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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Companies Have Always Struggled to Engage Young People 11-20

Companies    Have    Always    Struggled    to    Engage   Young    People

A capable young manager in a financial services company returns from a month’s vacation. Formerly clean cut and conservatively dressed, he’s now sporting a beard and long sideburns. He also begins appearing at work in bright-colored sport-shirts and bell-bottom trousers. He resumes working with his accustomed vigor and sincerity.
Would this matter to you?  Do you think it would matter to anyone else?
In an effort to explore executives’ views of the benefits and drawbacks of encouraging managers’ individuality, HBR presented this scenario to 3,453 readers and asked them which of four responses would most closely describe their reaction.
Two, or maybe three, of them (0.1% at any rate) thought the young man should be summarily fired. Only 18% thought “What the kid wears and how he looks is his own business.”  The rest chose one of two passive-aggressive options, as you can see.
Beards have recently come back into fashion, but it probably won’t surprise anyone that this survey dates from 1971. That Baby Boomer hippie dresser, if he stayed, is likely now a top manager contemplating the t-shirts, flip flops, and leggings that his Millennial staffers wear to work. I’ll wager he’s probably less passive-aggressive (or at least more politically correct) in his views about how individuality should be expressed in the workplace than his bosses were.
But the truly surprising thing about the survey, published in the November–December issue of that year in an article entitled “Who Wants Employee Rights?”, was how strongly those conservatively-dressed HBR readers favored rights like the freedom to express your individuality, to object to transfers, to push your own political agenda, and to advocate against the primacy of shareholder value.
In an era in which it was joked that the initials “IBM” stood for “I’ve Been Moved,” for instance, fully 54% of the survey respondents from 1971 believed that a company transferring a young executive to a job that didn’t fit his interests had made a mistake and should reassign him to one he likes better. A whopping three-quarters believed that a CEO should allow a group of managers and engineers who fervently believed their company should pledge never to sell arms to aid any conflict not endorsed by Congress should be allowed to argue their case before the company’s board. Only a small minority felt a corporation’s duty is only to its stockholders, and more than 60% believed the interests of owners must be balanced with the interest of employees, customers, and the public.
But perhaps this liberalism is less surprising when you take into account that companies were making a real effort to woo Baby Boomers into business.  Enrollment at HBS hit a historic low in 1969 as the best and the brightest of the Boomers (the generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30) were seeking fulfillment elsewhere. Some accommodation had to be made.
In particular, argues former HBS admissions director Anthony Athos, in another 1971 article, melodramatically entitled “Is the Corporation Next to Fall?” accommodation had to be made for this new generation’s emphasis on personal fulfillment over corporate efficiency.  Athos cites noted MIT professor Kenneth Keniston (who first defined the concept of “the youth movement”) to explain what made the baby boomers different from the generation preceding them into the workplace. He describes a distrust in authority that had reached the level of revulsion — revulsion against the notion of economic quantity and a turn toward concepts of quality, a revolt against uniformity and a struggle against psychological or institutional rigidity in any form, a revolt against centralized power and a complementary demand for populist participation, and a new ethic of “meaningful human relationships in which individuals confront each other without masks, pretenses, and games.”
Alarmingly for HBR’s readers at the time, to get beyond the pretense, Athos says top business school grads were judging potential employers by how many of those hippie dressers were walking the halls. In fact the easiest way to test an employer’s sincerity was “to let facial hair grow and, in the job interview, watch for discomfort or an outright complaint.” Rejection of what’s on one’s head, the theory went, is likely to accompany a low appreciation for what’s in it on the job. “And like many simple tests,” Athos concludes, “this one worked pretty well.”
So what happened to all those would-be hippie dressers? In the 1971 survey, as might be expected, the younger employees were the most liberal. And the cohort coming after them, represented in the survey by students at HBS and one unnamed public mid-Western business school, were more liberal still, leading senior associate editor David Ewing to confidently assume that as these fractious Boomers rose through the ranks, attitudes would become even more tolerant of the exercise of individual conscience and wider forms of individual expression at work.
But that view did not take into account the looming Arab Oil Embargo, which raised the price of heating oil in 1974 higher than many Boomers’ monthly rent, nor the near decade of stagflation. The combination of higher prices and slow job growth sent droves of the best and the brightest back to business school. The hippies of the late 1960s became the dress-for-success yuppies of the 1980s. And offices probably looked much as Athos described his class of graduate business students in the late 1950s—“a colony of penguins indistinguishable to the casual eye.”
I’d be surprised if today’s entrepreneurial Millennials who eye Amazon and Google suspiciously as the new establishment are ranking potential employers by how diverse the clothing is that people wear to work. In fact, one Forbes’s article suggests that GenXers who used to don suits to be taken seriously by their Boomer bosses are now contemplating wearing jeans and t-shirts to emulate the hip, creative, fast-thinking Millennials gunning for their jobs. Whether you wear a uniform or a suit, or jeans and t-shirt, what you wear has never really been an expression of who you are as an individual; it’s always been an expression of which tribe you belong (or aspire to belong) to.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if high-potential Millennials are sizing up potential bosses in the way Athos said his students judged him as a professor back in the 1960s, by coming up with what he calls a “discomforting set of questions”: “Who are you? Can I trust you? Do you care? Are you aware? Are you mature as a man? Are you knowledgeable and still learning? Are you skillful enough to help me, where I am, to see more options? Where are you going? How will I get there? Why is going there important and worthwhile to me?”

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