How to manage millennials

By Anne Fisher, contributor


FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I read with amusement your recent advice to the summer intern who hoped for a job offer despite a tattoo ("Get hired after an internship," August 20). Great, but how about some help for those of us on the other side of the desk? I'm managing a team of 10 part timers between the ages of 17 and 20 -- and I'd gladly accept tattoos in place of some of their attitudes.

Don't get me wrong, these are basically good, smart kids. But, for example, there are certain tasks they forget to do, over and over again, unless I remind them. When I do remind them, they turn sullen and rebellious, as if I were a nagging mom. My older employees (mostly in their 30s), meanwhile, get impatient with "the kids" and make a big deal out of every little mistake until I'm ready to scream. Have you or your readers got any tips for dealing with the generation gap? --No Name in Nevada

Dear No Name: It may help a little to bear in mind that "teenagers' brains are not yet completely formed," says Meagan Johnson, half of a father-and-daughter consulting team that's coached managers at American Express (AXP, Fortune 500), Harley-Davidson (HOG, Fortune 500), Nordstrom (JWN, Fortune 500), and many other big companies on how to defuse the tensions that arise at work between generations. "We expect them to act like us in the workplace, but that just isn't realistic."

"Were we such stellar employees ourselves, in our teens? We tend to see our own past behavior through rose-colored glasses," says Larry Johnson, Meagan's father.

One likely source of friction between your teen employees and their Gen X colleagues: "Gen Xers tend to be good at working independently, because we grew up with both parents working, and had to figure a lot of things out for ourselves," notes Meagan, herself a Gen Xer. "By contrast, many teens now have been raised by snowplow parents" who remove all obstacles from their child's path.

Another difference is that today's teens -- who the Johnsons dub "linksters" -- "have been linked into technology and the Internet since day one," says Larry.

Today's teens may need more direction on tasks that require face-to-face contact, where they may be less adept, notes Meagan. They may seem mature, but make sure they really know how to do what you're asking them to do, and don't expect them to read your mind.

"Even for an 'easy' task like greeting customers, you need to be specific. Explain that you want them to smile, make eye contact, and so on. Then take the time to demonstrate how you want it done," Meagan Johnson says.

Talkback: Do you have teens on your team at work? What works when managing them? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.

At the same time, enlist your Gen X employees' help in coaching the youngsters. "Xers generally have less patience for this than Boomers do," says Larry, himself a Boomer. "Remind them that it's important. Make it part of their job."

They suggest these tips, all of which can be found in the Johnsons' book, Generations, Inc.:

Provide written job descriptions. "Part-time jobs are often treated provisionally and have a 'disposable' feel," says Larry.

As part of the job interview, spell out exactly what the job entails, including hours, pay, and duties -- and consider this a blueprint new hires can follow.

Treat them like valued co-workers. "Remember that linksters are used to a steady diet of feedback and positive reinforcement from their family and friends," says Meagan. "A work atmosphere that is less than collegial will seem hostile to them."

Encourage your older employees to include their younger colleagues in office chitchat, meetings, and social events. "The more you include them, the tighter the connection they'll feel to you and the workplace and the better their work will be," Larry says.

Lead by example. "Linksters are hatchlings in the workplace," says Meagan. "They're still learning how to behave, and they look to us to provide examples. If you want them to come in on time, get there on time yourself. If you expect them to go the extra mile for customers, make sure they see you doing it."

Thank their parents. "Mom or Dad may be getting up early to drive the kids to work and waiting in a dark parking lot to take them home," says Larry. "So taking a few minutes to meet the parents and thank them creates a tremendous amount of goodwill -- and having the parents on board increases the chance that they will help their child overcome work challenges."

One additional thought: "Linksters often have a patina of sophistication that can be misleading," observes Meagan. "They seem so grown up! But underneath, they are still kids."

In other words, a little patience and forbearance -- not to mention a sense of humor -- can go a long way.

Talkback: Do you have teens on your team at work? What works when managing them? If you're a teen with a job, what do you wish your boss or colleagues would do differently? Tell us on Facebook, below. To top of page