What your youngest employees need most right now

By Lauren Stiller Rikleen

Thursday June 18, 2020


Having been tested at a very young age, Gen Zers are bound to bring a special blend of resiliency and humanity to the workplace, writes Lauren Stiller Rikleen for the Harvard Business Review.

The long-term toll of the coronavirus is unknown, but its effects on our health care system and the economy have already been catastrophic. And while the immediate concerns of skyrocketing unemployment and a stalled economy must be addressed today, employers also need to begin considering how to rebuild for the employees returning to the workforce — or entering it for the first time.

This includes the members of Generation Z, the youngest cohort in or about to enter the workforce. Many of them were just beginning their career when they were furloughed or fired as a result of the pandemic. Their peers still in school were suddenly confined to their homes. Collectively, Gen Zers are experiencing the greatest national trauma since the Great Depression and World War II.

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As the Pew Research Center notes, looking at world events and other formative experiences through a generational lens helps provide an understanding of how people’s views of the world are shaped. Young people who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II were anointed “The Greatest Generation.” Having survived the traumas of extraordinarily difficult years, members of that generation shared became associated with characteristics such as a patriotism manifested by reverence for American ideals, a belief in the wisdom of government and a frugality born of severe want.

Similarly, the horrors of 9/11 and the global economic crisis that began in 2007 were life-altering events for millennials. Those experiences largely contributed to their profile as a generation more likely to seek order in the world and meaning in the workplace.

Though the coronavirus has been merciless in its impact on people of all ages, the long-term effects on the Generation Z cohort are likely to be particularly severe. Overnight, these young people lost their daily interactions with the teachers who trained them, coaches who mentored them, clubs that fulfilled them and friends who sustained them through the painful ordeals of youth. Milestones such as proms, plays and graduation — crucial moments in the social and emotional development of an individual — swiftly vanished.

It will be years before sufficient data exists to quantify the full impact of the pandemic on Gen Zers. Existing research, however, can help employers learn what they should expect and how they can best manage their Generation Z employees, today and in the future. Focusing on the three areas below is a good starting point:

Skill development

The learning experience of many Gen Zers has been disrupted in ways that schools were unequipped to manage. Some converted course work to online formats, often implemented by teachers and professors untrained to use virtual platforms. Others minimized direct instruction, urging students to turn to independent projects and digital resources. Grades were converted to pass/fail, tests were abandoned and deadlines extended.

Those options may have been right for the moment, but will likely have a cost. Now that the experience of structured learning has been upended, employers and employees may need to develop greater patience as Gen Zers adjust to the professional world. A greater focus on intergenerational mentoring and support will also be necessary.

Employers should consider establishing thoughtfully designed programs to ease their new employees’ transition by rethinking orientation programs, early assignments and mentoring. A good approach could extend orientation throughout the first-year work experience, offer rotations throughout the organization and include programs to help new hires integrate into the culture of the workplace.

Mentoring, too, can be a powerful way to leverage generational diversity. Research demonstrates that when properly coached, new professionals will develop faster. To maximize the opportunity for a successful mentorship program, employers should ensure that managers understand the benefits of strengthened intergenerational relationships, dispel negative perceptions that could weaken engagement and provide the needed resources. To increase buy-in, companies could also offer reverse-mentoring programs, in which young employees help senior workers improve their skills in technology and social media.

Stress management

For more than a decade, researchers have noted an alarming trend: Gen Zers report higher levels of anxiety and depression than other generations. Studies also tell us that childhood exposure to significant stress can impact brain development and affect mental and social development. If the baseline already shows high levels of stress, what will the impact of this pandemic be when it comes to the work and careers of Gen Zers?

Most companies are aware that unaddressed employee stress and anxiety can result in absenteeism, turnover and lowered productivity. Studies estimate that the annual cost of job stress to U.S. businesses exceeds $300 billion. But too few firms have developed effective programs to help their employees with mental health struggles.

Employers should focus on developing an effective stress management policy and create customized programs for their young workers. Such programs could include early-career affinity groups that encourage open conversation in a supportive environment, and coaching interventions aimed at boosting the confidence of individuals in their ability to succeed and reducing anxiety.

Emotional intelligence

Research demonstrates that emotional intelligence — consisting of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills — is a critical element of effective leadership, and that it can be taught and learned. In having to cope with a shutdown of life as they knew it at such a young age, many Gen Zers have experienced a massive interruption in their ability to discover what motivates and fulfils them. Because of this, they’ll need more time in their young adult years to undertake the self-exploration needed to develop emotional intelligence.

Employers can help fill this gap by offering programming that helps build emotional intelligence from the outset of a worker’s careers — not several years down the road. Conversely, companies should also consider that Gen Zers will enter the workplace with a greater level of empathy and adaptability, qualities that are critical components of emotional intelligence. Having experienced both the significant disruption to their own lives and the pain and sorrow felt by friends and loved ones who suffered during the pandemic, members of the generation are likely to have an enhanced degree of sensitivity that will prove useful in their interactions at work.

Having been tested at a very young age, Gen Zers are bound to bring a special blend of resiliency and humanity to the workplace. Employers can take advantage of the unique formative experiences of these young employees by providing them with support and compassion during their transition to the professional world.

(c) 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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