You can’t win the game if you don’t understand the players

The further down the road you can look, and the more you can seek to understand, the better equipped you will be to build and sustain an engaged workforce, now and in the future.

For the first time in history, four generations are engaging and interacting with one another in the workplace. Most businesses are operating under processes, systems and rules that were built before Gen Z showed up, and some before Millennials joined the ranks. Within all these organizations, the best-intentioned practitioners try to build a one-size fits all approach which is destined to fail. 

When organizations rush to solution and fail to account for the unique wants and needs of each generation, they are faced with an inability to attract talent, and perhaps worse, reduced engagement (quiet quitting) and bleeding talent (especially among millennials and Gen Z).

Attracting talent

An organization renowned for its culture, history and values began to struggle with recruiting talent, especially diverse talent. Since its inception, the company had relied heavily on its reputation to attract applicants, and a robust college recruiting program to get enough applicants to fill the large number of openings they enjoyed each year. 

Over time, their talent pool continued to shrink. After much handwringing, they decided the answer was clear. They set out to invest significant time and money into rebranding the existing material, doubling down on the messages that had worked for so long. One year later, the numbers continued to deteriorate and the only thing they had to show for it were better marketing materials, better giveaways for college job fairs and slicker messages about what a great place to work it was. The opportunity before them, and which passed them by, was to determine what would attract and engage a new generation to join the workforce. Failing to change course led to a slow but continuous erosion of new talent that continues to plague the organization today.

A second organization, in contrast, had a similar background and history. Yet when faced with the same predicament, they chose a different path and realized a different result. They began by conducting research, consulting published sources (e.g. SHRM, GPTW and CCL) to determine what would attract new talent, particularly millennials and Gen Z. Thinking of their workplace as a product they were trying to sell to prospective employees set them on the path to improve. 

One example of the new approach was a renewed focus on work-life balance. While most of their existing workforce worked far more hours than required or needed, the company offered significant work-life balance that was often not used, and rarely talked about. To get the message across to target audiences, the HR team began to use employees that matched the demographic of the event – for example, newly hired college graduates at college fairs.

Keeping talent

A storied organization wanted to tackle integrated talent management, to focus on identifying and then developing talent to ensure ready successors for each level of the organization. They invested significant time and money to ensure they would be ready for any succession challenge ahead. From developing a validated competency model, to adopting a talent assessment and succession management process steeped in research, to creating meaningful, individualized development plans, by all accounts they were doing everything right. Over three years, they saw an increase in ready-now successors, an improvement in leadership bench strength and an increased commitment from executives to the process. What they failed to anticipate was an increase in attrition, and a significant spike in unwanted attrition – namely from the talent pool.

By combining exit interview data with newly adopted stay interview practices, they uncovered two practices that, while common for the lifetime of the organization, were driving Gen Z out the door. The first legacy policy that caused problems: no “moonlighting.” In conversations with Gen Z employees, many weren’t sure what that meant, and when confronted, left rather than comply. According to multiple sources, more than 70 percent of Gen Z employees have “side hustles.” These employees enjoy doing something other than their jobs and gain a great deal of engagement and personal identity from it. They left in droves rather than give up their passion projects. The second was a 100 percent return to work post-COVID policy. Valuing work-life balance, and having a desire to pursue interests outside work, these two policies together led to a monumental loss of talent. 

The story is the same. These cases are about the importance of recognizing generational differences and honoring them. But the reality is this could be about any group of diverse individuals coming together for a shared purpose, trying to work together to get a job done. 

Listen to what your employees – at any age, of any generation and of any culture or group – what do they want, what do they need and can you accommodate them? If you can’t, you may be faced with a harsh truth. When faced with this or a similar situation, ask yourself – what are we choosing to do? Why are we doing it? What’s the cost of not doing it?