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Beyond Retention: Engagement and Development Strategies for Gen Z

Last month my colleague, Janine Corea, provided some direct insight into what Gen Z workers are looking for in their job searches. In reviewing the data and research, it very broadly came down to compensation, growth and development, flexibility, and values alignment. As Janine pointed out, while there is no magic formula for ensuring long-term retention for all employees, Gen Z is demonstrating that they are open to providing employers with information that can be used to improve both recruitment and retention strategies. And while the tactics above are particularly important to Gen Z, there’s also value in understanding why they may be important, so that retention strategies are designed to truly tap into the root of what Gen Z fundamentally needs from an employer.

Let’s first start with the basics. What defines a generation? The simple (and incomplete) answer is age. Gen Z is often defined as consisting of those born between the years 1997 and 2012. However, and much to the chagrin of HR professionals challenged with designing effective engagement strategies for up to five different generations in the workplace, generations of workers are so much more complex. It’s not just someone’s age, rather it’s about how someone may be significantly shaped by events and external factors that have occurred during the specific generation’s formative years. When it comes to Gen Z, what would these include?

  • September 11th and its aftermath.
  • The housing market crash (2008).
  • The Recession of 2006-2009.
  • Global Warming.
  • An unprecedented increase in the cost of higher education.
  • A significant increase in gun violence and mass shootings.
  • Oh…and Covid.

On top of this admittedly scary list, which is likely the reason I can’t sleep at night raising both Gen Z and Gen Alpha children, there are thankfully some silver linings. Gen Z has witnessed an unprecedented increase in diversity and is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in the history of the United States. Likely directly related to their demographics, Gen Z has also been instrumental in some of the most significant social and environmental movements in the past ten years. Gen Z was also born into technology! They are the first generation to truly grow up in a fully digitized world; they have been afforded privileges of technology that have put the world literally at their fingertips.

So, why do I include this information when discussing retention? Because each suggestion below now has important context. Like Millennials, I often see clients dismissing younger generations’ needs as entitlement. But when we look at the worlds in which our younger generations were raised, we should begin to not only understand but empathize with what they truly need from employers.

A high trust and transparent culture are key.

In our survey, every respondent listed either “Important” or “Very Important” when asked about how they feel about an employer’s reputation; this was one of the highest-ranked factors when considering an employer. Additionally, a company’s culture was listed as “Important,” “Very Important,” or “Non-Negotiable” by the majority of respondents. Why is this? Gen Z inherently does not have a high degree of trust in employers, does not positively view their futures, and are employees who report the highest degree of burnout. According to CNBC, “Nearly half (48%) of 18-to-29-year-olds said they feel drained compared with 40% of their peers.” Before any of our readers above the age of 27 roll their eyes, please refer to exhibit A (i.e., the first list of what they grew up with) and now reflect on why this may be the case. Gen Z has had a rollercoaster of adversity to overcome throughout their lives and so the result is that they have an underlying need for more than your traditional support from employers. This includes not only a strong need for alignment in values and trust but additionally a higher degree of support not traditionally expected of employers.

Retention must be focused on holistic, “whole human” support.

When raised in a time of extreme adversity, there is no shock that workers are craving something they have not necessarily had: stability and support. I like to call it, “whole human” support. According to Forbes, “58% of Gen Z reported two or more unmet social needs, compared with 16% of people from older generations.” These unmet social needs include income, employment, education, food, housing, transportation, and mental health support, amongst others. This statistic is underlined by yet another disturbing statistic from the World Health Organization, there has been a 25% increase in anxiety and depression over the past three years. How does this impact employers? Now more than ever, the lines between home life and work are increasingly blurred; factors impacting an employee’s life impact work and employers must directly support an employee’s life outside of work. If those needs are not met, Gen Z employees will find another option. And, with an unemployment rate hovering at a historic low of around 3.5%, these employees can and will do that. Great Place to Work reports that Gen Z workers “want it all—and they’re willing to take action if they feel their needs aren’t met.” Therefore, companies that invest in more creative approaches to “whole human” support, such as childcare benefits, student loan support, transportation benefits, comprehensive mental health programs, and true work/life balance cultures will be the ones that Gen Z not only flocks to, but potentially stays with.

Growth is not one size fits all.

Studies show that Gen Z’s concept of career advancement is far more complicated than just independent, linear growth. The Society for Human Resources Management reports that “feeling like part of a team is a Generation Z must” and that “young workers especially enjoy the opportunity to rotate through several jobs during their first few years with a company.” Our survey supports this, with the overwhelming majority of respondents listing Teamwork/Collaboration and Career Growth as “Important,” “Very Important,” or “Non-Negotiable.”  This need to work collaboratively and learn from others may be due to Gen Z’s intrinsic need to make an impact on society or the ever-changing environment in which they were raised. Life, and work, are simply not straight lines for the Gen Z generation. They are not only searching for but are driven by the ability to learn and grow outside of their comfort zone. Perhaps the adversity that they faced growing up has not only made them adept at flexibility but has created an innate need for a deeper challenge that can only be achieved by reaching beyond Gen Z’s learning box. What does this mean? Career pathing should not be a ladder, but perhaps more like an ant hill.

Technology and efficiency are non-negotiable.

While often overlooked as recruitment and retention factors, technology and efficiency are often considered non-negotiable for Gen Z. According to the Workforce Institute, “one-third of Gen Z employees expect their organizations to provide them with modern technology. And one in five say they won’t tolerate bad experiences at all.” Gen Z understandably has minimal tolerance for organizations that are not embracing technology and, along with that, have a natural need for efficiency. Remember, they were born into technology and, due to that, are used to moving quickly and getting results fast. Companies that are averse to embracing technology or are otherwise inefficient will simply not align with the way in which Gen Z naturally works. There’s an age-old trick of crossing your arms and attempting to cross them with the other hand on top. It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, and you just won’t do it if you don’t have to. That’s how Gen Z reacts to companies that are steadfast in archaic procedures.

Retention may not be the answer.

I was lucky enough to present at DisruptHR Rochester in May and listened to a brilliant speech by Hernan Chiosso. His topic? Fire Your Stars. WHAT? Fire your stars? But we work so hard to retain our stars!! His concept recognized that with the changing workforce, we need to see changing approaches to success in a business. The fact is that in some cases, the effort to retain employees may outweigh the benefits. Is it always necessary to focus on long-term retention? Not necessarily. Ultimately, Gen Z has faced adversity that may result in the end of employees like my husband and me, 15 and 10-year employees, respectively. And maybe, that’s okay. Gen Z employees bring different skill sets and, when anticipated and planned appropriately, can be a great asset to a company for two to four years (or more!), can be great ambassadors of your company after they leave, and can be future clients. While they are with you, you have the opportunity to help them grow, provide support, and otherwise engage them so as to create a future path for success and potentially change their current (and understandable) doubt about their future. As Hernan said, “fire your stars up, or out.”  Ultimately, a company that is focused on doing what is best for their people not only will benefit from strong performance while employees are there, but the all-important internet recognition of just being a good employer. Which, as Janine mentioned in the recruitment article, is of utmost importance.

In the end? Having an understanding of what Gen Z has been up against literally their entire lives will help you to design retention programs that may help to keep them with your company. Recognize that, much like their lives, there is no linear path to success, so allow for collaboration and stretch assignments for growth. And in the end? Take the humanistic approach to helping this subset of employees to overcome adversity and provide the “whole person” support that they (and all employees) are looking for. But perhaps in the end it is important to also recognize that the world is changing, and companies may need to adjust their recruiting and retention approaches to identifying high-impact employees instead of just long-term employees.

Written By:

Adrienne Schleigh
Sr. Director, HR Strategic Placements

HR Works, headquartered in Upstate New York, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States for over thirty years. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.