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Recognition 3.0: New Rules For Making Millennials Feel Like They Matter

The Millennials (a.k.a. Generation Y, Digital Natives and Echo Boomers) have arrived with a very different work agenda than preceding generations. Prepared to stay with their employer for 2-5 years, their average tenure is only 1.5 years according to the Department of Labor. With 75 million Millenials entering the workforce, employers must understand this disconnect and close the gap if they want to attract, retain and encourage better performance from Gen Y employees.

The Millennials (a.k.a. Generation Y, Digital Natives and Echo Boomers) have arrived with a very different work agenda than preceding generations. Prepared to stay with their employer for 2-5 years, their average tenure is only 1.5 years according to the Department of Labor. With 75 million Millenials entering the workforce, employers must understand this disconnect and close the gap if they want to attract, retain and encourage better performance from Gen Y employees.

A few key facts about Gen Y and their expectations:

  • They are the most educated generation in American History
  • They are social media communicators
  • 75% have a profile on a social networking site
  • 44% read blogs
  • 76% use instant messaging
  • They are the most child-centric generation and grew up with excessive positive reinforcement from Baby Boomer parents (which they now expect from employers)
  • They seek real-time communication

Are you getting the picture? This generation is characterized by the here-and-now and other differences that are game-changers for supporting a people-centric culture. Companies with people-centric practices and a culture of engagement report revenue growth at a rate 2.5 times greater than others in like industries according to the 2010 Hay Group Employee Engagement Survey.

Since recognition is an important piece of this high-growth environment, organizations need to understand how changes in the makeup of the workforce are impacting the “who, what, when, why and how of recognition.” It’s now about total recognition, and the rules have changed.

New total recognition rules

1. Why? The focus of recognition has shifted from tenure to results that are aligned with company objectives.

The days are gone when years of service were rewarded with the symbolic gold watch. Total recognition acknowledges the employee’s initiative, creativity, willingness to go above and beyond, and the role these actions have played in an achievement that is critical to meeting or exceeding company objectives.

2. When? The timing of recognition has accelerated, with meaningful recognition occurring on the spot, in step with when contributions are made.

Employees can no longer wait until the next quarterly meeting or the employee’s annual review, which could be months later and diminish the impact. The real “now” generation are Gen Yers despite Pepsi’s moniker for Boomers. In an instant world, delayed recognition loses its fizz. Think of ways to develop a consistent rhythm of recognition to fully integrate it into your culture.

3. How? The availability of social and corporate networks supports accelerated, in-the-moment recognition and provides additional outlets to more formal methods of recognition.

Facebook, LinkedIn, corporate blogs and intranets also enhance recognition by broadening its reach, so those who matter to the recipient can share the pride. From a pat on the back (electronic or in person) to a note or email to a formal piece in a newsletter, today there are more ways than ever to convey recognition.

4. Who? Recognition solely bestowed by executive leaders has been replaced by peer-to-peer recognition.

Additionally, in a more democratic workplace where teamwork is emphasized, this is a natural shift. The flow of recognition has expanded across the organization to include other functions and departments, bottom-up, peer-to-peer and colleague. Although recognition in general is valuable in creating employee engagement and inspiring team effort, managers must take the lead in recognizing their reports to support their coaching and development efforts.

5. What? The individual is king in a people-centric culture.

Total recognition chucks the one-size-fits-all approach and takes into consideration how to make it meaningful to the recipient. For starters, managers should acknowledge what the employee specifically did and its importance to the big picture and the manager, as well as its contribution to the organization’s values and culture. Consider whether the reward should be public or private, whether it should be sent to the home to share with family, and whether it should be presented to individuals or a team. A choice of awards conveys a respect for the individual’s preferences. Today’s most popular rewards are often experiential in nature, interactive (including travel, cooking classes, go-carting, spas, etc.), a product of choice, or a product that reflects the accomplishment, the task and is aligned with the company identity.

Bottom line

So you can see that meaningful recognition doesn’t need to be expensive or flow through rigid corporate channels. Everyone can participate in making employees feel like what they’ve done really does matter. Remember, what gets recognized gets repeated.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

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