Stop Recruiting Gen Z Like Millennials

Employers eager to attract the best young employees are too often delivering the wrong messages to the wrong people at the wrong times.

Because young talent is perpetually in greater demand than supply, employers desperate to fill open positions make the mistake of turning recruiting into an elaborate sales pitch. The problem is that prospective employees get the wrong idea about what the job they are applying for is really going to be like. In months, sometimes just weeks, the person is unhappy and frustrated.

You can run the most expensive and extensive recruiting campaign of all time, but if your message is not compelling and believable, you are wasting your time, energy, and money. Long gone are the days when open office plans, on-campus gyms, and other Millennial-targeted messages could help you stand out. Recruiting today's young people requires an updated strategy premised on radical employer honesty: specific branding, transparency about the short-term rewards, and the flexibility to offer people what really matters to them.


Your employer branding might need an overhaul

Branding is a big part of recruiting, and many larger organizations with established reputations often rely on branding alone to get people in the door. Whether you are a big global brand or a smaller local brand, if people know who you are, trust your reputation, and believe you have plenty of resources, that is enough to at least get them interested.

But employers should be wary that their consumer brand and employer brand don't become mixed. While your consumer experience may be marketed as glamorous, exciting, fun, and accommodating, that's probably not the message you want to be sending to prospective employees.

It's critical to build your brand as an employer, on its own terms, alongside your brand in the marketplace. Just as your brand in the marketplace is built on the value proposition you offer to consumers, your brand as an employer must be built on the value proposition you offer to employees.


Emphasize the short-term benefits and rewards

Too many employers today are still offering the same long-term career opportunities, together with the traditional, old-fashioned rewards they've been offering for decades: slow steps up the organization's ladder, six-month reviews, annual raises, and other standard benefits.

If all you have to sell are one-size-fits-all career paths and rewards that don't vest until several years in the future, your value proposition and recruiting message will not be compelling to today's young people. For young workers, traditional rewards are merely the threshold test.

What's confusing to many employers, however, is that young applicants often appear very concerned about these long-term opportunities. Of course, your new young workers are curious to know where they'll be in the organization if they were to stay for five, ten, or even fifteen years. But this is just-in-case information: Just in case they get stuck in your system, they want to know how that is likely to play out.

Young people in the workforce today are savvy enough to know that hiring managers are concerned with retention of new employees and that they should try to express interest in staying for at least some reasonable period of time. They usually assume that whatever time frames you are using to discuss the position must seem reasonable to you, so they mirror that language in cover letters and interviews.

Still, what really concerns most young applicants are the short-term opportunities and rewards. If you want to speak to them in a way that separates your job offer from the others right now, you have to talk about right now. Spell out in specific terms what you have to offer them today, tomorrow, next week, this month, the first six months, and the first year. If you want your recruiting message to attract them, then you need a recruiting message that speaks to their real concerns.


Be inquisitive enough to find out what matters to them, and make sure you deliver

Of course, every applicant is unique. What work means to most people at any given time changes depending on what's going on in their lives.

These are the six stages for most young people in their early careers.

1. Sometimes they are taking stock and trying to figure out what they really want to do next. The one potential upside here for the employer is that the employee may well try to build a record of accomplishment working for you. The downside is they'll take that record of accomplishment to the job they really want later.

2. Sometimes they look at work as a place to hang out with friends. Some recruiters might believe having a peer group at work is the holy grail of retention today, but that view is shortsighted. The potential upside for the employer is that young employees may really look forward to coming to work. The downside is that their social relations will be their primary focus as well as motivation: Once the friend group moves on, so will they.

3. Sometimes they find work that aligns with their deep interests and priorities. Another myth that has come from over-selling jobs to Millennials is the idea that if someone is deeply passionate about the work, they'll do their best and never leave. More realistically, the upside for employers is that young people will bring energy and enthusiasm to the work, at least for a while. The downside is that energy and enthusiasm can only last so long, and pretty soon eagerness to serve the mission turns into overwhelming burnout.

4. Sometimes they see a job as an opportunity to work intensely for a short period of time with the chance of a giant payoff. The upside here is that the person will work like crazy. The downside is that if they lose confidence in the likelihood of the giant payoff, they will start taking whatever they can get for the least amount of effort before moving on to the next big gamble.

5. Sometimes what they value in a job is an unusual opportunity to meet an idiosyncratic need or want. It might be to work a very particular schedule, or work with particular individuals, or work in a particular location, or learn a particular skill, or do a particular task, or engage in some nonwork activity on the job. The upside is that as long as they value that unique need or want and you are able to provide it, they won't leave. The downside is that accommodating these requests may not be practical or possible forever.

6. The best case is when a young applicant is looking at the job as a chance to make an impact while building themselves up with your resources. They hope to learn, grow, and collect proof of their ability to add value. As long as you keep supporting their self-building, this will bring out their best for the most sustained period.

If you want to stand out from other employers, determine which of these scenarios your organization is able and willing to support and integrate that into your recruiting process. Find out from applicants which of these models looks most like what they need from a job right now. If they're a good fit, speak to their short-term needs and how you can help meet those needs.

Today, there's no way to ensure long-term retention from the beginning, for any employee. So do your best to make it work for both of you in the short-term. That just-in-time investment will likely pay off better than any elaborate long-term career-building plan ever could.


Download the 2023-2024 Edition of Winning the Talent Wars: Staffing & Retention for Post-Pandemic Workforce here.

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Bruce Tulgan: Founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc. and Top Expert on Leadership Development and Generational Issues in the Workplace

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