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Viewpoint: Helping Young Adults Adapt to the Workplace

A note with the word time to adapt on top of a laptop.

​As college graduates enter the workforce, they typically have many questions. Having a supportive manager who provides meaningful guidance can make all the difference. However, everyone has a different idea about what being a good manager entails. And often, the way we manage others reflects what we need.

Feedback and Clarity

In a recent discussion post, 70 young adults were asked to define what they needed from their managers to transition into the workplace successfully. Two themes were prominent: More than 60 percent of respondents prioritized ongoing feedback and clear expectations. The need for clarity at work is sensible, especially given the structured learning environment prevalent in colleges and universities.

The role of ongoing feedback for young adults has been discussed at length in previous articles. Managers who provide regular feedback help young adults grow, encouraging them to take more risks at work. However, ongoing feedback goes beyond helping people structure their approach to work. Instead, it signals to the employee that the manager desires to build a relationship with them, and it shows they care.

Caring for employees appears to be one of the best ways to retain young employees. As one young professional explained: "If I can't approach my manager, I would not even want to work there. My manager is someone I look up to, and I should be able to approach them with any questions or concerns."

Equality Matters

However, young professionals aren't just concerned about how their managers treat them. Comments from young adults revealed that they are also concerned about how their managers treat their colleagues. More than one-third of respondents strive for an equitable environment where all employees are seen, heard and treated with respect. As described in a Washington Post article published earlier this year, young adults are less attracted to companies that don't prioritize diversity and inclusion, and they expect companies to have meaningful action plans.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 52 percent of the post-Millennial generation are minorities. As such, most young adults have gone to school with others who have ethnic and racial backgrounds different from their own. Consequently, young adults hold their managers accountable for fostering an inclusive work environment.

As one young adult stressed, managers need to be consistent across the board—with the distribution of work, in the treatment of every individual in the team, and with their words and actions. Another commented that managers who treat all employees equally show their trust in those employees to perform their respective responsibilities.  

The latter point is particularly important; the discussion post indicated that young adults prioritize trust between themselves and their managers. Young adults associate their manager's trust with having confidence in their abilities to do the job, thereby avoiding any reason to micromanage their performance. Trusting their manager is also important because young adults are more likely to communicate openly, express work-related concerns and share new ideas. However, managers can erode trust if they fail to maintain confidentiality when young adults share something personal. Lastly, young adults said that when mutual trust is present, they are more motivated at work.

What Managers Should Do

To help young adults transition into the workplace, managers should:

  • Build trusting relationships with young adults so that they feel comfortable approaching you if they are experiencing challenges both inside and outside the workplace. This starts with managers being transparent.  
  • Practice patience when employees are learning new tasks and give them room to learn from mistakes instead of judging them.
  • Demonstrate equality across all employees, calling out behavior that silences or excludes any employee.
  • Provide clear directions when a task or responsibility is initially assigned. If expectations change, share updates with the employees immediately.
  • Share ongoing feedback, including constructive criticism. However, young adults are responsible for reaching out to managers when they want feedback.  

What Managers Should Avoid

When working with young employees, managers should not: 

  • Give young adults tasks without explaining the end goals.
  • Assume young adults do not have responsibilities outside of work.
  • Send employees for additional training without first discussing the challenges they are experiencing and providing one-on-one guidance. 
  • Use a judgmental, passive-aggressive tone in any communication medium, including e-mail and one-on-one conversations. This can discourage young adults from asking questions and seeking guidance when they experience challenges.

Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., where she teaches courses in training and development, as well as in staffing and managing the 21st century workforce. She also has served in lead HR roles at Pitney Bowes and Assurant.