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Can younger workers speak up without managers bristling?

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Young employees want a place at the table to have their voices heard. Some older workers think they should pay their dues first.
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As millennials and Gen Zers make up more of the workforce each year, there’s one big difference emerging that sets them apart from their predecessors. Unlike the generations that came before them, these younger workers are more eager to be heard in the workplace, whether that’s suggesting improvements or innovations; questioning salary and benefits, such as flexible working; and even pressing on larger issues, such as company values and diversity.

"Recent entrants into the workplace do seem a lot more comfortable talking about flexibility, work-life balance, fairness, about the kinds of expectations they have for their working lives, compared to older generations," says Martin Kilduff, professor of organisational behaviour at University College London. That’s even true of his own recent hires for research assistants, he says: "They're a lot more vocal – in a positive way. They let you know what they're thinking." 

Yet while younger workers want to be heard more than ever, they face an underlying paradox: despite the desire to speak up – and often encouragement from employers and colleagues alike to do so – it’s not as simple as coming forward to raise a concern or advocate for themselves. In many cases, they’re facing their older managers, who still expect younger workers to “pay their dues” before speaking their minds – and not step on their toes as higher-ranking employees.

How are younger workers supposed to reconcile this mismatch – and can they? Although they’re gaining footing in representation and subsequent power in numbers, many workplace norms still prevail while Gen X and Baby Boomers helm organisations. For Gen Z and millennials, advocating for themselves can be a tricky tightrope to walk. 

‘A moral obligation to speak up’

In the past few years, work has changed in many ways – among them, the fact that young workers want a place at the table.

This is not a wholly new desire: 2011 research on millennial workers – who at that time were the lowest-ranking generation in the workplace – showed 90% believed leadership should listen to their ideas. Now, however, the issue is becoming even more pronounced as Gen Z graduates into the workforce. Experts say they’re following millennials’ lead with the desire to be heard – and, in some cases, expect to be able to speak about even more issues, including flexibility, pay and values.

Traditionally, older generations have kept emotions and personal views out of the workplace – but younger workers are consciously bringing them to work (Credit: Getty Images)

Traditionally, older generations have kept emotions and personal views out of the workplace – but younger workers are consciously bringing them to work (Credit: Getty Images)

"Gen Z feel a moral obligation to speak up, and that can catch some people off-guard if they're not used to politics making the workplace awkward," says Haydn Shaw, author of Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart.

There are many reasons why young workers increasingly desire a voice. For one, they are bringing their values into the workplace more than generations before them, emphasising things like company ethics and political stances as well as equity and inclusion. Research also shows Gen Z especially wants to work for companies whose workforces look as diverse as their generation does. 

Present economic conditions may also lend to why Gen Z and millennials are eager to advocate for themselves in way older generations may not have, says Kyle Brykman, an assistant professor of management at the University of Windsor, in Ontario, Canada. As workers have had the upper hand in the labour market in recent years, priorities have shifted so workers of all ages are considering access to perks, such as flexibility, when they didn’t before; at the same time, these workers are aware that they have other job prospects if employers don’t hear them. Simply, it's easier to have confidence advocating when workers know replacing them is difficult and expensive. "It's a seller's market, not a buyer's market," says Shaw.

For some workers who want a seat at the table, they’re in luck. Swathes of companies are fostering environments in which younger generations are better included in discussions, and actively encouraged to speak up. In some cases, spurred in part by millennial demands, companies now hire diversity and inclusion experts and offer unconscious bias training. Companies are also increasingly introducing programmes that explicitly solicit the voices, ideas and feedback of young workers, such as through reverse mentorship initiatives or establishing ‘next generation’ boards.

It's in the interest of these companies to find out what's going on with the young people that they've hired. Companies want to hold onto them – Kyle Brykman

Those efforts are worth it to companies because recruitment is expensive and talent is scarce, says Kilduff. "It's in the interest of these companies to find out what's going on with the young people that they've hired," he says. "Companies want to hold onto them."

Sitting at the card table

Yet while some companies are being supportive, not every young worker is in an environment in which their voice is encouraged or welcomed – and even in those more open companies, some employees are finding it’s not as simple as raising their hand during a meeting.

A large part of this disconnect is that there are still many ingrained norms and perspectives in the workplace that spur from preceding generations in positions of power. In many cases, older workers expect to see younger generations pay their dues, waiting their turn to speak up. Shaw compares it to family gatherings where a lack of seats divides generations over dinner. "Previous generations were taught you sit at the card table at the family holiday dinner until you're invited to the big table," says Shaw. "That idea of 'wait your turn' to speak dominates much of life." 

Additionally, whereas Gen Zers and millennials want to be able to speak up about values, many Gen Xers and Boomers still see politics and personal life as topics to leave at home. One survey from employee-sentiment insights platform Perceptyx showed half of workers older than 45 want to ban political discussion from the office, while fewer than three in 10 younger workers agreed.

Experts say it can be helpful for younger workers to find allies in their older colleagues to advance their perspectives and concerns (Credit: Getty Images)

Experts say it can be helpful for younger workers to find allies in their older colleagues to advance their perspectives and concerns (Credit: Getty Images)

Some of the workplace ‘rules’ of the past have simply woven themselves into daily life as norms. Boomers expected deference from younger generations, and Gen X largely complied, says Shaw. "Gen X learned to just keep their mouth shut because it made life easier.” That leaves two generations, Boomers and Gen X, who are used to the idea of "paying your dues" managing two new generations, millennials and Gen Z, who want to speak up.

This affects young workers – research shows new starters, for instance, are less likely to speak up than their longer-serving colleagues – and when they do raise their voices, their ideas are attributed to others. But it can be especially problematic for groups who are already marginalised; research has identified a similar phenomenon for people who stand out in an office, whether for age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or any other reason. This is a growing challenge as, in the US, Gen Z workers are set to be the most diverse cohort yet.

An uncomfortable discrepancy

Not every manager is simply unwilling to hear what younger workers have to say or accommodate them, however. Part of the problem for many managers, says Shaw, is no-one wants to be the bad guy, refusing a request or shutting down an idea. "We don't always have an answer that will make people happy," he says. 

Plus, some older managers simply aren’t comfortable addressing the issues young workers want to bring into the workplace, due to generational differences. As Gen X and Baby Boomers tend to leave private issues at home, and Gen Z are more likely to bring their views and emotions into the workplace, this discrepancy can be uncomfortable and even challenging for older generations. “The expression of emotion in the workplace, rather than keeping a stiff upper lip, is a major change. And this greater vocalisation of emotion is sometimes more than we bargained for, and managers don't know how to handle it,” says Shaw.

The expression of emotion in the workplace, rather than keeping a stiff upper lip, is a major change – Hadyn Shaw

Are younger workers, then, stuck keeping their views to themselves for now? Yes and no.

Younger workers may not be able to advocate for themselves the way they'd like – or the way older colleagues can – but they can find allies who will help. Kilduff suggests this cohort can be heard without having to pay their dues by borrowing “social capital” from a more senior employee or mentor who can raise their point. "It's providing what we call 'social proof’ for the idea – it's not just one person's idea, but a more senior person is saying it or a lot of people feel this way," adds Brykman. This social capital is “a reputation signal that we can trust a person's ideas, because they've been here long”. Ultimately, he says, early-career workers don’t have to speak up alone.

Kilduff also says as programmes like reverse mentoring expand, younger generations may have a stage for their voices. A two-way conversation can not only be more palatable for older managers, but ultimately may also provide a “productive partnership” for both parties, where young workers can speak up while “older workers offer mentorship in terms of the ways of the organisation and help them negotiate the traps as well as the opportunities”, he says. 

But the burden of speaking up shouldn't fall entirely on employees – especially younger ones. Instead, managers should build a safe environment where people feel empowered to ask questions, make requests and offer ideas. The idea is to create "psychological safety", says Shaw – helping staff feel as though there won’t be a backlash against them speaking up. Managers should set an example by raising their voices first, says Shaw, then "give permission for people to ask for things, and ask for permission to say no".

If companies can action this, they benefit, too: they avoid frustrated younger generations moving to a new job, which exacerbates churn rates and increases recruitment costs. "It's expensive to hire young professionals – it costs a lot of money to search them out, recruit them, to bring them in and train them," says Kilduff. "If they're not happy and they don't tell you, you're going to lose your investment." Plus, says Brykman, requiring employees to have social capital before they can speak up can inhibit organisations. “Creative and novel ideas are going to come from new employees. We might be stifling innovation by requiring that social capital to speak up."

With that in mind, however, Gen Z and younger millennials may end up still having to tread lightly while older generations are still in charge and subscribe to certain workplace norms. Experts say real change will come as millennials are promoted into more management positions, and as Gen Z further enter the workplace.