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Chew Han Guan

Want to engage Gen Y? Use common sense

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Most HR leaders are aware that engaging and catering to different generations of employees in their organisations is easier said than done. Chew Han Guan, corporate learning and development manager at an aerospace company, suggests using common sense and analytics to better engage staff of specific ages.

The global workforce is experiencing a phenomenon of change as one generation is passing the baton to the next. As with all change, there will be unknowns and as the dynamics unravel, the implications and consequences can become confounding and protracted.

Gen Y and the currently dominant Gen X are like oil and water – they simply do not mix. They are two generations of contrasting ideals, ethics and pathos.

Gen X believes in hard work and earning your way up, influenced by an era of post-industrial revolution values. Long working hours is still prevalently held as a virtue, especially in the Asia context.

On the other hand, Gen Y can be distinguished by their creativity and resourcefulness, always seeking the most efficient way of doing things. Being born at the dawn of the internet era, they are used to information being readily available at their fingertips; Gen Y seeks the same pace and speeds in their life and work. This is only natural.

Put the two together and you get the professional equivalence of: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. With a lack of understanding on either side, at best you will get compromises after compromises, and at worst you can get confrontations, discords, grievances and ultimately turnover.

None of the outcomes bode well for the individual and the organisation, resulting in disengagement, a lack of synergy and loss of productivity.

As the negative perceptions on each party accumulates over time, the susceptibility to stereotyping increases.

The false-consensus effect gets reinforced with each generation pigeon-holing the other as dysfunctional. This picture is arguably an exaggerated extreme in a time when Gen X still rules the workplace. But in years to come, as Gen Y grows in numbers, who is to say this will not run true, especially if Gen X remains unexposed and unenlightened about the seemingly elusive Gen Y.

But the generational differences are surmountable. In fact, their collaboration is predisposed for success given the wider environment. Gen X has to deal with Gen Y on a personal level. Many Gen X have families or relatives who are Gen Y; be it a sibling, a son, daughter, niece, nephew or cousin twice removed. When you go to the movies, the cinema or a restaurant, chances are you may be served by a Gen Y part-timer. When you watch the television or read the news or read a book, Gen Y inevitably contributes a part of that entertainment.

Gen Y has come into the present and Gen Y will dominate the future, faster than you may imagine.

In fact, for Singapore, projections show this will likely take place around 2025, which is just a decade away from where Gen Y forms the majority of the population of working age. Fortuitously, as described above, the motivation to understand, the necessity to interact with and the environment to practise in is engendered in many parts of life and also work.

On engagement

I suggest three simple ways to engage Gen Y. First off, give them feedback informally and frequently. Gen Y respects authority, but they do not fear it. Their upbringing plays an important role in shaping this mentally. Gone are the days of child rearing which follows the axiom of “sparing the rod and spoiling the child”.

Gen Y are reasoned with from a young age and guided to make the right decisions. The top-down approach without any explanation will not go down well with them. Mentor them and coach them and they may yet become a useful aide. Take a moment to share your experience. They will value that.

The timeliness of feedback will sate their appetite to get information and to learn much better than the at best, twice a year formal performance appraisal-cum-feedback session.

Second, they may challenge your ideas and instructions and provide you with alternative suggestions.

The diversity of information they are exposed to makes them more open minded and creative.

They start work already with whatever knowledge or experience they have picked up. Hear them out and guide them to make the right decisions. Give them a sense of autonomy by involving them in the decision-making process whenever possible, and challenge them to prove their ideas and they might teach you a thing or two. It is perfectly possible for reverse mentoring to occur, especially when information technology and social media are concerned. They might just share with you how you can use the latest app on the iPhone for the betterment of your life and work.

Third, give them the opportunity to network and make the connections that will help them in their work. Afford them this freedom if they have the aptitude for it. Groom them to be effective communicators and tap on their vigour and energy to help you achieve your goals. Share with them the culture of the organisation and the personalities of the people in the company. Who knows, you might just win them over as your fan!

On rewards and benchmarking

Money is a necessary evil because it’s the basis of labour. A fair day’s wage for a fair day of work has been the maxim through the ages. The primary reason we work is to earn our keep. I believe in paying fairly and reasonably. A simple approach to this would be to use psychologist Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory to guide the compensation and benefits approach.

As a rough guide, people earning wages to the left of the median salary will tend to value monetary benefits more heavily, so pay them the market rate.

There is little point in paying them less and agonising over the recruitment process again once they leave for a higher paying job.

People earning wages to the right of the median salary earn a more comfortable keep, and they will demand more out of work. They will look for more job satisfaction. Pay them reasonably, within a decent percentage of the market rate, and develop a career path for them.

While this holds true for all generations, in this new age, external equity is gaining more importance as information asymmetry diminishes. Gen Y can easily figure out what they are worth through a multitudes of channels, that is, on-line salary polls, published salary surveys, from fellow Gen Y peers who are more open to exchange information, browsing job offers and going for interviews.


The challenges ahead as the organisational demographic evolves will be an exciting and pivotal time and I believe a key criteria that will make companies successful in the near future will be how well the companies can tap on the unique characteristics of Gen X and Gen Y through purposeful efforts to harmonise and complement their strengths and differences.

This article is written on a personal capacity and does not express the views and opinions of my employer.

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