Fine-tuning HR for a multi-generational workforce

It's worth paying attention to the what makes different generations tick in the workplace, says author and CPO Anthony Onesto.
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· 5 min read

In their never-ending quest for talent, recruiters must simply repeat the magical incantation that brings applicants of all generations flocking to them, like hungry hikers emerging into a clearing to find a cottage built entirely of candy. Then, HR departments have the task of stirring Gen Xers, millennials, Zoomers, and others into the same gurgling cauldron of workplace stew in the hopes of retaining and motivating them. (Not eating them. “Don’t eat employees” is the first rule of HR.)

That might be the sense you get from the many online guides for hiring millennials (born between 1981 and 1996, according to Pew), or how to engage Gen Xers (you know, those people born between 1965 and 1980 who still idolize John Cusack), or articles unlocking the secrets of what makes Gen Z (born after 1997) tick.

And while there are commonly understood tropes about these generations and what each wants out of work—baby boomers are often fiercely loyal to their employers, while millennials “prioritize professional development over loyalty to a company similar to Generation X,” according to Indeed—some research suggests the significance of generational differences may be exaggerated. A 2020 research paper published in the Journal of Business and Psychology determined that for those studying generational differences in the workplace, there are a “variety of competing and contradictory issues when trying to sort out what bearing, if any, generations have on organizational science and practice.”

So what to make of all this talk about g-g-generations? To learn more about the importance of tailoring HR functions along generational lines, we recently talked with Anthony Onesto, chief people officer at the consumer research software platform Suzy, who literally wrote the book on Gen Z employees. (Okay, a book.) Onesto stressed that there will always be similarities between workers of different age groups.

“No matter if you’re a boomer, you’re X, millennial, or even Gen Z…you’re going to find common things around mission, purpose [and] autonomy,” in what motivates people, Onesto explained to HR Brew.

For his book, The New Employee Contract: How to Find, Keep, and Elevate Gen Z Talent, Onesto synthesized a variety of survey data, as well as recent books and news articles, in what he described as “lots and lots of reading. We read everything there was in terms of Gen Z and workplace culture.” The result is a snapshot of a generation’s place in history, defined in large part by the ubiquity of technology and their comfort with smartphones.

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“They were literally born with a phone in their hand; they know nothing before the internet.” (While that literally isn’t true, it does hint at a techno-dystopian future in which babies livestream their journey through the birth canal on Discord.)

The generational evolution. There's no shortage of scholarship about the impact of generational differences in the workplace.

But Onesto, 49, argues that workplace expectations evolve from one generation to the next. “For Generation X, media had a big influence on us,” Onesto said. “And it was always about economics and growth and making more money, and [the] corner office was important.” Dynamics that become ingrained in one era eventually start to change “when you have the next generation coming in and challenging some of those perceptions.”

Millennials, for example, have reportedly favored purpose over paychecks. That preference is shared with Gen Z’ers, as EY’s 2021 Gen Z Segmentation Study found that 63% of 1,509 Gen Zers surveyed “feel it is very or extremely important to work for an employer that shares their values.”

Generation Climate. Gen Z and millennial employees are both especially attuned to environmental issues. According to Deloitte’s Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial survey, which queried 14,000 Gen Zers and over 8,400 millennials across 46 countries between last November and January, climate change is the second most prevalent concern for working members of the respective generations, with 29% of Gen Zers ranking it highest followed by 25% of Millennials.

Onesto also believes climate change to be a central issue in Gen Z’s collective consciousness. “They want to understand how your company thinks about climate change.” He said this comes from lived experience: "We found that since this generation experienced these issues first-hand like climate change, social and racial inequality, that it was important to them, thus something to consider [as] an employer."

Gen Z workers are resolute in their beliefs, Onesto added: Gen Z workers “will be, like, ‘no, I want you to have a pro-climate change position, or I’m not going to work for you.’”SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.