soft skills necessary to be truly competitive.

These Millennials are often narcissistic and have a sense of entitlement, too, experts say and studies show, prompting at least one college to offer courses teaching students professionalism.

Experts say that in this Web 2.0 age, it’s a lesson that Millennials need to learn before graduation.

“Students and employees alike are text messaging, surfing the Internet and responding to cell phone calls at inappropriate times,” said David Polk, whose firm, the Polk-Lepson Research Group, was commissioned to complete a professionalism study for the Center for Professional Excellence (CPE) at York College of Pennsylvania.

CPE surveyed more than 400 HR and business professionals for the study and found that, in 2010, 38.2 percent of respondents felt that less than half of new graduates exhibited professionalism in the workplace. Nearly a fourth said that professionalism in young workers had decreased, while more than 15 percent believed that it had increased.

The study found that new employees continue to be concerned with advancement opportunities more than they probably should be, and information technology (IT) etiquette problems are not getting any better.

“It appears that for many the need to be in constant contact with friends and family has become an addiction,” Polk said. “The addicted no longer see it as rude to be obsessively responding to calls or text messages.”

It’s not just a problem in the United States, either.

“We call them ‘Generation Text,’ ” Mary Milla, a U.S.-based communications consultant and media trainer told The Sydney Morning Herald, published in Australia. “Voice mail is out; e-mail is too slow, so now they’re texting, and their spelling is awful,” she said.

“Employers often complain about deficient writing and ‘IM language,’ which is directly opposed to the demands of globalization,” Nadia Nassif, principal at Springboards, a professional communications firm, told SHRM Online. “Since more than 90 percent of communication is e-mail-based and global, it’s critical for employees to be both proficient in business writing and be culturally astute—characteristics mostly missing in the Facebook generation.”

Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) member Saundarya Rajesh, founder and president of Avtar Career Creators, an India-based talent strategy consulting firm, adds, “their attitude and orientation toward life and the speed with which they wish to lead it [is] amply demonstrated in their usage of unique ‘mobile-speak’ and ‘chat-lingo.’ “This crunching of terms definitely extends to expecting speed and quick results in almost every aspect of life, which leads to high attrition in this segment—the highest in India.”

While some recruiters and communication experts have criticized Millennials for their atrocious spelling, using chat lingo in formal documents, and their sense of entitlement, others disagree.

“Let me offer a counterpoint,” said Miguel Olivas-Lujan, who has a doctorate in business administration and is professor of management at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

“Quite frankly, I think that the importance of Web 2.0 technologies for the most recent generation of workforce entrants is overstated in the media,” said Olivas-Lujan, who is a member of SHRM’s Global Special Expertise Panel. After all, he said, “the same students fresh out of school who text, e-mail and IM at work are the ones that had to produce a few major papers, business plans, and strategic analyses, both individually and in groups … before they received their diplomas.”

Marcelo Ballario Yoshida, who is global HR director at Alstom Power in Switzerland, concurs.

“Personally, when I look at the new generation of employees we are hiring, they are as qualified as previous generations,” said Yoshida, who is the volunteer leader of the SHRM Forum in Switzerland and a member of SHRM’s Technology & HR Management Special Expertise Panel. “However they are far more tech-savvy than previous generations—myself excluded,” he added.

“True, not every new employee had access to a rigorous university program challenging their communication and teamwork skills, but employers will get what they pay for,” Olivas-Lujan added. “I've had students complain about internships in which they were not treated as potential employees, even at an entry level. Some have been tasked with such mundane activities as photocopying all day long or doing the tasks nobody else wants to do.”

Nixing Narcissism

But others say performing such entry-level tasks is part of the dues-paying process. Some experts say many new workforce entrants are far too narcissistic and abhor criticism.

Researcher Jean Twenge is co-author of the book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, (Free Press, 2009). Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, said in a recent interview, “We have this conception that a high self-esteem leads to success ... that that’s what you need to get ahead in this competitive world,” she said, “but … narcissism doesn’t help you become more successful.”

It can hurt careers as well, experts say.

According to CPE’s 2010 study, Internet etiquette, the ability to accept personal responsibility and the ability to accept constructive criticism were found to be absent from many unseasoned workers.

“Here’s a generation that’s been coddled. … [For example] if you’re in last place you still get a trophy,” said CPE Executive Director Matt Randall.

At York College of Pennsylvania, “we’re trying to teach [students] how to accept criticism and use it and learn how it will impact their careers,” he said. “What we’re saying is criticism is not bad, you need to use it as a tool to improve your skills and abilities.”

Being cognizant of how much time they spend engaging in nonwork related activities is an important lesson, too.

“When I ask students how … often they’ll check Facebook during the day—many are silent,” Randall said. “I tell them, ‘you’ll need to decide that before you accept your job because your current employer is not going to set guidelines for you. The use of social networking could hurt your reputation at your workplace and that could cost you your job.’ ”

A Gray Area

“HR has to cut their budgets, and one of the first things to go is soft-skills training, and we’re seeing a lot of organizations look to colleges and universities to tell students what the rules are and how to effectively use texting and e-mail and the phone,” Randall said.

“As college students, they’ve basically been given free rein to use IT however they want to—they can text in class [unbeknownst to professors], and when they’re supposed to be concentrating on their studies they may have Facebook open. When they graduate they get used to doing this,” Randall said. Some senior executives see this behavior as unprofessional, he added, “and the biggest concern among employers in the study was text-messaging at inappropriate times.

The problem festers when employers don’t tell Millennials that their behavior is unprofessional, he said.

“Everybody uses the Internet during the day to take a stress break, to take care of personal matters—and there’s a real gray area of when they cross the line,” he said. Unfortunately, “employers wait until they’ve crossed the line to tell them.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​

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