Do Young Employees Overestimate Their Competency?

By Margery Weinstein04.16.2018

The self-esteem of the workforce’s newest members has been joked about a lot in recent years, with the stereotype of a childhood filled with participation medals in many of our minds.

I don’t know about the worthiness of offering participation medals, but a recent survey shows that young people entering the workforce may have received too much positive reinforcement growing up. New data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers shows a discrepancy between what graduating college seniors think of themselves, and what employers think of them. For its 2018 Job Outlook Survey, the association surveyed 4,213 graduating seniors and 201 employers on eight “competencies” it considers necessary to be prepared to enter the workplace.

On the competency of professionalism/work ethic, 89.4 percent of students consider themselves proficient, while just 42.5 percent of employers agree with that assessment. Similarly, in oral/written communications, 79.4 percent of students consider themselves proficient, while just 41.6 percent of employees feel the same about them. In critical thinking/problem solving, 79.9 percent of students grade themselves as proficient, while only 55.8 percent of employers would give them the same mark.

Like many of Generation Xers, I can’t relate to all this grand self-love. As I’ve written previously, I get a kick out of seeing our society, including employers, bending over backward to anticipate the needs of the youngest members of the workforce. This is something new to the last decade. Millennials and Generation Zers are the first generations that employers, and our world, has made an effort to accommodate. Advertisers targeting the youth market of the Baby Boomers in the 1960s and 1970s created marketing with young people in mind, but I don’t think employers cared much whether these same young people were happy.

Is it possible that the greatest favor we could do the youngest Millennials and Generation Zers is to stop talking about what they like and don’t like, and give them a taste of what it’s like not to be accommodated?

The other great question is how to manage conversations with employees in which you need to inform them that they’re not as great as they think they are. You don’t want to decimate their self-esteem, but you also want to set realistic expectations. Is there a training program that can prepare managers for these difficult conversations?

One thing that helps is to have symbiotic, or two-way, mentoring, so that when seasoned employees are matched with young people fresh out of college, it’s understood that the lessons will flow both ways, with the young person teaching and correcting the older person, and vice versa. It’s easier to take criticism when you’re giving it, too. My boss, 21 years my senior, thought it was hilarious after I was hired and showed him how to do something (very basic) on our Website—“Look at that, you’re teaching me something!” Yes, imagine that!

Do your older employees take umbrage at being taught by young people? If you want your youngest members to be receptive to criticism and correction, then your oldest and most senior employees—including the executive board—should be open to also being taught new approaches. The argument against senior members of the company being in the position of a low-level learner, rather than just attending leadership seminars and executive retreats, is that they put their time in already as “lowly” learners. The flaw in that thinking is there’s always something new to learn. Learning isn’t like getting through a sorority or fraternity hazing for new members. There should never be a time when the most senior member of your company isn’t expected to sit down with young, new members of your company and learn from them.

What are some ideas for organizing a program in which once a quarter senior employees sit for an hour with an entry-level person who graduated from college in the last few years to learn about how they do their work, and to brainstorm new ways of doing both their own work and that of the executive?

Young people may have over-enhanced self-esteem, but employees who have been at a company so long they have something similar to university tenure also can suffer from arrogance and an inflated sense of self. Can these two arrogant ends of the employment spectrum help each other?

What programs do you offer, if any, that bring together the most and least seasoned members of your workforce?

Reprinted with permission from Training, a professional development magazine published by Lakewood Media Group that advocates training and workforce development as a business tool.