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Dealing With Generational Expectations — Balancing Social Media In The Workplace And Long Term Employment Goals 

Karen Caplan, President and CEO of Frieda’s Inc. in Los Alamitos, California, maintains a blog, which we wrote about here when she first launched. Recently she wrote about employees, especially younger employees, and their use of social media, texting, the use of mobile phones, etc.

She called the piece, Why Texting in the Workplace is Here to Stay. In the piece, Karen recounted a public speaking engagement where she made some comments about the “younger generation” after the subject was raised in the Question & Answer period:

“How do you deal with all the different generations of workers in your business and how different they are?”

I especially like that question! Here at Frieda’s, we make a concerted effort to hire and retain all age levels — from the early 20s to older than 50s — because we like our team to be well-rounded so it mirrors our customer and supplier base.

I also shared my thoughts on Millennials (aka Gen Y) about their supposed lack of work ethics or inability to work hard. I am sick and tired of hearing that because it simply is not true. Millennials just have a different perspective from us Baby Boomers.

Instead of growing up expecting to have just one or two careers in their lifetimes, Millennials now know they will have multiple career changes throughout their lives — maybe 10 or more careers — some of which don’t even exist yet! They want to be challenged and valued and to be upwardly mobile in a short time.

Then Karen answered another question about texting:

“What do you do about all the instant messaging and texting in the workplace? How can you control it?”

That question was asked by a fellow Baby Boomer or possibly a Gen Xer (also known as the “skeptic generation”). I had to confide to the audience that it had been an adjustment for me to walk through the office and see people looking at Facebook or texting while at their desks “working.”

But I came to the conclusion years ago — with some coaching from my HR Manager and many seminars — that instead of worrying about controlling the social media activity and texting, I should ask myself one question: “Did they make their numbers?” or “Are they getting their work done?”

You see, the paradigm has shifted in offices today. And we can thank the multitasking Millennial generation that grew up being connected 24/7 to their friends and family.

We Baby Boomer bosses cannot judge others solely by how we were raised and trained. We have to condition ourselves that in order to attract and retain the best employees and team members, we need to be flexible and understand what motivates them. And we need to provide coaching and mentoring.

Although many of us grew up separating “business from personal” (e.g., limiting socializing with the folks you work with), for Millennials, some of their closest friends are those they work with. If we want to keep them, we’re going to have to be their friends too!

The last point gave the Pundit a little chuckle. We’ve known Karen Caplan for 30 years, been honored to be a guest in her home, and if she ever wanted to separate “business from personal,” this is the first time we are hearing about it! She is quite possibly the most socially connected person in the whole industry, a kind of walking produce industry Facebook, long before Mark Zuckerberg was a sparkle in his mother’s eye.

And it has worked out pretty well for her, which explains why efforts to deny use of social tools to appropriate staff are generally counterproductive. A sales executive who is checking out Facebook or Twitter is not necessarily wasting time — it is a way of gathering intelligence on who is where and what they are doing. 

In fact, rather than banning social media, it should be incorporated into training — how to use it productively. After all, in the old days we used to have sales training courses and told people how to get past “gatekeepers” by sending flowers to secretaries on their birthday, so now the question is what to do when LinkedIn sends a note that someone has a work anniversary.

Some people try to maintain a separation between work and personal — they maintain a LinkedIn account for work and a Facebook account for friends — but this strikes us as counterproductive and unsustainable. You work your whole life to build a great relationship with someone, connect on LinkedIn and then that contact sends you a Facebook friend request — are you going to ignore it? Write them a note that you only allow “real” friends to be friends on Facebook? It just doesn’t work. Besides one of the lessons of social media — certainly a lesson to teach one’s children — is never post anything online you wouldn’t want your next employer to know. If one is going to follow that sensible rule, then there is no need to separate the personal and professional on line anyway.

Even among non-sales executives, these tools serve unexpected purposes. One retail produce executive told us he was upset as he saw one of his clerks stop stocking the shelves and start texting from the produce department floor. When the executive chastised the clerk, the young man showed him his phone; he had been texting his co-worker who was already in back loading a cart of produce to bring to the floor to include an item they hadn’t realized was running low. In other words, he was using technology to be more productive, not less. A generation ago, the same guy would have had to leave the floor, scream across the back room, etc. Companies could provide proprietary tools to accomplish the same tasks, but that is a big expense.

The problem, of course, is that though used well, these tools can enhance business operations, they also can allow disinterested employees to goof off. The cell phone itself is a clear example. In the old days, everything went through the receptionist and a loyal receptionist would whisper to the boss that “Joe’s friends call him 20 times a day.” Now anyone can call or text directly and nobody can know for sure what is going on.

And Karen’s analysis of the upcoming generation — that they “now know they will have multiple career changes throughout their lives — maybe 10 or more careers” — points to a big problem. Many behaviors that produce value do so after significant investments of time and effort. Karen’s social network in produce is a perfect example. It produces value both personally and professionally for Karen.

Yet, if one goes into work with the notion that you probably won’t be doing this for very long, it reduces your willingness and incentive to invest in the hard things that will pay off over long periods of time. It also reduces the willingness and incentive of the business to invest in the employee.

In other words, this perception of the future leads to an emphasis on quick fixes and short term pay-offs. This is a great societal problem. Public corporations are often attacked for being too focused on quarterly profit. Think of great societal commitments such as John F. Kennedy’s commitment of America to a decade-long project to put a man on the moon, or Dwight Eisenhower’s multi-decade long effort to build the Interstate Highway System. Is it likely we would undertake such commitments today? It is somewhat amazing to think that after World War II, we made commitments so that we still have troops in Japan and Germany after almost 70 years! Compare that with our rush to get our troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

For a business, having employees with a short term focus — as Karen explained, “They want to be challenged and valued, and to be upwardly mobile in a short time.” — is also problematic. Wanting to be valued is understandable but it would be better, for the employees and their employers, if they wanted to be valuable.

Even the notion of wanting to be challenged is kind of passive. The world is filled with challenges, for those who choose to seize them. The Pundit started work for the Pundit Poppa and was selling produce into export markets. Wanting to sell more, we started coming in on Saturdays, going through the old International Fruit World publications, identifying countries we didn’t sell to and telexing each company a personal note about our capabilities and services and offering to help.

Nobody ever asked us to do that, and nobody paid us extra to do that, but when the first order came in and the Pundit Poppa asked how we got that — he said, “If you are willing to work Saturdays, we are going to be very successful.” And so we were.

The whole notion of looking to be “upwardly mobile in a short time” is probably not the optimal way to think about things. It is college application season and to readers of this space, it probably won’t come as a surprise that we are asked to help the children of friends and family, both in and out of the produce industry, by helping them craft their application essays.

Of course, the best essays come about because the students have clear thinking, but it is very common for the students to have goals, such as “I want to get a joint MBA/JD,” but for the same students to blubber incomprehensibly when asked why he or she would have that particular goal.

The disconnect is because what the students want is to be successful and they choose these highly credentialed paths because they think that will make them successful. In fact, the key part of writing the essay is coming to understand what the young applicants really, substantively, hope to accomplish. What values they hope to embody in the way they live.

In the course of these discussions, we often actually change the school they are applying to and the program they wish to pursue.

Ambition is a powerful motivator, and so a yearning to be upwardly mobile in a short time is not a bad thing, but it would be more usefully expressed as a search for something substantive — with confidence that such competency will lead to upward mobility. So you really want a young buyer who says I want to master everything there is to know about procuring specialty produce. I want to be the best buyer of specialty produce on the planet.

After all, this is actually something the employee can work on. Sitting and waiting for the world to make oneself “upwardly mobile” is likely to be frustrating.

Of course, such “short-term-itis” is not only a business problem for the young. In many of the larger corporations in the industry, compensation is heavily built upon profit-and-loss numbers. But such numbers are a very imperfect photograph of business success. Perhaps there is a new competitor in the field and what you should do is crush him, but dropping prices in that manner would mean you don’t make your number this year and that means no bonus or your stock options don’t vest or any number of other consequences. But the decision to not act may actually reduce the total profit over the next five years.

So the challenge in business when dealing with employees, young or old, is how to structure the situation so that the employees do the right thing to obtain optimal business success.

Lots of companies ban things such as cell phones, or they give their employees proprietary communication devices to use during work hours that strictly work within the company. This may make sense in certain circumstances — say a cashier in a retail store or a waiter in a restaurant where the employee is supposed to be 100% “on” for the customer at all times. It may make sense in a processing plant or warehouse where the worker is paid strictly by the hour and is expected to be 100% committed and where the worker has no flexibility to work late or come in early.

In today’s offices, though, shutting people off from the intelligence that flows through social media just doesn’t make sense. It is also rather insulting. To tell staff that you expect them to act autonomously and creatively to, as Karen says “ make their numbers” or “get their work done,” and that you don’t trust their looking at LinkedIn won’t build goodwill.

But there are risks to these things. LinkedIn is a great example. We’ve found there to be a very high correlation between increased LinkedIn activity and people leaving their jobs. In the old days, there were actual court cases over possession of the Rolodex and, in general, that was company property and the departing employee was obligated to leave it behind. Sure people could secretly copy things, but it was generally seen as theft of corporate information.

Nowadays, LinkedIn becomes a legal way for employees to leave with their entire “Rolodex” intact.

Karen’s point is unarguable, that employers have to understand and adapt to generational expectations and the ability to get a text from a friend or a call from a relative in the middle of the work day may be part of that. But the real challenge for the employer is to inform and motivate the employees in such a way that they voluntarily will cut off non-productive behaviors.

Few of us want to block employees from dealing with a health emergency or a fire burning their house down, but day to day, the challenge is to motivate employees so they will care so deeply about achieving success that they won’t want to be distracted while they are trying to work. 

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