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‘I Quit But I Forgot to Tell You’

As a longtime career coach and HR professional, Jan Slater has heard her fair share of horror stories about young workers. But even she was surprised by one a client shared with her.

One day, a recent hire — an MBA graduate two days into the job of developing and refining financial models for the CEO — left the office at 11 a.m. for what co-workers initially thought was an early lunch. They grew concerned, however, when he didn’t come back. After numerous attempts to track him down, they finally received a letter from him thanking them for the job but saying that he couldn’t continue because it was interfering with his summer plans.

Corporate managers were aghast not just at the way he quit but at what they saw as misplaced priorities. While the example is extreme, it’s not an uncommon conflict when it comes to younger workers. Some young people simply don’t understand what it means to be a professional person in the world of work.

“They were raised many of them in a child-centric world [by] their parents, their teachers [and] their coaches and they get to work and some of them find it a pretty harsh reality,” said Slater, founder of an online career community site for young adults, CareerConnection.me.

Online communities and a little bit of career coaching can set them on the path to success and help ease the generational tension among older workers.

The Grass Is Always Greener
Young people’s attitudes about work are shaped by many factors such as how they were raised and shifting cultural norms. While the causes are open to interpretation, one thing is clear: Young people are waiting longer to get married, buy homes and start families than previous generations. They are simultaneously less encumbered and more optimistic about future prospects.

“In this generation, if they don’t like something they’ll just leave,” Slater said. “They believe there is another job right around the corner.”

That means they are less likely to accept restrictions imposed by an organization and more likely to do things their own way. Many older managers have decided to wait it out with the assumption that millennial attitudes will change as they grow older. Slater isn’t holding her breath.

Smart organizations will listen to their younger workers and re-examine their policies, procedures and systems, she said. That’s where CLOs can step in to overcome generational conflicts and misunderstanding.

What CLOs Can Do
As part of her work, Slater helps organizations create online learning communities aimed at young workers featuring video, career development resources, discussion forums and networking, all driven by user-generated content aimed at helping peers coach each other on what it takes to succeed and potential pitfalls to avoid.

“The new millennial — the new professionals joining the organization — would right away join the online community and they’d be greeted by other people in that online community who are under 30,” Slater said. “The whole idea is for peers to teach peers, because at this age — and I think people at any age — [they] want to learn from each other.”

The online learning community can be used to on-board young workers to the organization’s norms and culture. Coaching to adapt to the work ethic of older workers and develop a realistic career path can also help.

“My biggest fear for young adults getting out of college is that they [are] going to quickly lose their first job because they’re not as savvy as they could be, because they’re not prepared to enter the workplace or sustain a meaningful career,” Slater said.

Mixed training groups go a long way to building understanding of what it takes to be a professional. They also bridge the divide between younger and older workers.

“There’s a tremendous amount of ‘a-has’ going on as people tell their stories — when young people get why the boomer manager feels the way he or she does and the things that influence that,” Slater said. “That kind of learning is really powerful. There’s a lot of misconception about all these generations and certainly the millennials have gotten quite a reputation — some of it deserved but some of it not.”

Bosses can also be coached on how to have constructive conversations with younger worker so when mistakes happen — when a young worker steps outside the organizational bounds — it doesn’t have to be a career-ending mistake.

“It’s a two-way street, and organizations are definitely changing and will continue to change,” Slater said.

When it comes to conflicts, Slater said there’s an element of jealousy among older workers who wished they had asked for some of the perks and privileges that younger workers are asking for and getting.

“Who doesn’t want flexibility, autonomy and respect?” she said. “Everybody does, but the boomers and even the generation after that put up with a lot of things they didn’t like about the world of work thinking they had to do it.”

Slater recommended that organizations offer the same flexible learning and career development options to other generations that they offer to younger workers. The CLO needs to be the strategist and connect what workers — whether they are just starting their first job or are deep into a decades-long career — need to learn and how they like to learn.

“They need to be doing focus groups and doing one-on-one interviews with all learners, but especially their new learners, and asking them how they like to learn, when they like to learn, where they like to learn and then providing all those different ways of doing that with the technology that we have,” Slater said.

Mike Prokopeak is the vice president and editorial director of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at mikep@CLOmedia.com.