Last week, I wrote about Jessica Kriegel, senior organization development consultant at Oracle, who argues that generational stereotypes, like the widespread notions we’ve all read about millennials as entitled, tech-savvy, structure-averse job-hoppers, are harmful to workplace fairness and productivity. In my interview with Kriegel, I also drilled down on the issue of stereotyping as it pertains to IT professionals, which warrants further discussion here.
I found Kriegel, a millennial herself, to be persuasive in her argument, which she makes in her new book, “Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit from Ditching Generational Stereotypes.” I also found her to be refreshingly candid. She didn’t miss a beat, for example, in responding to my question about what sorts of generational stereotyping she has found to be most common within Oracle:
I can only speak to the groups that I have worked with. I was brought in to work with the product development team. The managers were basically saying that millennials could not easily transition from college to corporate. They felt like millennials were bringing the college campus style to the corporate atmosphere. So I was brought in to resolve that issue—to teach the millennials how to be more professional, more corporate, and less casual and college-like. That manifested itself in many ways. Some of it had to do with dress code; some of it had to do with productivity; some of it had to do with expectations with regard to work/life balance.
We conducted numerous focus groups, studies, and surveys to understand really what was at the core of the issue. What we found wasn’t necessarily that these millennials didn’t want to dress more professionally, or they didn’t want to be more productive. They were lacking some of the tools, because there was less communication happening between the managers and the millennial college hires than there needed to be. So instead of teaching these millennials how to dress, what we ended up doing was facilitating communication between the managers and the millennials, so that expectations were set.
Once that communication started happening, we saw a massive uptick in productivity, and a massive uptick in job satisfaction, on both the manager side and the millennial side. So the issue wasn’t that they wanted to do it differently. They didn’t have the communication from their older coworkers that they needed.
Kriegel went on to address the issue of how IT professionals are stereotyped in a broader sense:
IT professionals in general, regardless of generation, are typically considered to be more academic, more nerdy, whatever. Those are stereotypes that are just as damaging as generational stereotypes—that’s why I think all of these broad categories are not necessarily useful. If we’re talking about millennials, that’s so broad—there are 80 million millennials in America. If we’re talking about IT professionals that are millennials, that are in Silicon Valley, that are affluent, that are living in the city, now I’m getting a little bit clearer picture of whom we’re talking about. Because some millennials are CEOs in Silicon Valley, and some millennials are illegal immigrants who are waiting tables. Those two people are not going to be very similar when it comes to what they buy, or how they want to be managed, necessarily.
Kriegel was also keen to challenge the concept that millennials are ““digital natives,” while the older generations are the “digital immigrants”:
That is probably the most widely accepted stereotype, because of studies that show technology use among millennials is higher than it is among baby boomers, which is true—that’s a fact. But if you dig a little deeper, technology use is strongly associated with economic status and social class. So if you look at Hispanic millennials compared to white Gen Xers, for example, Hispanic millennials do not use technology more than white Gen Xers. So there’s a major socio-economic layer there that people ignore, that I think is important.
Also, studies have been done that show that younger people don’t use technology for collaborative, interactive, content-creation communities that we all experience. Most young people are actually just using technology for passive media consumption. So I think there are common stereotypes that, even statistically when we look at trends, aren’t true the way we think they are.
Kriegel said it’s very important for people in every generation to understand the stereotypes that are associated with their generation, so that they can combat them if they choose to:
It could be that the stereotypes associated with your generation perfectly describe you. I’m not saying that no one fits that construct—I’m sure that exists a lot. It’s a matter of whether you want to be associated with that construct. As a millennial, do you want to be perceived as entitled, as wanting to change the world, as being tech-savvy? Personally, I don’t like being considered tech-savvy, because I know that I’m not. I’ve never used Facebook in my life; I’m very uncomfortable with technology in general.
One of the brilliant ideas that these “generation experts” have created in order to facilitate inter-generational personal skills is a program called “co-mentoring,” where they’ll pair a baby boomer with a millennial. The baby boomer will mentor the millennial on how to act appropriately, and the millennial is supposed to mentor the baby boomer on technology. If I were placed in that program, I would be very embarrassed, because I know there are many baby boomers at Oracle who are much more tech-savvy than I am. Being associated with tech-savviness places me in a box I don’t want to be in, because it raises expectations. So it makes a lot of sense to understand the stereotypes associated with your generation, so you can be aware of how your behavior might be associated with that, or how people’s minds might go to that.
For example, I know that I need to dress very sharp, all the time, as a millennial, because there is a perception that millennials are kind of lazy, they don’t want to look professional, they don’t know how to act appropriately professionally, when it comes to the dress code. I never want to be associated with that, so I almost over-compensate by making sure that I look extra good whenever I’m at headquarters.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.