The oldest members of Generation Z turn 25 this year, and they currently make up one-quarter of the US workforce. And they’re also gaining a reputation for generating the majority of workplace complaints.
It is a source of growing frustration among many of my fellow Human Resources professionals that the youngest people in offices tend to bring grievances and misunderstandings, no matter how minor to the desk of HR.
One HR Director recently told me: “We stopped offering free soda and you would think we imposed a pay cut. The complaints from the junior staff to HR were unreal. They act more entitled than anyone else.”
Another HR executive shared: “We had an employee who wasn’t performing well and was given a performance improvement plan. The next day, I got a call from reception that the employee’s mother was there to see HR. She had brought a binder along with what she felt were performance examples to dispute the company’s assessment of their child.” This generation, she added, seems to allow “parental oversight/enablement” for a “much longer” period than previous ones.
There was a time when millennials were criticized for being too sensitive in the workplace. But the eldest members of Gen Y are now well into adulthood and pushing 40 — old enough to be covered by age discrimination laws. Millennials still have more in common with their junior counterparts than with the older Gen X crowd (they both grew up in the digital age and are more comfortable with technology and more motivated by work that does societal good). But attitudes evolve as people age, and one thing millennial and Gen X managers share is their frustration with their Gen Z workers.
“We had an employee complain to HR that they were being bullied,” one frustrated millennial manager confessed to me. “Why? Because their manager told them that ‘flexibility’ didn’t mean they could just make their own hours and be offline whenever it suited them. Instead, they had to discuss their schedule with their manager and be reachable during the company’s core working hours. That apparently is ‘bullying.’”
Perhaps Gen Z’s behavior in the workplace is not surprising. This youngest generation is the most diverse, most educated, most progressive and most pro-government in history. According to Pew research, 70 percent of Gen Zers say the government should do more to solve problems rather than businesses and individuals. In short, they want a higher power to intervene and fix their problems.
Plus, they have come of age when so many aspects of life are viewed as matters of identity — and where “safety” means protection not just from actual harm but from perceived harm. If members of Gen Z see HR as the function designed to protect them as they move from college to the office, it makes sense that HR is the first place they go to air their grievances.
But constantly bringing minor issues to HR has major consequences. HR professionals are obligated to probe and report every problem that crosses their desk. More cases means less time for matters that involve serious issues like discrimination and sexual harassment, which require a great deal of attention to investigate properly.
Culture is critical – and HR plays a leading role — but culture is defined by everyone’s behavior, from executive leaders to the most junior people in the company. Gen Z, in short, needs to take some responsibility for their own personal growth. Before rushing to HR to complain, young employees should try spending more time talking to their bosses and colleagues first. Most workplace conflicts (particularly those that don’t rise the level of unlawful conduct) are best solved between coworkers.