Gen Y: Can They Survive a Performance Review?

Gen Y: Can They Survive a Performance Review?


Have American parents unwittingly thrown another cog in the wheel of American competitiveness? Last month Tiger Mom Any Chua ignited a firestorm with her bristling critique of American childrearing techniques, rattling parents from Park Slope to Palo Alto. Especially controversial was her charge that our national obsession with boosting self-esteem has created a generation defined not by their collaborative spirit or charitable impulse, but instead by their wildly outsized expectations. Employers, attempting to corral these Millennials into company training programs and then settle them squarely on the corporate ladder, might agree. 

Robert Kerson has been in the search business for thirty years, most recently heading an eponymous recruiting firm. He often counsels young people, and reports a “dramatic shift in expectations” from today’s college graduates. “They really think more about themselves than the company they’re joining,” he says. “They are less risk averse and less easily managed” than prior generations. “A vastly higher percentage wants to do it by themselves.”

Indeed, recruiters and educators consider Generation Y entrepreneurial above all else—an important plus for the U.S. As manufacturing has shifted to low labor-cost locales, companies built on intellectual capital – and often born in the family garage – become ever more important. Dr. Joyce Brown, president of Fashion Institute of Technology, is high on today’s students, whom she describes as “fearsome multi-taskers.” She considers them self-reliant, confident and optimistic. That’s the good news. Others describe kids emerging into the workplace as impatient, unfocused, dismissive of corporate protocol, and not big on loyalty. The challenge for corporations is to marshal Gen Y’s entrepreneurial energies while at the same time maintaining order and minimizing turnover.

Mr. Kerson reports that corporations in the retail sector, for example, are responding by changing their training programs, trying to give young people greater responsibility early on. “It won’t any longer take five years to become an assistant buyer,” he predicts. He also says that companies are over-hiring, since turnover rates have soared in training programs – even in the midst of a recession. 

As with so many changes, good and bad, we can see the influence of the Internet. Young people idolize the wunderkinds who have achieved overnight success – Groupon’s Andrew Mason or Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg – and hope to follow the same path. Gregg Marks, a senior executive with The Jones Group, sees the change. “These kids have tremendous confidence. They don’t expect to start at the bottom.”
Unfortunately, for every Mark Zuckerberg, there are scores of kids living at home long past graduation who may not have what it takes to succeed. For better or worse, they keep plugging away; failure is not in their vocabulary.
“This is the generation that was cheered when they hit a foul ball,” one HR exec told me recently. “When I go in to deliver a performance review that is not totally positive, their eyes glaze over. It’s like they cannot imagine that I’m talking about them. They’re taken aback when they aren’t given a ribbon every week.”

“That’s one reason companies make a big too-do about sports,” says Irma Tryon, director of on-campus recruiting at Wellesley College. “They know that a coach will sit them down and say – you didn’t play well, so someone else is going in to play in your place.” 

Ms. Tryon has been working with students for decades. She, too, has seen a change in the way today’s kids approach the workplace. “I never thought there was a generation gap until the last four years,” she says. “Technology has changed this generation’s mind set; everything has to be quicker, which is good and bad. They don’t like minutiae. Busy work is not tolerated by these kids. They say, ‘Get me to the core, tell me what needs to be done and then let me alone until I do it.’”

“They also don’t like hierarchy,” says Ms. Tryon. “Micro managing doesn’t work with them; they like freedom.”

That means they often refuse to play by the rules – especially those that might impede their progress. Standing in line for corporate promotions does not appeal.

The Internet has also upended formal communications. As a result, employers are challenged to maintain traditional decorum. An HR official at a large multinational company complained to me, “I can’t have another recruit sending an email to one of our EVPs addressed, ‘Hey.’”

“The problem is,” says Ms. Tryon, “these kids are so good with computers, and their bosses are not. That’s sort of a dangerous thing. Our generation knew that our bosses operated at a different level; there were certain boundaries we didn’t cross. Now the kids think they should have access to everything.”

Ms. Tryon says the young people graduating from Wellesley “have a false sense that they know more than they do.” On the other hand, “their skill sets are wonderful.” In her view, graduates entering the workplace will simply have to learn a few more lessons. One of those is how to “read the boss.” Young people need to understand that occasionally they should be seen and not heard – a quaint notion taught by earlier generations.  Amy Chua might argue that Chinese children, unlike their western counterparts, have already learned that lesson; they have to read their parents – who may be the toughest critics their kids will ever face.

One of Ms. Tryon’s recent graduates reported that she was shocked when her new boss told her, “You don’t know anything.” She clearly did not have a Chinese mom. But…she’s well on her way to becoming a productive employee.

Related Links
Mary Gates and Karen Zuckerberg Weren’t Tiger Moms (Slate)
The Tiger Mom Dilemma (Huffington Post)
Tiger Mother’s Parenting Sparks Debate (Lansing State Journal)