Getting the Most Out of Younger Employees

Managers tell me every day that young employees fail to meet a lot of unspoken expectations about behavior in the workplace. I have an idea: Speak them!

One manager was telling me about a young employee who routinely came to work late and then made lots of personal calls on his cell phone throughout the workday. “Do I really need to tell him, ‘Come to work on time, and it’s not good to make so many personal calls all day long’?” Yes! You have to tell him, up front and every step of the way.

“I would make lots of offhand comments to him like, ‘Hey, you know, trickle in here whenever you feel like it. Don’t feel any pressure to come to work on time. Make all the calls you want.’ But he just wasn’t getting the hint.” The manager continued, “At the end of my rope, I pulled this guy aside. I had worried so much about having the conversation, worried it was going to be a big blow-up. When I said to him, ‘It’s really not acceptable to come to work late,’ he said, ‘Really? Why didn’t you just say so?’ When I told him, ‘You really are only supposed to make personal calls on your cell phone at a break or at lunch or in the case of an emergency,’ he said, ‘Really? Why didn’t you just say so?’ Then he went into this whole spiel: ‘What else aren’t you tellin’ me, Sparky? Sparky, you gotta tell me stuff that’s important to ya.’ So I told him, “There is one other thing. Please stop calling me Sparky. You can call me Rob, or you can call me Mr. Sarkington.”

Young employees will be open and direct with you if you give them the chance. One young employee recently told me: “My boss never gets to the point. You don’t have to give me a whole line of BS. Don’t even try to sweeten it up for me. I can just take it. Just be real. Just get to the point.” Indeed, being open with young employees will help you keep tabs on their attitude, behavior, shifting loyalties, and commitments in and out of the workplace. The problem is that, in an effort to foster that openness, some managers find themselves dragged into time-consuming and uncomfortable personal territory that really should be avoided. The other problem is that, in order to avoid personal minefields, managers often end up soft-pedaling their requirements and withholding candid feedback, no matter how fair and straightforward it might be.

One word of caution: don’t set too many ground rules, or the ground rules will lose meaning. Also, don’t set ground rules just because they are your pet peeves, or they will have no legitimacy. Be honest and rigorous with yourself. What is the business logic behind each ground rule? What do you lose or risk losing as a result of this ground rule? What do you gain? Is it worth it?

Ground rules will be your fundamental performance requirements, so take some time to brainstorm about the broad standards that really matter: Attire? Attitude? Conduct? Cursing? Personal issues? Personal calls? Personal business on company time? What about work hours? Will we keep our conversations focused on work? When I give you directions, can I expect you to ask clarifying questions? Can I ask you to spell out for me the steps you are going to take to execute my instructions? Can I expect you to write things down?

The more you spell out clear ground rules up-front, the better things will go. Make your ground rules clear. Use catch phrases if they come naturally. Then speak them. Write them down. And speak them some more. They will serve as an easy point of reference whenever you want to remind an employee: “We both know that this is one of my ground rules.”

At first, err on the side of meeting more often with each person—every day, every other day, or once a week. Start by evaluating what time will best work for you: What time will fit your regular schedule and needs? Also consider what time will work best for each of your employees. Then communicate with each young employee the expectation that you will meet regularly one-on-one at a regular time.

Whenever possible, try to choose a regular time, and stick with it as long as you can. If you have to make a change, try to set a new regular time, and try to stick with the new time as long as you can. Regularity makes a big different to young employees. In-person meetings are always preferable to meetings by telephone, but if your only option is telephone, don’t let the phone call slip. Keep those telephone appointments the way you make sure to attend your own child’s birthday party. And make sure to support these telephone conversations with clear point-by-point e-mails before and after your calls. Follow-up e-mails are key, especially following telephone one-on-ones.

Whenever you can meet in person, try to conduct your meetings in the same place. Choose a good venue, whether it is your office, a conference room, or the stairwell. You want these meetings to become familiar and comfortable. The routine of meeting in the same place every time is an important part of the structure these one-on-one meetings provide.