Working things out with Generation Y

By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / June 11, 2009
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Generation Y, whose members were born between 1978 and 1990, can be difficult to manage. Bruce Tulgan, a writer and management training consultant, offers not only a colorful portrait of this unique group, but also shows companies how to harness its power.

Through memorable anecdotes, Tulgan analyzes the characteristics of Gen Y. Members of the group were raised in overprotected environments with parents who respected their every word and deed. Tulgan talks to an exasperated senior executive in a private-equity firm who recently took a call from a mother complaining about her offspring's heavy workload: "I just listened and tried to be polite," the manager said. "I didn't tell her that her son was going to make ten thousand dollars less for every minute she kept me on the phone."

Gen Y employees, Tulgan emphasizes, tend to have high expectations for themselves, don't necessarily respect authority, and often take a short-term view on paying their dues. These factors can create generational tension, especially with older workers who believe the path to success is paved with long hours, closed-mouthed loyalty, and paying dues. Tulgan writes of one supervisor who tried to criticize a Gen Y employee for being disrespectful toward a customer, only to have the young man respond, "You know what? I'm thinking about buying this place. And the way you are going, you are going to be the first one out of here!"

In terms of recruiting, retaining, and managing these workers, Tulgan points out the need for flexibility and a personalized approach. If you try to treat members of Gen Y the same as those of older generations, they'll leave: "If you want high performance out of this generation, you better commit to high-maintenance management."

Do not candy-coat the job during recruiting, Tulgan urges. Explain the difficulties as well as the benefits, so that Gen Y hires won't become disillusioned when the work turns out to be harder than they expected.

For managers, Tulgan suggests offering a lot of guidance to Gen Y hires: Don't just give assignments; detail exactly how to do them. Closely monitoring progress must become standard. Tulgan's approach sometimes sounds more like parenting than managing.

He even recommends giving Gen Y workers lessons in time management: "Teach Gen Yers to postpone low-priority activities until high-priority activities are well ahead of schedule." Tulgan lauds one manager who helped a perennially-late employee plan his morning routine, including when to walk his dog.

Tulgan implores managers not to assume that these workers will automatically adapt to a supervisor's way of doing things. Instead, managers should have a detailed conversation with these employees about their expectations, the consequences for failing to meet them, and rewards for succeeding. "Teach them how to be managed by you," he offers.

If this guide has any weakness it's in assuming a business climate where companies are eager to recruit, retain, and reward young workers (i.e., a nonrecession climate). When Tulgan writes that "so many employers are so starved for young talent," some readers may be left scratching their heads.

Nonetheless, Tulgan's manual represents an excellent resource for managers struggling to understand Gen Y. Tulgan offers lots of solid, practical advice based on a deep understanding of young employees. If managing under-30 workers feels like herding cats, this book can help you, assuming you're willing to adapt to the high-maintenance style of Gen Y.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

NOT EVERYONE GETS A TROPHY: How to Manage Generation Y By Bruce Tulgan

Jossey-Bass, 182 pp., $24.95

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