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Younger Workers, Faster Times, Stronger Supervisors

November 27, 2009

The landscape of the job market changes rapidly. Many of today’s jobs didn’t exist ten years ago and ten years from now, the change will be greater yet.

There is one thing, however, that we share in common with the generations that preceded us and those that will follow. We all began our careers young and inexperienced. Everybody had to start somewhere.

Unfortunately, our culture no longer establishes a healthy work ethic at a young age. You are far more likely to find a youth who knows how to operate all the controls on a VCR than to find one who knows how to start a lawnmower.

Today’s younger workers are not less capable or interested in work than their predecessors. They do however, lack the experience and the socialization to work. Work is the main course of life. Leisure is the dessert. While the dessert seemingly brings the pleasure, without the main course, you will become undernourished and unable to enjoy the pleasures that follow.

While adults who spent their youth working need to take tennis and golf lessons, the coming generation has spent considerable time playing and may need some work lessons. They are just as capable and willing, they sometimes just don’t know how.

You can hire and develop good young employees. You may not share a common taste in music or other outside activities, but you will have compatible on the job interests.

Take nothing for granted when training new workers. Invest the time to unambiguously specify your expectations concerning even the smallest of details. Items such as punctuality, dress, and conduct, which you normally assume to be understood, need to be spelled out.

Done upfront, new employees will welcome this clarity. When they understand the rules, newer employees are the best at following them. Once they are established, correcting irritating behavior is difficult. While it may take some patience to train a puppy, it’s harder to teach an old dog new tricks!

Have high expectations for even the most inexperienced workers. Be patient and supportive while they develop the skills necessary to meet those expectations. Positive expectations send a powerful message. Let someone know you think of them as the low man on the totem pole and they will remain there. Let them believe they can climb the ladder and they will.

Even the newest “helper” needs to have job ownership. New and inexperienced workers should be given some level, however small, of independent responsibility. Based upon the execution of those responsibilities, their duties should be increased appropriately.

Delegation is not an optional activity for a supervisor. It often seems easier to do something than to show others how to do it. “Oh never mind, I’ll do it myself.” Delegation is an investment. It’s time consuming in the short run, but its the only way to develop employees.

“Tom Sawyer” is alive and well. Be careful not to become a victim of “upward delegation”. “You do it so well, could you show me one more time”. Most of us are activity oriented, poor delegators, and disarmed by flattery, all of which makes us vulnerable to the “Tom Sawyers” of the world. Keep an eye out for “Tom”, if you’re a good manager, he could be your best pupil.

No one every learned to ski without falling down a few times, so be tolerant of the early mistakes of the inexperienced worker. While they may seem nonchalant about it, their attitude generally masks a real concern and embarrassment.

Workers that are too concerned about making mistakes will be reluctant to take initiative. Remember, its usually the home run hitter that strikes out most frequently. Give the inexperienced workers the support they need to get by some of the early mistakes, but hold them accountable if the situation doesn’t improve.

Newer, inexperienced workers are sometimes described as having “different” attitudes. Different attitudes are alright. It’s on the job behavior that we are concerned with. It’s performance that counts. You can’t change attitudes, so don’t try. Focus on behavior.

Are there certain actions on the job that contribute to your assessment that a newer employee has a “bad attitude”? If so, address the actions, not the attitude. Specify what behavior is acceptable and hold the new employee accountable for it. You will be pleased with the performance.

The only thing I have against younger workers is their age. But I guess we all had that advantage at one time or other. Fortunately because somebody gave us the chance, we had the occasion to learn and take advantage of that opportunity.

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