Can younger employees speak up without managers getting angry?


Young employees want a seat at the table so that their opinions can be heard. Some older workers believe they must first pay their dues.

As millennials and Gen Zers become a larger proportion of the workforce, one significant difference emerges that distinguishes them from their predecessors. Unlike previous generations, these younger workers are more eager to be heard at work, whether it’s suggesting improvements or innovations, questioning salary and benefits, such as flexible working, or even pressing on larger issues, such as company values and diversity.

“Compared to older generations, recent entrants into the workplace appear to be a lot more comfortable talking about flexibility, work-life balance, fairness, and the kinds of expectations they have for their working lives,” says Martin Kilduff, professor of organisational behaviour at University College London. That is also true of his recent research assistant hires. He states: “They’re much more vocal – in a good way. They express their thoughts to you.” 

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

How, if at all, are younger workers supposed to reconcile this mismatch? Although they are gaining representation and thus power in numbers, many workplace norms continue to prevail while Gen X and Baby Boomers lead organisations. For Generation Z and millennials, Advocating for oneself can be a dangerous tightrope to walk. 

‘A moral obligation to speak up’–2022–achieve-highest-scores

Work has changed in many ways in recent years, one of which is that young workers now want a seat at the table.

This is not a completely novel desire: According to a 2011 study of millennial workers, who were the lowest-ranking generation in the workplace at the time, 90% believed leadership should listen to their ideas. However, as Generation Z enters the workforce, the problem is becoming more pronounced. Experts say they are following in the footsteps of millennials in their desire to be heard – and, in some cases, expect to be able to speak about even more issues, such as flexibility, pay, and values.

“Gen Z feel a moral obligation to speak up, and that can catch some people off-guard if “They aren’t used to politics making the workplace awkward,” says Haydn Shaw, author of Sticking Points: How to Get Four Generations Working Together in the Twelve Places Where They Differ.

There are numerous reasons why young workers want to have a voice. For one thing, they are bringing their values into the workplace more than previous generations, emphasising issues such as corporate ethics and political stances, as well as equity and inclusion. According to research, Gen Z prefers to work for companies with workforces that are as diverse as their generation.

According to Kyle Brykman, an assistant professor of management at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, current economic conditions may also contribute to Gen Z and millennials’ eagerness to advocate for themselves in ways that previous generations may not have. As workers have gained an advantage in the labour market in recent years, priorities have shifted, and workers of all ages are considering access to perks such as flexibility that they did not previously; at the same time, these workers are aware that if employers do not hear them, they have other job prospects. Simply put, it is easier to advocate with confidence when workers understand that replacing them is difficult and costly. “This is a seller’s market, not a buyer’s market,” Shaw says.

Some employees who want a seat at the table are in luck. Many businesses are creating environments in which younger generations are more involved in discussions and actively encouraged to speak up. Companies are now hiring diversity and inclusion experts and offering unconscious bias training in some cases, spurred in part by millennial demands. Companies are also increasingly introducing programmes that explicitly seek the voices, ideas, and feedback of young workers, such as reverse mentorship initiatives or the formation of ‘next generation’ boards.

It is in these companies’ best interests to learn what is going on with the young people they have hired. Companies want to keep them. – Brykman, Kyle

Companies value those efforts because recruitment is costly and talent is scarce, according to Kilduff. “It’s in these companies’ best interests to find out what’s going on with the young people they’ve hired,” he says. “Companies want to keep them.”

Taking a seat at the card table

While some companies are supportive, not every young worker is in an environment where their voice is encouraged or welcomed – and even in those more open companies, some employees find it difficult to raise their hand during a meeting.

A large part of the disconnect stems from the fact that there are still many ingrained norms and perspectives in the workplace that are the result of previous generations in positions of power. In many cases, older workers expect younger generations to pay their dues while they wait their turn to speak up. Shaw compares it to family dinners where a lack of seats divides generations. “Previous generations were taught that at a family holiday dinner, you sit at the card table until you’re invited to the big table,” Shaw says. “The concept of ‘waiting your turn’ to speak pervades much of life.”

Furthermore, while Gen Zers and millennials want to be able to express their values, many Gen Xers and Boomers still regard politics and personal life as topics best left at home. According to one survey conducted by employee-sentiment insights platform Perceptyx, half of workers over the age of 45 want to ban political discussion in the workplace, while less than three in ten younger workers agreed.

Some of the previous workplace ‘rules’ have simply woven themselves into daily life as norms. According to Shaw, Boomers expected deference from younger generations, and Gen X mostly delivered. “Generation X learned to keep their mouth shut because it made their lives easier.” That leaves two generations, the Boomers and Generation X, who are accustomed to the concept of “paying your dues.” Managing two new generations of activists, millennials and Generation Z.

This affects young workers; research shows that new employees are less likely to speak up than their more experienced colleagues, and when they do, their ideas are attributed to others. However, it can be especially problematic for already marginalised groups; research has found a similar phenomenon for people who stand out in the workplace, whether for age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or any other reason. This is a growing issue in the United States, where Gen Z workers are expected to be the most diverse cohort yet.

An uncomfortable discrepancy

However, not every manager is simply unwilling to listen to or accommodate younger workers. According to Shaw, part of the problem for many managers is that no one wants to be the bad guy, refusing a request or dismissing an idea. “We don’t always have an answer that makes people happy,” he admits.

Furthermore, due to generational differences, some older managers are simply not comfortable addressing the issues that young workers want to bring into the workplace. Because Generation X and Baby Boomers are more likely to leave private issues at home, and Generation Z is more likely to bring their views and emotions to work, this disparity can be uncomfortable and even challenging for older generations. “Rather than keeping a stiff upper lip, expressing emotion in the workplace is a significant change.” “And this increased expression of emotion is sometimes more than we bargained for, and managers don’t know how to deal with it,” Shaw says..

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