How Boomers Can Set the Workplace Tone

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have with C-level executives that start with “Everybody knows.”

“Everybody knows what work-appropriate clothes look like – they just refuse to wear them.”

“Everybody knows you don’t talk to a client like that, but that doesn’t stop them.”

“Everybody knows it’s inappropriate to ask your boss about personal matters, but they do it all the time.”

Who’s the “they” in these situations? As ever, it’s the much-maligned Millennial.

Here’s what I find interesting about these statements: the presumption that the knowledge is innately planted into all of our heads at some point. Did we all wake up one morning in college and realize we suddenly knew exactly how to behave in the workforce?

Of course not. After a little prying, Boomers will usually admit that it’s not so much that “everybody knows” but that they themselves knew how to behave in the workplace before they entered it.

“Okay,” I say. “How did you know? Who taught you?”

There are countless examples. They saw the way their own parents behaved in the workplace. Their college professors demanded a certain type of professional behavior from them in college. They saw examples in television, read examples in books.

“Do you think Millennials have had the same education in how to behave in the workplace?”

Most of them do think Millennials have had the same experiences. But I’m here to tell you that’s not true.

What Millennials Were Taught

Millennials were raised in an era of tech start-ups and relaxed attitudes about the workplace. The best workplaces were Google and Apple, where the founders wore jeans and T-shirts and lounged in couches or on the bare floor when they were photographed for magazine spreads.

When we went to college (and for many of us, when we went to high school and grade school), we called our teachers by their first names. Most of our parents referred to their bosses by their first names, and would introduce them quite casually at company picnics as “Pete” or “Susanne.”

For Millennials, how you dressed in a professional environment appeared to be … basically the way you would dress anywhere else.

It’s not hard to understand how, in such a relaxed environment, they’d think that a professional demeanor isn’t necessary at all.

Who can set them straight?

It’s Boomers.

Teach Them and They Will Learn

Want more professional behavior from your Millennials?

Here’s how you teach them:

1.     Know the difference between your opinion and the world’s opinion. You might think that skirt is too short for the workplace, or that it’s not appropriate to call an elderly client by her first name. That said, if you’re the only one who appears to be bothered, there’s no need to intervene.

2.     Explain what you’re worried will happen rather than critiquing the thing itself. You don’t need to ban off-the-shoulder tops or the word LOL. You can say “I’m concerned our clients will feel more casual attire means we don’t take their account seriously” or “I’m worried our clients won’t be able to understand you.”

3.     Let them fail. Want to know the best way to convince an employee their professional brand isn’t working for them? After warning them, don’t say another word about it, and let the chips fall where they may. When your employee keeps failing to land the account or get the promotion, they’ll consider your suggestion with more weight. 

None of this is to say that an employee shouldn’t behave and look professional. You can absolutely require professionalism of your employees. You simply need to make sure your expectations are reasonable, let your employees know why a change is required, and be willing to let them fail rather than harangue them forever after.

Some will fail. Some will not be able to continue with your company. But the rest?

They’ll learn to think critically about their own behavior, how it is perceived in the workplace, and whether it is furthering or inhibiting their career goals.

Which is, after all, what being a professional is all about.

Paige Cornetet